Friday, 17 September 2010
Talking with 'lads' - part two
In yesterday's post I outlined why I think boys should be encouraged to talk, in order to combat the silence they often are forced into in order to appear masculine. Today, I'm going to say how I think it should be done.
The picture accompanying this post has a story behind it, which is one of the reasons behind this diatribe. This summer I volunteered on a project where we took children from inner-city Liverpool out into the Cheshire countryside and gave them a week long holiday, full of activities like kayaking, climbing, swimming, camping, mountain biking and Alton Towers. It is student-led and you spend every waking hour with the children in your group - for me, this meant a group of 4 boys aged 11-13.
I hadn't worked with secondary school kids before, and was quite unsure of myself at first - the chat with the boys was very predictable. We talked about football and motorbiking and even on the first night we ended up having playfights with the kids. I was putting up something of a front, I don't normally do this with kids even when they are younger - the kids I work with in Doncaster know me well enough that the boys don't try and engage me in football talk, instead they ask me what cake I intend to buy at lunchtime. Back with the Liverpool kids though, the interaction with the boys was still in that strange stalemate - I was talking to them in a stifled way about football and violent films, they in return did the same back to me.
As the week went on though, the role changed bit by bit - the questions and the types of conversations gradually changed. I felt a lot more comfortable dropping the mantalk and this, in turn, led to them doing the same. One boy started to tell me about his future aspirations and how it annoys him that he doesn't get any support at school - he also said he was worried about his health, as he only just stopped smoking. What was really important in the interaction was that there is a brutal honesty and no hierarchy - it wasn't my role to reiterate that smoking is bad for your health and re-condemn his choice. He knows it is bad. Likewise, he wasn't telling me about what he wants to do because he wants career advice - by not making it into a question and answer session, but into a balanced conversation, it valuates his own contributions as equal, and places merit on his own thinking about himself. Sometimes, you need to speak to somebody else but only to use them as a medium through which to communicate with yourself - to make yourself realise things about yourself.
By a later point in the week, I was getting on better with this boy than the others and we had had some more conversations that seem incongruous for a (it has to be said) violent and angry 12 year old to be having - about the existence of God and the devil, about the purpose of schooling, about psychology. One evening we had taken the lads to a park and disaster struck when one of the other boys desperately proclaimed in broad scouse "I need a fuckin shi', right now". We were in the middle of nowhere and he refused to go in a bush, so he and I set off down the road in search of a pub we could commandeer: strangely, this gave a massively fruitful opportunity for chat. We were in a very affluent neighbourhood and as we wound down this long path, mansions were rising up from behind their steel gates. I pointed a really impressive one out to him and said something along the lines of "Look at the size of that". He was astounded that it was just one house, and ran across the road to the house's open gate. For those of you who have seen the film Matilda, this turned into the scene where Matilda runs off into the Trunchbull's house and I was left there like a weak Miss Honey. He ran up the drive and I asked him what he was doing - "Looking what cars they've got!" He was duly impressed and came back down the drive. We carried on and he started to talk about how to get rich - this led to talk about school, which he hates. He told me about how he doesn't enjoy any of the lessons (apart from Sex Ed, he added later in quite coarse detail) and that he has been kicked out and isn't allowed to go back - he is in a behavioural unit from this September. The conversation wasn't about me condemning his behaviour (he punched a teacher), not was it about only expressing my sympathy - instead, I asked him whether the teacher deserved it. His answer shows why this approach to interacting with the boys is really beneficial - "No, he didn't really, but I'd asked for help all year - he wasn't fair".
We got to the pub and it was a symbolically charged image. It was a very posh country pub full of clearly very well-to-do people and there was a grand piano taking pride of place by the bar. We stepped through the door and he ran straight to the bar, jumped the queue and cut off the guy being served mid-sentence - "Where's ya toilet?!" She directed him and he ran off into it, as all the heads swivelled to look at us stood there with dirty faces and tracksuits caked in mud from our days activities. The humour of the situation really got me as we looked really really dodgy - let's not forget the incongruity of a 20 year old wandering around with a 13 year old either. I got more weird looks as I just had to loiter as he was in the toilet for literally 20 minutes - I called in "You've not fallen down have you?" and the locked door laughed at me and shouted loudly, so the paying customers could undoubtedly hear, "Jonny mate, this is the bigges' shit I've ever 'ad!" Classic.
