I worked with young children long before my first year teaching in 2007. I have three degrees that qualify me to educate kids. Interacting with young people has been my greatest skill for as long as I’ve been a person. My biggest takeaway over the last, oh, 30 years? Kids will never fail to surprise me. It’s been proven to me over and over that kids know more, feel more, and deserve more than adults ever give them credit for.
My latest lesson in this has been around the palpable relief felt by my elementary students when I worked to make my school library more queer-friendly. This process included no fanfare. I had already been adding picture books that challenged gender norms and middle grade titles with queer characters and storylines for as long as I had been developing the collection. But as I was working to add racial and physical diversity into my library posters and signage, I knew I wanted to branch out to make sure everyone felt welcome.
The first noticeable shift was when I decorated my door with a “This Classroom is for Everyone” sticker from the Etsy artist MegEmikoArt. The sticker is decorated with pride flags and my students buzzed as they came into Media. Soon after, I bought the “Libraries are for everyone” shirt in the same design by the same artist. A 5th grader who didn’t usually stop to chat pointed to one of the flags on my shirt, grinned, and said “That one’s me.” I was wonderfully, pleasantly floored.
I thought I was adding more queer flags, using gender-neutral terms, and featuring books with queer characters to help them prepare for the real world. I thought my students should be exposed to these things in case they met queer people or to make them more comfortable with queer family structures. This was a condescending way for me to think about my students. Thank god the kids are smarter than me.
What actually happened was that my students thanked me. There was gratitude, excitement, and relief. My students already knew how to identify more specific pride flags than I did. They already knew that gender and sexuality are spectrums and each person knows what feels right to them. I had students with whom I had no previous relationship sharing their pronouns. Our STEM building materials were used to build and label different pride flags. Requests were made for the LGBTQ book section; the books had always been there. The kids just needed affirmation that it was safe to ask for them. My students did not need exposure. They needed a safe space.
I was well aware that students in high school and even middle school needed queer-friendly libraries. Despite considering myself an ally and believing that I was doing everything I could at my grade level, I was showing a lack of respect for my students by thinking I needed to introduce them to queer-friendly ideas. If I can understand that a 10-year-old cisgender child can understand heterosexual romance (featured in almost every title ever), why does it surprise me that queer kids are looking for the same kinds of representation? Most importantly, how did I let myself forget the power and agency that young people have when they are given the space to be comfortable with who they are?
In a climate where adults are constantly clashing over what kids should be taught, it’s important to remember that children are vastly more aware and in touch with themselves than we give them credit for. I’m grateful to my amazing students for reminding me that beyond teaching them, my first job is to give them a safe space to explore all the amazingness they already possess.