He was such a handsome little boy in my preschool class. His eyes were large and brown, his hair full of perfect black curls. During playtime he’d be the first one to dig through the milk crate of dress-up costumes to pull out his favorite flowered dress and a strand of plastic pearls.
I watched quietly from the sidelines as he admired himself in all his frilly regalia, oblivious to the other boys playing police officer and fireman. Back then there were a few disapproving looks from some adults, mainly parents picking their little ones up early who saw him click-clacking around the classroom in heels three sizes too big with a long strand of pearls around his neck.
Those who frowned were oblivious to the facts, that one’s sexual orientation is certainly not determined by what a five-year-old chooses to dress up in. It is innate, who that person already is inside. He was just a little boy doing what comes naturally to all children, which is to explore when given an environment without constraints.
Many years later, I often think of him when conversations about gender stereotypes become a hot topic at dinner conversations or in the news. Although there is a call to be more accepting and inclusive, there are still those who are adamant about what little girls and little boys should and shouldn’t do.
I often wonder as a former teacher if there was more I could have said or done as I watched this little boy play in his favorite floral dress to reassure him it was okay to be different, to choose something other than the norm.
I wish I had told his mother at the end of his busy day not just that he wrote all of his letters or about the details in the drawing of his family he made, but also how tenderly he rocked a baby doll. I wish I had handed her a Polaroid photo of his wide smile in that flowered dress and let her know her precious child was just as precious to me in case she was wrestling with the biases of others.
So if you are the preschool teacher teaching that little boy, this is an open letter to you.
Dear Preschool Teacher,
I hope you smile and give the little boy in your class who likes to dress up in dresses extra special compliments, even if it’s about how he pours a pretend cup of tea for you to sip so perfectly. Let him know that his type of creative play is just as valued as the little boy (or girl) who chooses to dress up in a police or fireman uniform.
I hope you think of him as a budding flower in bloom and nurture him with empowering words that will help him be confident in whatever journey he sets out on. People may view him differently than other boys and he'll need those words to anchor him. Trust me when I say he will remember them when he grows up and thinks of you.
I hope you keep your eyes and ears open for the negative comments of other adults or children and shield this child. Be his keeper. Challenge others to think differently.
I hope you embrace the parents of this child. Mind your words and your tone when you speak to them because they may already be overly sensitive having to battle the gender biases of family members, friends, neighbors, or perfect strangers and need someone in their corner.
I hope you have a bushel of books that are inclusive and representative of people in non-traditional gender roles. Barriers need to be broken down and what better place to start than with a great picture book for young children.
I hope every month or so you get out your magnifying glass and go through your classroom to see if there's something you've missed, or something you need to change so that every child feels he is free to be who he or she wants to be in your learning space.
Every day is a chance for you to help a child’s heart sing, to bolster the child who may one day have fingers pointed at him or her for being different, and to teach tolerance and acceptance.
I put my faith in you as a teacher. You rise to meet so many challenges when you walk into that classroom. I know you can do this, and I thank you in advance.