It is so hard to be form-fitting. I am not talking about body size and appearance in clothing but rather the societal norms that have created a standardized and gendered framework in paperwork. Checking boxes and signing on lines is a pain in print. Turning in papers is a seemingly mindless practice for those who fit the form, but to the students coming from single-parent or non-heteronormative households, that blank second signature line or series of boxes left un-checked represents imprinted exclusivity that the school system has mindlessly perpetuated.
With an impending semester comes a series of forms looming in your inbox — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, often called the FAFSA, being the one that causes the most dread. A process that is supposed to take less than an hour is instead a source of exhausting agony each year due to the seemingly unending pages that must be read and boxes that must be filled. Regardless of the size of the form, there is room for format improvement to streamline the process and accommodate those who don’t “fit.” Small details are a part of almost every school form — beyond just the FAFSA — which should be addressed in the push toward achieving inclusive language and its subsequent positive effect on student morale, thus leaving no student lost in the process. Each student’s circumstance is unique, and there needs to be a comprehensive change towards adopting inclusive language down to every punctuation mark.
For me and others coming from a single parent or other non-traditional household, there is a specific box and line that causes our pens to shutter and clicks to be in question: the box that requires information about our parents. When presented with a physical paper, my way of coping began with scratching out the “s” in parents as well as marking the blank line for “Father’s name” as “not applicable.” Blatant pen strokes did not fill the parental void, nor did they go unnoticed to those who received the form on the other end. Completeness is a necessity when fitting within the form and, therefore, I was made to either feel incomplete or attention-seeking.
The gendered plurality of the word “parents” is an unspoken stressor. It would be so much easier to write in two names, one male and one female, yet the second line and the letter “s” at the end of the word are intentional spaces that the form cannot begin to understand. That privilege of a “traditional” family is not one I have — in fact, it’s one most Americans don’t have. How dare the innocent 8-by-11 sheet of paper or government website assume that I am a part of the 46% of young adults living in a traditional nuclear family structure. As with all things nuclear, it’s about time the concept of the standard family being a two-parent, man-and-woman household explodes. The seats and size of my family dinner table are without labels or standard measurement, and therefore, the school system should tread lightly when inquiring about those who fill or abandon said seats.
The solution lies in punctuation, and its arrival in paperwork is anything but punctual. What I and so many others lacked was a set of parentheses and a sense of ambiguity. Specifically, the parentheses encompassing the “s” in parents were part of the educational revolution toward inclusive language that only came relatively recently. That letter encompassed by two curved brackets made having two parents optional — an option that this generation is the first to realize. Finally, being “incomplete” is an option rather than a burden. No longer should a child have to cram the names of both her mothers on one line for their field trip permission slip. No longer should a child have to submit information on an absent parent to receive financial aid. Beauty can be found in ambiguity and options.
Subtle changes in keystrokes, like the addition of parenthesis encompassing the “s” in parents, are important to eliminate the idea of policy and paperwork as one-size-fits-all. In line with this mission, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, in tandem with LSA Inclusive Teaching at the University of Michigan, has compiled extensive resources for instructors and administrators in the U-M community to foster an inclusive learning environment, including in every character printed on syllabi or word spoken in in-person dialogue. Faculty and U-M commitment to fostering diversity, equity and inclusion down to the punctuation in school paperwork is incredibly refreshing. A set of parentheses instituted with purpose is the “Michigan difference” I waited so long for.
Parentheses around the “s” in parents mean a lot to me, and they should to you too. Hence, the collective mindset towards inclusive language is just as important as the University’s mission for supporting non-traditional students. Ambiguity and neutrality are the only way to make language one-size-fits-all, and therefore, we are to be detailed in our quest to root out exclusive words and phrases so that everyone can fit the form.
Julia Maloney is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.