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Monthly Archives: October 2014

In southwestern Pennsylvania, Halloween takes place in fall. The leaves are turning a multitude of colors, falling off the trees. Houses get decked out with fake spider-webs, wailing ghosts, carved pumpkins, fake tombstones, bats, and other appropriately spooky décor. On Halloween night, sirens sound in the communities to signal the start of trick-or-treat. Children dressed in a variety of store-bought and homemade costumes descend on houses, ringing doorbells and crying “Trick or treat!”

In southwestern Alaska, Halloween may as well take place in the winter. Snow covers the ground, and the river that runs through Nunap is covered in ice. (In some places that ice is thick enough to walk on, but that’s another story.) What grasses are still visible dance in shades of brown and grey in the constant wind. There aren’t any decorations on the houses. Inside the school, however, is a different story. Posters in hall remind everyone of the Halloween assembly, and every classroom is decorated in some way. In my third-grade room, the decorations consist of foam bats made by my students that hang from the ceiling and window clings found in a storage cabinet. We do have three jack-o’-lanterns. The school ordered pumpkins for each classroom; two days before Halloween six of my students earned the reward of staying after school to help carve them.

The school actually celebrates Halloween on the 30th, at least this year. (Teachers have a two-day in-service on the 31st and 1st.) I spend the morning putting the finishing touches on the Halloween-themed lessons: Alphabetizing Halloween-related words, making lists of appropriate nouns, verbs, and adjectives to help the students write their own ghost stories, and writing a few Halloween word problems for math. Once the school doors open, kids start peeking in the door, eager to see my costume. I don’t know what’s funnier: Their greetings of “Hi Tintin!” or their astonishment that I’m clean-shaven for the first time since they met me.

The monthly Leadership Assembly is today, as well. Run by the high school Leadership Club, these assemblies included recognition of birthdays in the past month, accomplishments of the various sports teams, and one or two games, whose participants are chosen from the entire student body. Today’s iteration also includes a Halloween parade of all of the students who dressed up in costumes.

The instructional part of the day goes pretty well, although there are frequent interruptions as parents and guardians stop by with treats for the afternoon party. Finally, around two o’ clock, I tell the kids to put their school things away so that we can start the party.

It doesn’t matter where you go, classroom holiday parties are pretty much the same. The kids work on a Halloween word search and coloring page and watch “The Dark Crystal”. I call students up one at a time to take turns handing out the goodies donated by their families. At the same time, I’m keeping an eye on the card and board games some kids are playing at their desks. I also keep track of who passes things out. The kids who don’t have anything to share get to distribute the treats my parents sent up. Once that task is finally done, I set up a little face-painting station by my desk, and am immediately surrounded by the kids, clamoring for my attention. There’s enough time left to give a makeover to every kid who wants one before everyone pitches in to clean up. Finally, the garbage cans are overflowing and the kids are lined up, bouncing in place with the excitement of the afternoon. I let them enjoy the moment, since I don’t know how much Halloween they’ll have tomorrow. I’ve heard rumors of trick-or-treat, but who knows if they are truthful. Either way, I’ve already got some great memories of my first Tundra Halloween.

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Five years ago, I was just beginning to like who I am.

Five years ago, I was in my senior year of undergrad.

Five years ago, I was applying to grad school for education.

Five years ago, I was making good headway in breaking out of the introverted shell I occupied through most of high school and my freshman year of college.

Five years ago, I was the same height that I am now.

Five years ago, I weighed about 140-150 pounds. More of it was fat, and it was distributed in such a way that my body had a more feminine shape.

Five years ago, I wore binders and baggy clothes to hide that shape.

Five years ago, my voice was higher pitched.

Five years ago, I was perpetually smooth-shaven, and even more baby-faced than I am now.

Five years ago, I was finally taking steps to legally become Cee Jay.

Five years ago today, I got my first shot of testosterone.

Today, I use transdermal testosterone on a daily basis.

Today, I am legally Cee Jay.

Today, I sport a closely cropped beard. It makes me look a little older. Not much, but a little.

Today, my voice is significantly deeper.

Today, I no longer need to wear binders.

Today, I wear slimmer-cut clothes, because I am proud of my new physique.

Today, I weigh in at just shy of 135 pounds, more muscle than fat.

Today, I have numerous friends scattered around the country and even in other countries.

Today, I am a classroom teacher.

Today, I like the person that I am.

I wake up several times before the alarm goes off, hearing the wind bellowing past the house. The alarm clock is relatively new, one of those that lights up gradually to simulate sunrise. There is an audio alarm, too, but the light is usually enough to wake me up. I roll out of bed and shut off the clock as I head for the kitchen/dining area.

After breakfast and brushing my teeth, it’s time to get dressed. I strip out of my pajamas and consider my options. I need something warm; in the last week the average temperature has dropped quite a bit. I finally settle on wool socks, jeans, long-sleeve shirt, and fleece vest. Next, I bundle up for the walk to the school: Winter coat, knit hat, face mask, gloves, rain pants, hiking boots. The arctic entry of the house is noticeably colder than the main areas. I open the door and step into another world.

Wind hits me first, tugging at my clothes. I’m glad that I wore the rain pants. It’s not wet, but they act as a windbreak and keep my legs warm. Between the wind and the cold, I feel tears starting to form in my eyes. I should bow my head, but I can’t: The scenery is too amazing.

The full moon shines over the tundra, bright enough to block out the stars. The moonlight is so bright, I can actually see the colors of the buildings I pass by as I walk to the school. Yesterday, I took a picture with my phone and actually had lens flare. I can’t help but look all around as I walk, marveling at this new experience.

