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Nurturing Transformative Classrooms (Laleña Garcia) Transcript

Teacher Tom’s Podcast – Episode 12

Nurturing Transformative Classrooms (Laleña Garcia)

Laleña Garcia: I think a lot of the concern that parents of trans kids have is about the world.

Teacher Tom Hobson: Right.

Laleña Garcia: They think, is the world going to be a safe place for my trans kid? I don’t think so because the world has not shown me that it’s trustworthy, which makes sense.

Teacher Tom Hobson: Hi, I’m Teacher Tom, and welcome to Teacher Tom’s Podcast, where we take play seriously. What a lot of great conversations we’ve had. But that’s what happens when you listen to smart people talking about the world from their perspective. This is especially true when they share a perspective that you find challenging or one that conflicts with your previously held ideas.

In this episode, I expect some listeners will feel that way. Laleña Garcia has been teaching young children in New York City for the past quarter century, and she’s been teaching educators since 2017. Her book, How We Can Live, grew out of her work with Black Lives Matter at school, a coalition of educators and parents striving for racial justice in education. As an activist and early childhood educator, Laleña is a master at helping young people understand what she refers to as big ideas, race, equity, justice, gender and consent, issues that often make us adults squirm and changed the subject.

She currently teaches kindergarten at Manhattan Country School, where she helps children think about questions like what is equity? How do we take care of each other? And what do people need? She also works for the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute as a gender and sexuality trainer, working with ECE professionals and families to create an expansive and supportive understanding of gender, sexuality, and family structure.

In today’s show, we’re talking about her latest project, Transformative Schools, a progressive education community centered around trans joy and social justice. Their mission is to support trans futures by uplifting the lives of trans children, trans educators, and families touched by transness. Hi, Laleña. Welcome to the show.

Laleña: Hello, Tom. Thanks for having me.

Teacher Tom: Oh, I’m so excited to talk to you. Ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been a person I consider to be at the forefront in helping us understand how to talk with children about what you call big ideas like race and gender equity, justice, consent. But today, we’re going to talk about something a little bit different, a little more specific, that you’re newly involved. We’re going to talk about your latest project called Transformative Schools. I’d just like to learn what that’s all about.

Laleña: Yeah. So Transformative Schools is an idea that a friend of mine, Elena, has been thinking about for a long time. She is a middle school teacher, bless her heart, and she has been teaching science and activism and history in New York City independent schools for over a decade now. And a thing that she noticed was that when early childhood educators do so much work with kids about identity and making sure that they feel safe at school, and we have a lot of support in that, right? Like, we have Nacy saying that it’s our job to make sure that kids feel seen and kids feel accepted, and that it’s our job to make sure that children learn anti bias education, that children learn about activism and how to stand up for things that are not fair. It’s that we’re supposed to teach them empathy.

So all these things that early childhood educators do and have space to do sometimes kind of fall away in the middle school years, especially in New York City. What we notice is that children leave their kind of cozy elementary schools where they have one teacher all day long for most of their subjects who know them really well, who gets to be in a pretty close relationship with their families, and then they go to middle school, and suddenly they have many teachers who don’t necessarily know them that well. They have content teachers who have to get through information, they have to get through this math, they have to get through this ELA.

And families often just feel very shut out from their kids’ school experience as opposed to elementary school. And kids are also developmentally figuring out who they are. And so part of what they do at that age is that the peer group becomes really important where they’re like, oh, wait, now my peer group is more important than my grownups. And kids can feel lost. They don’t know who their trusted grownups are, and they’re trying to figure out their identity. And sometimes that is at odds with the work that they’ve done as younger children. So I’ve got kindergarteners who are saying things like, oh, this is my name. This is how I want you to say my name. And when you talk about me, the words that feel good to me are and introducing themselves that way.

