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by Kathleen Palmer Cleveland
Table of Contents
I worry about bullies. I worry about the narrow construction of masculinity in our culture that views deviance as "queer." I worry about hierarchies that always put athletes on top. I worry about the boys who don't fit this narrow definition, who are oppressed by the "boy code." I worry about schools so big that kids get lost in them. … But my main worry is about boys who are alienated from school itself.
—Thomas Newkirk, author and professor at the University of New Hampshire
In addition to the style dynamic, a second and equally important "contextualization of the situation for boys" (Weaver-Hightower, 2005, pp. 2–3) exists within a set of cultural expectations for masculine identity building that I would never have dreamed could affect boys' achievement in school so significantly. The influence of these expectations stretches across demographic, racial, and socioeconomic divides (Pirie, 2002) and is often unknowingly reinforced by teachers themselves. The result is an entrenched and socially codified force that works against boys' academic achievement. Like a detailed transparency laid over an original image, this second classroom-based factor adds clarity to the dynamic that results from conflicting styles, furnishes additional ways to discern more fully why boys are struggling, and helps us to more clearly appreciate why the SF/Interpersonal and NF/Self-Expressive boy may experience the negative impact of these cultural expectations even more intensely.
As is true for almost any consistent yet largely unexamined element of our daily lives, this classroom-based factor has a heightened ability to exert its influence steadily—almost without notice—because of its accepted normalcy. It simply does not register on our radar when thinking about academic underachievement. Unlike learning styles, it is not linked overtly to how or what we teach, rendering it nearly invisible, which makes its influence even more detrimental to learning, especially among boys who are already struggling in other ways.
The following excerpt from an Australian report on improving educational outcomes for boys provided my first glimpse at what these cultural expectations were all about and how they affected a boy's ability to function as a successful learner in the classroom:
The issue of fear of failure is particularly pertinent to boys and their construction of gender. For boys, fear of failure operates across a number of domains. It relates to fear of not living up to popular images of masculinity, fear of being labeled a sissy or seen as feminine in any way, fear of powerlessness, and fear of having their sexuality questioned. In the learning domain, boys have been found to be unwilling to attempt new learning when they are uncertain of success and are less likely to re-attempt something that they had previously been unsuccessful at. … Many of the problems boys experience during their education can be traced to their frustration and feelings of inadequacy in attempting to live up to what they believe their peers and society generally expect of them as males. (Martin, 2002, p. 62)
Armed with this new awareness of how trying to live up to society's definition of masculinity can affect boys academically, I eventually identified three interrelated factors, one primary and two secondary. Both of these secondary factors feed off of and support the primary factor, but all three affect boys' ability to learn in potentially devastating ways.
From the minute boys enter our classrooms, masculine identity building is taking place in one form or another. At some level, teachers and students, both male and female, often act in accordance with a set of unspoken tenets that are subtly or explicitly reinforced through tacit approval, willing indifference, or a lack of awareness. William Pollack (as cited in Neu & Weinfeld, 2007) calls this set of culturally embedded expectations about masculinity the Boy Code. An examination of this "code" yields new insights about the troublesome behaviors exhibited by many struggling boys in our classrooms and reveals why boys with certain styles (SF/Interpersonal and NF/Self-Expressive, specifically) might experience its negative impact more deeply than their peers.
In their book Helping Boys Succeed in School, educators Terry Neu and Rich Weinfeld (2007) capture Pollack's Boy Code in the form of a "dos and don'ts" poster.
As a female who grew up without brothers or close male friends, I had never given much thought to how boys are affected by society's restrictive set of "rules" regarding acceptably masculine behavior. Further, I was disturbed by the extent to which I and so many other educators tacitly accepted these rules—though we might not have been able to express them as clearly as Neu and Weinfeld—as representative of how "real men" are supposed to behave. A real man "likes to drive fast and take risks. … He likes to display his muscles, not his emotions… and he certainly doesn't cry. … He's not a sissy and gets insulted if you call him a 'girl' or a 'woman.' Soldiers, athletes, and superheroes are the archetypes of his dreams. … He would rather fight than talk because he likes action better than words. And he knows that reading books is something girls do" (Pirie, 2002, p. 16). This caricature of a "real man" would be laughable were it not for the fact that television shows, movies, video games, and cartoons also model these behaviors over and over. In a typical boy's life, similar messages are reinforced thousands of times. And I was discomfited by the realization of how little effort we spend on discounting or diminishing the veracity of such expectations in the eyes of those most susceptible to these unexamined "truths" about male behavior.
