The phone call that could possibly, possibly, change my life came at exactly 10:02 a.m. on that all too fate filled morning, exactly two minutes after the time in which I would have normally been on my way to work, speeding down the dinky country road to the “bullpen” as my coworkers called it. My iPhone silently shuffled across the deep brown fabric of the love seat in my grandparent’s living room, its vibrations muted, with an area code of 252. I knew exactly who was giving me a ring or, at least, who I hoped was giving me a ring.
I stared at the alarming screen with dilated pupils, thinking to myself “this can’t be possible,” but my heartbeat fluttered with the high hopes that it was possible.
After what felt like thousands of daunting rings, I immediately dared to dial my own phone number in the anticipation that the Windsor, North Carolina number had left me a voicemail. I had made a habit of not answering phone calls, rather giving myself time to prepare and call back with a pre-arranged train of thought and the perfect pitch of voice. After frantically scrambling to enter my four digit pin number, the upbeat inflection in the automated woman’s voice informed me “you have one unheard message.”
My heart instantly dropped like an anchor into the bowels of my stomach upon hearing the news of the voicemail that awaited. I knew exactly who had left the voicemail, but I didn’t dare assume what they had wanted to ask or tell me.
Without prompting the voicemail lady proceeded without caution, sending what I would later learn to be Mrs. Hawkin’s voice ringing into my right ear. Her voice sharp and urban, asking for “Ms. Boyd,” an attribution that felt strange and foreign to me. The attribution of Ms. before my last name felt oddly official and too formal for my liking.
Quickly getting over the formality of Ms. Boyd, I listened intently to what Mrs. Hawkins had to say or rather the question she had asked me.
She informed me that she was calling from Bertie County Schools, but I already knew that. I had already intently studied the architecture of the high school on Google Maps, the towering blue tin roof flooded back to me, even the all but dead grass that halfway populated the sandy texture of what was supposed to be the front yard of the school.
She asked me the question that I never thought I would be asked…was I still interested in the open theatre arts teacher position? I instantly pondered over her phrasing of the question, considering the fact that I had only sent my resume to the principal of the high school, via email, a week prior. Considering her phrasing of the question, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a reason why I shouldn’t still be interested in the position. Uncertain of what the correct response should be, I naively jumped for joy, nearly slipping in my socks and falling onto my ass due to the newly waxed hardwood floor that my grandma had labored over the day before.
Despite the excitement that came with the phone call, it didn’t take long for reality to set back in. Mrs. Hawkin’s question couldn’t have served up a bigger mixed bag of emotions if she had tried. On one hand I was elated beyond belief, since I having graduated with my undergrad degree only seven months earlier the vast majority of my time was spent searching the dark corners of the internet for jobs in my given field, jobs that would provide stability and shift the focus away from myself. Too self-conscious to act and too technically challenged to design, teaching was the only viable option for my mental state and ability level, but with such a tempting possibility on the horizon, I couldn’t help but torture myself. I couldn’t simply live with the calming fact that there was the remote possibility that someone didn’t look at my inexperience and overtly LGBT resume and cringe. The majority of my experiences worth listing were from my time as president of my alma mater’s Gay-Straight Alliance, which I discreetly listed as simply “GSA” on my resume, relying on the fact that no one in a rural southern school system was tuned in enough to pick up on the hidden meaning that stood behind the stealthy acronym. Plus, I didn’t think that a middle aged high school principal would have the foggiest clue as to who such iconic drag queens as Miss Coco Peru and Charles Busch were since I listed their names under the header of event planning on my resume.
I went on to the Martinsville Bulletin after listening to the voicemail, acting as if nothing had happened, as if my dream for a more rewarding career than police reports and near coma inducing features on cat ladies and all district chorus competitions wasn’t within grasp.
I called Mrs. Hawkins back on my way to the Bulletin, explaining who I was for which she seemed genuinely enthused, causing the pitch of her voice to heighten. Following her response, I concluded that she was authentically happy to hear back from me. Upon completion of our initial introductions, “Hi I’m so and so…how are you today? Oh I’m great and how are you,” she asked me the all-important question of when I would be available for an interview with Mr. Moore, the principal of Bertie High School, to my surprise informing me that she had hoped to schedule the interview for the following day. I told her that I would have to work out arrangements with my superior at the Bulletin and that I would call her back, so that was that and we said our goodbyes, parting ways.
Now that things were actually starting to fall into place for me, a life beyond local newspapers was within grasp, my attention turned to the question of how the hell was I going to get a day off from a profession that truly never takes a day off. It wasn’t as if murderers and drug dealers would take a day off because I wanted to drive four hours away for a job interview and neither would the Henry County Board of Supervisors, who already had a fairly lengthy meeting schedule in place for the coming week.
