What My Transgender High School Student Taught Me About Being True to Yourself

“She—he—goes by Elvin,” my coworker whispers. I look at the student fumbling with the cart of computers in the front of the room. She—he—formerly Cadence, then Cade, and now Elvin, is a thick bodied sophomore with glasses, an ‘I love pizza’ shirt, and short, spiky blue hair.

“She changed her name the middle of last year,” my coworker continues, “And rumor is that she’s been taking hormones. Now she goes by Elvin.”

He. I think. He goes by Elvin. I stare that this individual. His—it feels strange to think of him as a him, but I’m not sure why. This thought makes me feel guilty—His shirt is tight and pulls against his small belly. He’s wearing a pair of jeans, not too snug, and sagging only slightly. He seems to have a small chest, but nothing too noticeable. His face is pale and plain. No remarkable features that scream, “I’m a girl!” but nothing like a mustache or five-o’clock-shadow to mark him as a male.

“Hi, new teacher!” he says brightly, walking up to my desk and turning my chalkboard pencil cup over in his hand. His hands are feminine, thin. But the nails are unpainted and the wrists are covered in black band bracelets.

“Hello…Elvin, is it?”

“Yes.” He makes direct eye contact and his posture straightens, almost as if he’s measuring me up, ready for a challenge.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Elvin.” I say, smiling my most genuine smile.

Elvin nods, gathers his backpack—purple with black stars—and turns to walk out of the room. “Bye!”

I watch him as he walks confidently out of the room and into the hall, blurring with hundreds of other high school students. His purple backpack mixes with the long, red hair of a senior cheerleader, the jet-black leather skirt of a junior on the debate team, the white and red jersey of the freshman starting quarterback. In seconds, I lose sight of him.

“How do other kids feel about him?” I whisper my cooperating teacher. There are about twenty minutes until class time and students are sprinkled about the room, catching up on late assignments and scrambling to get homework done. One of the girls closest to the teacher’s desk is frantically typing on a laptop. A boy next to her is sketching a cartoon dragon on the edge of his science lab.

“She’s fit in fine,” my coworker says, shuffling through a stack of tests, “The kids don’t really seem to be bothered by it. My honors kids at least.”

He. I think. But I’m not angry. I understand. It’s difficult to make the switch. Difficult, maybe even more so for the people around him than for Elvin himself. But how selfish does that make me sound?

I imagine Elvin again—his stocky body, energetic voice, bare eyelashes and black-rimmed glasses—he is one of the more confident sophomores I’ve seen. He seems to know who he is. Self-assured, but in a positive way. Not throwing anything in anyone’s face. Just existing. Just being who he feels he truly is, without worrying about other’s opinions.

High school is supposed to be this place where fifteen to eighteen-year-olds are encouraged to explore, to try new things, to ‘find yourself.’ But where does finding yourself as a transgender fit into the equation? Where are the presentations about finding your true sexual identity? Where is the ‘What to Do With Your Life When You Think You’re Supposed to Be the Other Gender’ speech? The ‘True Life: I’m Living as a He-She’?

I picture Elvin’s ‘I love pizza’ shirt getting lost in a crowd of nameless faces, of kids trying to fit in, trying to be popular, trying to find boyfriends and parties and A’s on history tests. How can you be true to yourself in a place where everyone’s trying to figure out who they should be rather than who they are?

I scan my classroom, looking over the skinny jeans, the tight tops, the eyeliner, the basketball jerseys. Being true to yourself is incredibly hard, especially in a place like high school. There’s roles that we’re all supposed to fit. Even as a teacher, I found myself looking in the mirror, parting and re-parting my hair. Is this what a teacher looks like? Five years out of high school and I’m still in that insecure mindset, still trying to figure out who I am and where I fit.

Being true to yourself means staring a teacher in the face and saying, ‘My name is Elvin.’ It’s dying the ends of your spiky hair blue. It’s wearing jeans that don’t ‘fit’ how they’re supposed to and rocking an ‘I love pizza’ shirt because you can. It’s not waking up in the morning and wondering what others will think of how you look, of the person you are. It’s walking through a sea of teen heads with your own head held high. And it’s smiling because you’re who you’re supposed to be, the identity you’ve felt for years finally set free.

The bell rings and students begin to shuffle in and out of my classroom. I turn to my whiteboard at the front of the room and find an empty corner. ‘Be true to yourself,’ I write, ‘All are welcome here.’

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