The following vignette, as do the others presented in this chapter, illustrates one aspect of the Code's influence. Each story describes a real-life scenario as related by the boy's teacher or parent. To maintain the anonymity of these boys, I changed their names and have listed their teachers or parent separately from the vignettes they contributed (which is unlike the pattern of attribution you will find in the remainder of the book.) The names of the educators who generously gave permission to share their stories in this chapter are as follows: Diane Bolles (Enumclaw, WA); Lynnett Burroughs (Williamsburg, KS); Rob Erhart (Middletown, OH); Kimberly Gessler (Camas, WA); Laurie Hager (Williamsburg, VA); Joy Kiedrowski (Cleveland, OH); Suzanne Obuchowski (Newburyport, MA); Nate Parsons (Crestline, OH); Cynthia Scott (Middletown, OH); and Christopher Ward (Grove City, OH).
Toby, Grade 5
Toby was on his scooter this past summer, playing with a group of neighborhood kids. He did some sort of jump and landed squarely on both knees. He immediately jumped up and yelled, "I'm OK!" and then proceeded to casually saunter to our house with blood running down both legs. As soon as he was inside, he began crying and telling me how much it hurt. But he certainly didn't want anyone outside to think he couldn't handle pain. He also has an extreme aversion to going to the nurse at school. When he fell at recess and his elbow was bleeding, his teacher insisted he go to the nurse. Knowing he'd rather collapse on the floor than go to the nurse, I asked him what he did and he said, "I went to my locker, put on my sweatshirt, used that to soak up the blood and went back to the classroom." He also added that he spent a long enough time at his locker to make it seem as though he had been all the way to the nurse's office and back!
I discovered that the greater danger in regard to the Code's impact on learning is that these stereotypical expectations do not solely affect everyday, on-the-street, how-to-be-a-boy behaviors. They also send a message about how real men, and thus boys who want to be real men, are supposed to view school and learning. According to the Code's expectations, not only are boys supposed to behave like superheroes and hide their emotions, but they also do not want to be perceived as smart, always fight instead of talking through a conflict, and do not enjoy reading or writing. Displaying any of these "unmanly" behaviors—demonstrating intelligence, being articulate or adept at conflict resolution, showing emotional sensitivity, reading and writing well—results in a boy being labeled a sissy.
One of the more compelling explanations for the prevalence of this stigma consists of four linked factors, each of which reinforces negative attitudes toward literacy from a slightly different perspective: (1) the growing absence of positive male role models, (2) a concurrent overabundance of hypermasculine, antihero models in the media, (3) an unspoken understanding that boys who follow the Code are never homosexual, and (4) an acute fear of being labeled as different. Without the benefit of a counterbalancing model of masculinity from which to gain perspective, the definition of acceptable masculine behaviors increasingly narrows, and the differences between what females do and what males do become even more rigidly prescribed (Martin, 2002). One author used the phrase "dichotomized gender absolutism" (Jackson, 1998, pp. 91–92) to describe this phenomenon, in which anything "not overtly male"—overtly male including "such qualities as restrictive emotionality, concern with power and status, excessive self-reliance, homophobia, anti-authoritarian bravado, anti-intellectualism, and non-relational attitudes toward sexuality" ("Canberra," 2002, pp. 59–60)—is by definition feminine.
Sadly, because many girls are successful at tasks requiring literacy skills— reading, writing, and speaking among them—boys often purposely shun such tasks in order to avoid being associated with anything feminine or "girly," thereby stunting their ability to master the kind of skills necessary for success in school and, arguably, outside of school as well. Boys who possess a natural affinity for literacy-based tasks are often rejected, labeled, and isolated if they demonstrate interest or ability in using these "feminine" skills, because it means they are acting like a girl and, by association, might be "gay."
