Sister Elizabeth – a stout, formidable-looking, grey-haired seventyish school director, and I – a skinny, fortyish clinical social worker – stood motionless, staring silently at this outrageous, unheard-of bit of defiance.
The year was 1970. New to town, I had just taken the only social work position open, in a school that specialized in dealing with learning disabilities. My specialties were adult psychotherapy, couples counseling and sexual issues; this would be my first experience with school social work. It would be my first experience even knowing, much less working with, a Catholic nun. It was Sister Elizabeth’s first experience with such irreverence. And none of us had any way to anticipate the first experience awaiting us. None of us! Not just the two of us – the whole school, staff and student alike, including the young rebel herself.
I knew she was waiting for me to say something wise, knowledgeable; I had no idea what to say. I have no idea what I eventually did say. Probably something profound like “Oh, my!” Or maybe, once I got my act together, a brilliant “Tell me about it.”
But there wasn’t really that much to tell. Despite her demure French name, Danielle, the child was a twelve-year-old tomboy who constantly rebelled against the school’s dress code and every other rule. She didn’t do her homework. She got poor grades even allowing for her disability. She sassed the teachers and was prone to hitting the other children.
But except for the blackboard words, she didn’t sound too different from other acting-out problem children. Sister Elizabeth expressed relief when I assured her that I could and would talk with Danielle, her mother, and her teachers; do a diagnostic evaluation; make a treatment plan; and – upon her approval – follow through with it.
The child who sat at my desk the next day wearing the forbidden jeans was stocky but nice looking (“nice”: neither pretty nor homely). Her grievances? The school was stupid. She had no friends, the other kids picked on her – she was just defending herself. They were all stupid. The rules were stupid. The dress code was stupid. The teachers were stupid and Sister Elizabeth was especially stupid! She hated them all! And now, of course, she would have to face her mother who was not stupid, but who would be mad at her and give her a hard time.
I empathized with her feelings, asked how I could help her get through this hateful but required situation, and plotted strategy with her (including helping her with Mama). She had come into my office like a sullen, defiant lion. When she went out, while she was far from looking like a lamb, she had shed a few tears, we seemed to have achieved some rapport, and we’d made a behavioral contract.
I’d pointed out that while she had the right to defend herself, the way she was going about it only brought her more hurt. We needed to help her find better solutions. She’d agreed to come to see me weekly – not as a punishment, but to have someone in her corner, with whom she could talk (over a board game), who would try to understand and help. When I saw her mother, who seemed truly concerned both for and about her daughter, the three of us agreed on a reward of going to McDonald’s whenever Danielle got through a week without being sent home for hitting someone.
It was clear that the teachers did not like Danielle. They thought I was being far too easy on her. But the plan seemed to work. Fights occurred less often; both scheduled office sessions and “sent home” visits decreased. When I went on summer vacation, Sister Elizabeth and the teachers seemed satisfied with the progress. Danielle and her mother seemed happy. All seemed well.
Or so we all thought. We were all wrong.
When I returned, Danielle had been expelled from summer school. There had been only one incident, but it had been a bad one: Danielle had thrown a chair. At someone? Well, no – she’d just knocked it over. But it was still inexcusable; Sister Elizabeth was fed up! Last week she’d sent a letter to Danielle’s mother saying that Danielle was not to return in the fall. No meeting, no discussion – Danielle was OUT!
Now I was angry. True, that had been violent behavior. But Danielle had been trying really hard and was doing well. I might possibly have agreed with Sister Elizabeth, but she could at least have waited a week to discuss it with me. She agreed, reluctantly, to let me meet with Danielle and her mother before making a final decision.
Danielle’s mother was beside herself. Divorced, she had to work. Special Ed programs had not yet arrived on the scene, there was no other appropriate school, and Danielle herself was upset. The reason for Danielle’s anger was unimportant. I was willing to go to bat for her, I said, but she simply could not behave this way. I did not want to give punishments. What reward would be good enough to make her (or any of us) believe that she could (would) keep a promise to control herself? I told her to think hard about it, because if she hit anyone again, there would be nothing I could do.
