Edu Lit is on fire – ‘Boys can try harder!’

Let’s get this straight from the start…

The first smile came with the subtle pun in the title ; I was instantly teleported back to my early teenage years, buying records in WHSmiths on Whiteladies Road, on the edge of the city, a supernatural semi-suburb within spitting distance of somewhere really special. Such was the romanticised lot of a young man struggling to find himself in an all-boys boarding school on the edge of Bristol. I think I later purchased the Cure’s smart punk debut when abroad, but its own title is more than merely prophetic…

Reading Matt and Mark’s keen memories about their own treatment at the merciless  hand of others of the same sex made me reminisce and realise that these types of memories linger beneath the surface and they help to make us what we are and become. Ridicule is how I remember it.

I’d left home, some 60 miles away, packed up to a middling male-dominated boarding school, plonked there at the tender age of 13. I was going through the system – pre-prep, prep, Common Entrance exams. I just went with the flow, stayed close to the middle of the road, always tempted to explore the verges, yet always holding myself back a little. Then the bullying started.

At first, it was name-calling, comments about my weight, my high-pitched voice, the usual stuff ; I can’t remember the exact detail. It hurt me, emotionally, then physically when the older boys- the ones who were meant to protect me, the ones I looked up to- started punishing me with pull ups on the iron stairways. Next came the wet towel flicking, the disparaging comments about your ‘nethers’, the punches, the harsh treatment. It became so unbearable that I considered leaving the school – self-expulsion from the gaping maw of nasty, painful macho behaviour. My soul was maybe too sensitive; I was a bit of a sissy, couldn’t handle the pressure. I found solace in prayer – it did really help at the time, took me out of myself.

One day, I spoke to a 6th former. He said to me, quite simply : ‘Don’t try be anyone else, be yourself’ [Frank Ocean’s mum says the same to him on one of the many interludes from his second album ‘Blonde. She repeats it, several times]. I stuck with that snatch of teenage philosophy and it really, really helped me. My fortunes changed and I progressed, gaining respect rather than derision, vowing never to treat others the way I was treated. Fast forward 5 or 6 years…

Chapter 8 hit me, hard. Entitled ‘Violence’, Matt’s kebab shop encounter brought a similar feeling of helplessness mixed with seething anger back to febrile life. I was 21, in Chester, crawling my way through Law school, on a night out with a male friend.  We were dancing, probably to some Andrew Weatherall remix of James or Happy Mondays. We were having fun. Arrayed round the dance floor, some sullen, slightly older males draped themselves over railings, pints in hand, looking vaguely menacing : not so vague as it turned out. Two of them casually approached us. One stood directly opposite me, eyeing me up, now with true menace, a pint glass by his side and the other hand going somewhere I wasn’t sure.

He stared at me. I asked him what had I done wrong. He moved towards me, he might have said something, I couldn’t really hear as the music was too loud. My friend escorted me out. Before you think that I was contemplating violence, rest assured that at that precise moment, I was in jelly legs mode, mixed with sharp pumps of adrenaline to every part of my frame. Matt’s story, his feelings of being ‘too scared to do anything’, feeling a ‘failure’, that is exactly how I felt.

After we left, I was close to boiling over with impotent rage: how dare some stranger ruin my evening, cause me to stop dancing? I wanted to go back into the club and have it out with him and his mates, even though I knew, again, that I would come away with more than just wounded pride. That memory is as real and hurtful to me now, some 29 years later, as it was on that foggy February night. Yes, I wanted ‘violent revenge’, just like Matt wanted ; yet, I lived with the shame and made myself feel better, over time, knowing that I was the one who did not lose control. It is one of those instances where you suddenly want to become imbued with super powers and be able to throw miscreants against the wall – it’s fantasy, of course, but haven’t we all, at some point, felt that?

Start making sense

Why have I told you this personal stuff about my past? I guess it is because ‘Boys Don’t Try?’ [BDT] is no ordinary book which gives rise to no ordinary response. It reads like a novel. That is rare in Edu land. I’ve bought loads of ‘education’ books over the last few years, most of which have ended up on the shelf looking very pretty but not being read. This, however, is something different, entirely. I’ve been tweeting after finishing every chapter and I can’t wait to start the next one. I feel like the veritable child in a sweet shop with the very best sweets on offer.

So what makes this volume so extraordinary? First off, it is incredibly well-researched, infused with anecdotes, covers so much subject matter and opens your eyes to the shocking behaviour of not just male students but staff towards other female members of staff. It engages with debates about single and mixed classes and reaches clear conclusions based on reasoned argument.

Did I also say it was hard to put down? I mean, nigh on impossible. It is informing my practice whilst reassuring me that I am doing the right things, most of the time. If I’m not, it is granting me wisdom and resources to help me to develop my existing thoughts and ideas.

Most of all, I genuinely love this book because it pulls no punches, is irrepressible, hugely approachable and could well end up being the equivalent of your best mate. Really. Again, why might this be, pray tell? BDT is raw, honest, reveals and revels in the author’s own insecurities and foibles whilst projecting palpable authority in everything that it espouses to the willing reader. You will be carried along, be dunked under the waves of revulsion that you encounter as you read, despairingly, about the despicable behaviour of some young people towards both sexes, peer and adult until you come close to retching! Yet, you will still emerge and feel buoyant and optimistic about the future of young men upon whom YOU can exert a positive and lasting influence.

Matt and Mark share alternate chapters and cross-refer to each other’s writing which lends it shape and singular purpose and keeps the reader alert as well. The 10 chapters cover relevant and prevalent issues such as Peer Pressure, Expectations – keep them MOUNTAIN HIGH ALL THE TIME – Violence [see above] and, perhaps most importantly, Mental Health. One statistic that floored me is that ‘in the UK, 75% of suicides are male’. The authors deliberately engage the reader with this harsh reality, since a lot of the thought processes that lead to young men contemplating taking their own lives are linked to extreme peer pressure along with pressure to conform to society’s ideals about what a male should do and be to become or feel accepted in the modern world.

This essential volume seeks to dispel those myths and offer alternatives, to consider the concept of ‘tender masculinity’ : that boys don’t have to be obsessed by sport and snogging and getting drunk but that we can, as teachers, be role models for male and female  students through modelling positive approaches to emotions and feelings and not become stuck in a joyless rut of just trying to fit in. This book proposes a revolution in thought and our projections about masculinity from the top down in those microcosms of society that we call SCHOOLS whilst firmly resetting our latent, gender biases.

Matt and Mark address teachers like me and many others when they say that ‘Education is a subversive act’ and that we can all CHOOSE to plan our lessons to ensure that EVERYONE is having a fair deal but, most of all, cause us to reflect upon how we can ensure that masculinity can convert to an overwhelmingly positive word both in the workplace and the real world outside the four walls of our classrooms.

This is a benchmark, a book I will return to again and again and which I unreservedly recommend to TA’s, NQTs, PGCE students, teachers, leaders and really anyone who is prepared to rethink how they view boys of all ages and help them to become the better men of our future society by embracing vulnerability and not settling for low expectations about what it means to be male in 2019.

Hugh Ogilvie

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