It was a simple exercise based on a character in a book. The character had come to help a family and in her service and love, she gave herself a new name. Her new name was Jispa, really an acronym created from the letters of an old French phrase that spoke of selfless sacrifice.
I stood before my students and passed out squares of recycled paper. "Some of you won't take this serious, so we'll have some laughs. I want you to create a new name that would represent your best self. Who you would want to be. We'll keep it anonymous, so you're free to choose without feeling self-conscious."
As predicted, most of the students took the assignment seriously. I collected the pieces of paper and read off the new monikers. There were a few who chose Hope; a Lancelot showed up. Someone chose Charity. A few students kept their own name. Well that's good, I thought.
I then came to a little piece of paper that made me pause. It began: I am transgender and if I could choose a new name, I would choose... I read the name to the class, but the students were aware of the pregnant pause.
"It has some personal information, and I'm not sure..." I looked to the student for assurance whether to read or not. The student nodded. Deep breath. I read the note. Thanked the student for being so open and brave.
At 3:00 a.m., I awoke from a dead sleep. The student wanted to share the personal information. Needed to share the information. I didn't really know what transgender meant. Could I ask? Did she need to answer the class's questions?
I decided to ask if it was okay to ask. The student said "Yes."
I learned the meaning of transgender. I learned the student's hatred for her own body. I understood what a difficult journey she'd traveled. I was moved by her courage. At the end of our short conversation, she moved forward and I took the moment to embrace her with gusto. I cried. I felt overwhelmed with love and compassion for her. "I love you," because I couldn't hold it back. It was as natural as she was finally starting to feel.