Can I talk about middle school for a second?

Hi. Sorry. Don’t mind me.

I just realized…I talk about this all the time, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually written about it, and that’s bugging me. And I seem to be on a bit of a writing kick lately, so what the heck.

This is exactly what I look like right now. Exactly.

Here’s the thing: you know how everyone has that thing, the one they tell people about and know going in that the first response they’ll get is sympathy? Like the second you finish the sentence, they’ll get that sad-puppy look on their face and say something like “Oh, my goodness” or “I’m so sorry” or “Are you okay?”

In my life, I’ve had precisely two things like that. One of them is that I’m adopted, although that honestly doesn’t happen as much these days…I think the world has finally figured out that you can be adopted without being an orphan.

The other thing? That I’m a middle school teacher.

It’s inevitable. I tell someone I teach middle school, and they immediately do that sympathy wince, like when you’re describing that time you stepped on a thumbtack. And then the next thing out of their mouths is always something like “that must be so hard.” Or “you must go through a lot of wine.” Or my personal favourite, “you’re a better person than I am, those kids are a**holes.”

(That last one was a direct quote, by the way.)

And every time this happens, I find myself running around the same well-beaten track in my head, and the words on the starting banner are: Why does everyone think we’re so miserable?

I mean, I know why. It’s hard not to know why, because there are so many reasons. For one thing, everyone in my social circle seems to have hated their middle school years, so any talk of those years is planting them right back in their own personal hell. For another, the stereotype of selfish, entitled young teenagers is a relentless trope that just won’t go away, no matter how hard we try to slap it down.

It grinds my gears the most when the question comes from other teachers (high school or kindergarten, take your pick!), because of all people, you’d hope other educators would understand how kids of any age can be equal parts awesome and terrible in different ways, but no. Tell them what grade you teach and they’ll make that I-just-stepped-in-dog-doo face and go “oh, I could never teach middle school,” in that gossipy, inside-jokey voice, as if they’re expecting you to go “yeah, me neither, haha, it’s terrible.”

No, please, go on. Tell me more about how much I secretly hate my job.

I think, in those cases, it happens because middle school is less relatable. Younger kids are cute and older kids are practically adults (ha, ha, as if) but folks see middle schoolers as the worst of both worlds: young enough to be annoying but old enough to have an attitude. And, I mean…not that there isn’t some truth to that, but it’s like saying all cats are affectionless a-holes because they aren’t as unapologetically happy-go-lucky as dogs.

Yes, I’m a cat person. Don’t change the subject.

Coming back to the point, among the remaining possible answers to the question of why people look at middle school as some kind of paid purgatory, I end up coming to the natural, unpalatable conclusion: there might actually be more middle school teachers, compared to other grade levels, who do hate it.

I don’t actually think it’s that simple, though. I don’t think middle school gets a bad rap simply because it’s harder. All teaching is hard, if it’s done right. It’s tough, exhausting, stressful, and uncomfortably political. That’s not unique to middle school, and let’s be honest: I wouldn’t last a month trying to teach Grade 2.

So what is it then? Why, even among teachers, does middle school get so much flak? Honestly, I think the uncomfortable truth of the matter is pretty simple.

Middle school makes teachers feel vulnerable.

Think about it. Teachers, as a group, run the gamut in terms of personality, strengths, and weaknesses, but there are some details most of us have in common.

First, we were probably good students ourselves.

This hardly seems like a groundbreaking point; if you finish school willing to turn around and go right back in for the rest of your career, you probably enjoyed it on some level. Maybe you’re an academic, and you just enjoy learning and watching those A’s roll in. Maybe it was your teachers, and the positive impact they had on your life. Maybe you weren’t even a “good” student at all, but there was something about school that made a difference for you.

Whatever the case, most teachers were successful in school as students (they had to be, in order to get into obnoxiously competitive teacher’s college programs). We grew up knowing the answers, and so we like problems that are easy to solve. If there’s a problem, this is the answer. If there’s a mistake, this is how you correct it. We don’t like complicated, messy problems without direct, practical solutions.

On top of that, though, I think when we’re successful in school, we’re biased. We believe the system works, because it worked well for us, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This means we have a harder time empathizing with the people who were less successful, because if we made it through and did well, so could anyone. We don’t see the flaws in the system as easily – mostly because we don’t want to.

(Incidentally, this is exactly how something like white privilege works.)

So, having done well, graduated, and then become teachers ourselves, we end up doing the same things our teachers did. We propagate the same methods and traditions without stopping to examine them. Why do we have students write tests and do homework? Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. The result is a group of professionals that are hesitant to challenge the status quo, because the status quo has always seemed to work. That’ll be important in a minute.

Second, teaching tends to attract control freaks.

If that offends you, honestly, good. And if you’re a teacher and not a control freak, also good!

I should point out, though, that I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism. In fact, given the amount of organization and planning required to do well as a teacher (not to mention the challenges of managing kids’ behaviour), being able to take control is a valuable, sometimes necessary trait.

For better or for worse, most teachers are at their best when things are predictable. We lay our plans, we deliver our lessons, we do what we need to do, and we have to function this way in order to survive. Teaching comes with so many endless lists of things to do and manage, so many consecutive things to think about, that we have to organize that chaos into something we can control.

I swear, the first thought of 90% of the teachers who saw this scene in The Little Prince was “I want one of those.”

The thing is, though, that possessing too much of this quality can bring issues of its own. On the one hand, you have a teacher who’s a control freak because they need it. They can’t handle the stress of spontaneity, fall apart when things don’t go as expected, and have difficulty when students are struggling to understand.

On the other, you have a teacher who’s a control freak because they want it. These are the ones who always dreamed of being called Mr. or Mrs. Lastname and enjoy the power and authority that come with the job. This leads to power struggles with students, petty and spiteful choices, and the constant need to be right.

Those, of course, are the outliers. Most of the time, teachers are people who just kind of like to have things a certain way, and that is very relatable.

Third, teachers tend to carry a lot of love for kids.

Again, no surprises here (teachers love kids? SHOCKER), but stay with me. Granted, teachers don’t always connect well with all of their kids, but to survive in this job (and, y’know, actually do it well) you need to be the kind of person that is capable of bonding and building relationships with kids or teens. So it’s kind of a natural fit: we work our butts off in our work because we actually give a crap.

And that can be the issue, too, because what happens when you really care about someone? When they don’t treat you the way you want them to, it hurts. You take it personally. And the thing about a classroom full of kids is that they don’t see the kind of work we put in. They don’t even always see how the things we’re doing for them are actually for them at all. So if a teacher can’t take a step back and look at things objectively, a kid acting out of line becomes a personal attack. You fall into the trap of thinking “they wouldn’t do that if they liked or respected me.” Or, worse: “they wouldn’t do that if they were a good kid.”

Because that’s how teachers like this one survive. They can’t be objective enough to examine their own methods, or consider what else might be going on with that kid at that time, so they protect themselves by labelling the kid. You see this all the time, and not just for this reason. He’s a bad kid. She’s a C student. You name it, it’s been said. And then – because teachers talk – that label gets stuck to that kid so strongly that they spend the rest of their academic career struggling under the weight of it.

Mind you, most teachers are amazing, fantastic people, and you don’t need to be an awful teacher to be averse to middle school. So let’s imagine our hypothetical case study: a teacher who was likely a successful student, probably has some control freak tendencies, and on top of that, cares deeply about their kids.

You might be able to see how this is a perfect storm in middle school.

See, my argument isn’t that middle school is more difficult. It’s that the ways in which middle school is difficult are a perfect match for many teachers’ insecurities. The nature of the challenge is what makes it so threatening. It’s like…teacher Kryptonite.

But without the glowing green stuff. Unless you count highlighters. Probably not, though.

The funny part is, though, that for some teachers (like myself and the majority of my colleagues), that challenge – the Kryptonite, as it were – is what we enjoy most about what we’re doing. The stuff that turns a lot of professionals off the job are the parts that make it fun.

So what are those parts? Well, we’ve all heard most of them before, but let’s look at it through the lens of our hypothetical teacher, whom we’ll call Mrs. Doe.

First, middle schoolers are a hormonal mess. Everyone knows that, and I can’t even argue: it’s true. They are at the age where they’re figuring out how to be people, and at the same time their physical bodies are undergoing chemical changes that affect every aspect of their behaviour, one way or another.

At the same time, the world is getting less black-and-white. The innocent filter of good and bad on the old ethical compass is getting more layered, fuzzy, and grey. They begin to deal with more adult, complex challenges in their social and personal lives, but don’t yet have the maturity or life experience to know how.

