Sunday, October 07, 2012

The "Boy" I'm Supposed To Be

I've had a single piercing in my left ear since my sophomore year in college. I was not the first man on campus to do it, but I was a fairly "early adopter" and it sure felt like I was being brave, because, you know, people might think I wasn't a "real man." I wish I could say I did it as some sort of statement of solidarity with my gay brothers or even a big punk rock FU to the world, but I really did it for my girlfriend who told me all the cool guys in LA had pierced ears. And I know it sounds pathetic, but at the time, having this pierced ear was a real challenge to my sense of masculinity.

For weeks the silver stud wore me rather than the other way around. I almost imagined I could see it out of the corner of my eye. I imagined the thoughts of strangers whenever I was not holding my girlfriend's hand: pansy, wimp, fag, pussy, sissy. The wisecracks from my friends didn't bother me: taking crap from your friends was all part of what it meant to be a man, but the occasional piece of unsolicited "advice" from strangers (always young, white males like myself) stung. By the time I graduated, male ear jewelry was ubiquitous.

Sitting here more than a quarter of a century later, I rarely think about my earring, one I've been wearing since then. I never take it out, the gold plating is all worn off, I don't even notice it when I look in the mirror. The last time anyone mentioned it was Ana, a 3-year-old during my first year of teaching 11 years ago. She looked directly at my left ear and said, "You're supposed to be a boy."

The readers of this blog are overwhelmingly female. Facebook tells me that 97 percent of the users of my Teacher Tom page are female. I hope that this post doesn't wind up losing me my audience, but it's a topic I've been thinking about a lot lately.

A while back, I received an email from one of those few male readers. In it he wrote:

I think one of the most appealing things about your blog posts here is that you are a man and not, well, a sissy. It is very encouraging to read your parenting stuff written in a way that is not emasculating. (And yes that matters.)

That felt good. As a preschool teacher I work in a field dominated by women and it’s of consequence to know that it hasn’t entirely feminized me. To be honest, I’m not even really sure what that means, and I have nothing but respect for femininity, but remaining masculine is important to me nonetheless.

There’s a lot of twisted machismo out there, I know, and I’m the first to admit that testosterone might be the most dangerous substance known to humankind, but I’m proud to be a man. I’m proud to be a man who works with children. I’m proud to be a man to talks about poop and pee and feelings and love. Especially love.

Over the years, many parents have told me that they chose Woodland Park because I’m a man. Hundreds of people have said to me, “We need more male teachers," or "My child would thrive with a male teacher."

I’ve never known what to say to any of this and I'm quite uncomfortable writing about gender because almost everything you say is wrong. In fact, I would say it's actually impossible to write about gender because beyond genitals (and not even then sometimes) every statement you make is a false one, at least for someone. That said, I’m a preschool teacher because I really like doing it. But if I were to hazard any kind of comment on the “goodness” of being a male who works with young children, it would be that I’m a masculine weight in the balance to counter the (real or perceived) preponderance of feminine love in children’s lives.

Love is nurturing and warm and cuddly for sure, and those are good things, but it can also knock you out. It kicks over the drum set, rips off its shirt, and makes you scream with mindless joy.

Not to deny its feminine side, but without the muscle of masculinity, the whole idea of love can seem limp. It lacks dynamic force; its full-throated Roger Daltry scream. Love can feel like kittens and hot cocoa, of course, but just as often it's explosive, towering, mighty, even boastful. It's these masculine aspects of love that make us laugh until it hurts, jump off of garage roofs, and play fools. It’s the masculine aspects of love that causes us to join hands, to rise up, to overcome -- the powerful moral force MLK writes about.

