‘Raising Ollie’: A celebrated Minnesota teacher on raising his nonbinary child

By: - January 18, 2022 8:20 am

Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, recently published “Raising Ollie,” a book of stories of his family and his work as a public school teacher during an especially eventful year. Courtesy photo

Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, says nothing has been more inspiring to his work as an educator than raising his child, Ollie.

Rademacher shares stories of his family and his work as a public school teacher during an especially eventful year of Ollie’s childhood in his recently published book, “Raising Ollie: How My Nonbinary Art-Nerd Kid Changed (Nearly) Everything I Know.” That was the year 7-year-old Ollie — a super smart kid who loves art and bubble tea — switched to a new school better suited to their passion for learning, and the year they started using they/them pronouns.

Rademacher, a language arts teacher in the New Brighton School District, wants readers to know the book covers much more than gender identity, however.

“I am more than happy to raise the profile of gender-expansive kids,” Rademacher said. “But it’s also 10% of the book. There’s stuff in there about gifted and talented education, kids that are really into art, all sorts of things that all come together to make Ollie who they are, that I see as equally important.”

Rademacher recently spoke with the Reformer about his book, family and work as a teacher.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

What motivated you to write this book?

My first book was a more straightforward advice-to-new-teachers book, and I had an idea of what the sequel to that book would be like. But I started something like that about four times, and I never quite got into it.

Then I started writing what I thought was going to be a shorter piece about choosing a new school for Ollie, and all of a sudden, I was 15,000 words in and realized that I had a lot of stories to tell about this. I found myself really wanting to write about it. So it kind of grew into a book without me deciding to write it.

You’ve spoken before about how your wife tends to be a bit more private than you about sharing these family stories. What were the discussions about writing this book like with her and Ollie?

Ollie from the very beginning was encouraging about it. They’re of the mind that if their story can help other people, they really want it out there. They often enjoy talking to and teaching people about what it means to be a kid who’s gender expansive. There were some moments of slowing them down a little bit in terms of our approach and what we were going to tell.

I imagined the book Ollie will write in 10 years or 20 years, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t taking anything away from that book. That’s how I visualized it for myself: I’m comfortable telling my story about raising Ollie and being their dad. But I’m not trying to tell Ollie’s story.

The premise of the book is how raising Ollie changed your life. Is there a lesson, or maybe a perspective shift, that you learned from Ollie?

I think a lot about the kids like Ollie, who are coming into their own identity but who don’t have a lot of support in their community or in their family. Seeing how important it was for Ollie to have that support, and what it meant for them and their health and confidence to be seen as who they really are — it breaks my heart that all kids don’t get that.

I constantly wonder how we could think anything was worth denying that to kids. The small price we have to pay to honor who kids are, versus the very, very large price we pay if we don’t show them that support. That struggle that a lot of kids face has become a much larger part of my own perception of the world since writing the book.

What has reception to the book been like?

The reception has been very positive. Most people who reach out to me have kids who have changed pronouns or go by a new name, and they feel very seen by the book. 

I think people like that it’s not a how-to book about raising nonbinary kids. I recognize that Ollie doesn’t just sit around being nonbinary all day — that’s not all they do. The book includes stories about all different aspects of their childhood and what it’s meant raising them.

There are a lot of people who sent the book out to family members to start a conversation, which have been some of the more gratifying messages I’ve gotten. If the book does one thing — helping people start talking about this or start seeing a deeper level to this — then I’m really happy.

What do you hope educators take away from this book?

I think educators, by and large, understand the importance of respecting their students’ pronouns and identities and seeing them as who they are. I also think that a lot of adults maybe don’t have a ton of experience with gender-expansive young people. My hope is that this maybe helps them understand that or see it a little bit differently — or at least understand that it’s so worth the effort to make sure that your kids feel safe in your classroom.

That can really be a make-or-break difference for some kids in school.

Yeah, and kids might not always be really loud about it. But they know which teachers are calling them by the right name and the right pronouns, and they know how that feels. But not all students are going to speak up about that. As educators, we need to be really aware of what we might be doing and the impacts of our choices on students.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.