That means middle school problems are messy. Friendships are born and broken, change becomes uncomfortable, and emotions run high. Situations that seem like no big deal to us as adults (because we have the benefit of knowing about the much bigger deals down the road) seem like the literal end of the world to the kids.

So our Mrs. Doe, who’s a good student and much better at dealing with problems that have straightforward, understandable solutions, is caught off-guard. She has prided herself on knowing the answers, but in this case there aren’t any, and that makes her vulnerable. How can she be respected by the kids, or herself, if she gets this one wrong?

The next thing everyone knows about middle schoolers is their famous attitude. More accurately, middle schoolers are at an age where they are learning that they are allowed to have an opinion that is different from the adults in their lives. They have their own likes and dislikes, their own beliefs, and are beginning to figure out who they are.

So, they’re flexing these newfound muscles. They question what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They want answers that wouldn’t even occur to most younger kids. They try out their growing sense of humour, and test you to see what they’ll get away with. Their social lives become more important, so their schoolwork is suddenly competing for their time.

Enter Mrs. Doe, who is, as we have established, a bit of a control freak. She loves it when the younger kids look up to her, hang on her words, and do what they’re expected to do with a cheerful “yes Mrs. Doe.” It makes them happy to see her happy, and things proceed according to plan.

(Yes, I’m well aware this isn’t how it always – or even often – goes in primary, but stay with me.)

Now she’s surrounded by these big kids, putting on the teacher mask, and realizing that being “in control” may not be as straightforward as she wants it to be. Maybe she can’t pick her battles, and she ends up being very strict, because of the frequency of things she sees as “misbehaviour.” She sees it as disrespectful for students to question her choices. Maybe she doesn’t know how to answer when she’s asked: “why are we doing this?”

Regardless, it can be very easy in middle school to be drawn into a struggle for power, where your opponent is your own student and you find yourself trying to “win.” For many of us – adults in general, not just teachers – the hardest thing in the world to do is to decide not to play. When you’re faced with that on a daily basis, it can be exhausting. Surviving it requires you to have a sense of humour about yourself, be willing to be wrong, and make some tough decisions about when to just…let go.

And that kind of feeds right into the final quality I mentioned above: our good Mrs. Doe really cares. She loves her kids, even when she hates them. She wants to see them blossom, and most of the time, she’ll be rewarded.

But what she may not be prepared for is that as kids age out of the phase of their lives where adults are respected simply because they’re older (and sometimes wiser), as we’ve already established, kids grow more distant. Working with younger kids, you’re enveloped by the omnipresent sense that you are needed and wanted. In middle school, you see this change.

Make no mistake: as much as they may deny it, middle schoolers still need you. In some ways, they need you a lot more than they would have when they were younger, as their lives and challenges grow more complex, and the consequences are greater. But that need takes on a different form, one you sometimes have to dig around a little to see, and sometimes you don’t get the payoff of seeing that smile and hearing them say “thank you.” Sometimes they trust you enough to walk in your door, sit you down, and say “I need to talk to you about something.” Other times, the best you can hope for are those little moments, like when you ask them how their soccer tryout went, or gently help them answer a question they’re stuck on, and you catch the little grin, or hear the words of gratitude.

It’s an entirely different world in some ways. And it’s hard. I would never shame a teacher who couldn’t handle the world of middle school at all, because first of all I wouldn’t last a week in kindergarten, but more importantly, every one of us functions in our own way.

Seriously though, kindergarten…nope. Never.

As I said, I love middle school. I love how honest they are. I love their sense of humour, and I love the pity-laughs and groans I get when I tell an awful joke. I love helping them navigate complex emotional problems, even when they seem petty or trivial. I love getting that split-second moment with a kid who’s been driving me up the wall, where you catch their eye and genuinely know that you reached them, if only in that instant.

Most of all, I love that I get to be myself, and in the end, I think that’s when any teacher is at their best. Some of us are at our most authentic when we’re corralling a group of six-year-olds for a singalong, others when they’re leading detailed, complex discussions of literature in a room full of university-bound Grade 12 scholars. Me…I think it’s when I’m talking to my kids, sharing with them, and seeing the look on their faces as they understand that I see them not just as “children,” but as people, sometimes for the very first time.

Like I said, it’s not for everyone. Middle school lives up, in many ways, to the reputation it gets. But to me, it’s a magical, transformative, dramatic, hormonal, utterly chaotic rollercoaster ride that I wouldn’t miss for the world.

The Cost Of “Efficiency” In Education

I was listening to the radio today and there was a discussion about the economy that caught my attention.

This was strange, because under normal circumstances, I’m unlikely to be found listening to the radio in the first place, economics make my head hurt, and my attention wanders like a fruit fly in the world’s most badly-maintained kitchen.

Nonetheless, catch me it did. I don’t know the names of the host or the guest (my brain was doing its fruit fly thing when the program started) but the bit of the conversation I picked up on focused on two words: efficiency and resilience. The discussion was about the kinds of inequalities that happen if we create systems in our society that are too efficient, because those systems make us less resilient.

And if you’re anything like me, that last sentence was about as clear as mud.

On the bright side, this has always been one of my favourite meme images and I love that I have an excuse to use it. Bless you, Nick Young.

But never fear; the guest went on to explain what he meant in a way relevant to our modern day – that is to say, hospitals during the pandemic.

For example, nurses. Hospitals are staffed with as few nurses as possible, to minimize the number of nurses who spend time on the clock with nothing to do. The same is true for PPE: hospitals only store the amount that is needed, so that excess supplies are not sitting there, taking up space, unused. These practices are in place to increase efficiency.

Still with me? Good.

So, the problem is that with too much efficiency, the system lacks resilience – which is the ability to withstand high levels of stress. When Covid hit, hospitals were suddenly flooded with high numbers of patients, and those “efficient” numbers of nurses and stocks of PPE suddenly weren’t enough. The system had to struggle in the face of unexpected pressure.

(The guest on the radio was using American hospitals to demonstrate this point, but I imagine the example isn’t super off-base up here in Ontario, either.)

The lesson I took from what I heard was that we shouldn’t sacrifice resilience for the sake of efficiency – rather, strike a balance between the two that isn’t wasteful, but still allows us to handle unexpectedly high pressure. In the case of hospitals, this would mean having a few more nurses and more PPE in storage, because even though there might be a little more time and money spent on resources that are not constantly in use, we would be ready in the event that they were needed.

If I’m being honest, this seems like common sense to me, but then again, I’m not a politician. And either way, you’d have to be very foolish indeed to prioritize saving money over maintaining the quality of care in our hospitals.

Whoops.

But that’s beside the point. What struck me was how these ideas fit into education (and no, I’m not going to make the predictable point about underfunded and overcrowded schools due to budget cuts, as relevant as it would be). Those two words – efficiency and resilience – are concepts we deal with frequently as educators, although we’re usually using different language for it.

For example: the curriculum. We have a curriculum that is absolutely packed with content, jammed with specific expectations, multiple strands, massive amounts of detail, and high expectations, all of which we are expected to complete within a year. As a result, teachers have to maximize every minute of every day, carefully planning out how much time will be spent on a particular task, unit, or strand, just to be certain that everything gets covered by the end of the year.

This, to me, is an example of high efficiency. Ensure that, due to the overflowing content and high expectations, no classroom time is spent on things that are unproductive. Distribute and maximize the resources so as to minimize waste.

Fair enough, but my question is: how resilient is that system?

If we follow the lead of the hospital example, to figure out how resilient a system is, we have to look at what the system needs under high pressure, and whether it has enough. In hospitals, it was nurses and PPE. In our curriculum example, the answer is time.

This point is very relevant right now, with the disruptions to the usual school routine. The effects of re-opening under the shadow of Covid are rippling across the province in many forms: delayed starting dates, frequent staffing and enrolment changes, additional safety measures and procedures, multiple system-wide reorganizations — to say nothing of designing an entirely new online model of schooling from basically scratch. It’s safe to say that, just like everything else right now, the school system is under unprecedented levels of pressure.

The test of our resilience is happening now. And just to show you what I remember from Grade 10 Science class, we’re going to run this little hypothetical thought exercise like a legit classroom experiment. I even went and found a worksheet! Look:

If this is traumatic for anyone else, I’m eager to know.

Granted, this is going to be just about the least scientific experiment in the history of science – because let’s face it, science may not be my strong suit – but nonetheless we’re gonna give it the ol’ yeoman’s try. I even came up with a name for it: Curriculum Learning Efficiency And Resilience.

