…I learned in Kindergarten

Honourable mention; Canadian Gay & Lesbian Archives competition; August 2008

James showed me his penis. In line for gym, Teacher counting heads, James in the boys’ line, me in the girls’, but standing side by side. He pulled the waistband of his navy blue shorts, pulled the waistband of his Spiderman underwear, and showed me his penis. We were best friends, after all. It was a tiny beige nub, hardly bigger than his outie, but it was there. “I wish I were a boy,” I said.

Teacher overhears. She kneels down beside me, the class watching curiously. Porous, undomesticated sponges. “What was that, sweetie? You said you want to be a boy?” she asks in a cool, quiet voice, undistracted by the cluster of kids around us.

I nod, embarrassed and afraid of the sudden spotlight. I know that what I’m saying sounds strange but I’m unable to explain it any better than I already have. “I don’t feel like a girl,” I whisper. “I just wish I were a boy.”

Teacher stands, hand on my shoulder, looking down. “Well, there’s no reason you can’t be a boy. Maybe you should ask your mom and dad to get you a boys’ uniform, hm?”

She brushes the bangs out of my eyes and looks at me. “You’re already handsome, you’re lucky. And then when you get a little older, if it’s still what you want, doctors will help you with the rest, so don’t you worry.” A pat on my back guides me into the boys’ line, finishing her thought as she walks to the classroom door, my angel.

A snicker from the girls in line. Teacher intercepts. “It’s nothing to laugh about, this is serious. I won’t tolerate cruelty in my classroom. You treat him nice.”


We march down the hallway with our gym bags in hand, two rows in parallel single file, the gender line an empty space between us. I look across at the girls and I see them from that short distance, foreign and precious.

The waistband of James’ Spidey underwear is exposed as he walks ahead of me. I grab it and pull up, hard. A burst of laughter and surprise as James trips, grabbing at his pants.

I follow the line toward the boys’ bathroom. Teacher stops me at the door and takes me aside as the rest of the boys run by. “Are you sure you’re okay? You can change in the girls’ room if you’re more comfortable there, or in the staff bathroom.”
“I’m okay,” I tell her.

“Alright,” she answers quickly. Her fingers on my shoulder blades, pressing in. “You’ll be late, go, go, go.”

I go. The bathroom, nearly a mirror image of the girls’, is both familiar and exotic. Everything a little louder, a little stickier, a little smellier. “The toilet on the end doesn’t flush,” James says to me. “And if you use the urinals, you can talk but you can’t look.”

“What are urinals?” I ask.

“These,” James says, walking up to one. “You pee in them.” He pulls down the front of his shorts and positions himself before the porcelain wall. Holding the tip of his penis between his finger and thumb, he points it straight out while a jet of piss hits the urinal silently. “You can watch this time if you want, but not other times because it’s rude.”

“Okay,” I answer. “Can I try?”

“No, you don’t have a penis.” James says, shaking his penis and pulling up his pants. “You have a vagina. You have to sit to pee.”

I do sit to pee. He’s right.

Most of the other boys have already changed into their gym uniforms. James takes off his school shirt, I take off my blouse, both of us grabbing behind the neck and pulling over the head. We look identical, like twins.

“We’re playing soccer today,” I say. “We were supposed to play soccer last time but it rained, remember?” I watch James carefully Velcro-ing his shoes. “I’m glad I can change in here with you now instead of in the girls’ bathroom.”

“Me too,” James says. “What’s it like in the girls’ room?”

“It’s like this,” I answer. “But cleaner.”


On the soccer field, the memory of yesterday’s downpour lingers. The air smells like grass and fog. The cylinders of earth from the aeration holes in the field look like turds.

Coach blows his whistle to get our attention. “Now to warm up I want everybody to run around the field and come back to this spot on my mark! Ready?” The whistle blows and we start running.

Anna runs after me, her head bobbing as she stares at me a few seconds before speaking. “So if you’re a boy now,” she says, pausing for a breath, “does that mean you’re going to marry a girl?”

“I don’t know,” I tell her. “I guess so.”

“Who would you marry?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“If you had to marry a girl in the class, who would it be?”

“I don’t know,” I repeat, earnestly.

“But if you HAD to choose a girl in the class to marry, who would it be?”

“I don’t know, I guess… Sharon?”

Anna runs off. “He said he wants to marry Sharon!” she shouts. Squeals escape from the girls as they all stop running and huddle around Sharon. I wonder what they’re saying, and why it’s so secret.

James is running beside me. “You’re going to marry Sharon?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Maybe. Sharon’s nice to me.”

“Girls are weird.”



In the boys’ bathroom, I change back into my class uniform: navy blue skirt, white blouse, grey sweater, tights. Matthew, the fat kid, comes over to me. He has boobies. “Jeremy wants to know how come you wanna be a boy,” he says.

