The Impact and Role of Emotions in Schools for Teachers and Students with Complex Gender Identities
by sj Miller - 2019
Persons who have complex gender identities are among the most under-researched, under-theorized, and least understood populations in schools. Such persons are also the most vulnerable to experiencing various forms of violence. While interventions to support persons with complex gender identities are becoming increasingly evident in schools, scant attention has been paid to the role of emotion as a mechanism for supporting such youths’ learning. Since bodily and emotional responses cannot be generalized to all experiences, the responses of others who are not attuned to the experiences of persons with complex gender identities compel such youth to expend debilitating emotional labor.
Policing of gender and gender identities is part of the historical landscape of life in the United States. Although social and political movements have helped galvanize change and effect some material, social, and economic gains around gender and gender identities, schools consistently continue to enforce traditional gender norms. When the education system maintains static notions about gender identity, cissexism, genderism, and transphobia remain anchored within schooling practices. As a consequence, students are left physically, psychologically, and emotionally vulnerable. Such deficit-situated perspectives of gender identity undermine possibilities of having self-determined gender identities and thereby reproduce rationales that generate violence against bodies (Miller, 2018c). When people are ill-prepared to understand, recognize, and legitimate others as they shift in bodily expressions, the educational systemas well as society beyond the school wallsis left with a diminished capacity to effect change.
Such barriers to change are especially prevalent within teacher education, where university teacher education and educational leadership programs have yet to systemically address gender identity. Because of limited attention to and research on such important topics, administrators and educators at all levels remain ill prepared to sufficiently address and understand nuances of gender identity. While a handful of teacher educators aim to prepare preservice teachers with pedagogical and curricular strategies that embed gender identity into classroom learning, there remains a dearth of theoretical, pedagogical, and curriculum practices that specifically address gender identity within teacher education. When long-standing beliefs about gender identity remain unchallenged in teacher education programs, schools are susceptible to inheriting such norms.
There have been only a handful of studies concerned with emotion as related to transgender topics in general, and those tend to be situated in post-secondary settings. There are studies on sex and desire (Jourian, 2018; Schilt & Windsor, 2014), relationships to ones body (Riggs, 2017; Spade, 2011), and the role university-wide trans*+ work has on feelings of belonging (Nicolazzo, 2016; Nicolazzo, Pitcher, Renn, & Woodford, 2017; Woodford et al., 2017), but no studies specifically address emotions about gender identity in pre-K12 schooling. While the research on pre-K12 students with trans*+ identities is certainly growing and addresses how students, teachers, peers, administrators, and families feel about schooling, as well as how students with complex gender identities experience schooling (the good and the difficult) and often are pushed out of schools, there is an absence of work that specifically addresses the continuum and indeterminacy of gender identity in general (Miller, 2018a, 2018b, 2018c, 2019). Perhaps this gap stems from the belief that such research does not even need to be attended to. To build on this observation, there is a glaring absence of research about the role emotions have in schooling practices specific to gender identity. In an advanced word search (with expanders) using Pre-K, K12 schooling (and similar derivatives) paired with gender identity and emotions in EBSCO, Academia.edu, and Google Scholar, over seven million possible tangential sources surfaced, none of which dealt specifically with the role of emotions about gender identity in schooling practices.
UNMASKING EMOTIONS AS A GATEWAY INTO LEARNING
To address the role of emotions in schooling practices, I engage with the work on emotion as mediated action of Cynthia Lewis (Lewis & Crampton, 2015, 2016; Lewis & Tierney, 2011, 2013). According to Lewis, emotions are semiotic and mediated processes in action, or action mediated by language and other signs (Lewis & Tierney, 2013, p. 289). More specifically, I draw from the aspects of Lewiss work that built on Ahmed (2004), who suggested a rejection of Western binaries because they reinforce pairings such as right/wrong and rational/irrational; from Boler (1999), who argued that emotion offers opportunities where ones lived experience is a nexus for negotiation between self and other; and from Micciche (2004), who said that emotion is what one does, not what one has: Emotion is inseparable from ones identity.
