I have spent my whole life working with books and humans. I worked as a children’s bookseller, a children’s librarian, in a high school library, in a public library, but never, until now, in an elementary school. I knew it would be a bit of an adjustment for me—teenagers are really my people (they understand sarcasm and banter, my favorite ways to communicate). To my surprise, working with littles all day has been fine. They amuse me.
The hardest thing, also to my surprise, is listening to teachers say “boys and girls” all day long. Boys and girls, form two lines (one boys, one girls). Boys and girls, listen up. Boys and girls, go over here. Boys and girls, walking feet. And on and on. I believe that gender is a spectrum, not a binary. I believe we always need to be mindful of our audiences, which surely includes trans and nonbinary kids—kids who may not easily and happily jump into a boy line or a girl line. I also think an incessant emphasis on gender, as a label and a way to sort people, is not necessary and is damaging. If we are working toward more inclusive spaces and truly making all kids feel welcome and supported, we need to move toward gender-neutral (or gender-inclusive, or gender-free?) language. Form two lines, but who cares what kid gets in each line. Find other ways to refer to groups of children—kids, kiddos, Mrs. Whoever’s class, etc.
I’m pretty sure most people say “boys and girls” without any thought to it. I doubt most people are thinking, “I am going to reinforce differences and a rigid gender binary” when they say it. I doubt they are consciously excluding trans and nonbinary kids or trying to make them uncomfortable. People just aren’t thinking about any of that. But I wish they would. I’m not criticizing people who say this—not really. It’s an easy phrase that feels like a catch-all. It’s something that has been said forever. But it’s not a catch-all, not at all. And to create a truly inclusive space, it’s time for us to move on from “boys and girls” and challenge ourselves to figure out new language that better represents the accepting and supportive spaces schools should be.