But to save time, we’ll just use the acronym. And we’ll do it without a trace of irony.

The C.L.E.A.R. Test

According to our template above, we should first establish our purpose. If we want to find out whether our system’s efficiency is balanced with its resilience, we need to establish whether, under duress, there is enough of the key commodity in demand to successfully produce the same results as any typical year. Since that commodity is time, we’ll do this:

Next, our Materials, and we really do have a lot to work with here. How depressing. Let’s just go ahead and fill them in.

Phew. Quite a list. Fortunately for all of us, I already promised that this wouldn’t be an entire post dedicated to lambasting the present state of schools. The real question is whether the system is designed in such a way that we can accomplish the same objectives despite the dumpster fire.

Now for our Hypothesis. Will there be enough time to cover the curriculum this year, given the high stress on the system?

…What? Too concise? I’ll be honest, that isn’t usually a problem for me.

But all right, fair enough. That was kinda cheating. I’ll be a good role model here and articulate things properly.

Because let’s be real…even without a lot of research to back us here, well, we can do the math. Under ordinary circumstances, a school year consists of ten months – or 40 weeks – of daily instruction. From this, we already subtract roughly four weeks of holiday time (winter and March breaks, Easter, Victoria Day, Thanksgiving), another week or so’s worth of professional development days, and…let’s say a week in the event of inclement weather (bus cancellations included). So now we’re down to about 35 weeks. For the time being we’ll assume no impact from teacher illness, or other extenuating circumstances.

However, even time spent in school doesn’t always “count.” The first week pretty much doesn’t count, as everyone adjusts to new routines; and at least two weeks of June, if we go by content that actually ends up used for assessment, doesn’t really count either; report cards require time to be edited, printed, copied, and distributed. At the secondary level there’s even less, considering first and second-term exams.

So for the sake of argument, we’ll say that we’re now down to about 32 usable weeks of instructional time. That’s 20% gone, right out of the gate, and we haven’t even started, nor have we factored in time lost to assemblies, school events, emergencies, or other unscheduled gaps here or there.

Under these timelines, teachers already (usually) come down to the wire. If you doubt this, ask any teacher how they feel when their classes in the Spring are unexpectedly interrupted. But we manage. Everything gets covered that needs to.

Although…does it, really?

Consider this: when we plan, we can’t take into account what our students are going to struggle with, or what obstacles will face them, because we have no way of knowing. When something does come up, we have two choices. Either we plough on ahead, meaning the struggling kids fall behind, or else we spend longer on a unit, task, or concept than we had planned, and that eats into that precious, scarce resource: time.

On top of that, maybe the kids aren’t struggling. Maybe they’re into it. Maybe they’re engaged and curious. The tight timelines also have the unfortunate side effect that when kids unexpectedly engage with something we didn’t think they would, we have to shut it down and bring them back to the plan.

Think about that. Kids are eager, curious, and doing something meaningful, and instead of jumping on board and exploring with them, we have to tell them to stop. How is that education?

So, all of that, before Covid. I don’t think it’ll take a huge leap of logic to fill in the blanks, here. Given our starting point, I can really only think of one appropriate way to sum up our Procedure:

All of this brings us to an important question: if our time was already in higher demand than we could account for, can’t we already conclude that our resilience is pretty low? Are we not already in an unbalanced state?

In that case, what happens to the rest of the experiment?

And that’s kind of my point. We have evolved as a society to be more efficient, in many ways, than we ever were, and the school system is not immune to that change. Technology alone has completely transformed the pace at which we can deliver instruction, and has made it possible under circumstances that would have been inconceivable even ten or twenty years ago – heck, we can do it completely online now. Badly, yes, but we can.

But that, in essence, is exactly the problem: we have leveraged the gift of “efficiency” in our school system in all the wrong ways. We know a lot more about teaching and learning than we used to, but on a fundamental level, our methods haven’t changed at all. When technology allowed teachers and students to do the work more quickly, we just added more work. Instead of using the time that we had gained to meaningfully transform our system and maximize–or even transform–the learning and growth of our kids, we gave that opportunity up in the name of efficiency. We even chopped off the fifth year of secondary school, forcing kids to do the same amount of work in only 80% of the time.

In brief: we do not have a resilient system, and we don’t really need to finish the experiment to understand why.

Mind you, I’ve only used one example – the curriculum – to demonstrate my point. Education is littered with more, and my perspective is pretty much that our stubborn adherence to sacrificing everything in the name of efficiency is doing everyone a disservice.

At the end of the day, though, the real question is that of fixing it. How do we re-invent an institution as resistant to change as education? Where do we find the time to deconstruct education when every minute is already in demand? The cake of our society has already been in the oven too long to separate its ingredients; how can we change a system when that system is so inextricably tied to so many others, all of whom relentlessly pursue the unattainable (and, frankly, irresponsible) goal of maximum efficiency?

I have no idea.

Back-to-School In Ontario: A Snarky Limerick

Foreword: Last week I got sick of feeling upset and angry at the schooling situation, and decided I’d rather laugh at the absurdity of it instead. This is what happened.

I originally wrote this on Twitter/Facebook, but I now feel that I want to preserve it here for posterity.

Anyway, here’s a snarky chronology of Ontario’s return to schools, in limerick.

I’m deeply sorry.

Take heed of this tale most upsetting,
But one we should not be forgetting,
Of kids and class sizes
Unwelcome surprises
And teacherfolk stressed to pants-wetting.

It began with a deadly disease
That brought the whole world to its knees.
It came out of the blue,
Cut the system in two,
Weaponizing an uncovered sneeze.

Then along came the noble Premier,
Who’d just finished, it must be made clear,
Gutting schools and their boards
To put money towards
Making rich people richer. (And beer.)

Said our Doug, in a stunning display
Of humility rarely at play:
“Since we must turn the tide,
Let the experts decide,
While I simply get out of the way.”

So we waded in waters uncharted
(Though the praise for poor Doug was half-hearted,
‘Cause it turns out the dunce
Also slashed health care funds;
We were fighting a fire that he’d started).

Though the summertime shutdown was galling,
Infection rates seemed to be falling.
So Doug said, “screw the rules.
Let’s reopen the schools!”
To which most replied, “well, that’s appalling.”

It became quite apparent that Ford
Spent too long on the bench and got bored.
With the novelty spent
Back to normal we went
While the expert advice went ignored.

“Safety first,” Lecce said. “We will strive
To keep kids and their teachers alive.”
Experts said, “hey, that’s keen.
Set class caps at fifteen.”
Lecce laughed and said “nah, twenty-five.”

“Surely not,” said the masses. “We hope
That with students online we can cope.
Will you get off the bleachers
And pay for more teachers?”
He thought for a bit, then said “Nope.”

So while school boards, amid the excuses,
Keen to free up their necks of their nooses,
All sat down and began
To come up with a plan
Ford and Lecce sat on their cabooses.

Thus, we come to the month of October
Ever swimming in anti-microber
As the staff do their best,
Overworked, scared, and stressed,
Trying somehow to stay sane (and sober).

But if you feel down in the dumps,
And you’re fed up with taking your lumps,
It still can’t be denied,
Ford and Lecce aside…
At least they’re still better than Trump.

“The Coolest F***** We Know”

(CW: This post contains a description of homophobic violence and language, which I am choosing not to censor. Please consider your own safety and wellbeing before reading.)

This morning, my principal called me up to tell me my portable was vandalized last night.

For context, I’m teaching online now – a whole kettle of fish in and of itself, and that’s a story for another day – but the portable I usually teach in, now used by other staff as somewhere to do their planning, has been my little home-away-from-home for the past four years. As such, the little box is known pretty well as Mr. Kyle’s Room™.

So my principal called me before the day started to give me the news. Someone had left spray-paint graffiti on the wall of my portable, which the staff were working diligently to remove before too many kids saw it. The message left by the culprit consisted of the following words:

“The coolest faggot we know.”

Now my principal, who can be an absolute mama bear when it comes to her staff, was overflowing with concern for my well-being. She chose her words with precision, spoke softly and gently, and listened carefully. I got the sense that she would have refused to hang up without making damn sure I was looked after, if she had any inkling that I wasn’t okay.

And you know, it’s funny…when that thought crossed my mind, the next one was: well, why wouldn’t I be okay?

That question has been on my mind all day. This graffiti was an act of homophobic violence, certainly. It was on my wall and it’s no secret to anyone at the school that I’m gay, so there can be no doubt that the message was directed squarely at me. By all accounts, I should be deeply and personally bothered by this act.

