I Am J by Cris Beam – Review by Kevin English
Last school year, I gave students a brief writing prompt in the hopes of planning for the next day: What are you still confused about, and how can I help? As I read responses that night, I stumbled upon one that took freedom with my prompt and went something along these lines: “My body is changing and I just don’t feel comfortable in it. All of these things are happening.” I know there are some teenagers that would submit a response like that to be funny, but this student was serious. I solicited questions, and he posed one that I wasn’t expecting and didn’t know how to answer within the confines of my curriculum.
As a new teacher, I let it go. And I’ve regretted it since. In the past, I’d refer students to the health teacher when they asked questions that I didn’t know. (One time a student asked about the shape of a uterus. We immediately called my colleague.) But I’m starting to see my classroom library in a new light: it’s a place that can provide answers for the questions that students have and the ones that they didn’t know they have—yet. I want them to find themselves on my shelves and find a part of themselves that they hadn’t considered yet as a result of the books that line my shelves. With school starting next week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can reach all readers in class—especially students like the one mentioned above. Teenagers have questions about their gender and sexual identities. And even if we don’t feel comfortable answering their questions in person, we should be able to point them to books that explore those topics and help answer students’ questions about growing up. They get a chance to live vicariously through characters and see how others respond, all without having to risk taking the action themselves.
This summer, a teacher friend of mine recounted how she had a student who felt more comfortable revealing she was gay to the teacher instead of her parents. That says something about the powerful work that we do. And it also offers a reminder that we constantly have more work to do when reaching every reader.
Cris Beam’s novel, I Am J, was originally shared with me at #nErDcampMI during the diverse YA session led by Cindy Minnich and Sarah Anderson. This novel details J’s story as a transgender youth growing up within a family that’s trying so hard to meet the world’s expectations of traditional gender expectations.
Told in third person, I thought that Beam couldn’t possibly convey J’s experience in an engaging way. It didn’t take long to lure me. This line in particular roused the teacher in me and reminded me of the sensitive work that we do: “Couldn’t his mother see he was dying inside his own skin? There’d be no college if he shriveled up in there” (163). J’s mother is fixated on J’s college applications. His entire life, his parents have saved money so that he could have a better future. Their idea of a better future is college; J’s better is being honest with whom he feels he really is.
In the grand scheme of things, this novel is about youth figuring out their own gender identities and also realizing that sometimes it is okay to make decisions based on their own needs and wishes. They can’t always live the lives of their parents or guardians; they have to first be comfortable with themselves before they can do anything else meaningful in the world. As adults, we have to realize that our goals are not necessarily their goals, but we can nonetheless work toward a common understanding and acceptance. We can help our youth navigate the difficult terrain and provide books, like Beam’s I Am J, that help them figure it all out.
Kevin English is in his third year of teaching high school English in southeast Michigan and is a teacher consultant for the Eastern Michigan Writing Project. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinmenglish.