On the fifth day of fifth grade*, our class was walking back from our library period, and Student A (who identifies as a boy and uses he/him pronouns) called student Z a "young man." Student Z was visibly upset.
A explained that another student had claimed "Student Z is a boy because she plays soccer with all the boys at recess. She acts like a boy, too." I said, "Z doesn't identify as a boy, and they use she and they pronouns. It made them upset when you said that." I told him I heard what he was saying, but that kids could play with anyone they wanted and play any games they wanted. A apologized and Z dried their tears, but there was still work to do.
I invited A and Z for a chat later that day and they agreed to meet. Even though I wanted to jump right in and lead the conversation, I tried to hold back and let the kids share first. Z said they felt frustrated that people were questioning their gender just because they play soccer and are friends with a lot of boys. To clarify, I asked, "You identify as a girl, right?" Z replied, "Well, as they. And she. But I feel most comfortable with 'they.'"
I nodded, apologized for my assumption, and corrected myself. Then I paused. My mistake made me realize that some kids consider "they" a gender identity descriptor, either because they're choosing what feels best for them, or they aren't aware of other identity labels, or both. Either way, I assumed that they were a girl who used they/she pronouns, but I was wrong.
We finished the conversation by talking about how people have genders but toys and clothes and sports do not. And that there's no one way to "act" like a boy or girl or neither or both. A remarked, "I noticed Wal-Mart has 'girls' and 'boys' sections.' Z chimed in, "Yeah, I wish they just listed clothes as 'KIDS' and 'ADULTS.' That way you wouldn't have to buy, like, 'girl' or 'boy' underwear, you could just buy, like, boxers.
This experience for me was one of learning and growing. And while this one discussion felt pretty successful, we still have so much to learn. Instead of treating this discussion as a one-time incident that is now "solved," it is just the beginning of a year-long exploration of identity for our entire class. And perhaps my student just created a new gender identity label: they.
*Identifiable details have been changed.