Typically the invisibility of gender-complex youth is habituated and semipermanent, creating daily cuts on the soul. Consider how over the course of a week, a month, or a year, the debilitating effect of microaggressions can lead to dangerous emotional-psycho-social-academic consequences. After all, when someone is invisible and seems not to matter, they may question whether they should even be in school. On the flip side of this are narratives about gender identity that build on emotion as strength and leverage it as a mediator for learning. From this vantage point, students with complex gender identities would experience the schooling process altogether differently, and all youth might feel empowered.1
Youth with complex gender identities are constantly inventing and reinventing as they talk, dress, engage, act, think, behave, and read the world. Whether at a party, a rave, a Kiki,2 a park, a cypher, the mall, a café, a poetry slam, someones home, a gender and sexual diversity alliance, or a class; whether through social networking, texting, writing, drawing, spewing lyrics, memeing, creating, designing, etc.in or out of schoolthey are inventors of knowledge. Indeed, they have agency in shaping their safety and their humanity.
When students with complex gender identities see or observe themselves reflected back, the act of recognition is a source of validation that legitimizes their existence and place in the world. For students who are already on the margins of curriculum, practice, and policy, this legitimization carries more weight than can be imagined (Miller, 2018a, 2018c).
If emotions form the core of a persons experience, then imagine the emotional labor expended in simply being oneself as a gender-nonconforming person. What makes this issue even more critical is that many educators are unfamiliar with the myriad and indeterminate gender identities with which todays youth are increasingly identifying. It is therefore very urgent that educators adopt processes that embrace and affirm gender-nonconforming youth. Yet educators need to do more than just adopt more effective practices; they must also create transformative spaces where traditional gender policies and practices are shifted. In short, educators must attend to the emotional landscapes of students (and all stakeholders in educational contexts) who identify with complex gender identities. Failure to do so may prevent the development of truly inclusive schooling practices.
A TRANS-SECTIONAL TURN: MOVING EMOTION
A trans-sectional turn is a coming together of multiple forms of identities that are always in motion and are identified by an ever-shifting amalgamation of identities. Complex gender identities complicate how we understand peoples positions; as Mayo (2017) suggested, a queering of identities undoes, dismantles, and resists categorization. In fact, the destabilization of gender identity amplifies it as a resource for escaping the binary. The trans-sectional turn, therefore, is a form of disentangling from and blurring the lines of the gender-identity binary. When youth resist exclusionary practices that seek to reinforce gender-identity normativity, they participate in forms of resistance that inspire the growth of new forms of knowledge. These changes carry tremendous potential for the recognition of evolving and emerging iterations of gender identities. Youths' resistance can reposition educators to make a trans-sectional turna shift in thinking that produces new actions. This turn can inspire the negotiation of new forms of recognition of ethnic, gender, class, linguistic, able-bodiedness, and sexual-diversity subjectivities, to name a few, as they shift over time and in different contexts. Understanding the function of approaching identities as trans-sectional accounts for and shows respect for the role that emotions serve inside and outside of school. One important aspect to consider is: How can this work be sustained over time to make shifts in the ways we think about and understand youth with nonconforming gender identities?
GENDER IDENTITY IS TRANS-CULTURAL: EMOTION AS MEDIATOR FOR LEARNING
Trans-cultural, then, describes a space where relationships intersect, are concentric, or do not intersect; where they can be parallel, nonparallel, perpendicular, obtuse, and/or fragmented. It is a space that is both invisible and visible and embodies all of the forces co-constructing gender identities that traverse borders of space, time, and technology. When complex gender identities move across different physical, material and symbolic borders, this activates and fortifies (although temporally) new gender-identity formations in schools. As Lewis and Tierney (2013) wrote, Viewing emotion as action requires a reading of classroom dynamics that honors its complexity and understands emotion to be linked to other actions historically and spatially within and beyond the classroom (p. 290).
In order to illustrate the emotional landscapes of youth with complex gender identities, I have drawn on data from narratives of gender-nonconforming youth to compose a vignette about one youth to whom I refer as Julio/Géminis. They are a composite; this vignette was purposefully constructed from prior research, discussion, and observations of the experiences of multiple youths with complex gender identities. I use this vignette to synthesize prior research and to make explicit the complexities that youths like Julio/Géminis face as they navigate emotional landscapes in their efforts to articulate their gender identities on their own terms.