She thought. And thought … and thought some more. Then, in a low voice barely above a whisper, she said, “Let me be a boy.” Huh? Did she mean “forget the dress code”? She was wearing jeans and clodhopper boots at the time. “No,” she said “I don’t mean dress like a boy, I mean be a boy. Because that’s what I am!”
Once again, I fail to remember my immediate response. But by the time I’d finished talking with her and her mother, I was convinced: she was transsexual. [The term has now been changed to transgender.] She said – and her mother confirmed – that she had known she was a boy since she was three years old.
At that time, transsexuality had barely surfaced. I knew of only two people reporting it. I only knew about it (or knew any of “them”) because as members of AASECT [American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists], my husband Harvey and I had heard of the research and had met the one person attracting national attention at the time. Also, we were friends of one of the researchers, and some of Harvey’s students in the Graduate School of Social Work were conducting their own research.
I discussed with Danielle and her mother the problems she would face. If she thought she was being picked on now, it would become 100 times worse. She might get ridiculed, bullied, beaten up – and though it would be unfair, she could not hit back.
Her only recourse would be to come vent – with me. She couldn’t wait until she’d lost control or even wait until she was getting close; she’d have to recognize the very beginning feelings and ask for a time out – with me. She herself would be responsible for that – nobody else would know how she was feeling. I’d ask the teachers to try to help, but she herself would have to let them know. Could she do that? It took being a very smart adult, and she was only twelve years old. If she even threatened someone or knocked something over, she’d get sent home. She agreed to all of it. Mama agreed to take her to McDonald’s every night, since this contract would be far tougher to keep than the previous one had been.
Also, she’d have to tell the other kids what she wanted to do. I’d already started an experimental “Problem Solving Class” helping the children to acknowledge the reasons they were in a special school, share feelings, help each other with problems, acquire social skills, judgment – (and even a bit of informal education). It was working well – I was excited about it. I wasn’t so sure the children would be willing to help with this sort of problem, but it was obviously the place for Danielle to start. And she’d need a new name. What did she want to be called? She was to tell me at our next session.
But before anything else could be done, I needed to get permission from Danielle’s psychiatrist. I hadn’t known that she even had one, although she only saw him once a month for medication. An appointment was made, but I was nervous: I was relatively sure of my grounds, but what if he disagreed? At that point, not many psychiatrists knew much about transsexualism. Would he think I was crazy?
After reporting the behavioral problems we’d faced, I told him about Danielle’s request and my plan. He agreed, but added that I’d have to reassure Sister Elizabeth that Danielle would not start coming on to the other boys. I said I thought she was transsexual, not homosexual – and then I held my breath. His response? “Thank God! I didn’t think anyone else would know what that meant, so I never dared tell them.” I breathed a sigh of relief. When I said that I’d be willing to deal with the school about it, he breathed his own sigh of relief.
Okay – everything was set: but how was I going to tell Sister Elizabeth? She listened intently as I talked, then sat silently for several minutes that seemed like several hours, while my breath took another long vacation. But finally she said, “Well, okay, if you’re willing to take responsibility for her and if you’re willing to be the one to tell and deal with the teachers.”
OKAY! Two down, two to go. Telling the teachers, however, did not go so smoothly. They were, to put it mildly, incensed! But they finally agreed to a contract: I’d be responsible for Danielle if they’d be responsible for sending her to me the minute they saw her stress/anger level begin to rise. I would not be responsible or punish her if they saw it coming and did nothing. In return, I promised to see her the minute they sent her, no matter what I was doing.
NOW: telling the class. Danielle and I spent several sessions role-playing, until she seemed able to respond well even to nastiness. She had chosen her name, Danny. It was a good, sensible name. There was only one thing wrong with it. This was a new year and I’d not yet met a new boy in the Problem Solving Class. His name? Of course: Danny. He was not happy!
Nevertheless, things went remarkably well. The children made a few jokes, protested, asked questions, essentially ignored Danny’s disgruntlement, demanded to know if Danielle would play football – and when told she would, settled down and grudgingly agreed to help her learn the art of being a boy. They agreed that Danielle would henceforth be known as Danny (the other Danny would become Dan), and Danny promised to not have a tantrum if they forgot at first. Bathroom arrangements were made: Danny would use the stall in the boys’ bathroom, and they agreed they would not “look” at each other.