But I’m not.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I’m bothered on behalf of the custodial staff who had to deal with cleaning it up; I’m bothered on behalf of my admin and the challenge of dealing with vandalism in the havoc before the day began; and let’s be honest, the word ‘faggot’ is a violent word. I’m significantly bothered by the idea of a closeted kid who may have seen it, and certainly the members of staff who saw and were affected by it. Overall, now that I think about it, I’m very bothered…just not for myself.

I don’t think I’m building much suspense here, because I think it’s obvious where I’m going, but in the aftermath of this incident I’ve had a whole lot of people joining my principal in the outpouring of support, citing how awful an experience this must be for me, and how courageous I am for taking it in stride. And that’s kind of the thing: I don’t feel unsafe, I don’t feel threatened, and I’m not feeling angry on my own behalf.

I’m kind of feeling like I want that phrase on a t-shirt, really.

There are obvious reasons that I don’t work in graphic design, but you get the point.

I’m being a bit cavalier, I know. The phrase is enormously problematic on several levels – heck, if you don’t get why, try replacing the word ‘faggot’ with the N-word and you’ll see what I mean. And just for the record, ‘faggot’ is not on the list of words in my vernacular, no matter how powerful a reclaimed term can be, just because I generally find it distasteful.

But regardless, in a roundabout way, there’s a compliment here and I’m having a lot of trouble being properly offended on my own behalf.

I mean, think about it. I’m not just some faggot. I’m the coolest faggot. And given how many gays there are in mainstream media these days, I feel like I’ve ascended into some pretty enviable ranks. Adam Lambert? Elton John? Lil Nas X? Pft, move right over and make way for Kyle.

I defy you to find hair that is cooler or gayer than this.
(Toronto Pride, circa 2012)

Really though, what the phrase says about me is less interesting, at least as far as I’m concerned, than what it says about the person who wrote it. I can’t help imagining the psychology of the culprit, and wonder what kind of place they were coming from when they scrawled these words on my wall. Whoever it was could have just written ‘Faggot’ and stopped there, but they didn’t. For whatever reason, they didn’t. And the question I keep coming back to is why?

I have a few guesses, one or two logical leaps that aren’t difficult to make. I’m almost certain this was a former student (or students) of mine; that kind of directed message wouldn’t have come from a complete stranger, and you don’t call a teacher ‘cool’ unless you know them well enough to be sure.

If we accept that premise, the next logical conclusion is that whoever the kid was, they must not like me very much…but at the risk of sounding naïve, I’m not sure that’s true. Obviously they aren’t a fan of the gays, and they wanted that part to be loud and clear, but the stuff around the Big Bad Word is weirdly positive. Why would you put that kind of spin on a message for someone you hate?

I think the simplest answer is the most likely: the homophobia wasn’t the point. If anything, it’s a qualifier – kind of like how insecure straight guys will make an innocuous comment like, “nice shirt,” and then immediately follow it up with “no homo.”

So the culprit went into my class unapologetically homophobic, found out I was gay, and somehow – perhaps in spite of their best efforts – managed to like me anyway…?

I admit, even if it is a compliment, it’s a pretty damn backhanded one. But for the person who wrote it —

(For the sake of clarity, this anonymous graffitist needs a name, and in the spirit of stupid decisions made with, at best, questionable motives, I’ll go with Steve, in honour of our bungling Education Minister, or the former Prime Minister – let your conscience be your guide.)

— for Steve, it might have been the best he could do. Steve might be constitutionally incapable of actually changing his mind about gays in general, but if I managed to reach him, even a little, isn’t that better than nothing?

For the record, I’m not about to dismiss Steve’s actions here, regardless of his motives. His artwork affected – and could have affected – more people than just me, as it was no doubt intended to.

On a personal level, though, I remain conflicted. I’ve taught kids who I was never able to connect with because, upon learning I was gay, they never let down their guard. I’ve had kids I’ve never met call me homophobic slurs behind my back, occasionally upsetting my own students so much that they come to me about it in tears. Every year, despite my best efforts and owing only to that one piece of my identity, I meet a new Lost Cause and have to accept that there’s nothing else I can do.

And I’ve taught kids who have grown through me. I’ve had kids who, having gotten to know me, admitted they were wrong about people who are gay. I’ve had families call me, outraged that I would share such a personal detail of my life with my kids, and walk away from the conversation with new understanding. I’ve watched homophobic discomfort fade as the mutual trust and respect had room to grow.

But it’s somewhat rare to come across that in-between case: the ones like Steve, who can’t let go of their core belief in the fundamental wrongness of homosexuality, but simultaneously see someone in me that they like, and somehow manage to make the two conflicting sides coexist. Or, maybe more likely, he’s only homophobic because the rest of his friends are.

And having seen both better and worse, at least in Steve’s case there might be some hope down the road.

Anyway, like I said, I’m conflicted. A very smart colleague told me that I don’t need to be okay with this, and on a number of levels, I’m not. I don’t want to dismiss or excuse homophobic violence just because it could have been worse. I just…

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just an inherent flaw in who I am, but there’s still that little part of me privately celebrating that somehow, in some way, I was able to reach Steve.

Maybe the next faggot can take it from there.

Why the Back To School Debate is Completely Missing The Freakin’ Point

I’ve been seeing this conversation pop up frequently on Twitter, on Reddit, all over the place.

Granted, I often see it in the context of American schools, whose approach to distance learning was apparently very different from my school board, but it’s no less charged a topic up here. We had “Distance Learning” for three and a half months, and we’re all wondering what school will look like in September.

The way I’ve been seeing it, we’ve got people on one side…

We need to get the kids back to school!

It’s impossible for teachers to engage kids at a distance and keep them accountable for their participation online!

Distance learning isn’t enough, the kids aren’t motivated, nothing is getting done, and making sure the kids are keeping up and getting their work done is putting so much strain and pressure on families!

…and then we’ve got the other side…

It isn’t safe to send kids back to school!

Distance learning may not be perfect, but it’s the best we can do right now and it’s the safest option for everyone!

Our system needs to adjust the distance learning model to meet the needs of our community, so that everyone can meet the standards regarding curriculum, assessment, evaluation, and participation!

…and you know what? Both sides make sense. I can’t honestly tell you which side of the fence I fall on these days, whether it’s back to school, or distance learning, or some Frankenstein-esque hybrid of the two.

Most of the reason for my ambivalence here is that I’m frustrated about an ingredient of this equation that really isn’t being talked about. There’s a vital and important truth of the matter that nobody’s saying out loud, and I think it needs to be said.

When we go back in September, we can have a system that meets our educational standards, or a system that protects kids from Covid. 

We can’t have both.

Honestly, nothing will convince me otherwise, because the success of our system, as it currently exists, depends on a rough student-to-teacher ratio of thirty to one. This ripples out to a whole mess of organizational areas, including:

  • The number of kids per class
  • The number of teachers per school
  • The number of teachers hired to the Board
  • The maximum number of kids per school building in total
  • The number of administrative staff allocated to a school
  • The number of custodial staff allocated to a school
  • The level of funding a school board receives

…and so on, and so forth. Our entire system is flawed

(Cough) Excuse me. What I meant was that our system is broken

(Cough, cough) I’m so sorry. I don’t know where that came from.

What I’m saying is, we have constructed our system in such a way that it is impossible to thin out the numbers and still get every kid an equitable education. You could even argue that even without the need to reduce the number of kids in the room, it’s still not possible to truly give every kid their best chance.

Let’s not beat around the bush: this is a failure on our part as a society. Of the many things Covid-19 has demonstrated to us, one of the most vivid is just how much we rely on the school system to carry the excess load of a growing population, and support our ever-growing pull-up-yer-bootstraps capitalist workaholism.

And while I don’t want to get overly political about it, educators have been saying these things for years – and governments have been ignoring us to pray at the altar of the almighty budget dollar.

So, in short, we’ve made our bed. Now Covid-19 has come along and made it unequivocally clear that either we’re going to have to lie in that bed, or we’re gonna have to suck it up and buy a new one.

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And good luck to anyone who wants to actually get any sleep.

So while we figure out the problem of the bed being too gosh-darn small for the number of kids we’re throwing on it, let’s talk about our current dilemma. What it comes down to, at the end of the day, is:

Something’s gotta give.

We are going to have to sacrifice something, possibly many somethings, when we hit the ground again in September. So while I let someone else continue the Back To School vs. Distance Learning debate, I’ve put together a list of possible ways we might address the challenge, and the main ingredient we would need to sacrifice in order to do it.

