After a Student Was Bullied for His Sparkly Sequin Bag, Devoted Gym Teacher Buys a Matching One

Joe Klanowski sits in a classroom showing off his sequin bag next to the boy who was teased.
Joe Klanowski/Reddit

There are teachers that go the extra mile, and then there are teachers that go the extra mile. Joe Klonowski definitely falls into the latter camp. The first-year New York City PE teacher spends his days working with elementary school kids in grades pre-K through fifth where he lives by one motto and one motto only: "Be the teacher who you needed growing up." According to a story now going viral on Reddit, it's pretty clear he takes that philosophy to heart.

  • Klonowski tells CafeMom that in one of the kindergarten classes, a student recently started bringing a pencil case in that caught everyone's eye.

    Now, it wasn't just any old pencil case -- it was a mermaid sequin pencil case; one of those reversible glitter numbers that kids are obsessed with.

    "He would sit there and pet it and change the sequins all the time," Klonowski shares. "He would walk around and show it to his other classmates, even to me when I would pop into the room." 

    Now, that's pretty damn adorable if you ask me. But this being an elementary school, where teasing sadly comes with the territory, it wasn't long before comments and questions started swirling from other kids.

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  • One day in particular, another student came up and asked the boy point-blank: "Why do you have a purse?"

    According to Klonowski, the kindergartner explained that it wasn't a purse, it was a pencil case. (And a pretty cool one at that.) 

    But the other student quickly tried to put him in his place, informing him that "it was for girls."

    Klonowski says the kindergarten teacher "swiftly handled" the situation right there in class, but he noticed from that day on that the boy would no longer take his pencil case out of his backpack.

  • It was then that Klonowski felt compelled to do something as a show of support, no matter how small the gesture.

    "It was at that point that I knew the class very well, and many of the students, including the bully, were very fond of me," Klonowski shares. "So I decided if I was able to get the pencil case, that I would show it off to the class and hopefully make that student feel comfortable enough to take it back out."

    And so began his hunt for the mermaid sequin pencil case -- an exhaustive search that was surprisingly harder than he thought it would be. For a while, that dang pencil case was nowhere to be found, until Klonowski's co-teacher spotted a similar sequin bag in a store and picked it up for him.

    The next day, the gym teacher showed up to school sporting his own glittering "pencil case" -- and the significance of that was not lost on one little boy in particular.
  • "His reaction was fantastic," says Klonowski, who shares that the boy immediately ran up to him to say he had a similar one.

    "I told him to take it out of his bag and show it to me," the teacher recalls. "He ran over and grabbed the pencil case and brought it back to me. At that point I asked him if we could trade so I could look at his case and he could look at mine." 

    The other students soon began to notice all the attention the boy was getting, and came over to marvel at both pencil cases. 

    "They all began to tell me how they had a pencil case, but they just forgot it at home," Klonowski says with a laugh. 

  • But the best moment came when the bully came over to (ironically) fawn over the pencil case too, and the gym teacher decided to have a little chat.

    "I spoke to him and told him how I knew how he picked on that other student and how it wasn't right," says Klonowski. (Ohhh SNAP!) "Hopefully I at least opened his eyes a little bit!"

    Here's hoping that he did.

    Anyone who remembers what it was like in elementary school knows the pain of getting teased. But the fact that the little boy was teased in such a way that (yet again) reinforces gender stereotypes is a reminder we still have some work to do when it comes to challenging gender norms.

    Our boys need to know it's okay to like pink or want to take a ballet class or maybe even play with dolls, just as our girls need to know that playing with trucks and wanting to take karate is totally cool, too. 

  • Klonowski shared the story on Reddit last week, where it's quickly gone viral and elicited comments from across the globe.

    Many Reddit users applauded his kind gesture of support, and they shared similar stories about their own children.

    "My wee boy wanted to dress up as a witch for a party when he was 4," wrote one user. "[My] other half was mortified, but I was happy to see the wee dude dress up, did his makeup for him too and apart from a couple of parents at the party (who I put in their place) everyone was just like aye sound, wee boy in a witch costume. Nobody should steal anyone's fun, and fun doesn't gender."

    For others, the story reminded them of their own childhood.

    "I'm a 36-year-old straight burly man, average dude, average job, etc." wrote another user. "I have loved Sailor Moon since I was a kid and I have no shame about it. Even have a few T-shirts. Can't hold me down, sucka!"

    "I so wish my mom and dad were like you," wrote another. "I had a fun childhood being a boy, but I think I would of had more fun if I had the chance to play dress-up and play with 'girl' toys. Now I'm 28 and a closeted crossdresser."

  • Klonowski says he's been pleasantly surprised by the reaction the story has been getting across Reddit.

    "It was absolutely overwhelming to have this sort of attention," he tells CafeMom, adding that even friends he hasn't spoken to in years reached out after reading the story. "It was humbling to have so many people praising this deed when I felt that this was something that anyone could have done."

    Klonowski adds that all the virtual high-fives and messages of support have also reinforced to him that being a teacher was truly the right career path for him after all.

    I don't think anyone would disagree with him there.