When he emerged, we walked back and talked more about school and he said more about home as well; in summary, he made it clear he isn't very happy and it certainly seems like he has valid reasons not to be. Later that night as we were all getting ready for bed, I asked him about the massive bruises all on his upper arms - it was from the boys giving eachother 'digs' all week and he told me he hates it. It's sad how this masculine physicality of friendly punching is hated by the boys who do it, but they feel they have to just carry on. He was close to tears. My point is that unless I had dropped the masculine front and just talked to him as a person, allowing him to do the same back to me, neither of us would have felt able to have that conversation. He would keep his emotions to himself for fear of looking weak, and I wouldn't have said anything for fear of seeming like I'm prying or trying to therapise him.
On then to the picture at the top of the post, this was late on in the week, by which time we were all getting on really well in our group. The two boys I have mentioned are there - the boy I've just mentioned is sat beside me and the other boy is stood up on the left. That evening we had gone for a walk through a forest for a picnic and we overran massively - we stuck as a group for most of it, so me and Kev and the 4 boys. We went off the beaten track and cut down near some farmers fields, saw a few donkeys - well and truly in the depths of nature. We got lost. The sun started to set and the kids were getting really excitable - this led to them trying to summon Satan to what was already a quite scary place, and there were pentagrams carved into the dirt with sticks and reverse Hail Mary's being shouted from the mountaintops. When we got back to the clearing, I could see the sun was setting and I went unapologetically feminine and told them to come and watch the sun set by the cliffside. Sat as we were on that picture, the boys and I spoke about the existence of God - one of the boys believed and the rest of us didn't - about Heaven and Hell, about the universe and the existenece of aliens. I pointed out to them that from where we were, seemingly a world apart from their lives in Liverpool, you could see the towers of the refineries in Liverpool on the horizon - they really liked that. These are conversations that you just would not expect boys that age, and from those circumstances, to have.
It is through this relationship that boys can come to realise that they don't need to play the macho performance all the time in order to survive. It doesn't make them 'feminine' either; at the same time as we were having those conversations intermittently through the week, I had to restrain them and break up their fights which they chose to have with seemingly anybody. Their masculinity is the intersection of their pride, but they need to realise that this need not be the case - any dent to their pride, they responded with a macho show of violence and aggression.
Masculinity itself isn't necessary the problem, only the unthinking deployment of a particularly aggressive form of it to defend oneself. This performance allows boys to put a shield around themselves and fight off the outside, when very often, they need also to be able to tend to their own needs. The macho performance is far less harmful if it is protecting an individual in touch with his emotions who is rightly standing up for himself - it is worse when the boy has no free will, when he feels he has no choice but to put up the shield and not let anybody in.
I am sentimental and I am also a hoarder, so a result of these two facts is that I have kept quite a few of the things kids have made for me over the years. A lot of it is shit, but some if the things are among my favourite possessions. One of these items is a thank-you card from one of the boys in the school I work in in Doncaster. I have worked with this boy from when he was 6 years old and he gave me the card this year, so when he was 10. He is a boy who gets himself into trouble quite a lot, but is well-liked by all the adults for his politeness and his character - he gets in fights and he is physically a lot stronger than any of the other kids. In the school last year, the class was doing a circle time activity and they each had to go around and say what they were going to miss next year, and he brought up a time when I came to his help when he was set upon by a group of teenage boys at the local shops who were pushing him about and hurling racist abuse at him. Since that, I tried to keep him out of trouble, but I think that horrible experience tied us together a bit. I left the school this summer and he gave me a card. On the front cover he did an amusing caricature of me dressed in a 50-Cent style outfit, captioned 'Mr Walker, gangster 4life man" but on the inside his message just said "When you are board he always comes over and makes you lagh all of the time he talks to you when you are in a bad anger with someone else. he is very special'
I'm not saying this as part of an egotrip but to illustrate how much boys gain from being able to express their emotions with another male. It shows them that they do not have to take the burden of whatever life throws at them as their sole baggage. It teaches them that it is ok to be upset, rather than fighting back tears and denying themselves their emotional lives. It shows that understanding themselves doesn't equate to weakness.
And they enjoy it - it is like giving them another sense. The real voyage of discovery comes not from seeing new landscapes but from having new eyes.