The only possible means by which I found for realizing my dream was to ironically plead with my boss, a tall and intimidating Midwestern fellow, to allow me the “opportunity” to work that Saturday as opposed to my typical Thursday shift, a request which was met with obnoxious shock and awe over the fact that someone would actually volunteer to work a Saturday, a request which was ultimately granted due to thinly veiled lies about how much I loved working on Saturdays.
A week later I crawled into my battle-tested 2004 Pontiac Aztec without as much as a mention of where I was going or the opportunity that laid ahead to my grandparents who I had lived with ever since graduation. I knew that my grandmother would have advised me to stay closer to home, if she had known my intentions. Despite knowing that her advisement would have derived from nothing other than a place of worry and wisdom, I wasn’t about to let her worrisome guidance stop me from realizing my dreams. The shame from ultimately failing to seal the deal with two prior high school theatre teacher positions contributed to my secrecy.
I combed through both interviews with the attention to detail of a seasoned counter terrorism analyst for the CIA, on my four hour drive to Bertie County. With each unearthed memory, I attempted to exactly pin point what I had said or done wrong, the initial mistake that ultimately cost me my two dream jobs. Perhaps it was my desire to save face or my disillusion of the truth, but no matter how hard I tried, I was continually unable to put pin point the exact moment that I had proved to the interviewers that I wasn’t the right fit for the positions. The only answer that I could halfway seem to make fit was the fact that I was only twenty-one years old and applying to be a high school teacher, only a few years older than my potential students.
During the course of the drive through the country, then through the cities of Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Durham, Raleigh and back into the country again, I continually stretched and flexed my vocal chords to the soaring high notes of my favorite Reba McEntire songs, a ritual which had become an essential part of my ability to project the tone of voice that I felt as though I needed to in order to receive warm first impressions from people.
I arrived at the school nearly thirty minutes in advance, a true rarity considering my less than punctual record. I utilized my early arrival to my advantage, going to the bathroom of the Food Lion across the street from the school to apply the finishing touches to my face, having grown paranoid about my outer appearance in recent years. A little extra powder on my nose, a little extra lip gloss to increase the radiance by which my lips would frame my overly enthusiastic smile, but with each additional application of powder and foundation, things simply got worse. The bumps on my cheeks more noticeable, the rash on my neck appeared to be visible from a mile away. The armor in which I relied on to mask the true me was doing the complete opposite, magnifying each and every flaw. I worked tirelessly to correct the problems, nearly too many to count, until I realized that my time was limited and that if they wanted me, then they would simply have to take me as is, as if I were a stained dress or a bruised watermelon at the supermarket.
After dodging the ginormous rain droplets that undoubtedly smudged my already failing foundation, I made my way to the front office door of the school, amazed at how monstrous and bright blue the school actually was. I waited for what felt like hours for Mr. Moore to be available to meet with me. Clearing my throat time and time again, knowing that at a second’s notice he would appear at which time I would have to appear both teacher like, however that may be, and enthusiastic in the same way that Mrs. Hawkins had been when she first talked with me over the phone the week before.
After nearly giving up hope that he would ever appear from his office, he finally did, putting to rest my concern that they had changed their minds, that I wasn’t good enough or deserving enough to work at their school. As he approached me, I was instantly taken off guard by how stiff he appeared, his movements cold and calculated, but when he spoke, a contradiction to his appearance presented itself. I had anticipated a deep and booming tone to blare out of his mouth, but was surprised when he asked “Ms. Boyd,” in a mouse like squeak.
As we sat down at the lavish conference room table in his office, the blaring school bell rang, sending me into a pain stricken flashback to my own tragic high school experience.
Three and a half weeks after I heard the school bell ring in Mr. Moore’s office, the school bell rang in my ears again, but this time I wasn’t sitting in his office anymore, I was standing in the theatre arts classroom, my new classroom. Filled only with the remnants that the former theatre arts teacher had left behind, the room was sterile and white. The ceiling came to a peak in the middle. I stood froze in shock from the ring of the bell, taking in the one last second of silence before students would surely burst into the room. I reached down and fastened the button to my blazer jacket in an attempt to appear as professional as possible.
The first student to pop their head into my room was a tall African American boy, humble and sweet in appearance and demeanor. He asked if I was the substitute teacher for the day, having been conditioned to expect a rotating list of off the street substitutes following the former teacher’s resignation the semester before. When I told him that I wasn’t yet another substitute, rather the new theatre arts teacher he appeared both surprised and excited by my arrival.
“What’s your name?” he asked me.
The question took me by surprise, forcing a brief moment of silence during which time I connected the dots in my mind in order to provide proper attribution for myself.
“I’m Ms. Boyd and what’s your name?” I replied with a slightly shaky exposition.
“Trenton, I’m in your third block,” he countered with an even wider set smile than my own.
“It’s nice to meet you Trenton. I’ll see you in third block,” I said, trying to briskly move on without too much painful banter, but before I could secure my escape route, he had one last thing to say to me.