Early on in a boy's school experience, he hears the word "gay" used to label other boys in the most derogatory way possible and to set them apart as different. Thus, before they know what the word really means, even the youngest learners understand that being gay is seen as something negative, something they do not want to be associated with, and they quickly figure out what behaviors will result in being labeled as gay. Accordingly, they come to believe that following the rules laid out in the Code will protect them from such teasing and rejection.
I had one little boy who had trouble with writing and basic letter sounds and soon fell behind. He knew he was already being labeled as "dumb" by some of the boys, so he tried unsuccessfully to fit in by doing some of the competitive things he saw them doing, like turning his work in first. When he realized that racing to finish first had no value unless he also did his work correctly, he became even more agitated and looked for a different way to gain status.
He began to call the girls names with the hope that this would somehow give him status with other boys. This backfired, too, for when the smarter boys he so longed to associate with distanced him even more as a result of his behavior, he was again desperate to find a way to fit in somehow.
His next tactic was to turn against the smarter boys who had shunned him and get some of the other struggling boys to call them "gay." This really hit the mark. He was especially vociferous about these labels on the playground, where kids from other grades might hear him, and this began to give him the status he wanted. The "smarter" boys in his class did not like this, and some of them even began to act out themselves.
When I talked to Raphael about his behavior, I can remember him asking me emphatically, "Don't you know it's not cool to act like a girl?"
The fear of not belonging, and the accompanying anxiety of being different or of being labeled gay or a sissy, is so strong that in and of itself it can, and often does, seriously compromise a boy's ability to function in school (Reichert & Kuriloff, 2004). Belonging, in fact, is so important that some boys will do almost anything, endure almost anything, and inflict on one other almost anything in order to be "part of the group."
Grade 6 Bullies
I remember a group of older boys in my class who had failed several times and felt that education was a waste of their time. Through bullying, they were able to influence almost every boy in my class. Those students who wanted to learn found it hard to stay focused with this group of five boys consistently harassing them. Several of the boys' grades began to fail in one particular class, which was being taught by a first-year teacher. Several times throughout the year, she left the class unsupervised for short periods of time, but it was long enough for the bullies to walk around hitting and smacking the other less popular, less "macho" boys. Several of these boys became edgy and some began to act out in order to get kicked out of the class themselves and escape the situation without losing face.
Kindlon and Thompson (2000) refer to the behaviors perpetuated in the previous two vignettes as a "culture of cruelty," which is depicted in popular media as normative and then acted out among peers within schools and classrooms. Cruelty, among other behaviors, is permitted, even expected, because it is seen as the price of acceptance (Younger & Warrington, 2005).
If a boy cannot be part of the group or desires to further protect himself from humiliation, he may attempt to set himself apart in ways that are accepted and encouraged by the Code. How better to cover up one's inability to function in an academic setting than by becoming the class clown ("Canberra," 2002) or adopting disruptive, "hyper-masculine" behaviors (Martin, 2002)?
Olin, Grade 7
Olin was in my 7th grade choir class a few years back. He hated choir. He told one of his other teachers at an early point in the year that it was his goal to get in trouble every day. He and a small group of boys would make it a point several times a week to try to do distracting things in choir class. For example, at 12:28 every day, Olin and some other boys would start coughing. One time Olin started passing yarn around the room to make a giant "loom." I did notice, however, that not all the boys were involved, and the boys who either ignored what was going on or failed to participate usually got a "You're so gay" after class.
Paramount among the many fears generated by the Code—fear of being different, fear of being rejected by one's peers, fear of being viewed as weak or a sissy, etc.—is the fear of failure (Martin, 2002). This is especially detrimental where learning is concerned because as a result of this fear, not only are boys less likely to reattempt something at which they have previously been unsuccessful, but they are also less willing to try something new because of the possibility that they might fail. By assuming failure before trying, a boy avoids his fear and is excused from the failure itself. Not trying becomes acceptable because it is better than trying and failing, and, consequently, learning is stopped in its tracks before it even has a chance to take hold. Even when a boy does try, he may limit his chances of success by employing defensive pessimism (setting unrealistically low expectations) and self-sabotage (setting obstacles in the path to success).