“I don’t know, I just do,” I say as I pull my still-buttoned blouse over my head. “Why can’t I be a boy if I want? Why do I have to be a girl if I don’t want to?”

Matthew never stands still. He shifts nervously from side to side on his short legs, like rocking. He sniffs and wipes one side of his nose on each sleeve before saying, “Jeremy says you can’t be a boy because you have a vagina and boys have a penis.”

I feel scared. I don’t even know what a vagina is, or whether or not I have one. “That’s not true,” I say. “Boys can have vaginas too.”

“No they can’t!” He whines.

James steps forward, leaning toward Matthew with one foot still in its Velcro shoe. “Yes they can!” He sticks out his tongue.

Matthew sticks out his tongue with a loud “HM!” and wanders back to where Jeremy is sitting on the floor, pulling on his socks, eyes up and alert.

A few other boys have stopped changing, watching us. Simon, the smallest one, comes up to me. “I think boys can have vaginas,” he says.

“Me too,” I say. But I don’t really know what it means.


At 3:15, while the kids are gathering their artwork, gym bags, and backpacks, Teacher asks me to stay behind a minute before going home. I slump into my chair and rest my head in my arms, folded tightly on the desk.

Beside me Teacher squeezes into James’ chair. His is blue, mine is green. Both are small. It takes her a while to get comfortable, but her fidgeting is muffled by the tennis balls popped onto the chair’s legs. All four balls are faded yellow, collecting dust bunnies and bugs.

“Hi sweetie, how are you doing?” she asks when she finally settles in.

“Okay,” I say. Unsure.

“You don’t look okay,” she says. She knows.

“Can boys have vaginas?” I ask without looking up.

I feel her hand rest on my head. Stroking my hair, adjusting, untangling. “Of course they can, sweetie.”

She sounds sure. Teachers know things.

I feel tired, comforted, longing.

“But Matthew and Jeremy said that I’m not a boy because I have a vagina and boys have a penis,” I tell her.

Her hand reaches up again and caresses my hair, floating over the goosebumps on my neck. The classroom is cold and smells clean and chemical.

Her finger finds a curl sticking up and she twirls it thoughtlessly, rhythmically. “Matthew and Jeremy don’t understand. They’re trying to figure it out just like you are, just like I am. Not understanding can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. What I do know is that some boys are born without a penis. That doesn’t mean they aren’t boys, does it? And some girls are born with a penis, and some boys are born with a vagina. The only way we really know who’s who and what’s what is by what’s up here.” She taps my head three times.

Then, awkwardly, she leans forward on her desk so that her face is resting across from mine. Her eyes are so close, I can see the green strings and the black ball in the middle of each one. “If you tell me you’re a boy, I’ll believe you,” she says, like a sleepy kid talking against her pillow.

“I feel like a boy,” I say. “But I know I’m not a real boy.”

“Real is only what we say is real,” she says. “And I say you’re every bit as real as any boy I know.” I see her back rise and fall as she breathes in and out, a sigh. “Listen sweetie, I’m a woman because I feel like a woman, not because I have a vagina. If someone took away my vagina, I would still feel like a woman and I would still be a woman. One has nothing to do with the other. Got it?”

“Uh-huh,” I say. I pause a moment. “What’s a vagina anyway? There’s nothing down there.”

She sits up. I watch her hand return to James’ desk, her ring grating slightly against the wood. I don’t think she hears the sound. “I’ll let your parents tell you about that. Have you told them yet that you’re a boy?”


“Are you going to tell them tonight? Would you like me to be there when you talk to them?”

“No, I’m okay.”

I can tell that she’s still looking at me. She starts talking again, her voice louder now, like she woke up. “You know you’re going to have to think about a new name. I don’t mind calling you Caitlin, but it’s a funny name for a boy, don’t you think?”

I smile and huff into my sleeve. “Yeah.”

“Is there a name you like?”

I can tell from her voice that we’re almost done talking. “I don’t know,” I say. “I haven’t thought about it.”

“Why don’t you ask your parents what they would have named you if you’d been born a boy? Maybe you’ll like the name.”

“I hope they would of named me Calvin,” I say.

“That’s a nice name,” she says. She hoists herself out of James’ chair and walks toward me. Her thumb turns white as it presses against the edge of my desk and her thick brown skirt fills my eyes. I hear movement and then feel her lips against my forehead. She kisses me. “Be good, Calvin. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Her finger grazes my elbow, like a spell pulling me out of my slump.

“Bye,” I say, lifting my backpack from the floor. I sense her watching me as I walk out of the room.


On the school bus my forehead rests against the window, my skin sticking to the glass, supporting my weight. The noise on the bus becomes thick and musical as I watch the passing trees blur together like paint. The bumps in the road knock my head and make my cheeks jiggle and itch.

I smile. A new uniform. A new name. I look forward to telling mom and dad all about it when I get home.


Except that isn’t how it happened, and that isn’t what I learned that day in Kindergarten.