The Hybrid Option: Curriculum Content

If we imagine a hybrid model – where half the school is in one day, the other half the next day, and so on – we’re looking at essentially cutting the year in half, regardless of how much you intend to overwork the teachers (more on that later). There’s no two ways about it: kids are getting about half the time that they normally would in the classroom, under the consistent instruction of a single teacher for, at the very least, each subject.

If we accept that loss, it means deciding that there are some subject areas that just aren’t going to be covered. It means we prioritize: do we shift the focus away from the artistic subjects in favour of the core ones? Do we reduce the number of strands or expectations in every subject that we’re going to address?

Regardless, these are decisions that can’t be made willy-nilly. If we choose, as a system, to sacrifice some of the content we’re going to cover, then we have to do it with purpose. We have to go in with an understanding, and all of us educators have to be thoroughly in the loop.

The Distance Learning Option: Evaluation & Grades

This is among the necessary sacrifices we make when we move to a distance model, and I’m sorry in advance if you’re one of these people, but it drives me absolutely crazy when I see comments like these from otherwise amazing teachers (I’m paraphrasing):

Without being able to give grades or take attendance, we don’t have any method to keep kids accountable and ensure that they are completing the work. 

Now, mind you, I’m not debating the truth of this statement. I’m just saying I don’t care.

Honestly, I don’t. I mean, obviously I care about engaging my students and giving them my best, and supporting them through the material I’m offering, but if kids are not engaging, either because they can’t, or their families lack the resources, or their families aren’t applying the pressure, or there’s other extenuating circumstances…

Well, why is that a problem?

The thing is, we can’t equitably assess or evaluate at a distance, for the same reason we can’t grade a kid’s homework. First, we have no idea who did it. Second, some kids have a lot more support at home than others. And third, we aren’t witnessing the learning in action, which is what we’re supposed to be assessing.

I get frustrated with teachers who insist on stressing out about this, because to me, it’s missing the entire point of education itself. The reality is, kids and families have other needs. It’s thoroughly unfair for us to evaluate them – thus possibly influencing their entire educational path going forward – when we can’t even guarantee them a level playing field.

So if we go into Distance Learning, we as a system will have to agree that the evaluative side of schooling (arguably the least flipping useful side of schooling) can’t be a priority.

The Back-To-School Option: The Kids

So I’m being glib now, but we all recognize that this is reality. If we send all the kids back to school, aiming for regularly-sized classes on a regularly-arranged schedule, we are sentencing some kids to death.

We can have all the safety procedures and protocols in place that we want, but lest we forget: we are dealing with kids, here. Kids and their families. At the absolute best of times, we know – just from observing the chaos of parents dropping their kids off in the morning – that a big group of people isn’t always going to follow the rules. So let’s talk about the ways we already know how to mitigate the ‘Rona.

We already know that the best way to reduce the spread of Covid-19 is through social distancing. Cram as few as 20 kids into the average classroom, and you already know that isn’t going to work. I’m regularly shifting sideways to get through the gaps between kids’ desks in my room, and I’ve got a lot fewer desks than most of my colleagues do. So that’s done, right out of the gate.

Then there’s masks (at a time where even hospitals are still dealing with PPE shortages). Obviously the school can’t regularly provide kids with masks. Heck, given the amount of band-aids we unnecessarily go through in a day – or pencils! – expecting kids to keep and use one mask for a day, let alone a week (hygiene notwithstanding) is an exercise in futile idealism. We can ask students and families to bring their own, of course, but kids are going to forget, or not bother, and we’re certainly going to have anti-mask families out there. So, again, we fall at the first hurdle given the numbers.

And then there’s sanitizing. I love kids, I really do, but any parent or teacher will tell you that kids are, speaking generously, not the most fastidious of people. Kids forget to wash their hands all the time. On the best of days, schools are fantastic little incubators. Add Covid-19 to the mix, and you’re looking at a ticking clock repeatedly reset every time a kid touches something and then their face, or vice versa, masks be damned.

So that’s a wash. But the really scary thing for me is the occasions I’ve seen online going as far back as April where people were dismissing the potential deaths of children as an acceptable compromise. Here, just in case you needed another reason to hate Dr. Oz:

Screenshot_7
It’s an older tweet, sir, but it checks out. https://twitter.com/JoshuaPotash/status/1250788907287023619?s=20

The Have-Our-Cake-And-Eat-It Option: The Teachers

Yes, here we are. This is the final (and let’s face it: most likely) option that is likely to be presented as the solution to our troubles.

The fact is, I’m either cynical or realistic enough (you be the judge!) to know we’re not going to see the government and families make any of the above sacrifices openly or willingly (and let me be clear, I do not advocate for the Back-To-School option). We’re going to be expected to do it all, which as I stated at the beginning of this post, is not possible.

At least, not without several teacher casualties along the way.

Take the hybrid model, for instance. Some of the logic goes that there will be families who keep their kids at home anyway, and they’re going to want online school options available. This, of course, is on top of the kids needing synchronous learning online during the days when their half of the class isn’t at the school. And then, naturally, there are the kids who do come to school, and who will be taught during the regular instructional day.

And naturally, it falls on the classroom teacher to do all of these things.

Let’s be real here: distance learning is a full-time job. So is classroom teaching. We can’t do both jobs at once.

If we try, one or more of the following things are going to happen:

  • The curriculum content/assessment will be utterly lousy
  • The teachers will burn out by October
  • The whole darn system will fall apart

Going into September, this is ultimately my worst fear. I fear that we as educators are going to have monumental and unrealistic expectations placed upon us, and then be held up as the scapegoats when it’s completely unsustainable.

However, I am going to remain cautiously optimistic.

My hope is that the parents and families of our community will recognize how bag-of-hammers bonkers the whole idea is, and we’ll start having realistic conversations about the reasonable management of expectations. We’ll actually talk about what we’re going to let slide, based on our priorities.

But we can’t have our cake and eat it too. If we’re going to make any progress toward a reasonable schooling solution in the fall, we need to at least accept that, as much as we’d love to, we aren’t going to be able to do all the things we want to.

And that’s okay.

Uncomfortable Things I Learned From Writing Gender Neutral Characters

So I’m writing again.

I don’t mean this post or this blog, although lard knows it’s been far too long since I put my thoughts down here. I’m writing again for real, working on my second book, and trying not to think about what a monumental task it is. The first time around, the writing, editing, and publishing of the darn thing was equal parts grueling and rewarding, and after that, even though it felt great to get the story out there and receive the fantastic feedback I got, it was still a lot of work.

Seriously, it’s as if a few years ago I climbed a mountain and went down the other side on a pair of skis. The way up was difficult, and treacherous, and sometimes discouraging. The way down was still exhausting, but felt so joyous and liberating that I didn’t notice how hard I had to work to stay on my feet. When I finally got to the bottom, I looked back at that mountain and thought to myself, holy crap, I did it.

And now every once in a while I look back at that mountain out the window, and part of me wants to go right back up. But then I think about it, and I remember that long, arduous climb, and I find myself thinking, never again. I did it once, I crossed it off my list, I don’t need to go back for seconds.

So here I am with my ice pick and my boots, and damn it, I’m going to get back to the top of this thing again if it kills me.

Mind you, it won’t be the same climb. Last time I just sounded my barbaric YAWP and threw myself at the slopes. Research? Planning? Pfft. Me care not for that boring stuff. Me author! RAH!

Conan-Barbarian-Marvel-Comics
This is EXACTLY how it looked.

Image credits to RawPixel on Pinterest and Writeups.org

This time, having done it once, I found a few shortcuts, did a little planning, and got the right tools for the job. So who knows, maybe I’ll beat my old record.

But I’m noticing an annoying pattern I’ve gotten into that I think might be a sign of a bigger problem with me, and a red flag for a cis ally writing a book about a trans character.

If you haven’t read the book (and please do, I worked ever so hard), it’s set in a world of dragon-like people called wyverns, who are unique in that they don’t have a biological sex binary like we do – that is to say, they don’t have a male and female. They are their own gender, or they don’t have one, or however you want to look at it.

One of the chief reasons I wrote wyverns that way was to address the reality that people, too, may not fall into the male or female camp, which has turned into a pretty common talking point these days, but hadn’t when I started in on that book. And through the device of the wyverns, I wanted to introduce kids to the idea of gender-neutral pronouns.

