You see, when my husband and I found out two years ago that we were expecting, we were only too happy to share with friends and family that we were having a boy. What followed was a barrage of blue teddy bears, football onesies, and statements like: “No tea parties in your future” and “Boys are awesome… but your house is going to be dirty.”
One older male relative said that he couldn’t wait to teach the new baby how to kick a soccer ball. I nodded politely and added that for my part, I couldn’t wait to read a book with my son. To which Older Male Relative smiled and sadly replied, “You’re having a boy. He might not like that.”
At that point, I realized how tired I’d become of the well-meaning friends and family members deciding my son’s likes and dislikes before he was born. If we’d gone Team Green, we could have put off the established gender roles for another couple of months. Fewer football onesies that way.
Now, to be absolutely fair to Older Male relative, his prediction is not completely out there. Because as much as teachers as me would like to pretend otherwise, boys really today don’t like to read.
Last September I began my new job at that very religious private school you all have heard so much about. For the first time in my career, I was working in a place where boys and girls were kept separate. I had two all-boy classes, and one class of girls. And literally everyone I met from the new school warned me in advance that the boys would be “challenging.”
“The girl’s classes will be easier,” one history teacher said. “But the boys are a handful–probably because they don’t have the girls in the classroom to keep them in check.”
The school’s veteran educators recommended that I plan different literature pieces for each class. The girls would like anything really, but the boys might need to be hooked by something more edgy, like Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady.” I was also told that the boys were less likely to read in general, so even with gender-specific books I shouldn’t get my hopes too high up. The girls would be able to discuss short stories and novels with me, but the boys would need more “seatwork” to keep them busy.
This advice made me cringe. It was bad enough that my son had been pegged for blue toys, footballs, and dirt before he was born, but now I was expected to judge my male students and condemn them to busywork before they even entered my classroom. Well, none of that for me, thank you very much. I was sure that if I went into the school year with an open mind and the same high expectations for both girls and boys, I could single-handedly destroy these socially constructed gender roles. Let each individual discover his or her own strengths and weaknesses: that would be my motto for the year!
If you’ve been reading my recent blog posts, you already know how my sanctimonious anti-gender crusade turned out. On my first day, the boys greeted my half-sheet freewriting assignment with a mix of terror and scorn (“You expect us to fill in all of these lines? We’re only in seventh grade!”) while the girls smiled sweetly and raised their hands to ask if they could write more than the required amount. By the end of the first week, I had already begun to say, “Well, the girls are doing well so far,” and “Oh, the boys will never be able to handle that activity.” In short, I had become what I had once fought so hard against.
I discovered throughout the year that there were small groups of intelligent male students who loved to read, but the majority of these were often argumentative or lazy when it came to actual class work. And the few polite, hard working boys I did have were hardly enough to shift the culture of the entire seventh grade. Overall, the girls enjoyed our literature discussions in English class, while the boys preferred to rollerblade in the cafeteria or punch holes in the classroom walls (no exaggeration). At the end of each school day, I plunked myself down at home and gazed at my sweet little toddler boy, wondering if he too would become a rollerblading, hole-in-the-wall-punching monster.
“Don’t take it so hard,” the other teachers would say. “The boys are just like that.” This was slightly preferable to the reactions of the parents, who tips such as, “You know my son just doesn’t like sitting still in class–maybe you could promise him extra points for good behavior?”
The whole experience left me wondering what came first: boys who don’t like to read, or the extremely helpful “boy will be boys” mindset of the parents.
I’m not teaching right now, but I am trying my darndest to turn my son into a reader. Call me naïve, but when all the rollerblading and wall-hole-punching is said and done, I still believe that more boys can become readers if parents take the time to help them cultivate the skill and desire.
Of course, I don’t really know what my son will like to do when he’s older. I can’t know that any more than Older Male Relative or my co-teachers or any one of my family and friends can know that he’ll like blue footballs.
But I do know that my writing was interrupted today when my son dropped his favorite alphabet book in my lap. “Weed it!” he said.
That, my friends, is a very good start.