And then sometimes in middle school, kids either forget about respecting each other’s pronouns or their teachers have so much on their minds that they’re not on top of the interpersonal relationships that kids have with each other and that we know are so important. And suddenly, we end up with situations where kids aren’t feeling as comfortable with themselves. And it’s especially a big deal for kids whose gender identity might be changing, whose understanding of their racial identity might be changing, just because they’re getting into new cognitive waters.

And we realized that we need a school that will take care of that, and that will know kids as their whole selves. And it’s also really important for kids to have role models. There’s so many studies that show that representation matters and that it’s good for all kids to be taught by a variety of people. And it’s really important for people with marginalized identities to see adults, to see happy, healthy adults who are in positions of power that share their identity. And it helps kids of all identities to see a variety of people in positions of power.

And so Elena and a few other people thought, you know what? We would like to make this a reality. And Elena and I have been working together for many years. I’ve mentored her at my previous school, and she knows my work through Black Lives Matter at school and other things. And so she said, are you interested in being part of this? And I said, yes, I am. And I really want to be part of the kind of pedagogical side of it, like, where we help teachers to really think about how they create compassionate communities.

Teacher Tom: So how does that work? What do you do when you come to a school? How does the program work? I mean, do you have a curriculum, or how does that work?

Laleña: So we’re hoping to start a school, and right now we’re an after-school program.

Teacher Tom: Okay.

Laleña: And so in the school, part of what would happen is that all of our teachers would be engaged in a lot of professional development about creating community in their classes and how to make sure that their community, that their classroom community is the most important thing that’s happening. Often in early childhood and elementary ed, we talk about the first six weeks where we set the stage for everything. It’s all community building. It’s all learning routines. And sometimes in middle school, people don’t feel like they have that space.

Teacher Tom: Okay.

Laleña: And so we want to make it really clear from the top down that this is what we want you to be doing. Cause I think sometimes middle school teachers feel like they’re sneaking it in around the edges.

Teacher Tom: Uh huh.

Laleña: And I feel like sometimes that happens in our profession, too, in early childhood.

Teacher Tom: Oh, it happens in early childhood all the time. I can’t tell you how many people say, oh, I do all my best teaching in the cracks.

Laleña: Yeah, yeah.

Teacher Tom: And it shouldn’t be.

Laleña: Right. And if we have a school that is dedicated towards that from the beginning and very openly, then people aren’t going to have to sneak it in around the edges. It’s going to be part of what everybody expects.

Teacher Tom: So this is like an after-school program. What you’re doing right now?

Laleña: Currently, yeah.

Teacher Tom: Is this sort of an experimental phase?

Laleña: I would say no. I would say that it’s an after-school program just because getting like the bureaucracy necessary to start a school in New York City is tremendous. And there are kids and families who want community now. And so in a way, to meet the needs of some kids and families while we’re still going through all of the hoops and the red tape and the paperwork, this way kids and grownups can have a place where they can start to form community, because we know that community is what keeps kids safe.

Teacher Tom: Right? Yeah. Okay. Being after school, it’s voluntary by families right now, so they can choose or not choose whether they want to send their kids. Do people tell you why they’re choosing to enroll their child in this afterschool program?

Laleña: Yeah. A lot of grownups, particularly parents of kids who are not gender conforming, kids who identify as queer or kids who are figuring out what their gender is, kids who identify as non-binary, kids who identify as trans, their grownups often say that school isn’t a super great place for them, that they don’t feel like their kid is always seen. They feel like sometimes teachers have too much on their minds to deal with each kid and their needs. They feel like their kid does a lot of educating of the people around them and they want them to have a space where their kid can just be.

I have a friend who has a kid in Brooklyn, so they’re not attending the after school, but is very supportive of the project because we don’t know where we’re going to be yet. And she was saying that every year she has to go to school and talk to her kids’ teachers about how to use they/them pronouns and that it’s exhausting. And this is happening in New York City, which has policy in place.

Teacher Tom: Right.

