Parenting has a way of handing you your words on a plate and a fork with which to eat them.
Case in point: I was “never” going to let my children: eat sugar, watch TV, pretend-play with guns, play video games…the list is long. But reality bumped up against my good but hopelessly naive intentions.
Take the pretend-play with guns that my children would “never” be allowed to do. First of all, I never anticipated having two very active, rough-and-tumble boys. Second, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that they could instinctively know what a gun is and turn anything into one (plastic spoons, bendy straws, mechanical pencils) without my talking about guns or showing them via media. It’s like my son turned three and his “gun gene” automatically started expressing itself.
Alarmed, I turned to my favorite source on all-things-boy, Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain. He’s pretty reassuring on the gun issue, and while reading about several alarmed mothers like me, I had to laugh. The gist of his argument is that there is no evidence whatsoever that pretend-play with guns is linked to violence, not now or later in the child’s life. So I began to relax about the whole gun thing. When I came home from work and my three-year-old “shot” me with his straw, I began to shoot him back, chasing him all over the house. And here’s the funny thing: it was fun. Really fun. Even if I am still somewhat uncomfortable with his overt interest in “killing” and “shooting” things, I try to keep it in perspective.
But the whole thing got me thinking about boys again, about how they are often interested in violence, whether it’s in video games, movies, or books. In my own toddler son, it really seems innate. Just as my one-year-old is fascinated by anything with wheels but couldn’t care less about dolls or stuffed animals of any sort, my three-year-old seems genetically programmed to love guns. I never believed such a thing was possible, actually, until I saw it with my own eyes. Boys just seem to like their guns.
Thompson makes an interesting point in one of the articles I read about boys and guns; essentially, he says that a boy shares his most intimate desires and likes with his mom, and if guns is something that he loves to play and his mother (or teacher) basically says that’s not OK, the young boy gets the message that what he loves is not OK. It’s a subtle point he makes, but it really hit home for me.
I thought about my own students, my own teaching. About my first year teaching, when I assigned a creative writing assignment to my grade nine students and received one story from a boy in the class that so alarmed me with its focus on violence that I passed it on to the academic dean. I happen to still be in touch with that boy, now in his mid-twenties, and he has no history of violence to speak of. I can now clearly see that he was acting out typical boy fantasy in his free write, but — being a woman with no penchant for violence at all — I did not understand that, and it scared me. I assumed it meant he was disturbed.
Obviously, in this post-Columbine world, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and I do not mean to minimize the importance of young men overly focused on violence. But I’ve come to appreciate the point Thompson makes, both as mother and teacher: we as teachers work in a female-dominated world in which girl behavior is now the gold standard expected of all students: sit still; don’t speak; don’t move; no rough-housing; no hitting; no violence of any kind, even pretend; use your words.
But I can see in my own child that all he wants to do all day long is play fight, acting out dramas of pirates and dragons and demons — good guys vs. bad guys. He is immersed in this world and, for the first time, I understand the need to honor that and guide him through it instead of just squashing it as “violent” and saying no to it.
Which brings me to my other boys — my students. I teach 70 ninth graders this year, and when I started the school year and looked at the reading list on offer, I groaned. I knew that there was no way I would get most of my students (due to uneven matriculation, I have a large majority of boys this year) excited about that reading list: To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, Romeo and Juliet, Flowers for Algernon. They’re all good books and are quite appropriate for grade 9, but all together as a year-long course, I knew they’d be too much for my boy students. The novels are entirely American and from the 20s – 50s. Not exactly gripping, boy-friendly stuff.
Because not enough books were ordered last year to accomodate a bigger-than-usual cohort of grade 9, I was able to convince my department-head to rush-order a new book for this year: the graphic novel (i.e. comic book) version of The Odyssey. I cobbled together a unit on the Hero’s Journey, using The Odyssey and throwing in a little Joseph Campbell and Japanese anime for good measure.
The result? Watching the part in the wonderful Japanese anime film Princess Mononoke when the protagonist shoots his cursed arrows with such force that he tears off the limbs of his enemies, the boys in the class were riveted. One boy giggled and spontaneously called out, “I love this movie!” When I handed out The Odyssey in class, one of my least-motivated students said, “That’s a good book.” I asked him when he had read it, and he replied, “Last week. During break in class. I read the whole thing.” That pretty much blew me away. This was the kind of student who never read anything at all if it wasn’t required, and maybe not even then.
For most of my career, I’d say that I haven’t been particularly attuned to boys’ needs in literature, teaching, and assessment. But I’m sold now on the power to hook students with what is most relevant to them. Yes, maybe that is a comic-book version of the classic The Odyssey, but the students are having wonderful, high-level discussions about the book; there was a lively debate today in class about whether a particular scene in which Odysseus is unfaithful to his wife by sleeping with a goddess is situational irony (because Penelope is so faithful) or dramatic irony (because we know that she has been faithful all these years, while he knows nothing of his family or home). I see an interest level and engagement I don’t usually see with non-graphic novels, and I can harness that interest and engagement so that the students can work on big ideas without getting bogged down all year with the same type of fiction over and over again.
And while I am a huge fan of Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey, I know that my students at this school do not have the sophistication to handle it. And so, like the pretend-play with my son, I’ve had to relax my ideas about what is acceptable — in this case, acceptable reading material. But now that I see how excited they are to read about the great hero Odysseus in graphic novel form, I understand that good teaching isn’t about making students love what you love. It’s about understanding the best ways to reach them, and then how to challenge them there.
And, like the gun play with my son, watching the anime and reading the graphic novel have helped me realize just how much fun this boy stuff can be.