A couple of nights ago at dinner, Kris was telling us about a book she’d just finished: My Squirrel Days, a collection of personal essays written by actor Ellie Kemper from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. At one point, Kris explained, Kemper envisions herself on her death bed surrounded by her future children and grandchildren. One of her granddaughters is named Cabinet, Kemper writes, and the other Morph, short for Metamorphosis, because “popular girl names don’t get any less weird in the future.”
“Cabinet?” Sydney echoed.
“Metamorphosis?” Alex repeated, her eyes narrowing doubtfully.
I mean, really, how do you explain a concept like metamorphosis to elementary schoolchildren?
Ellie, however, wasn’t hung up on words she didn’t recognize. “I’m not named after anything,” she announced.
We all looked at her, because the story of how she got her name is a family favorite that involves one parent gleefully recognizing the similarity between “Elowyn” and the name of a character from Lord of the Rings (me), and the other parent fortunately not clueing in until after Ellie had been named (Kris).
“Yes, you are,” several of the dinner table’s occupants said in unison.
“I know that,” she said. “I’m named after a tree. An Elm tree.”
“In what language?” I asked, curious to see if she knew the answer.
“Welsh,” she said confidently.
“If someone asked you where your name comes from, would you know?” I asked, continuing with the ever-popular Socratic parenting method.
“It’s from Wales,” I told her. “People in Wales speak Welsh.”
“They speak it in Wales?” Ellie repeated, half-smiling like she suspected we were trying to pull a fast one on her.
“Yes,” Kris confirmed.
“Really, people in Wales?” Ellie insisted, her eyes comically wide.
“Yes, really.” I frowned, trying to parse her expression. “Wales is a country in Britain, near England.”
Her face cleared. “Oh. I didn’t know that.”
And all at once, I realized: “You thought I meant people inside whales, the animal, didn’t you?”
She nodded, her smile now more mischievous than confused. “I totally did.”
“So did I,” Alex chimed in, while Sydney nodded beside her, mouth too full of angel hair pasta to speak.
Turns out that when I said people in Wales speak Welsh, my children pictured this:
Thanks a lot, Disney Pixar.
Actually, that’s what the twins pictured. Alex, our eight-year-old, wants me to tell you that while she momentarily imagined a whale with humans in its belly, she then moved on to envision a seaside village with whales roaming the shoreline. So there’s that.
Scenes like this one happen all the time in our household. But and Butt are of course favorite sound-alikes (of our children, not of their moms), as are new and gnu, which Kris and I actually pronounce the way it ought to be with a hard “g” up front, obviously. I’m amazed by how many homophones—as opposed to homophobes—are animal names: fowl and foul; hare and hair; lynx and links; mussel and muscle; moose and mousse. The poor kids. They never know if we’re talking about bodies or shellfish, baseball or ducks.
Maybe that’s why they call Kris’s hair product “mousse hair.” Clearly, they think she’s using the hair of the moose.
Then again, they probably don’t know the meaning of most of the words above. At least, not the twins. Three-quarters of the way through kindergarten, they’re starting to read Level One books to us with minimal assistance. Before long they’ll be reading chapter books like Alex does, devouring them so intently that they don’t even hear us when we’re talking to them. Like mothers, like daughters.
Unfortunately, teaching kids new words isn’t always such a fun experience, as any member of a much-maligned minority knows. A few months ago, the girls and I were using the restroom at a convenience store when a less amusing conversation took place. The restroom key had been attached to a giant metal serving spoon so that it couldn’t be misplaced, which the girls thought was hilarious.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling as they giggled, “I guess it is kind of weird.”
“If it’s weird,” Alex helpfully supplied, “then you could call it queer.”
I, a genderqueer lesbian, paused in washing my hands and stared into the innocent eyes of my second grader. “Excuse me?”
She blinked, looking less certain as she took in my expression, which no doubt reflected the creeping horror I felt. “Um, I said you could call it queer?”
I took a calming breath as I dried my hands. “And where did you learn that queer is a synonym for weird?”
“From my teacher.”
Another deep breath, because, really? “Why was your teacher talking about the word queer?”
“It was in a book. She was reading to us from The Boxcar Children.”
I have since learned that chapter six of the original Boxcar Children novel (published in 1924) is titled “A Queer Noise in the Night.” To be fair, weird is indeed a synonym for queer, according to Merriam Webster, my go-to source for most word-related questions. In addition to “worthless, counterfeit, questionable, suspicious, differing from what is usual and normal,” and “not quite well,” Merriam Webster’s definition of the word queer also includes this:
Other synonyms in MW’s thesaurus entry include the following: bizarre, outlandish, crazy, kooky, peculiar, odd, and wacky. The first words MW lists as related to queer? Aberrant and abnormal.
“Your teacher isn’t wrong,” I told Alex, crouching down to her level. “But ‘queer’ has more than one meaning. Have you heard me use it to talk about myself and our family?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding.