Laleña: And so parents and kids are tired having a place where you don’t have to explain yourself, where there’s people who maybe share your identity, people who aren’t going to ask you, wait, so are you a boy or a girl? I think for a lot of kids it’s having an affinity space and having a space where they can relax.

Teacher Tom: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So on your website, you have the statement of purpose, the statement, this vision that you have. And I just want to read it here just because I think it really is worthy of reflection. Our children deserve trustworthy educators who reflect their multifaceted identities. Our advocates and cultural brokers maintain high expectations and provide culturally relevant teaching that confronts racism, transphobia, and other societal inequities. I’d like you to talk about this and why this vision stands at the center of your work. Why is it important for children and for educators and I guess for the wider society?

Laleña: So as a US society, we do not value our children very highly. And we show that in our maternal mortality rates, our infant mortality rates, the number of children who live in poverty, the lack of healthcare for our children, the lack of funding for anything that involves actual children, and that’s really short sighted of us as a society. We need to invest in our children. We need to value our children.

I know I’m speaking to the choir when I say that to you. And we need to trust children, and we need to know that children do deserve to have adults around them that are trustworthy. Not only as educators do we need to express to children that we find them trustworthy. We need to show them that we are trustworthy. And one way that we can show them that is by respecting them when they tell us who they are. And if the adults around you don’t respect you, when you tell them who you are, how can you trust them?

Teacher Tom: Right.

Laleña: You can’t feel safe. And if you notice in the world around you that people who look like you aren’t treated fairly or the world is not safe for them, and all the adults around you don’t advocate for a change in that, what does that tell you about your own worth?

Teacher Tom: Right.

Laleña: Like, what does it tell you that the adults around you want you to change, to fit into the world instead of changing the world to keep you safe? I just think it’s so important because kids notice what we do, and they notice sometimes the things that we do that are not in line with what we say. We’ve all had kids call us out and we’re like, oh, wait, it’s true.

Teacher Tom: And middle schoolers are the ultimate hypocrisy identifiers, yes. I mean, I remember as a 6th grader, man, the adult world just looked like those guys aren’t doing anything they say they’re supposed to be doing.

Laleña: No. Like, they’re telling me to do this, but then they turn around and do this.

Teacher Tom: Yeah, it’s the hypocrisy.

Laleña: It feels terrible to kids.

Teacher Tom: Yeah.

Laleña: And we want to actually nurture that because we want to give kids the ability, as we do with very young children, to say, wait, you said this. How come you’re not doing that? How come your actions don’t match up?

Teacher Tom: Right.

Laleña: And middle schoolers often do that in a way that is not as endearing as when young children do it, but it is no less passionate.

Teacher Tom: Right.

Laleña: And it’s no less coming from a place of indignation and care for community. And it’s so important for kids to feel like the adults that they know have their back, even if the world doesn’t.

Teacher Tom: So just envision this going forward beyond that first goal. Say you’ve got your school. What’s the next step? Where do you see this going?

Laleña: I think the next step is to make it really sustainable as a community. So to make sure that alum can come back and volunteer so that they still have a connection with the school. We want to make sure that we are paying our teachers enough so that they can stay.

Teacher Tom: Right.

Laleña: One thing that happens in a lot of communities is that teachers can’t afford to stay teachers. And so then they leave that community. And that doesn’t provide continuity of care. It takes kids a while to trust somebody. And when you see the same people over and over, then they can build relationships with you. If people have to keep leaving your community, then you have to keep starting from scratch. That’s no fun for anyone and it’s not sustainable.

So you want to make sure that our families and our teachers and our students who then become alum, feel connected to the program and feel that it empowers them and want to give back so that we can really be a replicable model for other schools and also so that we can sustain ourselves as kids go off and become adults. And maybe they want to be a teacher and maybe they want to come back and teach.

