5th Grade Metamorphosis

By: Heather St. Louis

In biology, we usually define metamorphosis as a profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life history of an organism, such as from the caterpillar to the pupa and from the pupa to a butterfly.  Metamorphosis has been depicted in art, drama, music throughout human history as part of our stories, our journeys, and our identities as people. During my student teaching in 5th grade I was fortunate enough to witness the beginnings of a transformation, and would like to share my observations about how this profound and critical point in a student’s life was celebrated and supported by his community.

One Friday morning the school Counselor, I will call her Ms. B, came into our 5th grade classroom to tell my cooperating teacher and myself that she would like to gather the entire 5th grade for a very important announcement before lunch. At this time I had no idea what it was concerning but I could see from her expression and tone that this announcement was to be taken seriously and treated respectfully. After the students returned from P.E. we had them cozy up to the front in their chairs so we were all nestled together as Ms. B began speaking to the group.  “I would like to start by reading our 5th grade human dignity creed that you all write at the beginning of the year.” And with a strong sure voice she read aloud:

 

“We the people of _____ School, pledge to help create a Human Dignity Zone free of discrimination.

We believe that the people should judge others by their heart and actions, not by their  appearance, religion, disabilities or abilities.

All people are created equally and are worthy of respect.

We should live together in peace and harmony and love the world and everyone in it because differences make us special.

We are all the same in different ways, so we will treat others with dignity, kindness and respect– the way we would like to be treated.”

 

The students, who had been boisterous and full of energy from P.E. had calmed while she read their creed. Ms. B then said: “Someone has been brave in 5th grade, and we are here to talk about them.” My silly students began to joke: “Oh she means me.” or “I’m ALWAYS brave.” which, of course, produced many giggles. However, the side comments did not stop Ms. B from continuing on with her message.

“The student we are here to talk about is not in the room. All of you know your classmate *Rose Marie. Today we are announcing that the name Rose Marie does not exist anymore. Rose Marie has discovered that she is a boy trapped inside of a girl’s body and he has chosen a new name. His new name is *Devon Henry.”

Silence.

I have never heard my 5th graders so quiet. In the span of three breaths no one made a sound as Ms. B let the announcement settle. Then she read the Human Dignity Creed again to the still group of young people.

What happened next will stick with me always as I start teaching in my own room. Ms. B explained what it means to be transgender, and that our friend Devon has been brave to come out to us. She opened the conversation up to the students, and elicited from them why they might think it was brave.

My 10 and 11 year old students blew me away with their knowledge of what it meant to be transgender in our country right now, and how dangerous it can be. A few of them even said that they had friends or family that were transgender and spoke about times they had witnessed their loved one bullied or ‘being hated on’. Ms. B then made room for questions. She gave out pieces of blank paper and pencils for students to write anonymous questions they had about what they just heard. After a few minutes the papers were collected and Ms. B read them aloud and answered each and every one with delicacy and care. One note in particular struck me: “What does it feel like to be transgender? I have wondered if I am transgender. What if I am? What would happen if I told anyone?” Without hesitating Ms. B said, “Then we would welcome you with open arms and give you all the support you need. The world is scary and dangerous, but this is a safe place.”

The students hung on every word, and every question. I could see that they were completely invested in this moment. After all the questions were read Ms. B discussed/elicited how to move forward after this. She explained what it meant to use proper pronouns, and how it’s ok if we slip up, but to correct ourselves when it happens. She asked the students what would be a helpful ways to interact with Devon, and what ways would not be helpful or could be overwhelming.

As students answered and gave suggestions to support him I found myself blinking back tears. They cared. They truly wanted their peer to feel comfortable and valued. Suddenly, I wasn’t looking at a room full of children, I was looking at the future. If more adult Americans spoke or acted the way my students did that day, our society would look completely different, for all kinds of people. I felt comforted knowing that these young humans were going to grow up, and hopefully be the change that we so desperately need.

After the announcement, students were excused to their seats for some literacy work before lunch. It was then that Devon came into the room. His teacher smiled, and said, “Welcome back Devon, we are glad to see you.” Devon walked to his usual seat, and on his desk his nameplate read “Devon Henry” in the same elegant handwriting that had read “Rose Marie” at the beginning of the year. With an exhale and a gentle smile on his face, he pulled out his notebook and got to work with the rest of his class.

The last weeks of the school year that followed I could see how high Devon held his head as he walked down the hall, and how genuine the laughter was as he and his friends played and talked. He could have waited until middle school, but he had wanted to start his transition in his elementary school. I think I understand why, and I hope the love his peers, teacher and counselor showed him goes with him to 6th grade in the fall.

The metamorphosis I witnessed one warm day in April, was not only about a single brave student, but also his community. Thanks to Ms. B, Devon’s teacher, and the love from the 5th graders, I saw a stunning transformation that will stay with me, and always remind me of what the right way to support a student through any kind of transition.

 

“All people are created equally and are worthy of respect.

We should live together in peace and harmony and love the world and everyone in it because differences make us special.

We are all the same in different ways, so we will treat others with dignity, kindness and respect– the way we would like to be treated.”

 

*all names have been changed to protect their privacy

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