Julio Hernandez, a 10th-grader in East Los Angeles, CA, is the middle child of a tight-knit working-class Latin@3 household. A student who is enrolled in pre-AP biology, English, and calculus, Julio is in the Honor Society and the school choir and is a member of La Gente.4 In addition, Julio co-leads the Queer and Sexual Diversity Alliance for Students of Color (QSDSC) and is vice president of the student council. Julio is a midfielder on the varsity soccer team and has been named all-state two years in a row. Julio also volunteers as a reading tutor for an after-school program at the neighboring partner elementary school.
When Julio was in second grade, they began to feel themself not fitting what they perceived as socially acceptable behaviors for boys. At that age, this feeling was not about sexual attraction; what Julio was feeling was something internally unrecognizable. While Julio received daily messages about expectations attached to the binary male/female identities, Julio did what felt right for them.
Julio has had a close group of friends who have surrounded them with acceptance. Julios friends validated Julio just as they were. However, as Julio progressed through different grade levels, they began to feel even more different, and their self-awareness entered into a deeper domain. By the time Julio was in 6th grade, they knew with certainty that they did not feel that they were a boy or a girl. Julio questioned what that even felt like, because they were aware that it is impossible to ever truly know or feel a gender. Julio knew with certainty, however, that their feelings of difference were not related to sexual identity; rather, these feelings had to do with gender. Julio knew that they also embodied Géminis. Julio and Géminis were one and the same.
Julio/Géminis was aware that within the culture at Hidalgo High School, their identities were neither reflected nor legitimated. While much attention was paid to LGBT*+ topics within the school context and curriculum, Julio/Géminis never heard teachers discuss actual histories of persons with complex gender identities. In English class, in particular, Julio/Géminis encountered several examples of identity erasure and absence. For example, in reading Dantes Inferno (1472/1971), Julio/Géminis's English teacher failed to address how the character of Teiresias, the prophet, possessed both female and male qualities, but Julio/Géminis knew this. And when discussing Alice Walkers The Color Purple (1992), the teacher's discussion of Celies strength in leaving Mr. _____ never touched on how she disrupted binary attributions of gender identity. Again, Julio/Géminis was nevertheless aware of this complexity. When discussing Rudolfo Anayas Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Julio/Géminiss teacher never broached the other-worldliness, beyond any binaryness, of Ultima, while Julio/Géminis so identified with Ultima that they became Ultima when reading. No other young-adult novels that were published during that period were available for reading or discussion.
Compounding Julios emotional labor, Julio/Géminiss family was unaware of what was brewing internally for them. As long as they did their chores, earned good grades, looked male, and were compliant with family requests, the family never questioned Julio/Géminis. But why would they, when Julio/Géminis did not show any type of visible, outward difference? The family's inability to recognize Julio/Géminiss dual identities was further consolidated due to Julios parents cultural background and generational awareness. Through no fault of their own, expanding signifiers for gender identity simply were not part of Julios parents visual or linguistic repertoires. Taken together, the lack of recognition in both home and school contexts created much turmoil for Julio/Géminis to maneuver through and tolerate.
What makes Julios school experience so noteworthy is that their high school has a strong reputation and typically receives high marks on the statewide School Accountability Report Card. HHS is also known as a progressive institution and has been recognized for its antidiscrimination and antibullying policies, which enumerate protections for myriad identities, including gender identity. The school frequently invites in guest speakers who have complex gender identities and are from local LGBT*+ non-profits or different student, collegiate, and activist groups. In all, school policies and practices support ideas that such complex identities fail to be included, or go unnamed and unrecognized in the commonplace LGBT*+ acronym. Yet upon a closer look at the policies at HHS, one sees that while LGBT*+ policies have social visibility, they are often greeted with tolerant acceptance within the school. That is, students, teachers, key school personnel, and administrators are expected to attend these schoolwide speakers events and, typically, to continue discussions that surface in each of their school contexts, but few actually engage deeply or in a transformative way with their content.
When Julio attends such school-sanctioned events on gender identity, the overarching attitude of tolerant acceptance becomes more visible. During these events, Julio usually sits with their friends. They take these events seriously, because the speakers often share moving personal narratives and offer suggestions to help change conditions in schools. While Julio listens attentively, their double consciousness, in these instances, immediately surfaces. For Julio, these speakers events offer a cooling reprieve of recognition and legitimacy from the daily invisibility Julio experiences at school. While these events are meant to create a more inclusive space within the school context, deep down Julio feels that they should not have to go to an event to cool off; rather, the issues should be integrated seamlessly into the explicit and implicit curriculum Julio encounters in school. While this is challenging to enact in public institutions, school personnel can make changes in curriculum and pedagogy that will alter encounters gender-complex youth have in school.
