Saturday, June 7, 2014

Boys Being Boys

I've been putting off writing about the misogynistic motives behind the Isla Vista shootings for a variety of reasons. Slate magazine, my main source for journalism these days, has covered it well, including the meta-coverage of the hashtag activism growing out of it. Some of the opinions expressed in their many essays and podcasts have caused me both to nod in agreement and squirm with recognition. Writing and publishing my own angle, tiny though my audience may be, has felt like it would be redundant, and might also shift me uncomfortably into a no-win zone I am loath to enter. With all that said, there were two pieces published today that got me thinking I could add a perspective that is, if not unique, at least underrepresented in what I've seen elsewhere.

The first, an essay by Christin Scarlett Milloy in Slate's "Outward" blog, asks the question "Is It Natural to Be Queer?"and comes to the surprising conclusion that it doesn't matter; that, in fact, just to ask and/or answer the question is to reduce gay people to a bodily function, rather than treating them like any other human being: fully deserving of the same rights as anyone else. That's an oversimplification; you should really read the whole piece. As one who has made the argument for nature on many occasions, this was a corrective I appreciated, and wanted immediately to share.

The other piece, which had a greater impact, came from Slate's "DoubleX" page, and examined the hard time women's college admissions departments are having with transgendered applicants. The author's answer to the problem goes past it to suggesting the women's college is, itself, obsolete, a relic of a previous era when women could only attend colleges whose sole purpose was to educate them, rather than men. Those days are long past, and women now outnumber men on most campuses, so perhaps it is time to do away with the women's college, or open up their admissions to persons of all genders, thus rendered the trans- question moot. Again, read the piece for yourself. At the very least, you'll meet some interesting young people who've just begun a lifelong struggle for acceptance.

These two pieces shook me up in a variety of ways. First, they introduced me to a term I've never encountered before: "cisgendered," commonly abbreviated to just "cis." To be cisgendered is to have a gender identity consonant with the genitals one was born with. It's the transgender equivalent of being "straight." I like this word, because it puts me in a category of my own, and thus makes it possible for transgender people not to be an aberration, but rather just another hue within the human gender spectrum.

That's a side note. The primary effect these two articles had on me was to consider the ways in which individuals are shaped by nature and gender, and to apply it to my experience as an educator, from which I can draw some uneasy conclusions about the Isla Vista shootings.

Let's start with the whole reason for women's colleges to have continued existing after the passage of Title IX. As elegantly stated in Katy Waldman's piece, girls' schools and women's colleges create safe places for young women to gain confidence, to learn without the distractions of attention-demanding young men, to transcend the gender expectations they may have picked up in the home, and thus to grow into women who can be leaders in a male-dominated world. Waldman implies that, as essential as this role has been, it is no longer necessary: between the growing female domination of higher education and the thinning glass ceiling, and faced with paradoxical admissions policies that marginalize already oppressed transgendered young people, why not just open the doors to men?

What Waldman fails to acknowledge, sadly, is that boys are still being boys. Every day in every one of my classes--and I usually teach eight sections a day--children misbehave in ways that make it difficult for other children to focus on the lesson. My typical means of addressing that misbehavior is to have them spend time in a chair cooling off and, if that doesn't take care of the issue, to dispatch them to the office. Not to do so is to lose the entire class: nobody will get the concept unless this disruptive child is removed. In four months of teaching at Hartley Elementary School, I've put a lot of kids in time out, and sent quite a few to the office. I can't give you precise numbers, but I do know this: in only one case have I sent a girl to the office, and she is an exceptional child with major emotional issues. Every other child I've sent away from music, or had removed, has been a boy.

It's not that girls don't misbehave. Frequently I have to break up knots of them who are more wrapped up in chatting with each other, hurting each other's feelings, occasionally goofing around. But their misbehavior doesn't, in most cases, disrupt the class, and can easily be dealt with by separating them, reminding them they need to listen instead of talking, and occasionally sending one to sit out for a few minutes. Boys, on the other hand, disrupt: running, shouting, pushing and shoving each other, spinning on the smooth gym floor. When they play musical games, they are far more likely than girls to play rough, and leave another child in tears because one of those flailing limbs intersected someone else's face, arm, back, legs. Sometimes their rough play turns into a dogpile that has to be disassembled before I can assign a time out or send a boy to talk with the principal. As they get older, they get louder, and especially once puberty hits, it can be very hard for the girls in the class to be heard. When fifth graders are with me for music, I spend a great deal of energy trying to make space for the girls in the class to be able to contribute something. It's not enough just to ignore the boys who have something to loudly add to a lesson. They'll loudly add it whether I call on them or not. They will not be ignored. And so there's another trip to the office, more time lost from the lesson I want to teach and most of my students want to learn, more likelihood that I'll have to adjust my lesson plans to contain less content and more activities that will channel the boy energy in the room.

