I’m loading suitcases into the trunk of the car when I feel my cell phone vibrate in my pocket. No, not now. The caller ID says it’s my children’s middle school. “We need to ask Noah to change rooms,” says Ms. Jiminez, the assistant principal.
“What? Why?” I leap to attention.
Her voice is calm and steady. “We’ve had a call from the district office. A parent has filed a complaint.”
Ms. Jiminez talks on, but I’m preoccupied. I rush into the house. It’s 7:15 a.m. and my 14-year-old twins are due at school at 7:30 a.m. to leave on a three-day band trip. Around the corner, Lydia is reading the comics as she finishes her cereal. Noah is with me in the foyer, where he zips bags of tortilla chips into a full backpack.
Since Noah changed genders six months ago, the school has called often. This time the issue makes no sense. A parent is objecting to a room assignment in which all the children are biologically female.
“For whom is it a problem?” I ask. “Noah just roomed with the same four girls last month. On a science field trip.”
“I can’t tell you who called the district,” the assistant principal says.
Noah swings his large backpack to the floor with a thud. “Mom. What’s going on?”
“Excuse me just for a moment, Ms. Jiminez.” I turn to my son and say in a lower voice, “Noah. Please get into the car.”
Noah stands over me, not budging. Lydia soon appears.
“I’ve talked to the school counselor and the principal,” the assistant principal says. “Since Lydia and Noah are twins we’d like them to room together.”
“All right,” I say, not stopping to think.
Noah says, “No! I won’t do it!”
Lydia’s face flushes. “It’s not fair!”
I say to the assistant principal, “I’ll talk to them.”
Noah raises his voice. “They can’t make me.”
“Should I tell the principal you’ve agreed to the plan?” says the assistant principal. Over Noah’s shouts, I can hardly hear her.
“Give me five minutes,” I say. “I’ll call you back.”
The twins are talking loudly at once. It’s now 7:25 a.m. I’m wishing my husband, who left early for work, were here to help.
“It’s not fair,” Lydia says. “My friends and I have been planning to room together all year.”
“Is it such a big deal?” I say. “You’re hardly going to spend any time in the motel.”
Tears run down Lydia’s face. “Why am I being punished? I’m a girl.”
Even in my distraught mind, the words “I’m being punished” sink in. She’s right; this last-minute rooming issue shouldn’t be about her.
Noah kicks his lumpy backpack. Lydia breaks into sobs, turning away, wiping tears onto her skinny jeans. She bolts out the door, though I call after her as she dashes past the rhododendrons, the mossy lawn, and onto the street.
The phone rings again. It’s 7:35 a.m. What now? It’s the counselor, Mr. Henney. “Ms. Jiminez and I have come up with a new plan,” he says. “Lydia can room with her friends. Noah will be placed in a private room with a chaperone.”
“If that’s what you have to do,” I say automatically. I feel so tense, my mind so scrambled, it doesn’t occur to me to ask: a chaperone of which gender?
Noah has overheard and takes the phone. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I want to stay with my friends.” Noah paces during a heated exchange. Soon he is shouting into the phone, then crying.
I put my hand on Noah’s skinny shoulder. “Let me handle this,” I say.
But as I talk with the counselor, the energy of the exchange switches for the worse. “We’re requesting he room with a chaperone. We have to agree to a plan now, before the trip, or Noah can’t go. Do you give permission?”
“I guess so.”
As I hang up, Noah is still crying. I’m on the verge of tears as well. Noah has had a difficult eighth-grade year, grappling with both depression and the ongoing sense that he’s in the wrong-gendered body. He’s taking the issue of the room assignment awfully hard.
“I’m sorry about all this,” I say. I hug him. “Help me find your sister.” The two of us stagger outside to the cool air and drizzle, the wet world of bright greens and soft pink blossoms. I locate Lydia near the end of the driveway. Her nose is red from crying.
Soon all of us get into the car. At the school, at 8:05 a.m., my children and I carry their things to the cafeteria and add them to the gigantic piles of backpacks, duffle bags, suitcases, and musical instruments. Then the twins dash away to the band room, with no hugs for me. Lydia, at least, supplies a brief “bye.”