Whew! Final hurdle met. But hardly a day went by that Danny didn’t spend time cooling off in my office. When football practice started, he learned that being a tomboy had not prepared him for any kind of tackling, much less the extra pummeling he was given. And within a few weeks, there were few days in which I did not have a teacher in my office after school, angrily questioning my judgment, distressed at how cruelly Danny was being treated, even though he was handling it surprisingly well.
Bit by bit, the harassment, the cooling off sessions, the teachers’ stress (and my own) eased off. Instead of complaints about Danielle, I began to hear murmurs of sympathy and admiration from Danny’s teachers.
Months passed. I also saw Danny’s mother on a regular basis, and she became part of the team helping Danny to hold his ground while also holding his temper. The daily rewards of McDonald’s were gradually reduced to rewarding a week without needing a time out with me.
We also discussed the possibility of sex change surgery. Although Danny had not yet menstruated, we both worried about the problems that puberty would soon bring. I brought it up with the psychiatrist – and he ruled it out. Danny was too young, they did not know how hormonal changes would affect him. Also, the rule of the day was that only adults got such surgery – and even then, only after having lived as the new gender for a year as proof that they could handle it.
I felt that nothing could be harder to cope with emotionally than a female pubescence. But with both hormonal and possible medical problems to be considered and no medical degree, I could hardly argue my case. The only thing I could do, then, when Danny’s mother informed me that they would be moving to another state shortly before the school year ended, was to assist her in helping a new school accept a Danielle named Danny.
As the school year progressed, so did Danny and his class. Although I continued to see him weekly, months went by without a send-home; weeks went by without a preventive cooling off period. One day, the teachers informed me that in his real class, when he’d been sick at home, the children had planned a surprise party for Danny on his last day of school.
That week the air was festive. The children had made a cake and bought presents. They had designated someone to make a speech apologizing to Danny for the hazing they’d given him, telling him that he’d been a good sport, and they both liked and respected him. When the day came, we all (including Sister Elizabeth and Danny’s mother) were excited. And so was Danny, who knew there would be a party, but who had no idea just how special it would be.
And suddenly – disaster!
Danny was brought to my office in tears: Someone had lightly teased him and he’d overreacted. When taunted with “We were gonna give you a party, but now maybe we won’t do it,” he’d responded with “I don’t care, I wasn’t gonna go to your stupid old party anyhow.” And then he’d hit the boy.
The teacher begged me not to send Danny home: Let him come back in an hour – it was the first time he’d hit anyone all year. And for the rest of the day, I had teachers coming to me in tears: he’d gone through so much, tried so hard … how could I be so mean? So hard hearted. So cruel. The teachers who had once hated Danielle and were annoyed with me for being too soft, now loved Danny and hated me for being too hard. And I hated myself!
But a contract was a contract. I knew that if I relented at his first test of our agreement, Danny would suffer for it in the future. So I empathized. I consoled. I let him cry in my arms. I told him what his classmates and teachers had said and what they’d been planning. I added my own praise for his courage and effort, told him I’d miss him, and gave him his presents and his piece of cake. I’d told his mother to sympathize, not scold. But I made her promise to not take him to McDonald’s. When she came to get him, I repeated what I’d told Danny, wished them both luck, and then, with Danny clutching a soggy piece of cake wrapped in a tear stained napkin, I sent him home.
That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my career. But several weeks later, Danny’s mother called me. The new school administrators had responded well to a letter I’d written, accepting the idea, dress and behavior of a transsexual child. Yet they’d insisted on the name “Danielle” and the pronoun “she.” While we were both dismayed at that, Danny had learned to handle his anger, was taking it in stride and doing well. Soon I received a note from him, saying he missed our “board game talks” and that this was the first letter he’d ever sent anyone.