SCHOOL-SANCTIONED EMOTIONAL MASKING
On the surface, a dominant perception about HHS might indicate that it has met, and even exceeded, the needs of what has become a more socially accepted and understood part of the fabric of the 21st-century student population. The narrative I present, however, suggests that while time and attention to gender identity are being addressed, there is a broader and sustained absence from this reality. Such an absence has the unintended consequence of causing students like Julio, who do not see themselves represented in the broader school culture and curriculum, to shut down, disengage, or even suffer maladies. While school personnel celebrate their many accomplishments, they are failing at integrating into the curriculum the structures that complexify gender identity. In so doing, they normalize a gender binary. As a result, for their own survival Julio must engage in emotional masking (Bing & Yanjie, 2005; Davis, 1995).
Emotional masking (Furr, 2009; Hochschild, 1983) is a condition in which an individual feigns normalcy without reaction in the face of microaggressions. In other words, emotional masking is essentially swallowing ones pride and pretending to be unaffected by circumstance. As I see it, however, emotional masking is a form of accepting what is unacceptable. As I interpret Julios narrative and others like it, emotional masking was foisted upon Julio because key stakeholders at HHS did not readily have access to the tools or the necessary preparation that might have supported Julio in the classroom and the broader school community.
So what was the school not doing? What actions might district and school personnel take that would positively affirm and validate Julio? First, HHS faculty and staff and other key district stakeholders should have access to professional development that specifically addresses the range of and variation in gender identities beyond that of binary identities. In creating anti-bullying and discrimination policies, key stakeholders could specify gender as an identity that bears protection. In evaluating and observing instruction within classrooms, school leadership could make note of how all students are respected, how instruction addresses students social and emotional learning experiences, and how curricula across disciplines specifically include and discuss gender identityor draw attention to its absence as a critique. Creating a more gender-inclusive space would also mean training school staff and academic personnel in how to address students in ways that are gender inclusive. For example, they would not assume that students have a gender or use pronounsthat is, they would avoid phrases such as "boys and girls" or "ladies and gentlemen," instead saying people, scholars, etc.. As part of such training, teachers and school personnel could learn techniques and methods that consistently invite students to self-determine who they are. Likewise, in creating forms for school documentation, key stakeholders would consider how such documents could provide options beyond binary gender categories. Similarly, key stakeholders would examine signs in classrooms, as well as bathroom placards and posters, to ensure that they are inclusive of the gender identities of all students. Had such anchors been in place, I argue that Julio might have felt more affirmed and comfortable at HHS. The reduced emotional labor thus required for Julio to tolerate existing within the school community would have likely mediated a different experienceperhaps even a positive and enjoyable one.
Unless they notice the expansiveness and indeterminacy of complex gender identities, educational stakeholders like those at HHS often fall short in doing the deeply transformative work that is needed in schools. In order to effect change, educational stakeholders must do more than simply talk about diversity, inclusivity, or tolerance. Instead, educational stakeholders must recognize that emotions are the heartbeat for all students, but especially for students with complex gender identities (Miller, 2019). For such students daily face the constant threat of identity erasure and feel masked emotions. Their emotions, however, form the core of their existence.
MICRO-SANCTUARY: HAVEN FOR GENDER-IDENTITY AUTHENTICITY
Youth like Julio/Géminis, whose complex gender identities may seem incongruous with standard educational practices, are astute about their social positioning and keenly aware of how negative representations of gender identity influence beliefs. As a result, many turn away from schoolphysically and/or emotionally. When a group of students with these similar experiences find each other, they form a micro-sanctuary (Miller, 2019). A micro-sanctuary for gender-nonconforming youth is a site of resistance for self-preservation, both inside and outside of school. In these spaces, such youth seek and find recognition and validation as they bear witness to one anothers self-expression. The networks growing out of micro-sanctuaries can help to foster gender identity self-determination (Miller, 2016b), whereby the person is the ultimate authority on their own gender identity.
