For the past few weeks, NPR has been airing a series of programs on Men in America. Since I think I have some applicable experience on this topic, I thought I’d tell you a story. And since I think the way to understand men is to understand male childhood development, I’ll tell you a story from my childhood.
Somewhere in the archives of the West Bridgewater Historical Society there is a high school valedictory address with my name on it. Looking back, I’m proud of that accomplishment, but I’m also somewhat surprised, because I was a major discipline case for the first eight years of my grade-school education. Faced with boring material in class, I constantly challenged my teachers. I wanted to know more at a faster pace than the system was ready to teach me, and when I didn’t get it, my frustration showed up in a need to move, to do something, to do anything but sit still.
The best teachers in our school system found creative ways to challenge me. Whether it was delivering the attendance to the office every morning or asking me to solve problems the rest of the class didn’t have to consider, they kept me engaged, which in turn kept me out of the way.
The less successful teachers tried to block me directly from disrupting things, with limited success. In second grade, a teacher seatbelted me to my chair with a scarf to keep me from running around, so I carried the chair with me just to oppose her. In third grade, my math teacher punished my disruptions with detention, so I made it my personal goal to identify and announce every mistake she made for the rest of the year. In middle school I once gave an improvisational presentation in health class based on things I heard others present in class that day because I hadn’t bothered to write my own report the night before–a report in which I explicitly told people not to do the very things I was doing.
At the same time, I was a social disaster. My parents insisted that the growing trend for denim jeans in school was unacceptable, so I had to wear my (husky) corduroys instead. But we were living on a teacher’s salary, so I had to find a way to make three pairs (all I owned) last through five days of school (between laundry days) without anyone finding out I was re-wearing my dirty clothes. Since t-shirts were likewise deemed unacceptable by my parents, I paired those limited trouser choices with the only shirts I could wear to school–polo shirts, generally adorned with horizontal stripes that made me look even less attractive. Paired with my 1950’s-era haircut, my wardrobe guaranteed that I would fit in like a biker at the ballet–but faced with a list of “don’t” options, it was the only solution I could see.
Many boys use sports or other physical activity to feel part of a group. Being entirely incompetent at gross motor activities, I could not use this option. This was, however, a fact that my parents didn’t know about at the time. Indeed, I used false claims about intramural sports activity to cover up my excessive detention record through fifth grade. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true.
It wasn’t until early in ninth grade that one of the “cool kids” in school talked with me about my appearance. Instead of telling me what I couldn’t do, he had some ideas about what I could do. With his guidance, I was able to swap out my polo shirts for regular dress shirts–an upgrade for my parents and my peers. With the addition of a fuller haircut, I was able to shed my Steve Urkel image for one that was, if not debonair, at least marginally acceptable.
At the same time, I suddenly found myself able to select the high school classes I was going to attend. I wasn’t always the most successful, but by the time I graduated I had become an expert on maximizing my grade in each class while simultaneously minimizing the amount of work I had to do outside of class. It was an exercise in optimization that kept me occupied, and my delinquency rate dropped. This ability to optimize my education served me very well in college, and I still fall back on it today from time to time.
The takeaway from this story is that for me, I don’t need to hear what I can’t or shouldn’t do. What I need to know is the complete rules for this game we call living, negative and positive. Give me a puzzle with an actual solution, and some hope of finding it, and I’ll pursue it.
Modern society often leaves men with a set of conflicting requirements. Express your emotions, except for the emotions other people don’t like. Take responsibility for everything, except where some other group wants that responsibility to move ahead. Work hard and provide for others, and just accept the criticism when your job leaves you unavailable to do something else. While women may be told “you can do it all”, men are often told the opposite. I think this can change, and I think it has to change if we’re going to see the societal improvements from men that so many are asking for.