For the uninitiated: wyverns, not having a gender binary, have their own pronoun. The way we use he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs, wyverns use wy/wym/wys. Here’s one of my buttons illustrating the subject:pronous-button

But as proud as I am of that idea (and make no mistake, I am proud of it), when it came down to actually writing the story, the gender-neutral wyverns taught me a whole lot of things about myself that I was decidedly uncomfortable with, since even then I considered myself an effective and experienced trans ally.

Now I’m sitting down to write another book in the same universe, and I’m realizing that some of these struggles haven’t gone away. As such, in a (hopefully humbling) effort to fix myself, I thought I’d share.

So here we go. A list of uncomfortable things I learned from writing gender-neutral characters. Gods help me.

 

1. I gender them unconsciously.

Like I said: wyverns are genderless creatures. Of the many ways they define and distinguish themselves, gender isn’t a factor. They (and the humans in their universe, actually) don’t use gender to decide how to dress, how to act, or what they enjoy.

So how come I keep writing “he” and “she” when I’m writing wyvern characters?

Seriously, this was one of the points Leslie (fabulous editor) and I had to attentively and consciously dig around for after the manuscript was done, because in almost every chapter, for almost every wyvern character, there’d be a “he” or a “she” in there. We probably fixed hundreds of them before the darn thing went to print.

When I bring this up to people, I get the answer that it makes perfect sense. After all, these wyvern pronouns aren’t part of my usual vocabulary, so I instinctively switch to the ones I’m familiar with.

But taking a step back I wonder, is that really it? If I was really thinking of these characters in a non-gendered way, surely I wouldn’t instinctively want to call them “he” or “she,” would I? It would feel wrong.

And at that point I realized, based on their personalities or their clothing or whatever other gender norms we keep around, I was assigning wyvern characters “male” or “female” in my head.

This wasn’t a matter of conscious thought, either. It was automatic. The logical part of my brain knew that I was writing a character that was neither male or female, and the instinctive part of my brain took that information, accepted it, and still went “yep, that’s a lady.”

Screenshot_19

It is scary how much effort it takes to unlearn stuff like that, and I say this as someone who’s been in the process of unlearning it for years. YEARS! 

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Part of being an ally is recognizing where you’re still either learning or unlearning. I realized quickly that as I kept writing, I’d have to pay much closer attention. I couldn’t put myself “in the zone” the way I usually did. I had to be mindful and watchful, simply because of my own biases as a cisgender guy who doesn’t have to think about these things day-to-day.

Frankly, I think that mindset would do a lot of us good.

 

2. Using the right pronouns out loud feels weird.

Speaking of mindset, let’s talk about having a conversation using vocabulary you made up.

As a fantasy author, when I get talking about the world and universe of my book, I get really self-conscious, especially when I’m talking about people or places (or words) that don’t actually exist. I instantly feel like I’m acting all full of myself, as if by acknowledging that these are characters and settings I wrote about, I’m stroking my own ego and boring the tears out of whoever I’m talking to. Everyone who has a hobby they love knows this feeling, when they get talking to someone about it. Like there’s a neon sign above you pointed directly at your head that says “please remove from buttocks.”

Screenshot_1
It’s precisely as uncomfortable as it looks.

But, if I’m being honest, it also makes me feel kind of silly. I can work really freaking hard to construct decent names for my characters, or words to fit the world I’m building, and then feel like I might as well be saying “and then she iggbytorkies and flaggurates with Gloobelfarb” when I use them in a conversation.

In short, it’s awkward. And I always kick myself afterwards, because hindsight always points out that I’m basically apologizing for my work, and that ain’t a good habit.

When we’re talking about pronoun use, though, it’s that “silly” feeling that needs close examination, because it isn’t far off from the reaction a lot of cis folks have when confronted by real gender neutral pronouns: that unsettling, self-conscious feeling that you sound stupid for using the words, even if they’re extremely validating for the person you’re speaking to.

So I ask myself: why should I feel silly, even when speaking to people who are fans of the book, for using the words “wy,” “wym,” or “wys” out loud?

The objective answer, of course, is that I shouldn’t. I should be setting an example as the author that those pronouns aren’t “silly” at all. Just a little different, or new. That’s the entire point of having them there in the first place, and if I can’t take the words seriously, how can I expect that from anyone else?

All that said, it’s still an uncomfortable reality to acknowledge: I’m so trained to view “he” and “she” as the only options, that even in a universe of my own design I’m uncomfortable with the things that deviate from the established norm.

The real question is, how do I get past it? How do I divorce my own self-consciousness about my writing from the much more important work of normalizing gender neutrality?

Until I figure it out, I guess I’ll have to fake it till I make it. Never underestimate the effect of appearing confident even when you’re not, as they say.

 

3. I don’t know whether I should correct people.

On the surface, this may be the dumbest example on this list. Yet, I can’t deny having run into this more than once when I talk about Wyvern with someone, because all those things I mentioned up above? They ain’t exclusive to me.

The first time I noticed it was when I was reading the first draft of the story to my students, years ago. Kids would ask questions, share their thoughts, give me feedback, and it was great…except that when they would talk about wyvern characters, they would almost never use the words wy/wym/wys. They’d do the exact same thing I did: use whatever binary pronoun best fit their image of the character.

And the most worrisome part for me was, for all those times I unconsciously gendered those characters myself, the kids gendered them exactly the same way as I did.

I’ve noticed since publishing the book that it isn’t just the kids. If I get talking to anyone who’s read the story, and we gab about the wyvern characters, not only are they always using “he” or “she” pronouns, but no matter which character it is, they’re using the same ones I accidentally used.

So not only did I unconsciously assign them genders in my head. I apparently made those gender assignments very clear.

Screenshot_2

It’s not like I blame people, and after all, deconstructing our ideas of gender is pretty much the point of the whole book, so when these slip-ups happen, they’re excellent teachable moments for all concerned.

…which would be great, if I ever called people on it.

Maybe it’s because I’m self-conscious about the work, as I mentioned above. Or maybe it’s that I’m just grateful that the book has fans, and I’m afraid to say anything that might scare them off. Or maybe I know I have trouble too, and feel like a hypocrite for pointing it out to others. But I just can’t seem to correct people when they use the wrong pronoun for wyverns.

Seriously, I can’t do it. I can correct myself, even mentioning it out loud when I say “he” instead of “wy.” But when someone else does it, I clam up. For whatever reason I just don’t have the confidence to stand up for the characters I’ve created.

I won’t lie: this kinda scares me.

 

I get thinking about what choices I would make if I were put in that position in reality, and the idea that I may not make the right choices, or the best ones, is seriously troubling to me. I have not yet been blessed with friends who identify with gender-neutral pronouns other than “they/them/their,” but what if I did? What happens when it’s my job to be an advocate, to remind someone to use “xe” instead of “she”? Would I be as cowardly as I am about my own creations?

Coming right down to it, I don’t believe I would – with wyverns, the only thing at stake is my own pride, and I don’t think I have it in me to invalidate other people that way. But that hint of doubt makes me deeply uneasy, and I know this is an obstacle I need to overcome if I really plan to put my money where my mouth is and use Wyvern as a vehicle of education and allyship. If I can’t advocate for my wyverns, then I’m not really an “advocate” at all.

Further, this whole inner conflict throws another point into focus: this is the same struggle faced by people who don’t identify with a binary gender – except they have it a lot worse, because it’s not some abstract fiction they’re trying to defend. It’s their own identity. If I can look someone in the eye and tell them it’s okay for them to correct people when they mess up a pronoun, I haven’t the slightest excuse not to hold myself  to that same standard for my wyverns.


I feel like this is a list I’ll end up adding to as I keep writing, but it’s more than enough to think about as-is, and putting these things into words is giving me a bit of a kick in the butt. All of these points are part of my journey as an ally, and working at them is my everlasting, ever-changing, ever-evolving job.

At the end of the day, I’m looking out the window at that mountain and constantly fighting that nagging voice in my mind that’s always asking whether I’m even worthy of that climb at all. It asks if I’ve really earned it, or whether someone like me has any business climbing that mountain in the first place.

Still, though, I’m going to climb that mountain one way or another because I believe I can learn. I believe that the story and its message can be a force for good, and from this point forward, I will stop apologizing for it. Every time I do that, I’m apologizing for the stories and experiences of the people who see themselves in it. I owe the few fans I have more than that.

Alright. Back to work.

An Open Letter to Premier Doug Ford

Foreword for those reading: As I explain below, I will be engaging in a day of silence on Thursday as a form of protest. This action is a response to the government’s directive that families may now exempt their children from Health lessons that deal with 2SLGBTQ+ realities. While this does nothing to prevent us as teachers from having those conversations outside of Health, this is transparent bigotry at its most blatant.

