People Over Pronouns

At the Minnesota Institute of Talented Youth (MITY), where I am lucky to teach Creative Writing each summer to brilliant 7th-12th graders, young people are celebrated for who they are. It is also a place to safely play around with who they are becoming. We intentionally ask students what name they want to be called and then proceed to call them that name without exception for the two weeks of class. Most students go by their given name without thinking twice. Some will cautiously try a new name in class, but revert to their given name in print or at our public reading. Others change their name every summer to silly things like Sparkles or Harley Davidson. Emma claimed 2D as her long-standing MITY name six years running, easily returning to Emma for the other 50 weeks of the year. At a time when young people are trying on new identities in the world, how cool that MITY is a place where your name, your journey will be honored and taken seriously.Screen-Shot-2015-05-15-at-1.53.44-PM

Names are sacred. Asking students what they want to be called and then respecting their answer did not go unnoticed by students or teachers. This simple practice at MITY has evolved in stunning ways.

For the first time this year, we had several students include their sexuality as part of their introduction: I am pansexual. I am bisexual. I am polyamorous. Whether coming from a place of certainty or experimentation, they were met with smiles not flinches, warmth not judgment.

For the fist time this year at MITY, we also had three of the twenty-five writing students include in their introductions that they went by the pronouns they/them. This was a first for me as a teacher. I must admit as a writer and editor, I notice every single time a sentence lacks pronoun agreement. I had to override a strong instinct in my brain to use a singular pronoun for a singular person. When writing about one of these three individuals, I had no trouble. I could not, however, slip into autopilot when speaking so I would not slip and use a gendered pronoun. It was good for me to choose my words carefully. The work of calling people what they want to be called is important, and it is worth it. Those three feeling safe, honored and heard is more important than pronoun agreement, which should go without saying.

They invited me to remember a student at another school whose given name was Catherine but asked to go by Mark. His parents asked the principal to enforce the name Catherine until Zee became a compromise, and eventually, mercifully, Mark was accepted as Mark. I thought of Dr. Jodock, a college professor who single-handedly changed my young faith by never once using a pronoun for God. The lack of pronoun made for some awkward, carefully crafted sentences. He never told us explicitly that he was doing this, but we noticed. And it mattered. It altered how I came to see and know God and myself. I am forever grateful.

To this day, I hear every time God is referred to as he. I hear every time a mixed-gender group is addressed as guys. And these three MITY students hear every time someone uses a gendered pronoun when referring to them. God is God and the group is folks became easy verbal habits for me as a teacher. So with a little intentionality, “Ladies and gentlemen” became “Ladies and gentlemen, theys and thems…” It was a small effort that made a difference in our learning community.

These three students challenged me to think about times, as a young person and now, when I have felt fragmented or gender neutral. Or like the rules of grammar couldn’t contain and explain me. I admired their courage and self-exploration. It started by calling the students by their chosen name. They then trusted us with their chosen pronouns. We all benefitted.