Teacher Tom: So it sounds like you’re really talking about building community. That’s the center of what’s happening here. Yeah, people don’t often think of schools as doing that. I’m saying outside of our bubbles like New York City or Seattle or, you know, these places where we sort of are the blue parts. What do you say to people? Say, no, this isn’t the business of school. Schools should be in the business of ABCs one, two, three, s and teaching the academics.

Laleña: It’s really interesting that you say that because I have had some experiences in very small communities where this is the job of the school.

Teacher Tom: Right. Interesting.

Laleña: Where people do expect their schools to provide community. And I think that sometimes people say that schools shouldn’t do it because they know that schools are overworked. They’re like, well, you have so much to do. How can you do this on top of that? I mean, the best education isn’t about segmented situations that like, okay, for 20 minutes, you learn math, and then for 40 minutes, you learn English, and then for 40 minutes, you learn science. That’s not how we as adults move in the world. And we know that things are integrated.

And also, we as adults, we move in the world, bring our whole selves with us everywhere we go. We know that kids do that, too. And I think that when I have seen schools that are building community, those kids are not only getting all of the academic education they need, they’re also getting an education and citizenship. They’re getting an education in being community members. They’re getting education in self-regulation, in caring for other people, in working together with other people to make the world a better place, as some of my kids say. And I think that is absolutely the business of the school.

Teacher Tom: And the other piece I would add to that, just for me, the thing I found, I got a lot of privileges. I’m a middle aged, middle class white man in America. But what I have found is every time somebody shows me their perspective, a new perspective on the world, because our identities shape our perspectives, right? And they see the world differently. I feel like I’m getting smarter when I listen to you talk or I listen to an indigenous person speak or a transgender person speak or anything, suddenly, the world becomes bigger and better for me and more complete. So, for me, that’s how it benefits all of us, because our ideas get bigger.

Laleña: Our ideas get bigger, our brains get stronger, and our communities get stronger. And one thing that we know is that everyone’s liberation is bound up in everyone else’s. And that’s something that I think people are starting to realize more, is that if trans kids are safe, all kids are safe. When black kids are safe, more kids are safe.

Teacher Tom: Right?

Laleña: And so if our most vulnerable children are safe, then everyone’s safe, and we all benefit from that.

Teacher Tom: I like that. Okay, so let’s talk a little bit about young children, because I know you talk about these big ideas with your kindergartners.

Laleña: Yeah.

Teacher Tom: And I am so impressed by the way you do it. And someday I am going to come visit your classroom and watch you do this, because I’ve learned so much from you. So what do you say to people who say, well, my three-year-old or my four-year-old, they’re too young. They haven’t even noticed they have black kids in their class, or they don’t know anything about gender identity. Why should we be introducing this now? Aren’t we brainwashing the kids? You’ve heard that, right? What do you say to that?

Laleña: First of all, do you really think your kids haven’t noticed people’s skin color? Because your kids have eyes and they’ve talked about color, and they’re confused when people talk about black people and white people because those words aren’t accurate, right? But kids know their colors. They see things. They also live in this world.

So an example I give is that earlier this year, I said to my five- and six-year-olds, I said, friends, if you went to a store and all the toys in that store were pink, hold on for a second. Don’t say anything yet. But would you know who some people thought those toys were for? And they all nodded. And I said, okay, when I say three, everybody say it. So one, two, three. And they all said, girls. And then several kids burst out, but that’s not true. Anyone can like pink. Boys can like pink. Like, they interrupted it.

But when we get to a point where kids are honestly confused by that, then maybe we’ll have moved beyond gender. But we haven’t. Kids know these things. And I heard a kid just the other day putting some numbers in a hundred chart, and all the threes were in blue because they were trying to show the multiples of three. And he said, oh, this is a boy number. And I said, how do you know? And he was like, oh. And then I said, do numbers have genders? And he said, no, it’s a blue number.

