Growing up, my mother was all about utility. Rather than cleaning up scraped knees, she dressed me in pants instead of pretty frocks, and my hair was cropped short to avoid tangles. She let me decide what I wanted to do, for the most part, again to avoid a hassle – I made mud pies, and collected rocks, and played with toy trains. Such as this was, the idea of gender never really occurred to me. I identified as a girl, but to the gender normative outsider, it was probably assumed that I was a little boy. This again, didn’t bother me, as I was pretty oblivious to gender in the first place.
Most of my friends in pre-school were boys. My best-est friend ever, in the whole wide world, Drew, and I were together all the time. We played survival in the little tent my parents got for me, soccer, and looked for frogs in the forest (no one told us that this was not a thing.) We were both nervous about Kindergarten, but we found solace in knowing that we were in the same class.
My first lesson in gender arose when we began elementary school. Like the flip of a switch, on the first day of Kindergarten, Drew stopped talking to me. My heartbroken little self didn’t know what to think. When I confronted him, Drew said the words that still affect me, 15 years later, “It’s because you’re a girl.”
Apparently we were different. I didn’t understand why, but there was something. And there were rules too. Boys were supposed to be gross. I had something called “kooties”. Girls and boys didn’t play the same games. This was very confusing, as for my entire life until that point, boys and girls had played the same games. But in school, boys played with wooden blocks, building things, and the girls played house. I liked playing with blocks, but not wanting to stir the pot, I played house with my new best friend, Katie.
Katie was beautiful. Her dream was to be an elegant lady who wore white dresses and took her two lovely children on cruises to Mexico. I wished I could have long, smooth hair like hers. She was clearly what a girl was supposed to be. And I was not. It is an understatement to say that this didn’t mess with my head a little, even later in life. I liked playing house, but the fact that I was always the less coveted role of the dad or the brother fueled my desire to go to the other side of the room and—gasp!—play with the blocks.
(T.W.: violence) I decided to do it. During one playtime, there was a clear opportunity; no one sat by the blocks, everyone was in the craft area with sticky glitter hands and mounds of paper-mâché. So I sneaked over and started building. It was a risky move, but definitely worth it…until Drew came over. He told me that I wasn’t allowed to play with the blocks, and if I did want to, I’d have to go through an “initiation”. I wasn’t sure how to respond but before I could, he raised one of the longer wooden blocks over his head to hit me with. I looked up at him from where I sat on the ground, and realized there was no way I could defend myself. I’ve never known true gratitude like I felt when the teacher rushed over, horrified, to stop Drew.
It was scary, and heartbreaking, and I didn’t ever try to play with the blocks again.
Even though my first experiences with gender in school seems a little “after school special-y” this kind of situation happens. I think a big part of the schooling process is to figure out who you are, and along with that, your gender. Experimenting with being ‘girly’ or a tomboy’ can be valuable, but school usually reinforces the power structures at be. It tends to instill in kids that there’s a fundamental difference between women and men – and even if you don’t quite fit into either category, you have to pick one. Someday, soon hopefully, not in a weird distant utopia where everything is shiny and plastic, schools will accept that all people have a fluid gender identity, and gender isn’t binary: there’s no wrong way to be whatever gender you are.
Amanda Proctor is a Creative Writing student/lipstick enthusiast from Vancouver. She’s currently attempting to rock Yolandi bangs, pretending that she doesn’t get most of her water from coffee, and blogging to her little heart’s content here.
Illustration by Teresa Law