Thursday, January 31, 2013

Adventures in Gender: Conversations with 8-year-olds

Small kids are really interesting when it comes to gender.  They're trying to figure out (and often enforce) the rules of gender they see most adults following.  They're also intrigued when they encounter an adult who does not conform to the gender status quo.  They point.  They make loud commentary.  They ask questions.  Loudly.  Sometimes, it's awkward, like the time a little girl noticed me in the airport women's restroom and at the top of her lungs asked her mother why there was a boy in the girls' bathroom.  Sometimes it's frustrating.  Sometimes it's enlightening.  And sometimes, it's just really funny.

A couple of months back, I was in an elementary school office, waiting for the bell to ring so I meet with one of the teachers.  A couple of kids were seated across from me, waiting for somebody to come get them.  The most outgoing of the bunch, Jason, whom I cannot imagine was more than seven or eight, immediately struck up a conversation with me.  He pretty obviously thought I was a guy but understood that I was a grown-up and kept asking me why my voice was so high.  Whatever he ended up deciding about my voice didn't stop him from sharing with me his enthusiasm for ninjas of all varieties and Arizona Iced Tea.  This is in the running for best conversation of my life.  And I'm a union organizer - I have conversations for a living.  Seriously.  This kid made my day.
Jason: You have freckles 
Me: Yes, I do. 
Jason: Did you drink some freckle juice? 
Me: I must have! 
Jason: What’s wrong with your voice? 
Me: That’s just how my voice is. 
Jason: Were you born like that? 
Me: I think so. 
Jason: Where were you born? 
Me:     I was born in Arizona.  Do you know where that is? 
Jason: Yeah.  Actually, I’m really glad you said that.  Do you know I have some ice tea at home called Arizona?  It's my favorite. 
(He comes over and shows me a picture he drew of his friends as ninjas)
Jason: These are ninjas. I drew these ninjas. (Points out who is who in the picture) 
Me: Does that say “quarterback”? 
Jason: Yes. My friend is a quarterback ninja. 
Me: Like in football? 
Jason: Yes. And this is me (shows me the ninja labeled “Jason”) and this is Jackson. He’s my friend. He’s in second grade but that’s OK - he’s still my friend.
(Shows me another series of ninja drawings)
Jason: And I drew this.  But these ones just have heads because I ran out of time to draw the bodies. 
Jason: (Pauses) What’s your name? 
Me: I’m Sumner.  What’s your name? 
Jason: Jason!  I showed you it on the picture! 
Me: Of course. That’s a really good picture.  Did you draw it today? 
Jason: Yes!
(I get up and wave goodbye because the teacher I’m waiting to meet has arrived.  I am standing in the hallway just outside the office door waiting to see where we’re going next.  Jason comes to the door and motions me to lean down).
Jason: Is it OK if we change your name to Freddy? 
Me: I don’t know, I think I like my name that I have now.
(Jason thinks) 
Jason: Well... how about Fred?

A born negotiator.  I should have offered him a job as an organizer.  A few days later, I visited the same school again and coincidentally saw Jason standing in line with his class, which made my day for the second time.  He remembered my actual name, though I might not have been able to keep a straight face had he decided to call me "Fred."

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