What were the first words I heard when I entered the high school about two weeks before school ended for the summer? "Suck it, bitch." They came from a group of six or seven Grade 9 boys, regular kids, huddled around a cellphone. I have no idea what was on the phone, but by their demeanour, it wasn't the prurient content you might think. Regardless, this kind of language comes from the world of pornography and it is entrenching itself as a norm – for boys.
The problem is not most significantly about language, but about attitude and awareness. Within that three-word assertion are sexual connotation, a power connotation, an entitlement connotation and a cluelessness connotation. And in the current gender context, within which boys are falling off the radar in a myriad of ways, there is also a subtler, desperation connotation.
As girls in our classrooms excel in ever expanding ways, boys are floundering. In that same school, there were posters on one of the bulletin boards about two upcoming conferences targeting females, three newspaper clippings extolling the success of female swimmers on the swim team and the junior girls basketball team (all off to the provincial championships), a display announcing opportunities for girls in the trades and a smaller clipping about the success of the school wrestling team at a recent meet. I mentioned to a student that it was good to see some publicity for boys, and was told that the best wrestler on the school team was a girl.
Schools are failing our boys. We know that the ratio of boys in academic classes is shrinking. Leadership classes are overwhelmingly dominated by girls. Male numbers are declining in some school bands, French immersion programs and almost any program demanding extra initiative or extra commitment. The exceptions are shop classes, computer classes and sports endeavours. Despite this startling trend, schools carry on as though a quantum shift in gender horizons is not happening.
Of course, we want the surge in female success to continue. We want the benefits this brings to society. But what is the consequence if we forget about boys, if we continue to let their horizons atrophy?
I suggest that we will see more depression, more anger and more negative acting out. The words I heard from those Grade 9 boys says a lot. They were saying that a female is a lesser human, that a female should be doing something for a male, that the male is the master. In charge – Internet pornography inevitably depicts men in charge.
When boys lose their sense of self, their confidence levels drop precipitously. When they lose their sense of self, they grab for whatever will suffice to give them identity, power or control. Physicality is the easiest to grab for. They are the physically stronger gender. Their muscle allows them to be in control, to win. At something.
Schools across the country must begin paying attention to what boys need in order to grow into confident, caring human beings. On a regular basis, girls in every school are encountering frequent and sustained messages, programs and treatment to build their identity. They are encouraged to play rugby, box, weld, wrestle, play hockey, aim for careers in medicine, take math, fix cars, consider politics, assert themselves, save the world.
We don't talk to boys about what it means to be a boy, what it means to be a man. We don't talk or teach about manhood. There is no conscious or concerted effort to reach out specifically to boys and to build them. We do nothing to nurture their confidence, their well-roundedness, their purpose in life.
The consequence of this vacuum in our schools will be generations of lost souls. And sometimes, lost souls act out in powerful ways.
Calvin White is a former high-school counsellor and author of The Secret Life of Teenagers.