Micro-sanctuaries exist in opposition to the kinds of gender-identity surveillance that takes place in schools. In such sanctuaries, youth create, recreate, invent, and reinvent identities. Acting as educators to one another, in micro-sanctuaries youth often teach each other about reconfigurations that enable them to reconstitute identities, politics, media representations, histories, texts, films, art, speakers, social networking, and social activism (Miller, 2019). These personal and social validations simultaneously produce new meaning and new knowledge and invite in the indeterminacy of continual expansion. For instance, gender-nonconforming youths are building their own activist networks, such as the Trans Student Educator Resource (http://www.transstudent.org), and using video games and apps for kinship. The social platform Tumblr is one of the most active, trafficked, and contagious of all youth movements (as are Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat; see Adams, 2017). It contains categories for protections, gender-identity positivity, evolving language and terminologyincluding different types of romantic attractioncamps, genres that show positive representations, youth movements, video archives of youth speaking to each other, feminism, anarchy, and self-help, among others.
COMMUNITIES OF PARTICIPATION
A subsection of a micro-sanctuary is a community of participation (CoP) (Lave & Wenger, 1991). CoPs are smaller groups within a micro-sanctuary in which youth engage and interact. Queer students of color, students who are English Language Learners, and groups that form for personal reasons may create their own CoPs that are identity-specific. In these CoPs they may hone, try on, unlearn, and relearn what it means and feels like to be honored and respected as fully human. More often than not, schools' GSAs, Queer and Sexuality Alliances, etc., fail to reach non-White students. These groups also sometimes fail to address issues of intersectionality/trans-sectionality and tend to be less familiar with cultural and linguistic differences outside of their own experience. What often transpires is that these students create their own groups for safety, as Julio/Géminis did via their participation and activism within the QSDSC.
Within these spaces, the students' heightened engagement amplifies the ways in which their identities are produced, legitimized, recognized, and given meaning. Through mutual endeavors, shared practices, or ways of doing things, personal meanings are strengthened. Students may create these subsets around common ages, interests, cultures, and so on. What arises is something new and unrecognizable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation (Bhabha, 1994).
An example of a CoP is the process of naming and claiming ones identity, an embodied principle of gender-identity self-determination. Non-binary gender-identity communities have established a norm of directly asking someone how they self-identify, how they would like to be referred to, and what their claimed names and pronouns are or arent (some people are apronouned, meaning they choose to not to use a pronoun). When someone changes their name or pronouns and asks others to use a particular name and/or pronoun, it marks a major milestone in their identity transition, and being named or pronouned marks the moment in which a gender identity leaves the mind of a [trans] person and enters a new reality on the lips of an interlocutor (Zimman, in press, p. 10). According to Stanley (2014) and Miller (2016a), gender-identity self-determination constitutes a collective praxis against the brutal pragmatism of the present, the liquidation of the past, and the austerity of the future (p. 89). This refusal to be essentialized, reified, codified, and trapped by institutionalized structures that coercively assign and impose gender identities escalates the need to self-identify into a life-saving state. For all intents and purposes, claiming ones identity is resistance against enculturation and a way to both preserve and restore ones humanity. As teachers come to recognize how powerful this process is for students with complex gender identities, they can fold claimed names and pronouns into classroom practice and open up space and opportunities for the indeterminate to become part of the ordinary experience for everyone (Miller, 2018b, in press).
A THEORY OF TRANS*+
A trans*+ theory (Miller, 2016a, 2016b, 2018a, 2018b, 2019) is a critical consciousness about how people read and are read by the world (Freire, 1970) and a refusal of and divesting from essentializations (Miller, 2016a, 2016b, 2018b). Trans*+ as a theoretical concept suggests that students have agency in how they invite in, embody, and can be recognized by the self and other as they travel across contexts embodied in multiple identities that can be perpetually reinvented. Trans*+ is a space where different configurations of possibilities for meaning-making can occur. It is a refusal to be essentialized, reified, codified, and trapped by institutionalized structures that impose an ideal algorithm for identity. Understood this way, it functions as a site of resistance to self-identify and be recognized in imaginative and inventive ways. It is the positioning of a self simultaneously in first space (the real), second space (the imagined), and third space (the coming together of the real and the imagined), where language can provide opportunities for inventing and reinventing who we are and might be. In these spaces, what arises is something new and unrecognizable, a new area of meaning and representation, opening up possibilities for determining how a person wants to be spoken about and understood.
