At the high school where I teach, we have a game called Trash Ball. Born out of necessity when we occupied a school site with no field, no track and no gym, Trash Ball requires two trash cans, one bouncy ball and a co-ed team. It can be played with many or few students. But Trash Ball is impossible to play without women and even more inconceivable to win without the full participation of the female players. The rule is that men must pass to women to advance the ball but women can pass to anyone. I first thought this rule was sexist, but over the years I have seen it played and have changed my mind. I find it empowering. In fact, the value of girls in this game is so high that female players are revered and respected. Boys no longer avoid passing to girls for fear they will fumble or “make the team lose.” Now, with Trash Ball, boys get upset when one of the girls on their team is absent because they know that having one less woman is a deficit.
I was excited to teach the game today to my new group of ninth-graders. Teaching Trash Ball is like teaching the culture of my school, and thus an essential part of our daylong picnic and orientation. I thought through how I would organize all of the students, evenly distribute the young women and make sure the teams were fair. I called out to my group of freshman, “Boys on this side and girls on this side.”
In that moment, I realized the complexity of what I said.
I have certainly contemplated the role of gender and looked at ways gender is expressed in the classroom. I have read suggestions to eliminate the use of “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls” as salutations because they create simple dichotomies rather than spectrums of experience. I have thought deeply about how to avoid over-assigning my infant son’s gender to him. In short, I consider myself aware of and sensitive to gender issues.
I was frustrated with myself for not considering this simple instruction before blurting it out. That frustration was more pronounced because of Raul, a ninth-grade student who identifies female, wears make-up, braids her hair and carries a purse. If she’d called herself by a typically feminine name, I might never have known she was socialized as a boy. I walked over to Raul and asked, “Which group would you like to be in?” She responded, “Whichever. It doesn’t matter.” I replied, “Whichever group makes you happiest is fine with me.”
Raul was on the girls’ side, and I was curious how she would participate once the game got under way. Would she pass only to girls as all the other boys were required? Would she have the freedom to pass to any of her teammates like the rest of the girls? Would Raul become an asset to her team or would she become a confusing distraction? All of these questions muddled my mind as I blew my referee whistle. I was on edge just waiting for another student to make a heated comment about Raul or to demand that it wasn’t fair, or worse.
The game was much less eventful than all of the scenarios that ran through my mind. Raul did what a few girls always do the first time they play Trash Ball, before they recognize their value in the sport. She stood on the sidelines twirling her hair and chatting with her girlfriends. She had taken herself out of the mix. I was disappointed that she didn’t get more involved but I was more than pleased to see an initiate game of Trash Ball proceed just as it has every year without the shame of harassing comments or bullying remarks from other students (at least that I was aware of).
Raul is in my English class. I will have many opportunities this year to handle such situations differently. Now that gendered language is no longer an abstraction in my practice, I will be forced to think about this aspect of my daily teaching practice. What will I change? I want to ensure that Raul feels included in the classroom. I will be there for Raul. After all, Raul is confident and bold enough to wear women’s clothes. I also want to be aware of how my language or instruction affects transgender and gender variant students who are not out.
Thomas is an English teacher in California.