Thursday, April 5, 2012

Boys with Sticks

It has been a typical week at school. Outside in the yard, three boys in trouble were seated on a bench. In the art room, boys were making stuffies to look like grenades or are drawing explosions of every size and shape. Down in the adventure playground, there were a pack of boys roaming around with sticks while girls were huddled heads-together talking on the garden benches.

Well, all I can say for my generation is that we tried. We imagined differences between genders was all social engineering, fixable by forbidding gun play, getting boys to sit in circles and talk about feelings and inviting the girls out to the soccer field. We put boys and girls together in the cocktail shaker and mixed all the ingredients of masculinity and femininity to make the unisex blender drink of the future.

And partly it worked. My son-in-law is presently Mr. Mom while my daughter is out working. I was the cook and shopper raising my daughters while my wife asked for a new drill for Christmas. One of my alum girls is on the wrestling team with the boys and another alum boy likes to knit. No question that it makes for a more interesting human being, free to explore all sides of human potential without restriction.

But let’s face it. When we stop shaking the cocktail, certain ingredients settle back to precisely where they were. Boys with their outwardly projectile gender love roaming around with sticks and girls with their interior counterpart huddle together and talk. As my friend David Adee has commented so astutely, “Boys ancient urges require them to go out hunting rats and we try to get them to sit down at a desk and be still.” The hunters are out in the unpredictable, dangerous and exhilarating wild, stalking their prey spread out apart from each other. Silence is part of their survival strategy—no one cares how your hunting teammate feels while stalking. The question is will he get the food on the table or not. Hunting boys and men thrill in the slow build-up and quick release, as do their sexual bodies, the moment of explosion when the projectile hits its mark. They have a zest for invention, eager for the next advancement in spears, and a fascination with numbers and statistics, notching their kills on their belts. Even in my “sensitive” men’s group, the default setting for conversation is usually machines, money and real estate. The rest takes effort.

Meanwhile, the girls are the homemakers, creating a safe protected space designed to keep out the wild and domesticate both the land and our impulses. They necessarily lean toward the conservative, knowing that one night of wild pleasure can lead to a long nine months followed by a couple of decades of child-raising. In the hearth, woven baskets hold the household items and the very home is a womb of sorts designed for comfort and rest from adventure. Their comfort with convention is deeply imbedded, for the home is a place of steady routine and life-protecting, life-affirming habits cultivated over time.

School is a place more comfortable with convention then zesty with invention and though profoundly unnatural for all children, it is particularly strange for boys. How often we teachers have remarked that the very kids who drove us crazy during the school year were the delights of the school camping trip. With more space to roam around in in the wild, they were in their element.

No punchline here, no solving of the Mars/Venus conundrum or pretending to wholly understand it. The best I can say is that it keeps things interesting. I’d like to explore my feelings about it, but right now, I’m too busy looking for a good stick. 

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