As I watched the boys in our 5's class race around the outdoor classroom on Friday, bearing the "arms" they'd each constructed by hot gluing bits of wood together, laughing, shrieking, their faces puffy, sweaty, and red from the exertion: I saw not "violent" or aggressive play, but rather boys falling in love with each other the ways boys so often do through wrestling or tackling or otherwise bouncing off one another. Their play was reckless and relentless, an all-embracing hug that expressed joy in being alive and being with one another: you know, love. I was thrilled to see the girls joining in as well, although without the weaponry. (I should mention here that for the first time in my tenure, the kids in this first 5's class have only banned "real guns." Our self-made rules are silent on the subject of pretend guns. I'm guessing it's because they feel they are old enough to discern the difference between real and pretend violence.)

My wife Jennifer tells the story of the time she met The Who, a band that has in many ways represented masculinity for me since I was 14. They played in Seattle and she and her girlfriend had figured out they were staying the Edgewater Hotel. She found them loud, obnoxious jerks, who spoke with the kind of dialect she couldn't understand. This fits with their reputation. Clubs that booked them in those early years said it was more like having a street gang show up than a band of minstrels. And after all, they built their reputation in their early years by destroying their instruments at the end of the show and hotel rooms after it.

The Who have never been particularly popular with women. Despite being among the legendary rock and roll acts they never had a song reach #1, which is probably because they only really appealed to half the population. Compared to their contemporaries, these men were not notorious womanizers, they didn't flaunt supermodels or starlets. It was always the four of them, by most accounts, like brothers, fighting and bickering, of course, but together singing about masculine love until death did they part. It was a band of brothers kind of love, the kind that fills you up to bursting, that makes you feel wild with love, that causes you to pose with legs wide, fists in the sky, and every muscle flexing. I hope that every girl, every woman knows what this feels like, because I know that every boy and man does. Simply put, it's awesome.

Jennifer found The Who frightening and got out of there fast. I can see that. Many of the mothers who come to our school find the kind of exuberant play in which the boys engaged on Friday to be unsettling. Why? There is no research that connects this kind of childhood play with future violent behavior. I think it's because it doesn't look at all like the feminized notion of love portrayed in the aisles of Hallmark; indeed, it looks like exactly the opposite -- gritty, loud, messy -- which is exactly what the other half should look like. When I see the boys in the band smashing up those instruments, it reminds me of every man I've ever loved.

Love is way bigger and way more complicated, and also way simpler, than most of us imagine. It's nurturing and roaring and soft and hard; it flexes and reposes; it whispers and it shouts. Love is that thing that fills us up with not just ourselves, but with everything and everyone around us. It's a sigh and it's an explosion.

Nearly all of the kids who have ever come through Woodland Park already have at least one strong, present male figure in their lives. Most have many. But I know that for a few hours in the day, I will be front and center in those children's lives, and in part I take it as a responsibility to be a good example of  the "boy" I'm supposed to be.

And I only hope that as the children pass by me, they don’t pass without knowing that I love them.

And now if you have a few more minutes, here’s another non-sissy rock n roll video, just because I think it's just about the greatest thing I've ever seen:

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Anonymous said...

Why is being a "man" so hard to define? Rarely does anyone question how to define a woman but for some reason (esp in the US) it has become more and more challenging and (and I would argue non-PC) to set out to define manliness.

Floor Pie said...

As a male preschool teacher, I think you’re in about as much danger of being emasculated as the only boy in drama class or, I don’t know, some guy with a harem. Which is to say, not at all. By surrounding yourself with women – women who, for the most part, admire you and hold you up – your very maleness becomes all the more pronounced. You’re the rooster. You get to kick ass while we clean up the messes and tell you how awesome you are. That dynamic is masculine to the point of being almost chauvinistic, really. (Not you. The dynamic.)

Ask yourself if a female preschool teacher would get the same kind of enthusiastic support from parents that you do. Would we be as eager to clean up her epic messes? Would we embrace her quirks as readily? Would we be as willing to go against our better judgment and let our children take bigger risks at her behest? For that matter, would Dead Poets Society have worked if Robin Williams’ role was played by Meg Ryan?