But what happens if a boy actually wants to achieve in school? How does the Code work in this situation?
Daniel, Grade 11
Daniel is an African American boy who grew up in the slums of a nearby metropolitan area. From the time he was little, drugs were prevalent in his environment. Preteen boys in his neighborhood could always earn money by running drugs or by standing watch at a corner while a drug deal went down. The problem for Daniel was that he liked school from the time he started. School made sense to him, and it offered an opportunity to get away from the turmoil of his broken home, where his father was long gone and his mother spent such long hours at work that she had no time, patience, or energy for her five children when she got home. Success in school came fairly naturally to Daniel, and because the other boys didn't see him putting much effort into his work, they joked around about Daniel doing well but left it at that.
As the years passed, however, it became evident that Daniel was actually working to succeed, and the teasing grew harsher. Making matters worse, his teachers were usually white women, so Daniel was perceived as being submissive to the "oppressive race" and the "weaker sex." Initially, Daniel was able to control the situation through the use of his quick humor. When he would play the role of class clown, he appealed to the Boy Code notion that acting out in school is masculine.
But as junior high rolled around, another factor related to race came into play. The boys began to notice that Daniel did not talk like them. Instead, he talked like the white people he watched on television. At this point, he lost his friends and his safety. Although he was routinely attacked, the beatings just convinced him that the boys in his neighborhood were fools. Ironically, it would seem that the torment he received at the hands of the Boy Code actually motivated him to succeed. The effects of the Boy Code are not easily diminished, however; he is still scarred by the sense that his experiences have left him without a race and a culture.
As Daniel's situation indicates, if the boy is smart and African American, the Code makes it especially difficult for him to survive in school (Boyd-Franklin, Franklin, & Toussaint, 2000; Kunjufu, 2007). In addition to the typical exclusionary labels such as nerd, geek, or sissy (and the many other less palatable variations), these boys are often accused of "acting white," and like other boys who choose to do well academically despite enormous and often dangerous peer pressure, they must learn to use coping strategies to avoid the worst of the negativity aimed at them, even to the point of not carrying books or backpacks and refusing to study in public places, fighting, and forming servant-master relationships with bullies (e.g., doing homework or taking tests for bullies in exchange for reduced hazing).
A startling picture emerges regarding the complex ways in which the Code affects learning by playing into a boy's natural need to build and protect his burgeoning masculine identity. It negatively affects his attitudes and willingness to engage in learning on many levels: by labeling literacy or being smart as feminine and, thus, something to be avoided at all costs; by emphasizing being tough and uncommunicative; and by convincing boys to adopt a host of counterproductive hypermasculine behaviors and defensive maneuvering, including the willingness to fail in order to secure a sense of belonging. Its influence is as pervasive as it is pernicious.
One of the most unexpected insights I encountered in attempting to understand the full impact of the Boy Code is that many boys experience emotions every bit as strongly as girls do (Eliot, 2009). And although boys are expected to "act tough," they are often more emotionally fragile than girls.
Nolan, Grade 11
Nolan was very easily frustrated and was one of those boys who would ball his paper up and throw it away if he made one mistake. He would often tease other boys and engage in what I would call horseplay before class, even though I would constantly tell the boys not to do this. On at least one occasion, he ended up getting hurt and then became quite upset and would not talk for the rest of class. He would also shut down if someone teased him too hard, even though he had no problem saying obnoxious things to other boys in the class.
We've all seen boys like Nolan, who are often on edge, ready to explode at the slightest provocation, unable to handle routine interactions, and overly reactive to slights, either actual or perceived. But we rarely add emotionally fragile to that list.
Saying the words "emotional fragility" in the same breath with "boys" seems like a contradiction in terms when positioned against the common mental image of skinned knees, rowdiness, and physicality. We think of girls as emotionally fragile but rarely boys, and we have been well trained to accept this perception.
