School Ooops

For obvious reasons (“Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”), I’m teaching the Gunpowder Plot in my classes this week. And by some odd synchronicity, Chancellor Merkel as well as some other European governments are experiencing a gunpowder plot of their own.

Back to the historical Gunpowder Plot, the thing that fascinates the students most and will likely be the only fact they remember in a year’s time is the gruesome fate of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. The text I’m using (not mine, but decent text found elsewhere) glosses over the fate of the conspirators. I usually say, “Well, that’s not quite how it happened, the truth was worse…”, and always get pressed for details. One kid even lamented the fact that video cameras had not yet invented in 1606.

Blood and guts and drama. Works every time.

My troublesome class managed to be relatively untroublesome, but I made a terribly embarrassing mistake today. Some ten minutes before the end of the class, there was a knock on the classroom door. I open the door and there’s a mother with a child in tow outside. She’s looking for another teacher, the mother says, because they have an appointment. The kid just stands there a few meters away, desperately wishing to be somewhere else.

“Ms. M. was here a while ago to get something from the classroom cupboard”, I say, “But she left and we have class until half past three. Why don’t you try the teacher break room in the administrative tract? She’d probably there and if not, someone can tell you where she is.” Because the school building can be confusing for outsiders, I add, “Your son will know where it is.”

Behind me, my class begins to laugh out loud. I close the door, turn around and ask, “What’s so funny?”

“Daughter”, one of the boys says, “That’s a girl.”


You see, I had never given the kid more than a glance. Schools are full of kids and as a teacher you don’t really pay attention unless the kids in question are either your students or in the process of causing trouble, killing each other, making someone cry or making out, i.e. situations that require intervention. But if there is no need for intervention, kids just become part of the background landscape.

The kid in question was obviously not causing trouble, after all the mother was there. The kid had short hair and was wearing jeans, sneakers, a thick dark jacket and a blue scarf. The fleeting glance I gave the kid said “boy, looks a bit short to be in grade 8” to me.

This is actually not the first time I’ve mistaken a kid for the other gender. Appearance, including gender characteristics, is pretty fluid at that age*. At the beginning of this school year, there was a boy I took for a girl until he said his name. And last school year, there were two students – none of mine – who were caught in the throws of teenaged passion and could always be seen kissing in a corner somewhere. The first time I spotted those kids, I thought, “Wow, two boys kissing in public. How lovely!” Upon closer examination (kissing kids get a closer look to make sure that both parties are consenting and that they aren’t doing more than kissing), it turned out that the shorter of the two “boys” was actually a girl.

So yeah, mistakes happen. But this was the first time, the kid in question actually noticed it. Crap. I was mistaken for a boy myself when I was five and I hated it. That’s also why I started letting my hair grow. And the last thing I wanted was accidentally do that to another kid. I wish I’d have used the gender neutral “your child” rather than “your son”, but knowing how kids that age resent being called “children” I didn’t.

After class, I went down to the administrative tract, spotted mother and daughter sitting there, waiting for Ms. M., and apologized to the daughter. The kid seemed to be okay with it, but the mother was pissed off. “Girls have short hair, too” and so on. Probably another long hair hater (though she had longer hair herself and was wearing a wedding ring). Parents always get annoyed if you get the gender of their kid wrong, even if the kid is a baby in diapers and there’s really no way of telling.

Looks like the girl had been getting some crap from classmates (I know some of the classmates and there are definitely bullies in that class) and the mother was worried about the laughing boys. I gave the girl a bit of a prep talk, “Those boys are stupid and if they give you crap, you give it right back at them”, and told her that her hairstyle suited her very well and that she looked very pretty.

Though to be honest, the kid was very gender ambiguous, even close-up. The voice gave it away, but since she didn’t speak in the initial encounter, that didn’t help much.

*I always tell kids who try to bully classmates about weight, size or any other body-related reasons, “What you or your classmates look like now is not what you’ll look like in two or five let alone ten years. The plump ones will get slim, the slim ones will get plump, the short ones will have a growth spurt, the tall ones will stop growing and be overtaken by others.”

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