PILSEN — Amanda Suckow's look on the first day of school fit her personality perfectly: mint slacks, a smart white button-up and a bow tie to complement her neatly trimmed buzz cut.
Orozco Academy's new music teacher said she was determined to be herself at her new school, and it didn't faze her when a chubby-cheeked kindergartner asked why Suckow "looked like a boy."
"Especially when you're a kid, you decide someone is a boy if they have short hair," said Suckow (pronounced SUE-koh).
Breezily, she explained that her style was simply a little different and gracefully moved on to introducing herself as their new music teacher.
"If I just keep it simple and say, 'It's my style,' the kids receive it in a simple way," said Suckow, who is a lesbian. "It's like I'm talking about my favorite food. If I start overcomplicating it, I think it would be confusing."
It was a life lesson without any preaching or platitudes, and one that Suckow said she wished teachers had given her growing up: that being yourself, even if it means being a little different, is totally OK.
Suckow and her wife moved to Chicago this year for work, and Suckow said she was drawn to Orozco Academy because of its deaf and hard-of-hearing program and the school's thriving bilingual curriculum.
Ms Suckow is doing a fantastic job teaching music at Orozco. 4th graders featured here! pic.twitter.com/gjV6v8nnCC— Orozco Academy (@OrozcoAcademy) September 11, 2017
After growing up in Michigan, she taught in Hawaii and Wisconsin. Her first job was at a private Catholic school in Milwaukee, and Suckow found herself hiding some aspects of her identity as a lesbian. While no one told her she had to dress differently than she'd like, "I didn't feel like I could for some reason," Suckow said.
She refrained from wearing what she wanted to and kept her hair longer than it is now.
"It was obvious that I was uncomfortable in the way I was dressing, and that I wasn't being myself," Suckow said. "But I decided that by not being myself, I was teaching shame."
So Suckow switched things up; after she left the Catholic school, she allowed herself to open up and let students see her as she truly is.
If they want to, she tells her tiny charges gleefully, they can refer to her with the gender-neutral term for teacher, "Sensei Suckow," instead of "Mrs. Suckow."
Suckow is drawn to the Japanese honorific title for teachers and offered it as an alternative to her students. What began as a joke with a previous third-grade class during their Recorder Karate lessons became a gender-neutral title that felt like a better fit than "Mrs.," the teacher said.
"I thought it had a really nice ring," she said. "And then it really caught on."
As she settles into a school where she feels free to be herself, Suckow said she looks forward to giving children who might identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer a chance to see themselves mirrored in one of the adults in their everyday lives.
"It's important for children who don't fit in the mainstream gender image to see, 'Oh, here's somebody who is also different in this way,'" Suckow said.
In the author's memoir-turned-musical, a 9-year-old version of Bechdel earnestly sings of the thrill she feels in seeing a strong, short-haired delivery woman wearing dungarees, lace-up boots and a ring of keys.
"I thought it was supposed to be wrong / But you seem OK with being strong," the song goes. "It's probably conceited to say / But I think we're alike in a certain way."
Having accessible role models helps students who are LGBTQ reduce the psychological stress that can come with fears of bullying and isolation, a 2011 study showed.
But for kindergarten students, Suckow doesn't go into the complexities. She just wants them to see their teacher being true to herself.
"I think everybody has unique qualities, and this just happens to be one of mine," she said. "In a way, it's a privilege that I can show students who I am in just a genuine way and be part of that learning experience for them."