Simply put, I think men are more “allowed” to be awesome. They won’t get as much push-back if they color outside the lines, or, if they do get push-back, they won’t be as intimidated by it. Men are less likely to be called a bitch simply for disagreeing or posing a challenge. Men have more freedom to be silly and imperfect. (It’s 2012 and our culture is still having the “Women Aren’t Funny” conversation.) For a woman to reach that level of awesomeness, we have to strive harder against the grain to prove ourselves.

And as happy as I am to see men in a traditionally female profession, I have to admit I resent that men like you get so much more attention and praise than equally deserving women in the field. It’s like when my dad came to visit when The Boy was a baby. All week, he watched me perform various parenting feats of strength – multitasking, soothing meltdowns, diapering, breastfeeding, etc. And at the end of the visit he remarked with a touch of awe in his voice “Dave is a really great father.”

Which he IS, of course, but…you know. No one’s as surprised or impressed as they should be when a woman is a great mother or a great teacher. We’re just expected to know how to do it, even though it’s just as challenging for us as it is for you.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

Wow!! Love the dialogue this has opened up. I hear so much of what Floor Pie is saying. My husband spent time at home with our kids after I spent the first year+ nursing, nurturing, etc. And all anyone said to me was "He's such an awesome dad!!"...I NEVER got that kind of praise even though I went through the "hard" parts (being postpartum, being sleep-deprived, nursing, dealing with newborn demands). Then, when I started teaching Kindergarten, he got hired to work as an early childhood educator in kindergarten. I agree with what Floor Pie says, in that I can do the same amazing things in my classroom (while also running my home, being primary caregiver to my children, being 8 months pregnant) and the word in our school board is all about this amazing man who works with little kids.

He IS amazing. And so are you. And so is floor pie, and so am I. I try to be big-heartedly-generous but under it all I feel a bit...irritated that he is considered AMAZING to do a job that women have always done. You don't hear people saying women police officers or firefighters are AMAZING, even though they're in a non-traditional role; more often than not, they are criticized if their femininity trickles into their roles; they are considered less effective somehow, while a man who asserts his "maleness" into non-traditional roles (like yours) is congratulated for shedding new light.

With that said...I love watching how my boy is different from his sisters, but also need to remind myself not to peg them a certain way because of obvious gender differences. My daughter loves snakes and science. My son wants to grow his hair long and pierce his ear(s). I'm always learning about what this whole gender thing means for me, and for them.

Great post, thought-provoking!

Kate said...

Wow! I love The Who and I love strong men and you are such a great role model for your kids. I totally "Get it" great post!!!

Rowan said...

This is the first time since I've been reading your blog that I have strongly disagreed with you. I love what you do and respect your philosophies, but this post is so binarist and gender essentialist that it hurts me at my core. Are there no masculine women? No feminine men? What, specfically, is masculinity, and how do you measure it in a person? As a trans man and a preschool teacher, unless I am completely stealth (where no one would know my gender history) I will never get the same accolades as you for being a male preschool teacher. Instead, it is a mark against my "maleness," something I have to "get past" when "proving" I'm really a man. You speak from a place of privilege-no one will question your masculinity, because no one questions the basis of your maleness. You are considered (and clearly consider yourself) masculine because of your maleness, when the two are not inherently connected.

Thanks for sparking this discussion. And I hope you'll consider these alternate points of view.

Anonymous said...