Wyatt, Grade 9
I have a student who had a very traumatic experience involving a death in his life who usually acts out very physically when his emotions get the best of him. We have some shared experiences in this regard, so he will talk to me about what is really going on. This has, unfortunately, always come after the physical outburst. Our goal has been to discuss the situation before it becomes too much for him to handle. Today, his emotions were swirling, and I just happened to notice and quickly pulled him out of class to talk to him. I asked him why he did not ask to speak to me as we had discussed. He said he didn't want to get made fun of for asking to speak to me because he couldn't handle his emotions. Here is a boy who would rather end up in a physical restraint situation than break the Code and admit he needs help.
Yet when the Boy Code is in effect and acting tough is reinforced as a boy's only option, the result for many boys is, indeed, emotional fragility. The irony, of course, is that what we perceive as emotional fragility in girls—the frequency and ease of their emotional expression—actually helps girls as a group to develop emotional strength and resiliency. And by contrast, what is often perceived as signifying emotional strength in boys—their stoicism and toughness in the face of fear and pain—is actually a barrier to the healthy development of emotional strength and resiliency. A boy's suppression of his emotional self actually makes it even harder to remain stoic or tough in the face of fear or pain because he is most vulnerable to his emotions under duress, especially if he does not understand what they mean or how to control them (Kindlon & Thompson, 2000):
Thus, adhering to the Code not only limits a boy's engagement with learning by heightening his fear of being labeled a sissy, but it also heightens his fear of failure, spurs self-protective or deflective behaviors to avoid such failure, and squashes his social skills and emotional resiliency, all of which affect his ability to learn.
As a third avenue of exploration, I considered how a lack of positive male role models might contribute to the Code's pervasiveness and largely unchallenged hold on the lives of many boys.
Joey, Grade 8
Joey grew up in an urban setting with an emotionally distant father and a mother overwhelmed by raising seven children. The neighborhood took care of the family, bringing clothes and food to help them survive. Joey had only one new piece of clothing prior to entering his teens: a new pair of pants for his First Communion. The hand-me-down clothing was the source of his first Boy Code conflict. On his first day of gym class, he showed up to school wearing "girl's" tennis shoes passed down from one of his six sisters. Joey didn't know the difference; he had played with his six sisters for years and didn't have a brother. His mother didn't know the difference, either. But all the other boys knew, and Joey was immediately labeled a "sissy." It didn't help that he was tiny and the youngest boy in his class. For the next eight years, Joey was called progressively worse names, until he came to believe that he must indeed be a "fag," even though he was too scared to ask anybody what one was. He tried sports, but without help from a father, brother, or other role model, he was doomed to failure, and he quickly learned that even trying sports set him up for more ridicule. Any boy who needed to gain status would pick a fight with him; he was the perfect target for bullies.
Multiple researchers point to a boy's lack of male role models as a major factor in his underachievement in school and in life (Alloway et al., 2002; "Canberra," 2002; Martin, 2002; Younger & Warrington, 2005). One author describes what can happen to a boy when he has no mitigating influences on the Code's effects:
There are now more boys who lack adult male role models, or whose experiences of adult men have been limited to those who are uncommunicative, uncaring, or violent and abusive. … Their exposure to the types of male images available through film, television, magazines and popular sport are not being compensated for by the role of the real-life male figures in their lives. As they get older they will gravitate towards those negative male mentors, peers and behaviors who are best able to duplicate the unrealistic images they may associate with a strong male identity. The media depictions of many sporting heroes and the limited range of masculine values these public images present (strength, toughness, winning) may affect the self-esteem of those boys who do not, or cannot, identify with this type of masculinity. ("Canberra," 2002, pp. 59–60)
In other words, the negative impact of the Code increases when a boy lacks a strong, positive male role model to demonstrate on a daily basis that being a man involves more than adhering to the Code's simplistic, stereotypical version of masculinity. And this is especially true for SF/Interpersonal or NF/Self-Expressive boys, whose self-image can be particularly vulnerable, given their natural inclination toward interests and learning approaches that may not as readily align with the Code's version of masculinity.