“You seem like a fun teacher. You’re fun aren’t you?” he questioned sporting a seemingly knowing grin.
Not wanting to come across like one of the many pushover teachers that I had while I was in high school I responded with “we’ll see” in a very unsure tone of voice.
Following our brief encounter, fifteen students from my second block stormed their way into my classroom, room 242, each with demanding eyes and rattling voices. I held their attention spans for ten minutes at most of the ninety minute class. With each passing minute, the students grew more and more brazen, pushing me and my sanity to limits that I didn’t even know that I possessed. I powered through with every ounce of energy that my body could muster until I had hit the ninety minute mark in what felt like a cage match between myself and the students. The bell finally rang to my relief, but the relief was short lived and fleeting as the students from my second block darted from the classroom, making way for a whole new batch of hellions. A whole new batch of hellions that to my dismay were thousands of times more hellacious than the first.
To little surprise, the ten minute attention span hold that I had been able to secure during the previous class was quickly flushed down the toilet with the beginning of my third block class.
In a mere matter of thirty minutes, before the lunch bell arrived to my rescue, I had already been accused of being racist and sexually harassed a total of three times. One student went as far as to jump in front of me, air humping only a few inches from my quivering body. Another student studied me from head to toe. I felt as if he was undressing me with his eyes as he berated me with sexually charge terms as “sugar” and “baby,” eventually pushing the envelope as far as to say out loud to the class “Ms. Boyd makes my toes curl at night.” In that moment, I realized that nearly each and every one of my students were far more sexually advanced than I would ever hope to be. The term behind enemy lines took on a whole new meaning for me, although I quickly realized that most soldiers in war zones weren’t locked in a room with enemy combatants the way that I was.
In order to survive the remainder of the class following lunch, without being reduced to a puddle of mascara stained tears, I went to my happy place, remembering that Bea Arthur had been a teacher on “The Golden Girls.” I specifically recalled the scene in which Dorothy, Blanche and Rose were arrested for prostitution and were forced to ride out the night in a jail cell full of Miami street-life.
I recalled that Dorothy eventually bucked up and stood her ground with some of the more rough inmates, pulling off an Emmy Award worthy performance as a hardened criminal herself. I’m sure that the students surely thought that I had already flown over the cuckoo’s nest when I smiled in a brief moment of joy, recounting the line that Dorothy attributed her seemingly rough edges to teaching in the public school system.
Following the trend of a downward spiral, fourth block followed suit, proving to be the defining moment in my brief seven hour teaching career. Before I could even utter “hello my name is Ms. Boyd,” my world as I knew it came crumbling down around me when a short, yet plump girl murmured to her friend the words that stopped me dead in my tracks.
“I think that’s a man,” she snapped to her friends, not even trying to whisper.
As soon as the words escaped her lips, I thought that I must have been shot or stabbed in the heart one.
For the past three years I had moved mountains, doing everything in my power not to allow a single soul to have the reaction that the girl had voiced when they saw me, but I had obviously failed.
The thousands of pills worth of hormone replacement therapy, hundreds of hours’ worth of electrolysis, the $25,000 gender confirmation surgery, all for nothing in that moment.
After two reporter jobs, no one knew.
After grad school, no one knew.
After surgery I completely abandoned my old life in an attempt to deprive anyone and everyone the power that she had displayed over me, the ability to know about me and up until that gut wrenching moment in that classroom I had succeeded.
When I went to have x-rays in preparation for my surgery, the technician repeatedly quizzed me on my pregnancy status, warning me that the x-ray could harm the baby if I were pregnant. Despite my repeated answer of “no I’m not pregnant,” she demanded to know exactly when I had experienced my last period, oblivious to the truth that the student saw so clearly. The truth that I obviously couldn’t run from no matter how hard I had tried.
Somehow this student viewed me through the painfully true lens that hundreds of adults in the past had failed to utilize.
Before the block was over with, the student’s hunch about me had spread like wildfire to the remainder of the class. All I could do was watch with horror and terror and the knowledge that my secret would never be a secret again. It didn’t matter that my driver’s license and birth certificate both cited my sex as female, the damage was already done.
When the final bell of the day had sounded, I sat down at my desk and crafted the most painful email imaginable, the resignation letter to my dream job. In my mind it could have only gotten worse from there. Public humiliation, bullying, the possibility of physical violence even awaited me if I had stayed, after all poor southern communities weren’t exactly receptive towards “Bruce Jenners” as the students so kindly called me.
With a bruised ego and the realization that I was no better than the least passable trans person in the world, I exited the school house and drove four hours back to the world of privilege and safety that I had previously taken for granted, leaving the flat and marshy peanut country of Bertie County remorsefully in my rearview mirror.
Header Credit: J Stephen Conn; CC BY-NC 2.0