And he wasn’t trying to perpetuate gender stereotypes. It just made sense to him because he’s seen it and heard it so many times. And so we have to interrupt it over and over because kids are getting these messages constantly. And there’s academic research that shows that kids internalize the dominant societies gender stereotypes and racial stereotypes by the time they’re. We need to interrupt it, starting when they’re about three.

Teacher Tom: What about gender identity? How do we talk with young children about that? Because they’re already thinking about it. I know that. Do we wait for the kids to ask us questions, or is there a way to introduce the topic?

Laleña: When I introduce myself to kids, I’m like, I say, my name is Laleña. When you talk about me, the words that feel good to me are she and her. So you might say, oh, I see, that’s Laleña. She has purple hair. I wonder if purple is her baby favorite color, right? And then I ask them how we should talk about them. Because in our community, we should all say each other’s names, right? The way that the person wants them to be said. And we should all use the words to talk about people that they like, and kids are fine with that. They’re very relaxed.

And sometimes kids will say, I’ve read books about gender. I’ve talked about gender. I’m saying, oh, well, gender is whether you feel like you’re a girl or a boy or non-binary or both or neither. Or if you want to use another word, to talk about yourself, everyone has a gender. And the kids are like, okay. And one year, one of my kids said, how do you know your gender? This was just so lovely. This is five- and six-year-olds, and they’re all listening to each other, and one says, I think it’s your brain. I think if you have a girl brain, you’re a girl, and if you have a boy brain, you’re a boy.

And another kid said, yeah, I think your brain tells your mouth, and then your mouth can tell people. And then another kid said, I think your gender is in your heart, and your heart tells your brain, and your brain tells your mouth, and then your mouth can tell everybody about you.

Teacher Tom: Wow. How many adults would go there to heart and head? Adults go to genitals.

Laleña: The article I wrote based on that conversation was, your gender is in your heart, not your pants.

Teacher Tom: God, I love that. And what a great insight from these kids. I’ve said a long time, if the learning with the young children isn’t a two-way street, you’re doing it wrong.

Laleña: Yeah.

Teacher Tom: So what’s the feedback been like from transformative schools, from the parents who’ve enrolled their children, and from the kids themselves?

Laleña: They’re all really pleased. I think a lot of them think about the relief of, oh, I’m not alone. My kid’s not alone. I think a lot of the concern that parents of trans kids have is about the world, right? They think, is the world going to be a safe place for my trans kid? I don’t think so, because the world has not shown me that it’s trustworthy, which makes sense.

Teacher Tom: Yeah.

Laleña: And knowing that there are other kids, like your kid can feel like a huge relief, because then you feel like, oh, my kid can have people. And meeting adults who are trans, meeting queer adults and meeting trans adults can help people know, oh, it doesn’t have to be just a horror story, because I think sometimes people think, oh, trans people are murdered at these really high rates. And so I don’t want this to be my kid’s only reality.

And that isn’t your kid’s only reality, but people don’t always know that. And so it’s really important for kids and grownups to meet trans grownups. And I’ve seen a lot more genderqueer and non-binary teachers in the last five years. It’s really lovely. In my class, when we have a substitute, we all go around and say our names and our pronouns.

And I’ve had several subs let us know that they use they them. And some of them have told me that my class is the first class that has asked them. So my class is the only class that knows. And I think it’s really important for kids just to know that, oh, here’s a teacher. Here’s a person. Because kids look up to teachers, you know that we’re kind of rock stars, and when you see rock stars that look like you, that’s amazing. And so people are really thrilled about the idea that their kids will have alternate narratives.

Teacher Tom: Yeah. So you are doing all your work in a private school.

Laleña: Yes.

Teacher Tom: Yeah. And I assume your transformative after school program is in a private school, and the school you plan on starting won’t be part of the public school system, right.

Laleña: It will be private. Yeah.

Teacher Tom: So do you have any advice for people who want to start becoming a little bit better about talking about these big ideas in public school settings where it can be trickier?

Laleña: Yes. A, just do it.