Fortunately, I reach the school before I get too cold. I strip off gloves and mask as I tramp down the hall to my room, shaking my head over the fact that it’s only October. This is going to be a heck of a year.

The last classroom I taught in was a middle-school science room in an inner-city school in a mid-Atlantic state. I had 120 students ranging in age from twelve to fourteen, plus a couple of fifteen-year-olds who had been held back for one reason or another. Each class met for forty minutes; six classes a day, plus my lunch and two prep periods. Twice a week, one of those preps was spent supervising the in-school suspension room. I also had to do hall duty every morning and between classes, and bus duty every afternoon.

Two and a half years later, I once again have a classroom. In almost every way, it’s the exact opposite of the one described above. Where I once stood in front of an inverted U of slate top lab tables and displayed information on an old overhead projector, I now move among groups of desks and chairs sized for smaller people and use a SMART board to teach my 18 third-graders in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. In addition to the classroom subjects, I’m also responsible for teaching PE to my kids twice a week and overseeing recess on a daily basis. Once a week, I have common planning with the two teachers who have combined fourth/fifth classrooms. Aside from that meeting and my daily half-hour lunch, I spend the entirety of each school day with my students.

I never really had to concern myself with my middle school students’ reading capabilities. Okay, that’s not quite true. I did need to make sure that they were able to read lab procedures and that they could write well enough to take adequate notes on the topics at hand. I did coach them in better note-taking techniques, and helped them fine-tune their math skills for performing necessary calculations. Overall, however, my focus was on science content.

In contrast, I spend the entirety of my current workday focusing on teaching, strengthening, and reinforcing basic reading and math skills. There are nationwide standards for what students should be able to do at the beginning and end of each grade level. None of my students meet the reading standards for the third grade, although a couple of them are within spitting distance. Their math skills are similarly low; we’ve spent the last seven weeks covering things that should have been learned by the end of second grade.

For the first month I taught, I wore a tie. I did this for a couple of reasons: One, to make a good impression at my first real teaching job; two, to set myself visually apart from the students, many of whom were my height or taller. Even after I stopped wearing the tie on a daily basis, I still wore a button-down, slacks, and dress shoes.

The middle school kids called me Mr. L, just like the kids in the classroom where I did my student teaching. Up here, my students call me Mr. CJ. I’m not the only one addressed as such; of the thirteen certified teachers and numerous other adults in the building, there are only two or three that are addressed by title and last name. Naming conventions aren’t the only things that are more casual here. Instead of the semi-professional clothes I wore back home, here I frequently wear nice jeans or khakis and a flannel shirt buttoned over a t-shirt. I did bring my old “teacher clothes” with me, but have since sent them back to my parents’ place for storage. Not only did I kind of stick out when wearing them but also the clothing items themselves weren’t rugged enough to survive conditions in the tundra. I also have serious doubts that those items would have been warm enough for the upcoming winter.

After a long day of teaching and lesson planning, I would drive twenty-five minutes to the house where I grew up. My parents had kindly allowed me to move back in during grad school, and had told me I was welcome to stay so long as I was substitute teaching. With the amount of work I was putting in to this long-term sub job, I was extremely grateful for the room, board, support, and company. On the weekends, I spent time working at the local natural history museum, visiting friends, going to the theatre, and doing more lesson planning.

The school day here lasts from 8:50 to 3:55. My day is usually a bit longer; I typically get to school somewhere around 6:30 and don’t leave until 5:30 or 6. I spend some of that time planning and preparing for classes. I do reserve a couple of hours for “me” time, though. With no Internet at my place, I can’t do things like check e-mail and Facebook, shop, or read fanfiction, so I make sure to leave time in my day to do that.

After a long day, my two-minute walk home is a welcome change from sitting in rush hour traffic. I live with Cole, a fellow teacher. I doubt we’ll ever be best of friends, but we get along well enough. When I taught in the city, I lived in a completely different neighborhood than the school I taught in, so I didn’t see my students once the school day was over. Here, that’s just not the case. I’m getting used to seeing my students when I walk around the village, whether it’s to the school, to the post office, or going for a run. There’s a basketball court between my place and the school, but other than that there’s no place specifically designated for the kids to gather. The younger kids can often be found clambering over the boardwalk railings or running through the occasional patch of relatively solid ground, looking for berries, insects, or other treasures. The older kids can frequently be seen huddled on the porch of the school or standing on a nearby section of boardwalk, using phones or tablets to access the Internet.

My weekends are spent doing more lesson planning and trying to unwind as much as possible. The size of the village makes getting away from school a bit difficult. There’s no movie theatre, and the only restaurant is really more of a carry-out place. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t spend time at any of the three churches. There is a gym of sorts; in the “old” school building, one room has been set up with a bunch of weight lifting equipment and a treadmill. I’m making a point of working out once or twice a week after school and both days on weekends. I’m also practicing trombone more frequently than I have since I left grad school, with the result that I’ve almost completely re-gained the range I had in college.

One night a week, I drove directly from school to an appointment with my therapist. My parents were supportive of my Transition, and my therapist was helping me work out a plan to get top surgery. He was also a great ear, willing to listen to me rant about how hard I was finding it to be stealth at work. Fortunately, since it was only at work, I could cope.

I have no therapist here. While I’ve said that I’m done hiding, the fact of the matter is that only one person I’ve met since I got here is actually aware of my past, and she lives in another village. I can talk with friends and family back home, but those conversations are limited to letters, phone calls, chats on Facebook, or discussions via Facetime or Skype. Each method is limited in ease of communication and privacy. The end result is that I still feel like part of me is trapped. Hopefully, that can one day change. Until then, I’ll just keep focusing on settling in to my new life.