I have two teenaged sons. Aside from one of the two dogs, I am the only female in the house and, you know what? This suits me just fine. Both times I was pregnant, I wished hard for boys. When I am feeling sappy, smarmy and squishy sweet, I tell my two little angels that they made all my wishes come true. Then I scream at them to put their dirty dishes in the sink, pick up their wet towels off the bathroom floor and do their homework. They say, yeah, mom, crack a joke or cut a fart. Boys often annoy the hell out of me but they make me laugh.
And, as for the two, I have one easy and one hard. Truthfully, they are both just right, but my oldest put me (and a few teachers) through some paces and that was hard for all of us, but especially for him. Even before intermediate school, he began to hate school and a vicious cycle was underway. Fourth and fifth grade were especially tough and I have described one of his teachers in a previous post about what boys like to draw or, more aptly, what teachers don’t like boys to draw (or write, by the way). He was a live wire, to that I will admit, but he was a child and was full of energy, jokes, giggles, wiggles, questions, and comments. And he was frustrated by being asked to sit still and quiet all day long and tormented by his sense of humor, albeit quirky, being constantly (mis)interpreted as disrespect.
Before I understood what I was dealing with when it came to the phone calls and meetings with school personnel, I would be reduced to a pathetic, bawling mess of a mother who left each encounter to go home and yell at my son about how terrible he was. These rigged “meetings” were set up like a firing squad and everyone in the room was put on the same page before I even arrived. I never had a chance to “discuss” anything. What were the meetings about? Talking out of turn, getting out of his seat during class, jumping off a set of bleachers once during gym, singing loudly in the bathroom, being too excited and then being too sullen, drawing gross comics, questioning a teacher about a grade or an assignment, tossing an apple out the school bus window, and on and on. In about the craziest meeting I ever had, the vice principal called me in after he’d done one of those basketball jump-shots to the trashcan with an apple core in the lunchroom. I swear to you that he told me “it could have hit someone in the eye.” Then, when I tried to bring him back to reality he got huffy and said, “Mrs. Hosta, one day it’s apple cores and the next thing you know he’ll be taken away in handcuffs.” What?! Wow, that’s a leap. He’d get detentions for these things and then, when asked to stare at the back of a room for 45 minutes, doing nothing, would get into more trouble. But, no drugs, no vandalism, no violence. He wasn’t a bully, he didn’t pull the legs off spiders or exhibit antisocial behavior, he had many nice friends, and he made A’s and B’s. Now a high school freshman, he plays saxophone in the jazz band, is becoming bilingual in Spanish and, one day, hopes to join the Peace Corps. He has settled down considerably but he still likes to draw gross comics. I think they’re actually pretty good.
Somewhere in the middle of the difficult years I discovered Thomas Newkirk and Ralph Fletcher. Newkirk wrote a wonderful book called Misreading Masculinity, which should be required reading for every school teacher in the country. Fletcher, father of three boys and now a friend of mine, wrote Boy Writers Reclaiming Their Voices, and presents thoughts on, and solutions for, the creative writing that happens in schools, which isn’t always boy-friendly enough for boys. His book should also be required reading for anyone who feels they have those “reluctant” writers–or readers– in their classroom.
In Misreading Masculinity, Newkirk tells the story of his fourth grade teacher, Miss Rickenbrood, who approached a young and particularly restless Thomas during a lesson and whispered to him a question: “Would you like to go outside and run?” Newkirk was shocked and surprised and then, later, describes the the typical school boy who would pretty much never be offered this type of intervention by a teacher:
The trick was always to bring the “outside” back into the school building, to run in the hall, to jump and try to touch the light fixtures or door jambs, and to find any excuse to generate a throwing game–alertness to suddenly pitch a book to a friend with the split-second warning “Catch.” The mundane routines of schooling were in this way transformed into tests of physical skill, to the exasperation of our teachers. But we were also bringing recess in with us. The challenge was to take our behavior right up to the line of serious trouble and escape punishment. We disapproved of the kids who went too far, just as we looked down on those too timid to contest any part of school, those who didn’t go far enough. (Newkirk, Misreading Masculinity, p.28).