Teacher Tom: Okay. Have courage.

Laleña: Yes. Have courage. The three things that I tell people. First, you should educate yourself. And there are many ways to do that. My group gives trainings online. The Brooklyn public Library is doing some trainings. So there’s trainings out there. There’s a lot of good early childhood books now. The entire First Conversation Series by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli is excellent.

Teacher Tom: There’s somebody sitting right here in this conversation who’s written a good book.

Laleña: Oh, and then I have written a couple of books about Black Lives Matter. It’s true, How We Can Live and What We Believe.

Teacher Tom: And they’re fantastic books.

Laleña: Thank you. I’m really pleased with them. And then I would say for people, when you’re talking to kids, the most important thing is to be curious. Find out what they are thinking about. Please be honest. And also remember that when a kid says, I don’t know my gender, and if you don’t know what to say, you just be like, I don’t know. Let’s find out. And just making sure that you call on all of your teaching skills and know that race and gender feel awkward for us because we’ve been taught that they are. But kids don’t feel that way, so just treat them with respect and understand that they can understand really big ideas and be really clear.

A thing that recently has come up a lot is that teachers say to me, I have a little boy in my class who came to school wearing a dress and other kids made fun of him. And I didn’t know what to do. And I’m always a little bit surprised because I want to say, replace the word dress with glasses. Now, do you know what to do? I bet you do, because we do know how to make sure that kids don’t make fun of other kids. We know how to keep kids safe. And there’s something about this idea that, oh, gender is this whole other thing and we don’t have the skills as early childhood educators to deal with this.

And I’m thinking, of course we do. We know how to keep kids safe at school. We know how to make sure that kids aren’t making fun of each other. That’s actually something that early childhood educators might be the very best at. But it’s a question that comes up a lot. And I think that it’s very interesting the ways that teachers have just been, I don’t know, told that we’re not experts on things like people don’t treat us like trained professionals. And so sometimes we forget that we are.

Teacher Tom: Laleña, this is one of the reasons I love talking to you. You’re so pragmatic about this because you’re right. We tend to get emotional about race or gender identity or consent or gender justice or all of these things. But really, everything we needed to learn we learned in kindergarten, right?

Laleña: Yeah, we learned from our kids. And it’s okay to have to go away and come back with an answer, like if we really don’t know because this is new. One thing I say to kids is, I say, when I was a kid, nobody talked about this in school. And they’re like, what? Really? And I say, I know. And every time I teach teachers and they say something like, oh, I have such a hard time using they as a singular pronoun or like something feels uncomfortable, I always say how great that you are teaching your kids this and they won’t have to do all this unlearning.

Teacher Tom: Yeah, I know. I had an experience like that several years ago. I was speaking at a conference and I made a joke just, oh, I have so much trouble with pronouns or something like that. And I just let it slide. And afterwards, this young woman came up to me and she was so nervous, really felt like she was taking a risk and she was shaking and she just said, you made a joke out of something that’s really important to me.

And it was one of those moments, right, when that perspective just suddenly transformed exactly how I am. So, of course, I no longer joke about things like pronouns or anything like that because, you know, this is not something for us old people who are uncomfortable to joke our way out of, right?

Laleña: Yeah. We need to teach all kids how to be compassionate human beings. We don’t know how many queer trans kids we have in our class, but we know that all of them are going to meet a queer trans person at some point. And we want them to know how to behave. We want them to know how to treat people. Not all the kids in our class have a cast, but they might meet someone with a cast. Not all the kids in our class are in a wheelchair or wear glasses, but they might meet somebody in that situation. And so we want to make sure that we are modeling that there are many different kinds of people who all need to be treated with compassion and respect. And if we don’t show them that, how will they know?

Teacher Tom: Well, Laleña, this has been such a great conversation, and I know that you could keep talking about it and I could keep talking about it. So if somebody is living outside of New York, can they contact you? Do you provide support and professional development outside of the New York area?