I feel a sinking, guilty feeling that I have not handled things well, and wonder if Noah is angry with me. In the reception area of the main office, I’m almost relieved to to learn that the principal and assistant principal are busy with meetings. I wouldn’t know what to say to them anyway.
I still feel shaky. This is the first time anyone has lodged a complaint against Noah. This is the beginning of our changed life. There will always be people who will be uncomfortable with Noah no matter what choices our family makes. What if we’d asked the school to assign Noah to a boys’ hotel room? That would have riled up our school community.
* * * *
Luckily, this morning is my weekly appointment with my therapist, Julie. No sooner have I dropped down into the comfort of Julie’s couch than my cell rings with another call from, where else, the middle school.
“We solved the problem,” Ms. Jiminez says. “Noah will stay in the room he was originally assigned. It’s fine with three of the girls’ parents. We’ve moved the fourth girl to a different room.”
“Oh, thank you!” I feel as if I’ve just put down an 85-pound harp. “This is the best possible solution.”
“It all worked out in the end.” She tells me that Noah and the band teacher argued Noah’s case with the school principal.
The therapist listens. She knows Noah from six months of family therapy. “I’m glad he stood up for himself,” she says. Then she adds, in a nonjudgmental tone, “You thought the room assignment was your problem to solve. Was it?”
No, it wasn’t. The realization comes as a jolt. I go completely silent. Freeze frame. It seems like the whole universe has come to a stop. “It was the problem of the parent who was upset.” How could I have been so stupid?
“I was listening too much to others’ reactions.” I feel hot tears coming, then rolling down my cheeks. “I didn’t want to make waves with the school.” And this wasn’t the first time I’d failed Noah. I’d approved of Mr. Henney’s plan for Noah to use the restroom in the counselor’s office when Noah wanted to use the boys’ room. “I’m going to apologize to Noah for not standing behind him more.”
“Please tell him I’m glad he stood up for himself,” Julie says. “He had every right to be angry. Confronting the principal shows courage.” Julie then addresses the issue of the school bending to the parent who complained. “Angry people turn the focus toward themselves. They suck all the air out of the room.”
“Yeah, I get it,” I say, breathing easier. I feel clearer and more centered than I have all day. I picture the angry parent drawing in a big breath and swelling like a puffer fish.
“Let’s look at the message the school was sending to Noah,” Julie says. “You don’t belong with the boys. You don’t belong with the girls.”
“Ah.” Again, she is right. This is how transgender people are often treated, I think. Unfairly singled out. And I’ve been complicit. It’s time I become a better advocate for my son.
An hour later, at home, I text Noah. He responds right away.
Me: The school told me you’re rooming with your old group. I heard you went to the principal. I’m proud of you. I should have stood up for you.
Noah: It’s OK.
Me: I apologize for not being there for you. The rooms weren’t our problem to solve. It was for the parent who complained. I see this now.
Noah: Mom, don’t stress.
Noah: Maddy says her father went ballistic. Shouting into the phone. Maddy’s bummed she’s not in our room.
Me: Why did he care if you were with Maddy?
Noah: Dunno. They belong to some church.
Me: So do we.
Noah: Going back to my friends. Bye.
That evening and throughout the weekend, Noah and Lydia stop texting me. No doubt they are busy playing with the band or entertaining themselves in the amusement park. On Sunday afternoon, when the students must already be on their way home, one of the chaperones emails me photos of Noah, Lydia, and their friends gleefully ramming each other in bumper cars. Something in my heart lifts. Noah got through the weekend without a crisis and enjoyed himself.
Next time there is a complaint I will be braver, I think.
Another photo follows: the entire band in formal attire, bunched on a lawn. Nearly all of the teens are making goofy faces. Lydia, squeezed among her roommates, is laughing. Noah grins as he playacts strangling another boy. What I see in this photo I wish everyone would see: Noah is just like any other child in the band.