Hal, Grade 4
Hal is sensitive, caring, artistic, and struggling since the recent divorce of his parents. His older brother is athletic and tough, and according to Hal, he does not seem to be upset by the family changes. When the boys visit their father, the father and older son choose dark and violent movies; the little guy hates them and is called a sissy when he cries and reports having nightmares brought on by watching these movies. Both the father and older brother tell him that he needs to "man up." When his dad and brother play football and video games and Hal pulls out his drawing materials, he is laughed at by both older males. Sometimes he tells me he feels sad more days than not. He is certain that his father does not love him and his brother thinks he is a loser. I am talking about a good-looking, smart, talented kid who is clinically depressed because of the cruel "boy code."
Further, a boy can experience tremendous confusion when he receives mixed messages about what being masculine means.
Brent, Grade 1
It seemed like Brent had a split personality. One week, he loved school and did his best; the next week, he hated school and wouldn't do a thing. I remember a day when he had been acting out all morning and was spending a good deal of time in the "thinking spot." The next day, his parents came in for their scheduled conference. Mom was very sweet and supportive. Then there was Dad. He was the epitome of macho, dressed in a camouflage sweatshirt and sporting a chew wad in his cheek. It became very clear why Brent's behavior was so changeable. He spent one week with Dad and the next with Mom. Dad was more interested in hunting and sports, and if Brent was having problems with school it was because his mom and I were too easy on him. During the conference Brent was really detached and wouldn't talk with me. Then Dad left. Brent immediately started crying and apologizing. He really did like school and me, but he knew his dad wouldn't want him to show it. It was a rough year with Brent. Lots of ups and downs. He ended up going to another school for 2nd grade, and I often wonder what became of him.
Although every source I consulted when writing this book offered me valuable insights, an article by Robert K. Pleasants (2007), an educator working in the juvenile justice system, proved to be one of the most illuminating resources. Pleasants offers suggestions for how teachers might respond to the many issues at play in the development of their male students' gender identity, making an essential connection between the violence and disengagement experienced and exhibited by the incarcerated boys with whom he works and the boys who struggle to achieve in our classrooms. Namely, the issues that begin in kindergarten and even preschool are at one end of the same continuum that leads to underachievement, disengagement from school, dropping out, and, all too often, incarceration.
Pleasants asks us to see with the clarity of his experience and perspective that we need to pay attention to this continuum, specifically "the intersections of masculinity and violence, the social networks that positively and negatively affect young men, identity construction, emotional expression, and literacy in the lives of male youth" (2007, p. 249). Boys in traditional schools confront the same issues as their counterparts behind bars—the effects of the Boy Code, emotional fragility, issues of literacy, and the lack of positive male role models—as they struggle to build their identities and learn in our classrooms. It's just a difference of degree and duration.
The implication of Pleasants's message is that if we understand the gravity and scope of the process unfolding in our classrooms, we can intervene and find ways to disrupt the negative influences of the Code, counterbalancing the absence of positive male role models and helping our boys to build academic and social skills along with emotional resilience. This is, in fact, what we will be exploring in the remainder of this book, learning how to help one boy at a time, one teacher at a time, one classroom at a time.
Your mind may well be buzzing right now with questions about what we can do to address a problem that is so entrenched in our culture. As you might suspect, there are no easy solutions, but the good news is that even in the face of a problem with enormous power to influence learning in a negative manner, we can still make a difference. The following chapters hold many ideas about how to address this issue from multiple perspectives. In the meantime, I will leave you with one final story that illustrates how even the simplest efforts to help a struggling boy can have lasting and meaningful results.
I had a young African American boy in my 9th grade world history class. He never had homework to turn in, and it was affecting his average. I used homework as a way to take the fear out of tests and quizzes. All of my assignments were weighted equally, and so for the poor test taker, there was always a way to bring up the average. I also accepted late homework and redos of any assignment my students completed outside of class. But for this young man, my strategy was not having the desired effect. His test scores were abysmal and he seemingly cared little to raise them by following through with any other assignments. It didn't take me long into the school year to decide I needed to get a grip on this situation.