A FUTURE RESEARCH AGENDA ON EMOTIONS IN SCHOOLING PRACTICES
Although it seems that policies can be troubling, students are re-navigating their creativity and their identities and are becoming change agents. While shifts in federal, state, and local policies can negatively affect their rights in schools, they have also galvanized growing student-led coalitions and, in some ways, helped them find the courage to speak up and fight back (Miller, Mayo, & Lugg, 2017). Even with changes in the educational system and an emerging and expanding of university preservice teacher education curricula about gender identity (Chappell, Ketchum, & Richardson, 2018; Gender Spectrum, n.d.; GLSEN, n.d.; Miller, 2016b, 2018a, 2018b, 2018c, 2019; Wooley & Airton, in press) and the new theory of trans*+-ness and the pedagogy of refusal (Miller, 2016, 2018a, 2018b, 2018c, 2019), students with complex gender identities still must simultaneously hold two images of the self, the internal and the external, while always trying to compose and reconcile their identities.
Future research on emotions in relation to the feelings of students with complex gender identities can draw on and build from the robust research on the role of emotion in learning (Lewis & Crampton, 2015, 2016; Lewis & Tierney, 2011, 2013). At these intersections, there are powerful opportunities for the emergence of new pedagogical strategies that affirm gender identity. Research and commitments about the role of emotions in relation to gender identity are desperately needed across grade spans and disciplines and for all of the stakeholders in schools. Such work must also be seamlessly woven throughout all teacher education programs and education leadership programs, family and community supports, ongoing professional development, and the framing of language in policy. Future research should also continue to theorize, complicate, and disrupt cisgender assumptions and develop pedagogical and curricular strategies for classroom and school-situated practice.
It is important to realize that these students experiences are not isolated to them; many others are also on a continuum of understanding. For changes to truly occur, and for the education system to transform, this work requires more than just the field of education; it requires the collective. This includes, but is not limited to, birth and claimed families, community members, policymakers, the service sector, non-profits, private industry, etc; it requires being in and living the work with students with complex gender identities and building on the literacies they embody. If the educational system were to recognize students as knowledge-makers as well as learners, shifts in mindsets, pedagogy, culture, climate, and society at large would be likely to occur. It may not be as easy as 1-2-3, but it is our job to listen to and learn from and with these students.
Alice Walker said, If you want to have a life that is worth living, a life that expresses your deepest feelings and emotions and cares and dreams, you have to fight for it (Schloredt, 2002). Students require recognition and validation, legitimizing who they are within a system that is for the most part still steeped in cisnormativity. Working with students can reset the default to more expansive notions about who people are and may become, albeit this will require time and a sustained commitment. This change would help everyone grow and develop beyond what we might currrently imagine. The hope is that such a transformation is not far in the distant futurethat Julio won't have to mask their Géminis, that Géminis will be free to be Julio, and that they, as one and the same, wont need spaces to cool off in; rather, they will soon be enveloped by the school system and made to feel ordinary about who they are.
1. This change is similar to what Lewis & Tierney (2011, 2013) found in their studies about how Black female students were perceived and how their emotions were read as deficit-based.
2. A Kiki is a youth-led, prosocial subset of the larger mainstream House and Ballroom community, in which organizations, called houses, creatively battle it out in categories such as face, runway, vogue, fashion, and more.
3. While it is prescriptive and perceived as culturally correct for American English to use the third-person singular pronouns he/him/his and she/her/hers to signify genders, we have recently seen the entrance into our lexicon (often to the great outrage of prescriptivists) of the singular they, including its adoption in The Associated Press Stylebook 2019 (Associated Press, 2019). The AP Stylebook shows the singular they and its derivative forms (them/their/theirs or themselves) being used to demarcate a wide range of gender identities. This shift marks a movement away from the old presumptions about how people self-identify and begins moving us toward a gender-neutral state. Among Spanish-speaking populations, Latin@ is often used to demarcate a non-gendered person; their, as in English, is also used by Spanish speakers to identify an individual non-specifically by gender.
4. La Gente is a high school activist group that works on behalf of their student body and supports the local community.
The author recognizes Boni Fernandes Wozolek for help with Spanish translations.
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