“I think I’ve also mentioned before that ‘queer’ is a word that some people call gay people in order to be mean and hateful, right?”
She nodded again, and so did the twins.
“The reason gay people use it about ourselves is so that we can reclaim it and make it not as hurtful. I know that probably sounds confusing—” (because let’s face it, I’m 47 and I still can’t entirely wrap my brain around that logic)—“but that’s how the word is used now. Did your teacher mention any of that?”
“No,” Alex said.
“Okay. I just want to make sure you know that your teacher didn’t mean that I’m weird, or that our family is weird.”
“I’m sorry, Mimi,” she said, looking down. “I’m really sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. No one did anything wrong.” Well, except her teacher. I stood up and gave her a hug. “I’m glad we talked about it. You’re still learning lots of new words, and you will be for a long time. I still learn new words regularly too.”
All three kids looked up at me in disbelief. “You do?”
“Yeah. Like, I recently learned that ‘fizzle’ is another word for fart.”
Mission accomplished—all three kids immediately cracked up. Even Alex, who is so quick to tell us she’s sorry, to take on blame, to worry she has somehow disappointed someone somewhere. Kris says she was like that when she was younger, too. Like mother, like daughter.
Kris was just as horrified when I relayed this conversation to her. So was G, my wonderful sister-in-law, and many other friends. A queer Smith alum on Facebook encouraged Kris and me to talk to the teacher, so we did at the very end of our next teacher’s conference. I’d barely gotten out the well-rehearsed sentence, “We’re worried that our daughter may have received the message in your classroom that our family is somehow weird” before the teacher was speaking over me to assure us that she isn’t homophobic and that she has family members who identify as queer.
She didn’t apologize, and she didn’t respond to my suggestion that there might be a use for an inclusive curriculum at the elementary school level to help teachers navigate these kinds of issues. Instead, she flipped the script and asked in a disbelieving tone if we’d actually experienced any homophobia in our school or district. Kris and I floundered, of course, and so did the conversation. We left soon after, legitimately surprised by the reaction we’d received from a lovely woman who had been nothing but welcoming to us and who had a rainbow flag displayed prominently on her desk.
To be clear, Alex adores her teacher and has flourished in her classroom this year. Other than this single incident, Kris and I have really liked and appreciated her, too. Still, in this case, she definitely missed a teaching moment. The Boxcar Children may have been written at a time when queer commonly meant something else (although good ole Merriam Webster assures us that the pejorative use of the word began in 1894, well before the novel was written), but that doesn’t mean the term’s derogatory meaning can be glossed over in a contemporary classroom where at least one student has queer family members. Alex’s teacher absolutely had a responsibility to explain to our daughter and her classmates that they and others shouldn’t use the word queer now because it’s an offensive, disparaging term intended to hurt a minority group. But that would have required her to engage in a classroom conversation about LGBTQ+ people, a conversation our school district has roundly refused to have at the elementary level.
Since Alex entered school two and a half years ago, I’ve written letters and attended school board meetings where I’ve advocated for an inclusive, intersectional elementary curriculum that teaches tolerance and respect toward people of different races, ethnicities, and religions as well as gender identities and sexual orientations. I’ve argued to anyone who would listen (and several who wouldn’t) that HRC’s Welcoming Schools program is well-suited to a district like ours, where there is inclusive programming at the middle schools and high schools but nothing at the lower levels. The Welcoming Schools program actually has a web page that would have helped Alex’s teacher navigate The Boxcar Children incident in a more inclusive way. “Defining LGBTQ Words for Children” recommends sharing the following definition for the word queer: “People use this word as a way to identify with and celebrate people of all gender identities and all the ways people love each other. When used in a mean way, it is a word that hurts.”
In fact, Washington State mandates an LGBTQ-inclusive elementary school curriculum. But most districts pick and choose which state requirements to fulfill because, as more than one administrator has explained to me, there are so many mandated by the state that it’s impossible to meet them all. I’ve also been told by these same administrators that the pushback from the Christian members of our local community would be difficult to overcome if the district were to institute an elementary curriculum that presents LGBTQ people and relationships in a positive light.
I don’t doubt that both of these statements are true. However, I also don’t accept either as a legitimate reason to not include anti-bias instruction at the elementary level, which is why I intend to keep trying to push our district toward inclusion.
In the meantime, here’s a lesson for any educators out there to keep in mind: Please don’t use the word queer in class if you’re not prepared to explain its meaning and usage adequately. Chances are most of the kids in your class have already heard the term being used in a disparaging way. Even if they haven’t, odds are that at least one child in your class is related to an actual queer person—or might one day realize they are LGBTQ+ themselves.
Assuming they haven’t already.
Author Announcement: Some of you may have noticed that I’ve added a new page to my blog called My Patreon. As the page explains, a reader suggested I start a creator account on Patreon to crowdfund support for a series I’m planning called Queering the Canon. Please have a read if you’d like to contribute. My lowest tier is $1 per month, and any and all contributions are very much appreciated!