Saturday, November 9, 2013

The "Why?!?!?" Chromosome


Disclaimers up front: 1) I actually like watching football, except when I don't. 2) I am a heterosexual man. With those things clear, I can now go on to write some critical things about the Y chromosome--or, as I like to call it when I am, yet again, taking apart a dogpile of kindergarten boys, the "Why?!?!?" chromosome.

From 2011-2013, I was band director at Banks High School. Banks didn't have a lot going for it. It was an independent school district with just one school for each (primary, intermediate, and secondary) educational level. Its tax base consisted mostly of rural homes, so it's still in the austerity part of the economic recovery. While it is now building a new junior high, and its elementary school was built in the 1990s, its high school is embarrassingly decrepit, with narrow hallways, decaying infrastructure, strange smells, all the hallmarks of a district that has made getting by with what we've got the status quo for far too long. For all that, the kids are great: sweet, polite, helpful; kids on behavior plans are the exceptions. It's quite a contrast to my current assignment in the Reynolds School District, which, while being ahead of Banks in terms of funding, has a student base so urban and poverty-stricken that every class I see (and I see 17) has at least one child on a plan, with many more on the verge of having one but just not diagnosed yet. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Apart from the niceness of the kids, the one thing that Banks had going for it, that really drew the community together, was its sports programs. One advantage of smallness is that there's room on the teams for a much higher percentage of the student body than would qualify for varsity at a place like Westview High. In fact, I heard several of my colleagues talk about how Banks teams were "all-comers" activities, that coaches went out of their way to include and train any young person who wanted to play, regardless of ability. And for all that, the teams were highly competitive, bringing home league and even state trophies in softball, volleyball, track and field, basketball, wrestling...and, of course, football.

Football is the one sport at Banks that, as band director, I experienced on a regular basis. Every home game, I was in the stands, leading the pep band. Football games at Banks were community events: the bleachers were filled with students, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and beyond that, people with no familial connection to the school who were just there to support the team and experience the only entertainment in town. The fans could become rabid: I heard a fair amount of referee heckling and booing from the stands, though I know the players were well schooled in respect. The one girls' basketball game I attended (they were competing at state, so we took a pep band) also featured some overly aggressive fan behavior. Now here's my first anecdotal observation: all the bad mannered fans were boys.

Meanwhile, back on the playing field, every game I attended had tackles, quarterback sacks, dogpiles that made me wince and feel very grateful that my son never played football. There was one game where play had to be stopped while an ambulance was called in. I'll preface this next anecdotal observation with the admission that, apart from that basketball game, I've not attended any other girls' or women's sporting events; but (duh) all the kids on the football field giving and taking the abuse that's just part of the game are boys.

Something I was at this week, or a podcast I listened to--it's all blurring together on this Saturday morning--featured a conversation about violence in sports, and how the advent of the football helmet and the boxing glove have, ironically, led to an increase in brain injuries. In boxing, it's because cushioned hands can spend a lot more time pounding on a hard skull. In football, it's because players have taken this defensive tool and turned it into a weapon. Paradoxically, players are safer when they have less head protection, and boxers are safer with less hand protection, because the pain of bone colliding with bone is a deterrent; but that sidesteps my observation about football helmets, and the propensity of boys to turn anything and everything into weapons.

I was not allowed toy guns as a small child. My father was a pacifist, and my mother did not care at all for guns, so there just weren't any in my toy chest. No, the only toys my brothers and I were permitted were constructive, educational toys: Play-Doh, Legos, Lincoln Logs, building blocks, Tonka trucks. Did that stop us? Of course not. The one Lego construction I remember making again and again was a gun, and it wasn't enough just to point this flimsy weapon at my brother as he pointed his own back at me, making "peu peu" laser noises with our voices. No, we always had a handful of loose Legos we could then fling at each other to simulate bullets.

(My parents did eventually relent from the "no guns!" policy, probably worn down by her incessant requests for them and the clear evidence that no amount of indoctrination was going to stop us wanting them; so by the time I was eleven, we were permitted squirt guns, as well as Star Trek disk guns--but no cap guns! We drew the line there!)

In my music classes, I experience, every day, boys pretending that mallets or rhythm sticks are bows and arrows to be pretend-fired, swords to fence with, knives to stab into the floor. I had to give up on a ball-passing game yesterday because there were kindergartners--boy kindergartners--who insisted on hurling the cushy balls into each other's faces, rather than gently tossing them. When classes arrive in the gym, the noise level I have to calm down is almost always due to boys screaming and shouting. The children who must most frequently be reminded that they are there not to run, not to jump, not to chase each other, are boys. And I have never had to take apart a dog pile of girls.

Not to say that girls are always innocent. I've had plenty of girls in my classes hurting each other's feelings; and back at the high school, most of the students I referred for administrative discipline were girls (those exceptions I mentioned earlier). It's just that the aggression I see coming from girls is much subtler, more emotional, far less likely to involve physical harm.

My mother, trapped in a household of men (by the end, it was six of us, counting Dad, to her one), used to rail against "Men!" She often speculated that there would be far less wars, and far better government, if women were running things. Thinking back on the government shutdown, I can't help observing that all the prime movers in that crisis were male legislators; and thinking historically, I can think of very few wars that were fomented by female leaders.

My conclusion (and it may be all too obvious, but I'll make it anyway): men are hard-wired to be aggressive. It probably goes back to our prehistoric existence as hunter-gatherers and defenders of our tribes. That doesn't mean we have to stay that way. With the right environmental influences, most of us can be coaxed away from wanting to stab, spear, or shoot anything that moves, or when presented with a new safety device, turn it as quickly as possible into a tool for inflicting concussions on a competitor. But that environment is essential, and this, as with so many other reflections, brings me back to where I work now.

The kids in Banks came, from the most part, from nurturing homes. Their parents were hard-working people who believed in contributing to their community, and clearly taught their boys how to behave, while emphasizing that they were loved and accepted.

The boys in Reynolds are not so lucky. Many of them have absent parents, and are to some extent raising themselves. Others have parents they wish were more absent, who take out their frustration at being underemployed on their children. They come to school with their native aggression unchecked, and it is we, the teachers acting in loco parentis, who must model for them the proper use for musical and sporting equipment, must show them how to channel that competitive energy into something more constructive than chasing another child, primal screaming, or using a xylophone mallet to rap someone on the head. We don't have much time to do this--I only see them for an hour a week, as will be the case with the PE teacher who takes my place in February--and frankly, I don't hold much hope for the extent of my impact, especially with the fifth graders I will never see again after January, and who are some of the most aggressive boys I have ever known.

Thankfully, I'm not the only man showing these kids that it's possible to be both masculine and gentle. Two of the three fifth-grade teachers are men, and they're both great at being firm and kind with their students. This is not to downplay the importance of female modeling in their lives, not at all: most of the education professionals they've known have been women, and that will continue to be the case for at least a few more years. As my principal observed earlier this week, many of the most aggressive children just need kind adults in their lives showing them an alternate path.

I have no illusions about the aggressive streak. It still needs channeling, even among the boys with nurturing home lives. My hope for them is that it can go somewhere that doesn't involve concussions, shattered bones, or gunshot wounds. And this, I have to say, is where both arts and physical education take on an importance that has too long been ignored by school administrators. Wedging clay, pounding out drum rudiments, dashing around a track, dancing the Hokey Pokey--there are so many things we specialists do that can moderate the presence of native male aggression. When these programs are reduced or eliminated, the children have nowhere to channel these energies except on each other.

I apologize for the PSA, but it matters. May all my brothers know peace.

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