Laleña: Yes, I do. And as a matter of fact, I actually have a team of trainers on my side. We are called Team Gender Anarchy. And the author of the First Conversation books, one of them, Megan Madison, is part of our team. So we provide trainings on gender and sexuality and family structure and consent, and also race and class. Those are some other things that we’ve been trained in and have been working with young children and their families with for ages.

Teacher Tom: And they go to the Transformative School website.

Laleña: No, they should go to

Teacher Tom: We’ll make sure that’s in the show notes. I’m glad that you’re able to make yourself available to people who have questions and want to improve what they’re doing in their classrooms. Now, this is the question I found that I really like to ask everybody. What did I forget to ask you about? Or is there something you really want to make sure people know?

Laleña: I would like to tell a story about something that just happened in my class, like two weeks ago. In my class, there’s been a lot of we’re best friends, and my building is the best one and my drawing is the best one. So that kind of comparison situation, which kids do in kindergarten, it’s fine. And my kids are not trying to be unkind to each other. They love each other very much. But this language of best and, like fastest and like most is something that’s really baked into American society. And I know that I have said it’s not a competition many times I feel like kids’ kind of tune that up.

And so the other day for our community meeting, I brought a quote from, I believe it’s Teddy Roosevelt. And it says, comparison is the thief of joy. And so we broke down to make sure that the kids understood what each word meant. And then we reflected on it for a while. And then the kids said some very, very impressive things, including, if you are okay with what you have, but you look at what someone else has, then you might not like it anymore. And the big thing that a kid said was, it’s like when people were comparing skin colors and white people thought that their skin color was better, so they stole black people’s joy. And now we all have to fight to get it back.

And then the other thing that was very interesting, as I said to them, so, friends, I really love surfing. And one day I was out surfing and I was having a really good time, but I saw some other surfers and they were better than me, and how do you think I felt? And they said, like, you couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe you were frustrated. Maybe you were angry. One kid said, lonely. Not like you’re not with other people, but like, you can’t be with the other surfers. And I was just like, wow. So then I said, well, friends who stole my joy? And then they said, you did. You stole your joy. And I said, it’s true.

And so I asked them, what could I do to not steal my own joy? And they said, you could focus on what you’re doing. You could ignore the other surfers. You could be happy and remember that you’re getting better. You could go to the other surfers and hang out with them and maybe ask them to teach you things. And it was so lovely because five- and six-year-olds have such a hard time thinking metaphorically. Absolutely. I knew this was a stretch for them, but they managed. And then just the way that they were thinking about it, they’re still comparing things, of course, but I see them using more thoughtful language about it. Like, I really like my building, which is different from my building is the best.

Teacher Tom: I love that there’s a line. I can’t remember where I learned this from. Together, we’re a genius. And that was a perfect example of together we’re a genius. Laleña, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about this and to share your work. If people want to find out more about you, where’s the best place to go?

Laleña: The best place to go is probably my Instagram, which is BLM_in_kindergarten.

Teacher Tom: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me after a long, hard day.

Laleña: It’s always great to talk to you. I really love kind of synthesizing my ideas, and you ask really good questions, which is a really important part of teaching.

Teacher Tom: Well, thank you.

Laleña: Thank you for having me, Tom.

Teacher Tom: Wow. I could talk to Laleña all day. And what this conversation really got me thinking about was my own journey in this process of understanding what it means to be a supporter of trans lives. From the time she was two years old, our friend’s child, who everyone had labeled as a daughter, insisted on being called Joseph. She wanted her hair styled short and would only wear boys’ clothes. Of course, we at first thought it was like a cute phase, an homage, perhaps, to her older brother, whom she loved, but she never, you know, quote unquote, grew out of it.