If you feel the same way, please consider sharing this post with others and joining me on Thursday the 21st in silence.

I would also like it to be made very clear that the Peel District School Board has no choice in the matter, and within its inalienable responsibilities to the Ministry, is doing everything it can to ensure that 2SLGBTQ+ realities remain represented in our classrooms. Further, this letter is not related to any ongoing collective bargaining.

Below is my letter to our esteemed Premier. Thank you for reading, and for your support.


Dear Premier Ford,

On Thursday, I will not speak.

This week, families in the Peel District School Board – and undoubtedly many other School Boards across the province – will be informed that this year, under certain conditions, they will have the legal right to exempt their children from discussions of gender and sexuality-diverse people, and the realities they experience. Though thankfully limited in scope, allowable only in the context of the Health and Physical Education curriculum, this decision remains a loud, heartless message to all of us. As such, I feel compelled to return it.

I am a teacher. I am also gay. More importantly, I am out and proud. Every single one of my students hears my story, and my school board has always supported me. I do this because the existence of my identity, my life, and my family is not negotiable. Neither are the lives and realities of the students and families I am privileged to work with, including those who may be gay, or trans, or anything else.

In short, we exist.

I realize that this simple truth may represent an inconvenience to you. Clearly, your government and ministry value our children who are gay or trans far less than those children who are not. In fact, they must be quite threatening indeed, for you to attempt to quarantine the very mention of their identity inside the classroom. I’m genuinely sorry you feel that way, though I’m grateful that this attempt you are making, in your contempt and fear, to erase and silence those kids is undercut by those of us who refuse to be erased.

However, just this once, I’ve decided that I’ll give you what you want. You want our silence; for one day, I will grant it to you. This Thursday, Peel schools and families will be informed of their newly-given right to occasionally ignore the human rights of others. On that day, borrowing inspiration from the Day of Silence, I will not speak a single word. I will let my silence speak for me. I expect that to my students, whom I cherish and whom have heard me tell my story, my silence will speak volumes greater than any words I could possibly say. But regardless, since you want that silence so badly, for one day, it’s yours.

That is as generous as I can be. After that, knowing how much you would take from me if you could, I will give you nothing else. I am part of a community that is vibrant, strong, proud, and full of love; a community that is represented in every single institution in this country, including our classrooms; a community that exists, lives, THRIVES, and will not stop for the sake of your convenience, or the comfort of those who are threatened by our reality.

Our children deserve better. WE deserve better. So please enjoy my silence on Thursday, because after that, nothing is going to shut me up.

Most sincerely,

Kyle J. McGiverin

#NotAllFlamingos – or, The Culture Problem.

I keep noticing a weird trend. And, for once, it isn’t just on social media or Reddit – I’m noticing it in random conversations, as well as discussions I’m getting drawn into. This trend, in short, is this: we, as a people, are raging hypocrites.

And in other news, the sky continues to be blue and bears are hibernating in the winter.

But I find it interesting all the same, and what interests me is what we choose to be hypocritical about – in this case, we have an odd duality as a society on our response to sweeping generalizations of character. And it’s quite selfish, I think, and I’m certainly guilty of it myself. What it comes down to is that we are very happy to accept sweeping generalizations about people as long as they aren’t being made about us.

Take, for example, the emergence of the #NotAllMen tag a few years ago. This was in response to the rapid (though extremely delayed) recognition in our society of the victimization of women, and the statistics on assaults (sexually motivated or otherwise). The original movement was a response to the complacent attitude that has been emerging regarding the status of women in North America – in other words, the idea that we don’t need feminism anymore, and that the status of women’s rights in our nook of the world is peachy keen.

(There’s a lot more detail to where this came from that I’m not including here, but bear with me.)

So, threatened by this, we started seeing that tag above. #NotAllMen. As in, not all men assault women, not all men abuse male privilege, and so on and so forth. And meanwhile, those on the other side of the fence were scratching their heads and going “when did we say it was all men?”

It’s interesting how, when we’re dealing with anything controversial, we feel this need to firmly divide ourselves into two separate, clearly distinct camps, especially when it’s completely unnecessary.

But then, the unfortunate truth is that the #NotAllMen people did have a legitimate complaint in one particular corner, because there were some people accusing all men.

Can we do nothing in moderation? Seriously. As the Grand High Witch said in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, “if you are vonting a steak, you do not cook the whole cow.”

In fact, we’ve been seeing this in the political strife between #BlackLivesMatter and the police. On one side you have people crying, “All cops are racist!” and then on the other you have people shouting back, “Cops aren’t racist at all!” and then you have those sensible heads in the middle (on both sides) going, “uh, maybe the truth of the matter is around here somewhere.”

See, here’s my take on it: I don’t think a lot of us understand the difference between “All X” and “The Culture of X.” Hence, we are faced with The Culture Problem.

I’ll use an example here from my own experience (that several of my friends have heard me use before). I belong to several cultures of people, which applies to my intersecting experiences within my own society. These cultures include: people who are white, people who are male, people who are cisgender, people who are gay, and so on. These intersect in different ways – I am white, I am a white male, I am a cisgender male, I am white and gay – many permutations, all with different overlapping experiences.

I hope you are with me so far, because this took me a long time to understand.

So, let’s take all those subcultures I just mentioned and lump them together. I am a white cis gay man. As such, I belong to that particular subculture as a whole: white, cis, gay men, and in particular, white, cis, gay men who live in Toronto.

For the sake of simplicity, I shall refer to members of this subgroup as Flamingos (not that I think any of us could last long standing on one foot after a night on the town).

I’ll be blunt: I have many reasons to dislike the Flamingo subculture.

Flamingos, as a culture, have a disquieting history of being racist, transphobic, exclusive, and have this nasty habit of playing up the status of victim, to the point where some of them are convinced that they totally understand racism because they’ve experienced homophobia.

Now, if there happened to be a Flamingo reading this, it’s quite possible that he would be privately raging at me right now, because maybe all those problems don’t apply to him personally, and how dare this guy accuse all Flamingos of being racists and so on. He also probably resents the term Flamingo to begin with, but that’s beside the point.

However, notice that not once did I say “all Flamingos.” I said that these are problems of the culture of Flamingos, notably of the North American big city variety. And I didn’t say all because I don’t believe that this problem is shared by all Flamingos; I, myself, am a Flamingo by definition, and these are problems I do my best to avoid.

So, with that established, here’s the sticking point. If what I just described doesn’t fit me at all, my instinct might well be to say so, loud and clear. #NotAllFlamingos and all that. “Maybe that’s what some Flamingos are like,” I might say, “but not me.”

And this is where it all falls down. This is where we get into disagreements that are just about impossible to resolve, because nobody seems to have the same answer to this most important of questions: how much responsibility should one accept for the culture they belong to?

Let’s face facts: I’m not perfect. As much as I am conscious of the efforts I make not to demonstrate the problematic aspects of the culture I belong to, sometimes I do anyway. But nobody expects perfection (well, okay, some do, but that’s another problem entirely). The true test of my character isn’t in whether or not I make a mistake, but rather, how I respond to being informed of the mistake.

This spills over into the whole Flamingo thing, because when Bubba gets irate about the problematic aspects of the culture of Flamingos, I have a few choices I can make. I can deny all responsibility (#NotAllFlamingos) and make it Bubba’s problem for blaming everyone’s problems on me. Or, alternatively, I can accept that, as much as I dislike those aspects of Flamingo culture, I’m still a part of that culture, and I can at least validate, if not fully take responsibility for, Bubba’s reality.

This last step (which I admittedly still struggle with) is at the heart, I think, of all these Us vs. Them problems: nobody wants to be blamed. Nobody wants to shoulder, even for a moment, the thought of being responsible for our own culture. But then, if we don’t, and they don’t…who will?

Ultimately, I don’t know what the answer is, but I am fairly confident that #NotAllFlamingos isn’t it. The society I live in gains nothing when members of a culture refuse to acknowledge their own responsibility for, and influence over, the problems perpetuated by that culture – especially those cultures who sit in a position of privilege. Put bluntly, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away, nor does blaming it on a few bad apples.

It occurs to me that I never cleared up what I meant when I mentioned hypocrisy, so here it is: the people most likely to make broad, sweeping and unjust generalizations about other groups of people are the most likely ones to parrot the #NotAll tagline, and that is a hypocrisy unlike any other, in my book. I get this one a lot when I hear people talk about Millennials, because for some reason it’s perfectly okay to paint a wide swath of people with the problem-with-your-generation brush. I’ve been told that my generation is entitled and that we expect jobs and homes to be handed to us like candy, and then, when I reminded this person that it wasn’t the Millennials that over-stressed the importance of a university degree or burned down the housing market, I was – surprise! – rebuked for over-generalizing.

