The ninth graders who graduated from Syracuse Arts Academy this week hold a special place in science teacher Bree Borrowman’s heart.
Borrowman began transitioning two years ago when the students were seventh graders, and they supported her, she said, at every step in her journey.
So she was especially touched when student body officers asked her to be the one to send them off on their own new journey. As as far as she can tell, she may be the first transgender person to ever speak at a graduation event in Utah.
“Each one of you is absolutely brilliant, beautiful and wonderful,” Borrowman told the group of 132 ninth graders at the public charter school. “However, feelings of shame and guilt from outside influences can often make us feel less than and unloved. … You are not alone. I love you. And my door is always open.”
Parents, administrators and former students waited in a group around Borrowman after the ceremony to thank her for her speech. Some said it made them think of how they can be more supportive of their family members and friends who are LGBTQ.
Borrowman, 65, grew up in Bountiful and has lived in Utah nearly all of her life. She worked in information technology for most of her career, but when her job was outsourced in 2010, she didn’t know where to turn. Her friends suggested she become a teacher and after some deliberation, she applied at Syracuse Arts Academy, where she’s worked for the last 11 years.
She was dealing with feelings of “gender incongruence,” she said, before classes moved online to limit the spread of COVID-19 in spring 2020. While teaching from home, she spent a lot of time thinking about her life and realized she identified as a woman.
She emailed the school’s director, Dale Pfister, about her feelings and the journey she was going to set out on during the next school year. Within minutes, Pfister and the school’s principal, Leigh Schwartz, were telling her that the school supported her decision.
“They told me, ‘This changes nothing. If you think you’re leaving the school because of this, you’re wrong. We’re not going to give you a letter of recommendation,’” Borrowman recalls with a laugh.
The students matched the support that the administration offered her, Borrowman said. Students made a large poster composed of short, anonymous messages written on Post-It notes to give to teachers earlier this year. One note said, “Bree, thanks for being such a good example for us closeted kids.”
“I love finally being able to be my whole self and love that they love that whole self,” Borrowman said. “I feel like I’m still the same person. But the part I was holding back that nobody was ever going to know about? Yeah, that’s now part of me.”
Her students say that Borrowman is one of the kindest teachers they’ve ever had. Her physics, earth science and integrated science classes are hands-on and entertaining, some said. Brooklyn Short, a recently graduated ninth grader, said that in Borrowman’s classroom, students “have freedom. Dare I say, it’s a vibe. It’s really fun.”
While students say they always learned a lot from her teaching, Borrowman’s biggest impact may have come in the moments between classes and after school. Alysha Sanderson, a former student, said that she was feeling nervous about doing her makeup before a school performance and went to Borrowman for help.
“I remember going to her like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ She’s like, ‘I got you.’ And helped me out,” Sanderson said. “I’d go in there when I was going through tough times and just talk to her.”
Borrowman wants her students to feel like her classroom is a safe space for whatever they’re going through. Students have asked Borrowman to call them by a different name or different gender pronouns while they’re in her class. Borrowman has happily obliged.
“It opens up a little personal relationship because they know that they can trust me and I support them 100%,” Borrowman said. “So when they have a bad day or, you know, things aren’t going right … they know they can just come to my room and know that I’m there for them and I’ll help them.”
Sanderson, who graduated from high school this week, said she struggled with self-confidence in junior high and was grateful for the way Borrowman listened and connected with her. After taking Borrowman’s classes at Syracuse Arts Academy, Sanderson was inspired to take Advanced Placement science classes in high school.
“She didn’t just care about our academics,” Short added. “She cared about us personally. And there was a few times where she did help me out personally with my issues, and I really do appreciate her for that. And I know she’s done it for so many other people.”
Living with the fear and other feelings that came with her sense of gender incongruence, Borrowman said, put strain on her relationships. But after the last two years with her students, and after her graduation speech — and while she celebrated with her former students and their families — she felt like she wasn’t broken anymore, she said, because her students showed that they love her whole self.
The graduating ninth graders especially, Borrowman said, know her “better than any other class, and I get really attached to these guys.”
“They made it possible,” Borrowman said. “That’s what is special to me. That this can happen because of them. Because of the students, because of the school, because of the administration. It doesn’t happen without their support and their love, their acceptance.
“They watched this journey as I progressed through this and they’ve just been with me through this whole way. And it’s just they’ve been great and they’re special and they’re wonderful. And I tell them that. It’s been fun to share this together.”