Several years later, a young man and an older woman (yes, Danny and his mother) rushed up to me in the supermarket. I no longer worked at the school. Just visiting, not knowing how to reach me but knowing the neighborhood, they’d decided to scout the mall. Amazingly, they’d found me. They wanted me to know that Danny had received hormone treatments and was about to get his surgery.
Many more years have now passed. I’m sure Sister Elizabeth has long since died. I hope I told her how much I respected her willingness to allow what I’m sure went against every fiber of her being. In those days, it was truly a compassionate, brave thing to do.
I wish I could tell Danny how my heart had ached for him that last day; he had so deserved reward instead of punishment. I can only hope that his success at the new school had come from his new – albeit obviously still tenuous – coping skills. I wish I could tell him how his determination and courage at the age of twelve had inspired children and adults alike.
And I hope he is happy.
What a beautiful story, Jean. If only the world would learn from writings-in that we need more basic human interaction, love and understanding from each other. Even the smallest positives make a difference.
Keep writing and keep giving of yourself. The world needs it. 🙂
Jean, as always, you write so well. I really could not stop reading this over and over. What you gave to the school and Danny and the whole world that reads this is so very sensitive and special. Just so educational, too. What an amazing person you are. I am privileged to have known you all of my life, and I cherish your friendship beyond words.
Thanks, Ruth—your opinion means a lot to me. And of course, the thoughts about the friendship are a two way street.
Sue, Stan & Syl–not sure how to reply on this site, but I do thank you for your
kind words. Since I do know your emails, I’ll be in touch with you there. Unless I can think of a “short take” to write, you won’t be seeing me here for awhile–they like to wait a LONG time to give other writers a chance. But do keep on visiting Persimmin Tree, because it always has good stuff.
What a wonderful essay, Jean! How lucky for Danny and all concerned that you, with your background in human sexuality, stumbled into this unexpected job situation. Also that you had the personal confidence to sell Sister Elizabeth and the teachers on adapting to Danny’s needs.
This should be required reading for all educators/school administrators. Too often discipline is foisted off on school guidance counselors, and they are actively discouraged from advocating on behalf of students who are failing to adapt, and instead become part of the team trying to pummel children into compliance without listening to their needs.
It is your ability to be forward thinking and to swim against the stream that really stands out. How wonderful to see such a timely issue presented as a success story, where a potential tragedy has a happy ending, even though it wasn’t especially timely when it happened.
Jean, as always you write so well. We thoroughly enjoyed your story about Danielle. We hope you will get more of your writings published.
PS, my latest longer story, published in solsticelitmag.org includes the issue of being a social worker.
Thanks, Gabi & Mardith–appreciate your comments. Not sure if this is the way I reply to you–Gabi & I have already connected, and Mardith–will also try to message you, I’m not sure how the school was connected to the Church. But Sister Elizabeth, the teachers, Danny, & the kids themselves were the impressive ones. Will look for your story.
Jean, your story is terrific. Absolutely needed, even if there is much out there. I myself, a retired social worker in child welfare (never worked in schools), was impressed with what you did with all the kids and, of course, especially with Danny. That this happened in a Catholic school blows my mind (pardon the expression but your piece brought me back to the 70s). I cannot imagine it happening in most of the Catholic schools I knew. You must have been one of the terrific social worker, a gifted one, because of how you behaved and how you navigated the many pitfalls. How lucky those who had you as a social worker were.
As a social worker who is writing, I’d like to connect with you if you are interested. I’m not sure how to do that. Perhaps you could ask Sue Leonard to give you my email.
Best to you in your writing.
That was a very interesting story. It makes me wonder how Danny is doing as well. Did he ever transition? Did he find love and marry? I hope he’s doing well. Thank you for writing this piece and being sensitive to the wording and pronoun use.
I related a lot to Danny because I also insisted I was a boy when I was very young (age 3-4) but my grandmother wouldn’t have it, so I accepted the role of “tomboy” instead. I pushed down my feelings for many decades and only recently I’ve come out as bigender/genderqueer. I’ve toyed with the idea of transitioning but it’s so expensive. Also, I’ve come to terms with who I am and while transitioning would be nice, it’s not something I require in order to be happy.