Ray Carter | November 11, 2021

Oklahoma Teacher of the Year nominee touts transgender book

Ray Carter

An Oklahoma Teacher of the Year nominee, Bristow Middle School teacher Lauren Vandever, has declared that it is important to be supportive of children exploring transgender transition.

“I am not transgender. I’ve never experienced being transgender or on the LGBTQ spectrum,” Vandever said. “But I definitely think it is something that is an important thing for kids to—if that’s something you’re exploring—for me to be accepting of that.”

Vandever, the seventh grade reading teacher at Bristow Middle School, made those comments as part of a three-minute online book review of Zenobia July, a book with a transgender protagonist. Vandever described the review as part of a “realistic fiction book talk session” that focused on “identity and finding your identity.”

“Zenobia used to present, or was born, male, but is transgender and feels—not feels—knows on the inside that she is actually female,” Vandever said. “She’s a girl. And when she lived with her dad, she was not allowed to present as female, but now that she lives with her two aunts that are lesbians, she presents as a female and she’s learning how to do that.”

The Gender Inclusive Classrooms website says Zenobia July is meant for students ages eight to 12. The Gender Inclusive Classrooms review states that Zenobia was originally “raised in a conservative, southern, religious household,” but following her parents’ death moves in with two lesbian aunts, making Zenobia’s transition “twofold: she grapples daily with both her gender transition to a girl, as well as her shift into a socially and politically liberal household.”

At her new school, the review states that Zenobia’s new friends include “genderqueer Arli, who chooses to use the pronouns vo/ven/veir.” In addition, Zenobia “finds a mentor and confidant in Uncle Sprink, who performs as a drag queen in his spare time.”

Gender Inclusive Classrooms lists only one area where the book falters: “Though Zenobia befriends a genderqueer person (Arli), a black Muslim girl (Chantal), and an Asian trans boy (Elijah), the narrative is largely white.”

Listed vocabulary for the book includes “Red State/Blue State.”

Another review on the blog of Colorado teacher Greg Pattridge states that Zenobia’s “aunts now have custody and agree to keep Zen’s trans status a secret, but will support her through future medical challenges.”

A review on the Novellisteer! website states that Zenobia’s past “clearly involves a bunch of religiously-based trans-phobia and enforced gender norms.”

The Geekiary website states, “For middle grade readers who may not have been exposed to the LGBTQ+ community, this book does a good job of explaining and normalizing.”

Vandever praised the book during her review.

“I’ve met a lot of people in my life who had different identities, and people wouldn’t respect those about them,” Vandever said. “And it caused them to feel like they wanted to commit suicide, because they didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere in the world, or it caused them to feel like they couldn’t feel loved and so they ran away from their families. I’ve known students like this. I’ve known my friends like this. And so this is a really personal thing to me because I feel like everyone should be who they want to be. If someone asks me to call them by a nickname, I’m going to. If someone asks me to call them by a different gender, I’m going to, because we all deserve the chance and the opportunity to be able to identify who we are and not have someone else tell us who we are.”

Vandever called the book “a fantastic look in that experience, and it’s definitely a window.”

“I have a few other books similar to this if that’s something that you are interested in,” Vandever concluded. “I will put these on the shelf and you can check them out.”

At a recent meeting of the Bristow school board, several parents spoke out about materials made available to students in the school library that parents said included graphic depictions of sex and violence, reading some excerpts aloud.

Parents also noted the school had quietly launched a Genders & Sexualities Alliance club for students without informing parents and that participation in all such clubs was granted without parental consent.

Vandever is one of 12 finalists for the 2022 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education website, “The Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Program is coordinated through the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister. The program is in conjunction with the National Teacher of the Year Program sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the ING Foundation.”

According to the application packet, one teacher of the year winner from every school site is now allowed to apply for the state award. In prior years, the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year was selected from a limited pool of district teachers of the year.

Each application “must be signed by the school principal and district superintendent.”

The application packet also stresses, “It is important to emphasize that the search is not for ‘the best teacher’ but for one who exemplifies the finest in the profession.”

When Bristow Public Schools announced that Vandever was the Bristow Teacher of the Year, which made her eligible for Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, the district posted a document on its website that stated, “Lauren’s classroom atmosphere of community, trust, and stacks of books allow her students to take risks and find something new to learn that they love.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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