I’m really not entirely sure what my point is, when it’s all said and done, except that I wish more people understood the difference between “all Flamingos” and “the culture of Flamingos.” I think I’ve come a long way in understanding that when someone complains about white people, they aren’t necessarily talking about me, and that regardless, I still need to pay attention, because that is the culture I belong to. I wish we could all do that, from both sides: recognize that a culture can have its problematic elements without  condemning (or defending) every member of it at once.

I don’t think I’ll hold my breath, though.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go practice standing on one foot. #NotAllFlamingos can do that, y’know.

There’s A Reason I Can’t Shut Up On Twitter Today

In my short few years as a teacher, I’ve had the unquestionable privilege of seeing many, many amazing things.

This is the part where I really should be waxing poetic about what those things are – and the writer in me is furious that I don’t seem to quite have the words in my head right now to do it – but that is a part I’m going to skip for now. It’s after midnight and I’m tired.

…and I might possibly have been playing The Sims 2 for rather longer than is strictly necessary.

But anyway, regardless of the undoubtedly beautiful and moving things that I could be writing and am not, I will write about why anyone who follows my Twitter feed might have wanted to slap me over the last 24 hours. Incidentally, Twitter is not something I’ve really taken to before now, not the way many of my colleagues have (my principal is one of them and it is very entertaining). But I’ve been watching it from the sidelines and always almost, but not quite, gotten it. There was a part of me that understood the Twitterverse, but also a part of me that didn’t quite see why it was a big deal.

But (so it goes) I realized this week that I should probably become more active on Twitter. And the timing worked out, because today I was a part of something life-changing.

At least, for me. And, I imagine, for many of the participants.

For those not in the know, today I was at Sheridan attending a Peel Board event called the YANA MPP Conference (the long title for that would be the You Are Not Alone Make Peel Proud Conference or something along those lines…I think). This has been a yearly event for high school students from across the PDSB, who come and participate in workshops, meet one another, and just generally have an amazing time surrounded by like-minded peers. This year, for the first time, the conference was opened up to middle school students, and the committee/brains behind the operation wasn’t sure just how many middle-schoolers to expect.

And, well, we got like 170. Which was about three times the number that had been anticipated.

These middle school students got to yak with an LGBTQ youth panel, do a super awesome workshop, meet and greet and mingle with students their age from across the board, and dance the afternoon away in the building’s lobby, all while covered in rainbow bling and surrounded by middle school peers happily and confidently being their straight, gay, bi, lesbian, pansexual, transgender, nonbinary and genderfluid selves.

Like…

What.

WHAT.

This is, to put it bluntly, something that would have made my brain explode when I was 12 and struggling to figure out exactly what I was. It was the early 2000’s, massive progress in our society had been made with respect to gay rights, and we still weren’t talking about it at school yet. I thought I was alone in the universe. And yet, here we are, some decade and a half later, and I’m wading through a sea of confident, diverse, jubilant kids who are proud, and strong, and, and…empowered.

I am not ashamed to admit that I spent quite a bit of the day positively green with envy. Of course, I was such an awkward, socially-inept child at the age of 12 that it might not even have made a difference, but…what if, you know?

But here’s the kicker. Sure, that all would have made my brain explode, except that there’s one other thing about these kids that puts them in an entirely different league that my past self: they are informed. 

When I was 12, I couldn’t even tell you what gay was, let alone the vast majority of the things I heard out of kids’ mouths today. Middle schoolers in all the workshop rooms were busy talking about gender non-binary this, and aromantic that, and gender identity vs. gender expression and alternative pronouns and dimensions of privilege and intersectionality–

I mean, damn. These kids are so smart. They have a deep, thorough awareness – understanding – of ideas and concepts and truths that I had only just begun to grasp in my mid-twenties. They’ve had the freedom to explore themselves, to explore others, to explore a world of realities and learn how to empathize with them. They’ve come out the other end wise beyond their years, and all because they have been given the opportunity to be authentic and truthful to themselves.

Kind of bittersweet, isn’t it?

I can only really speak for myself, but I looked around me today and I had to take a moment and just…grieve, a little. Not for the kids around me, but for the one I used to be. I imagined what would have happened if I could have experienced even a tiny piece, back then, of what I saw today. Or even if teachers in those days had been willing to talk about it. Anything that might have left me with the impression that it wasn’t just me.

But then, on the other hand, the vast majority of my time was spent simply drinking in the celebration of life and love that I was privileged enough to witness today. I watched kids from entirely different schools, kids who had never even met one another, join hands and dance. I saw kids who might normally be frightened or shy of speaking in front of large groups confidently raise their hands and share their stories. It was nothing short of magical.

And so I couldn’t shut up about it. I had to celebrate it for the sake of the 12-year-old I used to be, who is still stuck somewhere in my head with his face pressed up against the window, longing to come back for just this one day.

Ultimately, I’m at peace with the fact that those are years I’ll never get back, and I’m also at peace knowing that the experiences I did have when I was younger have done their part to shape me into the person I am now, which, to be frank, is a person I’m quite happy to be. But, thinking about it, it does help me see what my own life must look like to someone who came from the generation before me, or the one before that. While I watched these kids live in a moment my younger self never would, I forgot that I am out, queer, and proud, and these facts are not threatening my job, where I work with children every day – in fact, I’m able to work with like-minded peers, professionals, supported by the bureaucracy of our day, making magic like this happen. That was me, living in a moment that some of my dearest friends, who landed in this world a generation or two before I did, never would. Not at my age. Not at this stage of their lives.

I understood that logically, from the outside, but I never really…felt that until today.

So I grieved a little inside, the same way some members of earlier generations grieved their own missed opportunities when same-sex marriage was legalized, or even when homosexuality was decriminalized, or any number of the umpteen thousand milestones we’ve passed on this road (with many, many more to go). But outside, beyond those little moments of grief, the celebration – yes, including Twitter – was my catharsis.

So anyway.

I find myself at the logical conclusion of this rambling, disorganized post without a single idea of a strong and eloquent ending. So, you don’t get. But the kids reminded me today that being my authentic self is the most important part.

And right now my authentic self is saying “perfect, eloquent endings are for suckers. Go to bed, you fool.”

Thanks, kids.

 

A Post About My Book

Why? Why not, I say!

I drove to school today realizing that I haven’t been keeping up my online presence, and a lot’s been going on. So, in lieu of anything of substance to blog about, I figured I’d update this here blog with the status of something very dear to my heart these days: Wyvern.

For anyone who didn’t know (or didn’t see the thing in the sidebar), I’ve spent the last few years writing, editing, and now publishing my first novel, which is entitled Wyvern – Book 1: The Coin. There have been a few notable milestones along this road thus far, so let’s break it down, shall we?

The E-Book

This has actually been out for a few months now, on a few different platforms. For more info, and to actually go and buy the thing, pop on over to www.wyvernnovel.com!

The Print Book

As you can tell by the photo, this is the exciting part.
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This is a photo of the one copy that currently exists, but within a few days that should change. The first 100 prints of Wyvern will hopefully be ready by the end of this week – which means that my Kickstarter backers will be happier with me, because those are the copies they will get!

A couple of months down the road, there will be an additional print, and those copies will be the first commercially-available print copies of Wyvern!

It’s very exciting stuff, all told. Not gonna lie, holding that print  version in my hand was…weird. In a good way. Never mind the years of work that have gone into this project. Holding it in my hand made it feel much more real.

More information will follow (eventually) on where these print copies will be available, but the plan is in motion!

Special Edition

The above copy will not include the many illustrations that Toby Medeiros has been so very busy creating, which is a tad unfortunate but was a time-related necessity. That said, he is still hard at work, and those illustrations will be released with a Special Edition copy of Wyvern which will hopefully be available before the end of the year. Not only will this include Toby’s fantastic artwork, but it will also include bonus content including historical information on the setting of the book, maps, and other tidbits and special pieces that aren’t in the original. Keep your eyes open for it!

 

That’s about all for now. Again, a completely self-serving post, but hey, this is my blog. It’s probably already pretty self-serving.

Overall, I’m hoping to get myself more active online, so feel free to follow my Twitter:@TheMisterKyle – and if I haven’t tweeted in a while, be all like, “hey Kyle! Tweet something!”

Peace and love, all.