Now, as a young adult, he is a confident young man making his way in the world. Even as recently as 1996, when Joseph was born, our societal awareness of transgenderism was limited. Yes, we were aware of the so-called sex change operation. There having been a few high-profile cases, I’m thinking specifically of Doctor Renee Richards, who controversially played professional women’s tennis after her reassignment surgery, a quest that led to a landmark New York Supreme Court decision in 1977 establishing transsexual rights in that state. We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time, but not nearly far enough.

If I didn’t know Joseph, he’s chosen a different adult name for himself. I don’t know where I would be on this issue, although I’d like to think that I’d still stand with humanity. It astonishes me that even as a two-year-old, he knew he was a boy, despite what everyone around him insisted. Equally astonishing, I think, are his parents, who, I’m sure, anguished in private, but who were always supportive and accepting of their youngest son. Likewise, the schools Joseph attended supported and accepted him, seeking to make life easier for him, not harder. Today, by all accounts, he is a cool, popular kid.

Yet there are those who fear him. Around the US, and indeed, around the world, legislative bodies are passing anti transgender legislation in defiance of federal law forbidding children from using bathrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities that correspond with their gender identity. Let’s be clear, there has not been an issue with transgender people using the facilities of their choice. This is about adult people and their own perverted imaginations becoming so frightened by the twisted pictures forming in their heads that they feel they must proactively rob already vulnerable children of basic civil rights.

If you don’t think this isn’t just a first step in a campaign to deny transgender people even more of their basic rights, you underestimate the irrational fear that underlies this sort of bigotry. The primary argument being used to promote these discriminatory bills is the soundbite slogan, no men in women’s bathrooms, an assertion that without strict sex segregation, men will be free to sexually assault young girls in public restrooms.

This is not something that is happening, mind you, even in a world in which trans people are already using the restrooms of their choice. No, in the real world, such as the public schools Joseph attended for 13 years, places where children are free to use the bathroom in which they feel the most comfortable without undergoing a genital check, men do not assault young girls in bathrooms any more than they assault them anywhere else.

In fact, this is the real problem, the twisted minds of the people who promote these laws because of their own fevered imaginations, such as the scary one housed in the skull of so-called minister of the Lord, former governor of Arkansas, the presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who said, and I’m quoting now, I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers and pee, I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.

Geez, these are the words of a man with predatory crimes on his mind, claiming that the only reason he didn’t assault teenage girls was the stick figures on the shower room doors. It’s men like this we should be fearing, not children using the bathroom. I share the goal of doing what we can to make the world safer for women and young girls, but this is not what these discriminatory measures are about. How about instead we teach our boys not to be like Mike Huckabee?

Living as a transgender person in America is hard enough. These kids, because they have to hide who they are, are already at a heightened risk for depression, suicide, and other self-destructive behavior. We should be seeking to make things easier for these children, not harder. But even those of us who consider ourselves supportive allies are prone to making harmful judgments and observations. When we joke about gender identity, we’re making the world less safe, less welcoming, and more dangerous. And there is no one I know better equipped than Laleña Garcia to help not just trans kids and their families, but all of us understand that this is no joke. Lives are at stake.

That’s it for this, the final episode of season one of Teacher Toms podcast. Thank you, Laleña, for this amazing discussion. You’ll find out more about Laleña and her work That’s R-O-O-T-E-D-K-I-D-S dot O-R-G. In the show notes, you’ll find out more about her and a link to the website and her Instagram, where she is very active. I’m Tom Hobson, and you’ve listened to Teacher Tom’s Podcast, Taking Play Seriously.

You can find out more about me That’s T-E-A-C-H-E-R-T-O-M-S-W-O-R-L-D dot C-O-M. Teacher Tom’s Podcast is a part of the Mirasee FM podcast network, which also includes such shows as Course lab and Just Between Coaches. You can find more fun episodes by following us on the Mirasee FM YouTube channel or your preferred podcast player. If you found today’s insights valuable, take a moment and leave us a starred review. It’ll help us reach more people like you. Again, thanks for playing with me.