Author Visit: Sarah and Ian Hoffman “Jacob’s New Dress/ Jacob’s Room to Choose”

Have you read Jacob’s New Dress? Or Jacob’s Room To Choose? If not, you should. Jacob’s New Dress tells a story about Jacob, a boy who loves wearing dresses. Despite a formidable bully, Jacob doesn’t waver in his gender expression, and stays true to who he is—a joyful boy in a beautiful dress. Jacob’s Room To Choose addresses issues that gender non-conforming children face when using public bathrooms. Jacob, who has long hair and wears a dress, and his friend, who’s a girl with short hair and likes “boy clothes,” get harassed in their respective bathrooms at school. Their kindergarten teacher uses the incidents as an opportunity to show the class how to make room for everybody to use whatever bathroom they choose. The books are great, and they are written by local authors Sarah and Ian Hoffman. Synergy students were lucky to meet the Hoffmans on Friday, during an author visit, which was organized jointly by the Library and the Diversity Committee. Sarah and Ian began their visit by reading and chatting with students in grades 4/5, went on to share lunch with members of the LGBTQ Alliance, and then wrapped-up their afternoon with the students in K-3.

To begin the presentations, Synergy librarian, Susanne DeRisi, introduced Sarah and Ian to the students. She explained how one of the agreements at Synergy, “Keeping a safe space, without prejudices, for everyone’s body and feelings,” can be challenging, but is so worthwhile. This agreement is one of the things that makes Synergy such a special place. Susanne and the authors hoped that by reading and discussing the books, everyone would learn more about ways to keep a safe space for each other.

In both the 4/5 and K-3 presentations, Sarah acknowledged that it was rare for her and Ian to come to a school that was so ready to talk about including all kids. She and Ian went on to explain jointly, with the aid of a visual presentation, about experiences they’d had, raising their son, Sam. They said that when Sam was 2 years old, he really loved dinosaurs, construction sites, and other things that are stereotypically considered “boy things.” But one day, they took him to buy new sneakers, and when they offered Sam a choice between red sneakers and blue sneakers, Sam announced he wanted pink ones. Ian said he double-checked whether Sam really wanted pink, in part because he wasn’t sure if Sam really knew his colors. And then he asked the students to guess why else he had hesitated to buy Sam pink shoes. In both presentations, students answered easily that they thought maybe Ian thought pink was a stereotypical color for girls, and not for his boy, Sam. Sarah and Ian went on to explain that although they were supportive of Sam’s pink sneakers, Sam’s preschool teacher didn’t approve. And that was the first instance where Sam’s being a “pink boy,” Sarah’s coined phrase for the male equivalent of “tomboy,” began to prove challenging.

Sam grew to really love pink, sparkles, and Disney princesses. As a preschooler, he dressed as a pink fairy with gossamer wings to go trick-or-treating. At school Sam was always in the dress-up princess costumes and tutus, and eventually, he wanted a dress that he could wear for real, to school and out in the world. Sarah and Ian knew that other kids would make fun of him at school because they were so fixed in their gender ideas, but it was much more important to Sam to wear the dress than to worry about ridicule, so he got the dress and wore it every day. When Sam was in kindergarten, his Chanukah present was tickets to the Nutcracker, and he got his first fancy dress.

While Sam loved his long hair and dresses, he also adored dinosaurs, pirates, and battle axes. By eight years old, Sam was very interested in LEGO, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic The Gathering, math, Pokémon, and opera. Sam is now 17, and identifies and presents as a boy. He and his family firmly still believe in his expressing his true self.

In kindergarten, Sam had a teacher named Ms. Reeves, who was extremely supportive of Sam, and she taught the class to be supportive, too. She did simple lessons about gender by asking, questions like, “Is pink a boy color or girl color? Or are colors for everyone?” One day she pulled out a photo of a child with short hair and asked the class if they thought the child was a boy or a girl. The class thought the photo was of a boy, and they were so surprised to learn it was a photo of Ms. Reeves herself, when she was a second grader with short hair. The class easily concluded that girls could have short hair, and boys, including Sam, could have long hair. Unfortunately, there was another kindergarten class in the same school that did not receive those lessons, and as a result, those children and the older children in the school were more inclined to bully Sam. The big problems for Sam started in first grade when he had to share the bathroom and hallways with older kids who verbally and physically attacked him, Eventually, he just stopped using the school bathroom, and got sick. The Hoffmans went on to explain, in greater detail for the 4/5 class, how challenging it was for Sam to use any bathroom anywhere, because of the ways he always got hassled and attacked. A parent always had to go with him to keep him safe. Sarah and Ian remarked on how the fact that Sam had long hair seemed to be the one of the only things strangers noticed about him, and it made them think Sam was a girl, and many people lashed out at him for it.

The Hoffman’s explained that throughout this period of raising Sam, they began to connect more and more with other parents with children like Sam via email to support each other. They learned that parents of children like Sam always asked the same three questions: (1) Is your family supportive of Sam? (2) Is Sam’s school supportive of Sam? and (3) How is the school handling the bathroom?

The first two questions are what inspired Sarah and Ian to write Jacob’s New Dress. This third question is what prompted their second book, Jacob’s Room To Choose.

In the 4/5 presentation, the Hoffmans engaged the students in a lively quiz to find out how much they knew about the history of public bathrooms. Here are some of the questions and answers so you can test yourself, too!

Q: What year were public bathrooms invented?
A: 100 BC, in Ancient Rome, but they were only for men. The bathrooms were benches around a wall, and the seats opened up right into the sewer. No privacy or toilet paper, so the men would send around a communal sponge on a stick. Sometimes there would be flames because of the gasses. Rats were also know to bite bottoms.

Q: What year were the first public bathrooms after the Romans?
A: 1851. They were unveiled at the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace, along with other inventions of the Industrial Revolution. George Jennings installed what he called “monkey closets,” and these were the first public bathrooms people had seen had seen. And the toilets flushed! Spending a penny ensured you a clean seat, a towel, and a shoeshine. Almost 1 million people used those public toilets!

Q: When did women get public bathrooms?
A: Late 1800s. Before that, women had to stay close to home on what was termed the “urinary leash.” Some women chose not to eat or drink when they left their home, and others used a device called a urinette that they could swoop under their skirts.

Q: What year were public bathrooms legally required for women in the workplace?
A: 1877
Massachusetts was the first to pass a law that said women who worked in places like factories had to have their own bathroom. Before then, in Victorian era, they used the men’s room, and in the super-private Victorian era, that was socially very difficult.

Q: What year did bathrooms stop being labeled “White” and “Colored” in the United States?
A: 1965. Far too recently.

Q: What year did women in the House of Representatives get their own bathroom?
A: 2011. Before that, they had a 5 minute walk across the capitol and had to use the tourist bathroom. They’d often miss important votes. There were 76 women in the House at the point that they got their own bathroom.

During both presentations, the students were invited to ask questions and share personal experiences. Many students shared how they or people close to them were had been misgendered because of their hairstyle or clothing choice, and how much they disliked those comments. Most of the students in 4/5 and K-3 seemed totally at a loss about why it is so important to people to label someone else’s gender.

It’s interesting to note that when the Hoffmans started writing Jacob’s Room To Choose, there were no gender-neutral bathrooms in San Francisco. But now, there are lots, including downstairs at Synergy. Sarah and Ian reminded the student that by being yourself, and being true to yourself, you can help change the world. Hearing the students’ comments and questions, I have no doubt that Synergy students are already helping to change the world.

by Kelly White, Synergy Parent for the Diversity & Inclusion Committee

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