Heartily disagree with this post. Until a whole generation of boys (and girls) are raised without an onslaught of fierce, inflexible messages (from the media, family members, society) about who they should be and how they should act and what they should play, wear, and feel based on their genders, it is not legitimate to make such sweeping generalizations about what is "boy" behavior or "girl" behavior. Children are not raised in a vacuum and sadly, parents- even the most evolved of us- are deeply invested in our children fulfilling what we have come to believe are proper expressions of their gender. Children are rewarded for following these rigid rules, and punished for deviating. We feed our children messages about this from the time of conception. The colors they wear, the length of their hair, pants or skirts, gentleness or roughness. Books, movies, and the rest of the world reinforce and back us up. Thus it is the rare child whose parents have tried to provide loving support to their child to be a human being first, to protect their child from damaging, limiting messages about everything from the length of their hair to what they should like to play based on their gender, and let the gender cards fall where they may. Parents & teachers who understand and work to undo or interrupt racism, classism, homophobia still are stuck in rigid thinking about gender and seem to get almost a old-school satisfaction from watching children fulfill their expectations. Boys will be boys..... As the parent of a boy and a girl, my first priority was to preserve and protect their choice making as human beings, to not impose my- or the rest of the worlds- ideas about what boys and girls "should" be like, and to lay before them the range of likes, dislikes, activities and feelings in the world and say, "these are all here for your choosing." Though sexism slams women and girls in deep, unjust ways, it is the boys I worry the most about, because their options are so very limited, and often their inner complexity and emotion is neglected or ignored. It is boys who have the most limited choices as children, and who are so deeply excluded or marginalized for something as simple as wearing the wrong color...or an earring. Until this changes, sexism is alive and well and the thinking in this article is contributing to it.

Dane said...

Teacher Tom, your work here is amazing, I'm a dedicated reader, and this post really hurts me.

One of the best things about your writing and teaching is your ability to put unnameable things into words for lots of people. It's the kind of writing that makes my friend Abby say, "Teacher Tom makes me see little kids as people who make deliberate choices all the time."

One of the things you take pride in here is your willingness to challenge the status quo. In fact, you revel in it - and it's wonderful! But by making generalizations about male and female teachers, you're actually upholding it with a hammer and nails.

And if you find that the things you observe actually do reflect the status quo (for example, you've observed that your male co-teachers tend towards larger group projects and messiness and riskiness) please push harder to figure out WHY that is.

Floor pie and Rowan have already begun to offer their ideas about why these divisions exist. Why do you think they exist?

Anonymous said...

Floor Pie,
Interesting post, I'm going to contest some of it though *with the usual disclaimer of this being from personal experience only and It is probably not generalisable to the whole EC field*.

You say: "As a male preschool teacher, I think you’re in about as much danger of being emasculated ... not at all".

There are some that view men looking after children as less then "real" men, or as wimpy or unambitious - there are plenty of dubious stereotypes of masculinity, just there are of femininity. I HAVE met women in the ECE field who can't handle the idea of a male colleague for one reason or another, I know of centres that won't hire male teachers because that would mean change in their centre dynamics that they don't want - would a male working in such places be expected to be more like the women and less like himself? That said, "emasculated" is a highly loaded word that tends to push debate in very non-useful directions.

You say: "By surrounding yourself with women – women who, for the most part, admire you and hold you up – your very maleness becomes all the more pronounced. You’re the rooster. You get to kick ass while we clean up the messes and tell you how awesome you are. That dynamic is masculine to the point of being almost chauvinistic, really. (Not you. The dynamic.")

I can see your point here, and anecdotal evidence suggests some truth to it. However, it is not my experience - I think my female colleagues would be very annoyed at the idea that they alone get to clean up the messes and I get to kick ass - They've been pretty forthright at telling me when I have messed up, and we have a strong group and (class) ethos that one cleans and tidies up after oneself and pulls one's weight in the team - having a double standard for the genders is simply unprofessional, and also in the end disrespectful towards the team one works in.

"Women who admire you and hold you up" - ouch, as if my sense of "imposter syndrome" was not already strong enough - (my above comment notwithstanding) - this only goes so far, sure my colleagues know that in general it is much less likely for a man to choose to teach in ECE and they respect and admire that decision, but here in New Zealand we still have go through getting a degree, being mentored for two years and achieving full teacher registration - and there is no allowance for my "maleness" in that process.

"You're the rooster" - at the risk of breaking stereotypes - most of the men I know in ECE are very humble - I think that is in the nature of the job.

anyway, this is long enough for now, thank for the thought-provoking posy floor pie.

Oh, also my apologies for an anonymous posting, but New Zealand is very small country and I'd like to stay working in this field.