Knowing this, I have deep sympathy for parents who consider putting their daughters in all-girls schools. This year I've had many of my female students express disappointment that we couldn't get into the higher-order learning they hunger for because lessons were hijacked by boys with short attention spans and loud energy. I scrapped a unit on the blues that most of my fourth and fifth grade students were eager to embrace because the few loud boys in every class didn't have the patience for it, and in the echo chamber of the gym, their voices trumped their classmates' desire to learn. There was a day at Margaret Scott when, during one of my prep periods, a fifth grade girl came to me and asked, "May I learn now?"

I will concede the point that, by the time they get to college age, the loud, aggressive boys will either have burned off this energy, found appropriate ways to channel it, or, sadly, have been channeled into vocational tracks. I don't remember either gender dominating my college courses thirty years ago, and I expect it's even less of an issue now, so at least in that regard, women's colleges have outlived their mandate.

But then there's safety, and the whole question of nature rears its frightening head. I completely agree with Milloy that it is demeaning to LGBTQ persons to boil their identities down to genetic variance, and that boys and men are absolutely responsible for their actions, no matter what impulses they may be having. Our genes, our hormones, our desires are not our destiny, not our identity, not our essence. But seeing so many boys lacking the ability to control their impulses, to continually act on them no matter how many times they are disciplined, to know some of them are longing to tame their jumpiness and just can't, to know that adolescents in particular are experiencing developmentally compromised pre-frontal lobe function and have even less control, I cannot but acknowledge that young women are safer from sexual assault on a campus that is free of young men.

In truth, it must be acknowledged that some young men have compromised brain function, and cannot control their impulses. Some, like the Isla Vista shooter, suffer from mental illnesses, and cannot or will not control their impulses. And some, sadly, have been raised to believe they have a right to act on those impulses. This is nature trumping nurture or, in the last case, working with it to overcome proper civilized behavior.

One reaction to the Isla Vista shooting was a hash tag campaign called "Not All Men," insisting that only some men are violent, and most are nice guys who would never do such a thing. In response, a campaign called "Yes All Women" pointed out that every woman has dealt with the culture of sexual predation at some point in her life. Yes, it's only some men who misogynistically view women solely as lust objects, and it's even less men who act on those impulses in violent ways, but that "less" is far too many.

I've gotten away from the cis/transgender question, from the LGBTQ-nature question, and at this point, have forgotten how it all tied together (in my defense, I am finishing this essay 24 hours after I started it). Have no fear, I'll be coming back to those questions in the future. For now, the essence of what I'm saying is this: there are boys and men who, for one reason or another, assault women, most with just their bodies, some with knives and guns. It happens too often, survivors receive too little support, perpetrators receive too little justice, and American culture does nothing but wring its hands. All the solutions we tend to apply to crimes--harsher punishments, education campaigns, isolating perpetrators from potential victims, making weapons harder to obtain--do nothing to address the underlying problem which, with all due respect, is either congenital or acquired in early childhood. Man-on-woman  violence is a social disease. Treating its symptoms is like putting band-aids on smallpox pustules. What we need is a vaccine.

By vaccine, I mean a comprehensive overhaul of American education from pre-school through college. Here's one final observation about the misbehaving boys in my classes: frequently when I send them to the office, they sit in chairs for long periods of time waiting for the principal or counselor to finish dealing with all the other boys (and a few girls) who got there first. When I've had to call for help, to have an especially disruptive student removed from my class, I've at times been told the principal will get to me when he can, that there's another, more pressing crisis being addressed elsewhere in the building. In both schools I've taught at this year, principals and counselors had huge caseloads of students in need of personal attention to keep their behavior from hijacking classes.

What's needed, first and foremost, is bodies: more teachers, more counselors, more social workers, more professionals addressing these children's need for specialized attention, for individualized education, for training in ways to redirect their impulses in constructive ways right from the beginning, before they can become destructive behavior patterns that will land them repeatedly in the office, in detention, in jail--or, if they're more privileged, getting away with those same behaviors until they commit an act so violent they can no longer be ignored.

More bodies means more money. In a climate where the goal of most public school administrators is to squeeze as much education as possible out of as little money as the public is willing to pay, it will be a very long time until that happens.

Until then, I'll be sending boys to the office. And some of those boys will grow up to do horrible things.

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