The students in my freshman English class have been working on a poster the last two days in class. They could choose to work with a partner or by themselves. Things were going along fine. This year’s freshman are unusually polite and hardworking and I’ve really enjoyed the first four weeks of the school year.
Then, at the end of the hour on Friday, one young man approaches me. Let’s call him Cam. He’s flustered, talking fast, trying to explain to me that something happened with his partner and what I can make sense of is the phrase “not fair” as he rushes to vent about his partner over the chaos of the hour. So we step out into the hall, and there, he calms down a bit and tells me that he is not happy with his partner, but he’s worried that it’s too late in the process to change. As he tells me, his cheeks grow red and tears well in his eyes. Cam tells me that he processes slowly, that’s just a thing about him, and the partner he’s working with is faster and more confident. Cam is upset because he’s trying to contribute, but his partner is just kind of bulldozing past him. He didn’t agree with all of the answers, but his partner is treating him like he’s dumb and even made a comment that if he waited for Cam to catch up, he’d be waiting all day. His voice is shakey, he’s shifting his weight, his eyes dart around. “Look,” he says, “I’m not dumb, but things take me longer and I hate the way he’s treating me.”
I’ve had many of these moments with kids over the years. I’m going to generalize here and point out that this is only anecdotal, but generally when I’m in the hall with a student on the verge of tears, it’s a female. Males tend to bottle things up, or explode (in my classroom experience only). Seems like either I know something’s up, but can’t get them to tell me, or all of a sudden there’s a screaming match or some pushing. When I’m in the hall, one-on-one, with a female student, I try to put my hand on her shoulder reassuringly. Sometimes I offer a hug (not often, I’m not really a hugger).
As I stood in the hall with Cam I considered how this was different with a male. He’s 15, not 7, and hugging doesn’t seem appropriate. I feel obligated to clean the mess up quickly so he can compose himself and not risk embarrassment (for him) if someone walks by – something I never think about when comforting a female student.
I thank him for being honest with me and sharing his struggles. I encourage him to continue to do so so that I can help him be successful this year. I tell him it’s no problem to part ways with his partner and we come up with a modified assignment. We discuss the seating chart, does he need to move? Is this a symptom of a larger issue between the two boys or a one-time thing? The bell rings, students spill into the hall. He says thanks, he says he’s ok, and I tell him to try and let it go for now and enjoy his weekend.
Then I drive home and think of my own boys. I wonder if teachers will treat them with compassion, or will they tell them not to be a wuss (either implicitly or explicitly)? Will the teacher, either consciously or unconsciously, devalue their concerns because they are male? I wonder how I would feel if one of them came home and recounted this story. Would I be happy with how the teacher ) handled it? And I think about how things are different for males and females in high school when it comes to emotion. And how stifled males must feel at times.
It may be 2016 and we may like to tell ourselves that we’ve become a modern society, but gender expectations run deep. I wonder if there are more boys who have these feelings, but keep them in because they feel like they can’t express such frustration or feeling of hurt in public. I imagine there are. Secondary teachers spend a lot of time attending to crying students and 95% of them, in my experience, are girls. As a result, we might assume the boys are handling things better. Are maybe less dramatic? Maybe less emotional? And in the meantime, bullying may go unchecked. Feelings of struggle, inadequacy, and fear may never be addressed.
I think of my seven-year-old who, currently, is very emotional. He’s very tuned in to the subtleties of interactions and conversations and I worry his feelings will be hurt, but he won’t feel free to talk about it.
When I look around my classroom the boys do seem to have an easy nature about them. They talk about sports, video games, and girls. They make gross jokes and they rib their friends. Maybe it’s because I’m a female, but the girls are much more likely to plop themselves near my desk and unload all their stressors for the day (or week). As a teacher, this makes me love the reprieve the boys offer: just jokes and silliness with them, but as a parent, this makes me wonder if we just aren’t seeing the whole picture. I hope I am able to create an environment at home where my boys feel comfortable at least talking to me about their stresses.
In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on Cam. He came back from the weekend break still a little subdued. He was not his same self Monday morning, but he assured me he was fine.
I’ll keep an eye on him.