Image: Kim Woodbridge
Recently something happened which made me think I am losing out on lots of inspiring and educational material by not subscribing to and reading blogs. On November 21st I attended a workshop entitled Creating Supportive Schools for Our Transgender Youth which was funded by the Q Center at ACR Health and the CNY Community Foundation. The opening speaker for the workshop was a local man named Todd Panek who (in addition to his professional work in the insurance industry) writes a blog at TMPinSYR.com. In his blog he has written pieces about his youngest son (the Goon), someone who does not follow the gender stereotypes in terms of choices of toys, clothes, and behavior. Todd’s short speech was funny, heart-breaking, and ultimately challenging. The story I most appreciated was the one in which Todd showed active support to his son by buying and wearing a pair of pink sneakers. I’d like to quote part of it here:
“So I am the proud owner of a pair of pink low top shoes. Pretty spiffy, if you ask me. The Goon’s pair, which had been thrown into the back of the closet, got pulled out and put back into rotation. The Goon and I look pretty cool as we rock those pink masterpieces, side by side. If you bump into us while we’re sporting them, tell the Goon you like them. As I’ve learned from Ken over at Popehat, the very best way to counter bad speech is by more — better — speech. Let the bullies say what they will — the Goon will be happy to hear that someone thinks his sneakers look cool.
So that’s where I’ll end this chapter. I’m just a guy. I can’t change the world. But I can stand next to him as a reminder that his dad loves him and thinks he’s great just the way he is.” (From Where Do You Stand; August 24, 2014; at TMPinSYR.com.)
At the end of his remarks at the workshop, Todd posed a question to us. He asked us if we are really supporting an issue when all we do is to hold a certain attitude or belief without acting publicly on it. I found his question very provocative. The rest of the day (and numerous times since then) I have found my thoughts returning to this question: What am I willing to do in public to show support for my values? Will I speak up when someone makes a racist or sexist or homophobic comment? Will I intervene the next time I witness an adult scream or swear at a child in the grocery store? Dare I display an election placard for an unpopular candidate when I think she is the best person for the job? Where would I draw the line in terms of taking a risk to show others who I am and what I stand for?
I’ve never been much of a joiner or a groupie. While I have for years made monetary and material donations to organizations whose goals I support, I do these things quietly, often in the comfort of my own living room, using my laptop. I have often written letters or emails to my state and national legislators, but only once have I written a letter to the editor of a newspaper. So who knows when I take a stand for one of my convictions? The answer that keeps occurring to me over and over is this: I know. And I know when I hold back from fully revealing myself to others for fear that my beliefs might be unpopular or unacceptable or even dangerous.
One of my own stories seems to apply here. Some years ago when my daughter was a student at a local middle school, I was a member of the school’s site-based team. One December day we had our regular monthly meeting. During the “open” part of the meeting, one parent stated that she had feedback about the recent round of holiday concerts held by the school’s music department. She loudly and energetically expressed her belief that a song performed in Hebrew by the students was inappropriate. I could feel my face getting hotter as she spoke, and I struggled to keep my composure. When she finished speaking, I said, “I have a different opinion about that song. As the parent of a Jewish child, I was so grateful that finally there was a song that conveyed my daughter’s cultural and religious heritage for all of her classmates to share.” The room was quiet for a moment before we went on to the next agenda item. At the dining room table that evening, I told the story to my family. When I saw the look on my daughter’s face, I could tell she clearly knew I stood WITH her.
So what does all of this have to do with public education? I would maintain that teachers, counselors, principals, teaching assistants, coaches and others who work in schools are powerful role models for their students. Even when we do not say a word, we are showing students what is important to us. When we act, we send a message. When we don’t act, we send a message. Therefore, I think it is important to pay attention to the messages we send and to do so as intentionally as possible.
I only disagree with one thing that Todd Panek said. I believe in some small way I CAN change the world. And so can you.
To read more about Todd Panek, go to his blog at TMPinSYR.com. To find out about the Q Center at ACR Health, go to www.qcentersyracuse.com. And model district policies on transgender and gender nonconforming students can be found at www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/Trans_ModelPolicy_2014.pdf.