I saw him before school one day and asked if he would mind talking with me. He was nervous, and I tried to allay his fears as I sat down next to him, explained my worries, and asked him what I could do to help. He seemed thunderstruck that I wasn't blaming him and that I was extending a hand. I started with my usual troubleshooting dialogue that helps me to understand students' organizational habits (or lack thereof), backpack and locker status, as well as the places they choose to study in the evenings. It became quickly apparent that my words were gaining no ground and he looked ahead vacantly. "So let's start with your backpack," I said. "Can I take a look and see how you have your notebooks together?" He replied that he had a backpack, but that he couldn't bring it to school. "Any reason why?" At this, he pretty much scoffed at me and finally turned to look me in the eyes: "Do you know what the kids on my bus would do to me if I carried a backpack? I'd get beat."
Literally, kids who brought school work home on this particular bus route were physically accosted by other kids. It certainly wouldn't take me long to figure out that trying to do well at school had harsh physical and mental consequences. I knew from his address that he lived in the public housing projects, and my mind began spinning. How could I beat this system? I told him we could get around this, and he smiled rather sadly at my lack of understanding. "You just don't get it," he said. And he left.
Over the next few weeks, I started to change the way I ran my class. Without singling him out in any way, I let it be known that I was always here in the mornings early, and that anyone was welcome to come in, study, or just put their heads down on the desks until the first bell rang. No pressure, no questions, and I was here if they needed help. Gradually, I also let it be known that I had this big file cabinet available and nothing to put in it. If anyone wanted to keep work in there just as a sort of temporary storage, it was available. And then in this cabinet, I also stuck extra copies of assigned work.
My class stood empty for the first few weeks, and I felt as though my signals to this student and anyone in his same situation were not being heard. And then the morning came. He shuffled in, mumbled, "Hey," and headed to the file cabinet. To say my heart was in my throat would be no exaggeration. It took time, lots of time, but we worked our way into a quiet connection and sometimes he even asked for help. He'd always sit far from the door when he came in. I suspect he did not want to be spotted, but I tried not to pry. I'll never forget his efforts to control his face when I told him that he had passed (barely) for the year.
Was this a perfect ending? A warm and fuzzy greeting card moment? Not exactly, but with a file cabinet and an invitation to be safe, one teacher made a real difference in one boy's life as he struggled to succeed academically within the strictures placed on him by the Code. This teacher didn't do the work for him or promise him anything she couldn't deliver. But she worked within the limitations of the situation to offer him a way to do his work and still stay safe. The choice was his to make, and because he made it, he also owned its positive outcome.
I'd like to think that, just as I did, Robert Pleasants would smile at hearing this story, which holds seeds of hope for this boy, his teacher, and for all of us who try each day to make a difference. It is my hope that the remainder of this book will offer many more such seeds.
In this chapter, I shared my explorations into the question of why so many boys are struggling in our schools by looking closely at the cultural expectations surrounding masculine identity building. Many of the interfering and unproductive behaviors that characterize the underachieving boys in our classrooms may now be more clearly understood as very individualized responses to teachers and peers that depend upon an array of different influences. Style and the expectations laid down by the Boy Code intersect to predispose boys with the SF/Interpersonal and NF/Self-Expressive styles to be especially vulnerable to the negative effects of the Code. Further, the absence of positive male role models intensifies its pervasive negative influence, hobbling boys as they are beginning to develop and understand their emotional selves by restricting them to a narrowly conceived image of masculinity that interferes with both their academic learning and their ability to embrace the risks necessary for continued growth and ongoing learning, both in and out of school.
We have begun, then, to define what Weaver-Hightower calls "a true contextualization of the situation for boys" (2005, pp. 2–3), realizing in this quest that helping our struggling boys is a complex problem demanding a multifaceted solution. There is no one-size-fits-all-boys solution. Each teacher who reads this book will need to find a different set of possible solutions, because his or her boys struggle in different ways and for different reasons. The blessing hidden within this challenge is that when we are able to see each boy's challenges as unique, we are freed to find and use a whole range of solutions, addressing the larger issue of underachievement in boys as we build a repertoire of effective approaches, one boy at a time.
With a new and broader perspective on who is struggling and why as the foundation, the next chapter offers the decision-making framework I eventually developed for addressing the complexities of the issue in a way that is at once flexible, effective, and practical.
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