Sometimes you just have to write…
Do you remember the Hans Christian Anderson story of the Ugly Duckling? In that story, a baby swan (a cygnet) is, for some reason, hatched as part of a flock of ducklings and grows up with them. Compared to them, he is terribly ugly, with his messy, downy feathers and his oversized, oddly-proportioned body. He is bullied and excluded and eventually has to make his way in the cold cruel world on his own. Of course, eventually he transforms into the stunningly beautiful adult swan he was always meant to be.
Teenage boys are the Ugly Duckling. They don’t fit in. They’re too big for their bodies, so they trip on the stairs, bump into walls, fall over their feet. Their pants hang off them, exposing their underpants, or else their arms and legs are too long, revealing long bony wrists or grubby, mismatched socks. Their hair is greasy, their fingernails are dirty, and they wear the same clothes for days in a row, if left to their own devices.
It’s not just about how they look, though; it’s also about how they think. They can’t do what they’re expected to do: focus on a topic for more than five minutes, for example, unless they choose the topic themselves – computers, sex, music, sports, sex, TV, sex. They can’t keep themselves clean, feel empathy for other people, speak politely to each other, work cooperatively, make a well-thought-out argument or decision, or, in general, avoid impulsiveness.
And they try to fit in – they try so hard – but don’t know how. Often this involves violence: hitting, punching, poking each other. Often this is meant to be funny, but, given their inability to think rationally or empathize, it’s not always received that way. Sometimes it turns into bullying or being bullied. And they make bad jokes about bodily functions. Nevertheless, many of them try to do what’s expected at school: study, follow instructions, listen to the teacher. But they’re fighting their own natures, and struggle to gain and keep that focus.
Teenage girls, on the other hand, are not the Ugly Duckling. They’re not cygnets; they’re ducklings, or perhaps they just outgrow the Ugly Duckling stage before they hit puberty. They mature a couple of years before boys do, and that makes all the difference.
Girls can focus. Girls can keep their minds on one thing for more than five minutes. Girls care about how they look: not only are their fingernails clean, but they change their clothes when they’re dirty and take a shower before they start to smell. Girls don’t think about sex nearly as much as boys – it’s more about romance for them – and the basic fact that they can sit still helps them succeed in school with far less effort. They can follow instructions and work together. Not that they always work together well; they have their own, more subtle, forms of bullying and other nastiness, but they can focus and they are much less impulsive. They are more or less rational beings, if not fully adult.
There have been various stories in the media in the last few years about this topic and it comes down to this: we expect our boys to behave like girls. Especially in school, we want them to sit still, listen, do as they’re told, study hard, and so on. They just can’t! In this situation, girls are bound to be more successful.
School, then, is a lost cause with these boys. They can’t study for a test, write an essay, follow protocol in a lab, or even simply sit still for 50 minutes at a time. They just can’t fit in that way.
(Yes, I know I’m generalizing. I know there are lots of boys who can conform to expectations. I’m talking about the rest of them! And yes, I know I’m talking about the relatively well-off Western world, where computers and TVs are ubiquitous. That’s where I live and those are the boys I live with and teach.)
So here’s my proposal: don’t make them do it. I don’t mean forever; I just mean for those few years in which it’s next to impossible for boys to learn in school. Let’s give the boys who can’t handle school a couple of years off: say, from when they’re about 14 to about 16, though the age range should be adjustable to suit each individual boy’s needs and growth. And any girls who are suffering from similar immaturity could join them.
I’m not saying they should be allowed to spend two years wallowing on the sofa with a laptop and a bowl of potato chips. I’m saying they should get busy with something useful: they should work. Paid work would be fine, but I suppose at that age volunteer work would be the most available. Let them help out in a nursing home or orphanage or nature conservancy. Let them have a varied menu of tasks to do, but preferably all the tasks should be mindless, so that they don’t have to be thoughtful or rational. It doesn’t really matter what they do, just that they are active – physically active, I mean. They could still spend the majority of their time thinking about sex and computer games, but their bodies would get a workout and be of use to society as a whole.
Boys do inevitably grow up. It’s just that they do it much more slowly and later than girls. Once they’ve recovered from that adolescent inability to focus, they could go back to school. Yes, they’d be older than their female classmates, but the girls certainly wouldn’t mind that. And they’d be far less disruptive and generally useless in the classroom since they’d have regained the ability to think rationally.
This new secondary school classroom, with students of both sexes who are mature enough to see the importance of their education, to study hard, to argue rationally, to sit still, listen, cooperate, and just generally focus, would be far more effective that what we have now, where girls mostly conform and boys are hopelessly unable to do so. Instead of the constant negative messages that boys receive now – Don’t do that! Be quiet! Pay attention! – this new classroom would have a positive atmosphere where teachers work with students rather than against them. There would be no more ugly ducklings futilely trying to fit in; every child would be on his or her way to becoming a beautiful swan.
Note: This proposal is obviously meant to be facetious, and though I realize that it isn’t going to happen, I think we do the sort of boys I’m describing an injustice: it borders on cruelty to make them comply with our present school system that so mismatches what they are capable of. We need to do some “outside the box” thinking about this. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter, so feel free to post a reaction below, or click below to share this blog through social media.