I have heard many teachers complain to me, a teaching writer, that they are sick of the things that “boys want to write about”–monsters, battles, superheroes and video games. Ralph Fletcher relates the difficulties that boys have when it comes to writing and how these difficulties spring from the very essences of their boyness:
What is the impact on a boy when his teacher tells him, subtly or explicitly, that what he wants to write about is not welcome in the writing workshop? First he gets angry, resentful. Then he turns off and gives you that “Whatever” look. He glances around the classroom and says to himself: “This writing stuff isn’t for me.” At the very least he recognizes: “This is not where I can do the real writing.” Writing becomes one more example of school’s necessary evils, something you have to do even though it doesn’t have much value or contain much pleasure. (Fletcher, Boy Writers Reclaiming Their Voices, p. 43).
At the moment, there is a lot of commentary out there about the plight of boys in America’s public school system. Just google “boys and education” to get a taste. New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, wrote last year about the new gender gap and how our country’s boys are falling behind, particularly in reading and writing–urban boys are falling behind even faster and urban, black boys are at the back of the line. Kristof consults reports, statistics and Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, and says:
The basic problem is an increased emphasis on verbal skills, often taught in sedate ways that bore boys. “The world has gotten more verbal,” he (Whitmire) writes. “Boys haven’t.” The upshot, he (Whitmire) writes, is that boys get frustrated, act out, and learn to dislike school. “Poor reading skills snowball through the grades,” he (Whitmire) writes. “By fifth grade, a child at the bottom of the class reads only about 60,000 words a year in and out of school, compared to a child in the middle of the class who reads about 800,000 words a year.”
I would have liked to see Whitmire go on to comment on why boys haven’t become more verbal because I think Newkirk and Fletcher (and I) would point to a learning environment that is predominantly taught by middle aged white women, doesn’t always embrace a more boy-friendly teaching outlook and jumps to irrational and reactionary disciplinary measures in a post-Columbine world. Like apple core jump shots and handcuffs, for example.
So, what about gender separated classrooms? Since 2003, I have visited hundreds of classrooms and only last week did I teach a residency program at an all-boys school. I presented an assembly to a rollicking group of PreK through fourth grade gentlemen and then had a series of hands-on writing and art workshops with second graders. Wow. Here’s what I can tell you… when all-boys is done right, it is an amazing thing for this mother of XY’s to behold. Princeton Academy (yes, it’s a private school) is full of energetic boys who are curious, active and happy. The classrooms are filled with projects–huge replicas of medieval castles made of cardboard tubes and other recycled pieces of garbage, a model of the Nile River, as long as the classroom, filled with water with actual dirt on each side (the “crops” I was told had just started sprouting that day!).
Animals reside in several of the rooms, a chinchilla and a tank full of really big fish, and artwork is everywhere. The boys have two recesses and go out in all types of weather, even when it is cold. When they return, every hallway is tracked with mud but no one shouts at them for getting dirty or running through a wet field. Inside the classrooms, boys bounce in their seats, hum and tap while they work, even take their shoes off. When you draw, you can draw weapons and have blood dripping off them and no one will send you to the guidance office. We painted, we wrote, and we made amazing art together.
The first impression of this kind of all-boys school is a little startling if you’ve only ever experienced the more quiet and regimented environment of most public school classrooms, but I quickly felt right at home. The principal, Suzanne Kazi, told me she can tell if a teacher applicant is ready for an all-boys position within minutes of the interview. I was worried that my presentation was too gross, too edgy for a parochial school. I tell some pretty disgusting stories about my dogs–their eating and chewing habits and their doggish bodily functions. You would have thought these boys were at a rock concert when I showed a clip of my GIRL-dog, Ruby, burping loudly. Kazi laughed at my worries and told me they “let boys be boys” and that they don’t have to worry so much about the fear that grown-ups in the public schools have over blood and guts, Captain Underpants and the like. Like I said, these boys all looked happy and engaged to me but it was more than that. The administration and the staff has been able to blend their boyishness with caring, friendship and a tenderness for others and the world that was evident in every moment I spent at the school. Each day they end with an “Assembly,” which is a moment of thanksgiving and acknowledgement. On my last day, they graciously thanked me for being a part of their school days that week. The boys cheered for me and it was really touching. I insisted on a picture with Ms. Kazi. It was a quick photo op, no more than 15 seconds, but be sure to spot the boy who got his silly, and very boyish, self in on the gig.
What I find ironic and unfortunate is that we relish and reward boyishness when these young guys grow up and get out of our classrooms. The recent Oscars are a testament to boys being boys… True Grit, The Fighter, 127 Hours. Our country loves a soldier, a cowboy, a pirate, a comedian and a star athlete. It’s too bad that we want them to be still and quiet on their way there.
TRY THIS WEEK: Notice how you view young boys. Try to find them funny instead of annoying.