The Brutal Truth About Boys’ Schools
The creation of a cruel emotional world and the first steps to misplaced masculinity.
An established maths teacher taught in the classroom next to mine. He had a box of 20 calculators, to lend out to those boys who had forgotten theirs.
He was adamant all calculators would return at the end of the lesson. I asked him: “why, why are you so sure?”
“Look”, he said. “I deliberately chose 20 pink ones. There’s no way boys would want to be seen outside the classroom with a pink calculator”.
“That would be gay”, he concluded, proudly.
There are three worrying aspects of boys’ development, which I noticed. These, sow the seeds to create a troubling type of masculinity.
Boys stifle their emotions.
When I taught in a private all-boys boarding school, I asked a group of boys:
“… does a guy lose respect when he talks about his problems..?”
I might as well have asked them to explain Fermat’s Last Theorem. I caused an affront for two reasons. First, such things were hard to talk about and second, why on earth would we? Wry smiles all around, uncomfortableness, shuffling on the spot, no eye contact.
I know what you are thinking. I taught in this school in the 1950s. I am afraid it was more recent than you think.
This Victorian boarding school was blazers, ties, rowing boats and a campus ensconced by tall ivy-clad walls. The school was a perfect fermenting ground for boys to invest in conventions of masculinity. Boys were more likely to shut out their feelings, become detached, and, develop mental health problems as a result.
“…boys will be boys…”
The adage as a simple restatement implies two things: first, boys are challenging, loud and argumentative.
Second, it’s a mental resignation, a Galic shoulder-shrug and a fait accompli. It’s how boys are on the way to becoming men.
Teachers, parents, adults might shrug it off as an inevitable part of development. Such resignation to the seemingly ‘inevitable’, is wrong.
It’s wrong because we become willfully blind, and we desensitise ourselves to how cruel boys can be to each other. It comes with devastating results for the mental health of boys. Boys who are soon to be young men.
“…real men don’t cry…”
Boys also take their cues from men, teachers and fathers. Coffee-table psychology and modern mythology assert that women prefer the strong and silent type of man — not someone who is in touch with their feelings or who makes his feelings known.
Boys take their cues from popular culture too.
I wonder if the next James Bond movie would earn as much if Moneypenny were James’ therapist. Much needed, granted, but not likely. I’m afraid his persona is not beyond reproach, because before too long, boys will see the Bond character as one worthy of emulation. Boys will start with the way his character behaves around others.
Further dominant societal mythologies continue to influence young boys:
“…boys represent and continuously recreate traditional stereotypes of masculinity…”
And then there are the ubiquitous images of tough, violent and emotionally detached male heroes, who soon become role-models.
These figures have been around for generations (John Wayne and James Dean). Today, of course, we see different people, but alarmingly the narrative endures.
Boys do want to become a ‘real’ man. A ‘real’ man is someone who watches sport, drives fast cars, drinks scotch (or Martini, shaken, not stirred) and objectifies women. Add binge drinking, getting into fights, driving drunk and having relationships one cannot either understand or maintain.
For a lot of boys, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty is just an apprenticeship: a soppy-stern male protagonist who solves his problems with a gun. Still no hint of vulnerability or an emotionally intimate relationship.
These are inescapable influences. We continue to brand boys as carriers of “toxic masculinity” as if it were a dormant virus they were born with, or a disease when they come of age.
Boys take longer to mature.
Boys develop specific skills at a later age when compared with girls of the same age: this can cause them to underperform. Delays in cognitive and emotional maturation create a maladjusted young male who has only two options: feel depressed or act out.
The problem starts early: when I drop off my 4-year old son at pre-school, I see his teacher try to read to a group of similarly aged boys and girls.
Girls unobtrusively and patiently take notice and listen. Boys are impatient and mess around. Later in the day, girls play constructively in a group, boys give chase and run into each other.
Those ‘trends’ continue in a school classroom: when a boy laughs out loud, teachers call it socialising. When a girl laughs out loud, teachers call it misbehaving.
Boys contribute to 70% of children with specific learning needs, which may well be a function of early immersion into an educational system better designed for girls. Or, worse, we inherently expect boys to be boys, and underperformance comes as standard.
It is a disadvantage which can make them feel inept; coupled with their additional social pressures (to be boisterous and bold) there is a higher likelihood of boys acting out during their initial stages of schooling.
Many boys are slow to develop impulse restraint: it’s either general poor behaviour or a ‘diagnosed’ and grossly over-pathologised hyperactivity disorder, which we typically address with medication.
Western society has a proclivity to classify behaviours, especially gendered ones. The medical profession yearns to prescribe drugs in an attempt to manage boys’ behaviour. Both these possible factors might explain why in the UK, boys are six times more likely than girls to be diagnosed as hyperactive.
Bullying is rife.
I have seen first hand how eager boys are to watch the same TV shows, belong to the same sub-group of a social network and wear the same clothes. Why?
Not because of identical tastes in media and apparel. Unconscious conformity is the answer, for one reason and one reason only: survival.
Wearing the same clothes and having the same ‘tastes’ come to create a survival strategy to cope with the environment. They blend in and don’t stand out lest they become a target, especially if they already feel vulnerable and unpopular.
I have worked long enough with adolescent boys in schools. I have taught them in the classroom, coached them in sport and over ten years in two different schools I have been responsible for their pastoral care.
Cruelty is common, especially in all-boy environments. Bullying is a common term used to describe cruel behaviour. But the culture of cruelty leads many boys to live in a state of constant fear, eventually becoming emotionally closed off.
Rarely do schools consider the underlying causality and address the fundamental developmental reasons.
If you walk down a school corridor, you might experience a sense of calmness and order. Boys appear friendly and civilised, but they are, mostly, living in anxiety or worse — fear.
A significant number of young boys have such experiences, and some will re-live them in later years. Those frightful years teach us (popular kids and the bully know this all too well) that all it takes is one awkward episode or display of emotion and they’ll find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order.
It is no surprise some boys choose to engage in such harmful rites. They don’t have to feel any particular hostility towards each other. It is more advantageous to be a perpetrator than prey.
It teaches boys more than just algebra and inflexion of irregular verbs: to keep their guard up, suppress their feelings and to see trust as a rare commodity indeed.
I am not a clinical psychologist nor a researcher. I guess I have been ‘embedded’ in the front line long enough to see the reality and draw a subjective picture of the narrative as it unfolded in front of me.
Things are changing, albeit a little too slowly. Awareness is growing, education is taking place, but the process will take longer.
The most significant leaps forward were made in the classrooms with younger teachers, at homes where the father was meaningfully involved and in educational settings, which were modern and co-educational.