Mommy, Is Manny a Boy or a Girl?

My sister’s family went to a Red Sox game. This was many years ago when my niece was in the single digits, maybe 8 years old. The players were announced. Manny Ramirez. For some reason, he caught my niece’s attention, and she wanted to know: “Mommy, is Manny a boy or a girl?”

This isn’t a post about gender identity. This is a post about assumptions, context, and getting it.

This summer, I spoke to a group of incoming freshmen about expectations for their behavior as college students. We had a conversation about the acceptability, or lack of it, for behaviors like emailing your professor at 2:00 a.m. (acceptable, as long as you are not expecting a quick response), showing up at office hours wearing jeans and a t-shirt (totally acceptable) or smelling strongly of cigarettes or weed (not acceptable), being a minute late to a meeting with your mentor (no, not acceptable, not even a minute, be early), and packing up your backpack in the last few minutes of class (extremely unacceptable, at least to me).

The purpose of this exercise was to uncover some of the assumptions they hold, to expose them as assumptions, so they could be examined. I like leading this exercise because it reveals those assumptions to me, helps me know what I need to explicitly state for new generations of students, and gives me a chance for my own re-examination.

I ask them what other behaviors they would like to discuss. Someone asked about using “street language” with professors. “Like what?” I asked. “You know, like bro or dude.” Aha, no, I said, I didn’t think that was a good idea. Maybe some words would be OK, but forms of address are sensitive.

I am glad he asked. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we won’t know unless we ask. The Red Sox are boys. We take that for granted, but how would Sweet Niece know that?

We are most likely to question our own assumptions when we enter a new environment. Do the familiar behaviors apply in the new setting? When I know I am out of my depth, I hear in my head, “Mommy, is Manny a boy or a girl?” But I should cue that line more often, even in my established environments. Or as we say in yogi-filled Boulder, “adopt the beginner’s mind, bro.”

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