About 9 months after my surgery, in my new job as Program Director for a public school with 130+ middle school students, I stumbled across a young student couple, crossing the lines of propriety in an alcove that had been prepared to accommodate quiet, independent work. It was early in the first year of my new position, I had replaced a beloved young humanities teacher, I was still sussing out norms and relationships, and I decided just to ask them to move along.

The young woman of the pair (let’s call her “Jo”) fired back at me: “What’s the matter Chris? Are you afraid we’re going to see your penis?” That stung, but I didn’t analyze it. She was an attractive, intelligent, and charismatic 14 year old, growing accustomed to the combined power of her beauty, her voluptuous, early maturity, and her quick (and remorseless) wit. Kindness was not one of her defining virtues at that point in her social development. I figured she was just being angry and defensive. I repeated my request that they leave the alcove and turned away biting my tongue for fear of saying something I’d later regret.

The next day, when we were both “mood regulated,” I invited Jo to talk with me privately. I wanted her to hear from me in no uncertain terms: that what she had said was disrespectful and unacceptable in this community. She was better than that, I was sure.

But I also wanted her to understand why I had no intention of designing a “logical” consequence. I told her I knew without any doubt that she would wake up one day, remember the incident, and feel mortified at how she had spoken to me. In my mind, that inevitability was consequence enough.

I invited her to come back and apologize whenever that time came. She laughed wickedly (apparently feeling she’d dodged a bullet) and went on to maintain a subtle tone of mockery toward me for the rest of the school year. Her family moved to another state that June.

Though Jo’s behavior was, of course, indefensible, I was not willing to channel my personal embarrassment and shame into an overly dramatic response.

First of all, the young lady was living a high stress life, working a variety of small jobs and helping to raise a new baby sister in a truly broken home, while at the same time beginning to experience the strong pull of her own sexuality.

Secondly, I had come in just a few weeks prior, and shown up in the stead of one of her favorite teachers.

Thirdly, adolescents don’t handle confusion gracefully – especially gender confusion. (One clearly gender ambivalent young person for whom I deliberately tried to create a sense of safety and acceptance also lashed out at me angrily from time to time that year. It didn’t serve anyone for me to take these outbursts personally. In my mind, it was important simply to create a culture that was gentle and nurturing for young people through their difficult passages. “She” eventually became “he,” and has over time arrived at a true state of grace through the difficult embrace of his truth.)

I understand now, though, what Jo was saying when she snapped at me from within the alcove. These kids were young adolescents in the midst of establishing their gender identities, looking to adults of all sorts for models of how to present themselves to the world. She was saying exactly what was, in one way or another, on everybody else’s mind, as well: “You have no breasts. We don’t know what to make of you. We can’t tell what category of human you are or are trying to be.”

In essence, they were wondering, “Are you a girl, or a boy? Or are you in transition, and if so, which way are you going? We don’t know how to read your signals.”

That confusion worked against me down the road, and I have wondered more than once whether the Nordstrom’s coupon would have bought me a more trusting audience.

POSTSCRIPT: “Jo” showed up in the car line at school, about 3 years later, riding in the passenger seat alongside a high school friend who was picking up her little sister. Jo got out of the car, greeted me brightly – with affection that she’d never shown while she was my student – and gave me a hug.

I took that to be her apology.