The lesson learned about what constitutes an appropriate book extended beyond the library to schooling. There is an expectation that both girls and boys in our culture will attend schools, but the types of involvement and the interest demonstrated by the differing genders is regulated differently. Subjects and information taught and presented to children help to reinforce conceptions of masculinity and femininity, as well as power, in our culture. Subjects that have the connotation of being of "lesser" importance, such as handwriting, tend to be associated with the feminine. Thus, it may be socially expected that girls will earn higher grades than boys in such subjects. People notice the "girly" writing of a man who writes nicely. The social construction of gender also reaches out from the books of the classroom to suggest that there are subjects, topics, and careers that are for girls and others that are for boys.
By the fourth grade, I was selected to join my school district's Academically Gifted Program (AGP). This became another nail in the coffin of my popularity. It's strange how as children we tease and insult both the overachievers and the underachievers. I yearned through those years to merely be "average." Alas, I was not, as I was in a special program where I was permitted to leave my regular school one whole day a week and ride a bus to another school to interact with other "gifted" students in a special class. We had access to various academic and activity-experience opportunities. It was a good experience while I was at AGP, at least initially. This was the first time that I had a chance to mingle with peers who seemed to be at my own intellectual level. I also was no longer the main target of harassment in my class. I was grouped with those who I can only assume were also targets in their own schools. In a funny kind of way, it was a rewarding to be grouped up with the other nerds, geeks, sissies, and weirdos, one of the first times I didn't really feel alone.
Children can be incredibly cruel and I was an easy target, being in a gifted program, being a bit pudgy, being too effeminate, and wearing glasses.
It was in fourth grade when I first tried to go on a diet in hopes of fitting in better with my classmates. I knew to hide this from my peers because, as with so many other things in my world, being on a diet was something girls did, not boys. So even in my aim to fit in better, I was trying to get there by way of nonmasculine approved routes (though as adults we know that both men and women go on diets).
During those years of fourth through sixth grade, I found myself becoming increasingly isolated and distant. I was a sad child in many ways. I spent a lot of time reading and doing artistic projects by myself. I struggled with the emotional limitations of schooling, with my inability to fit in with my peers. I spent many nights hiding under my quilt in bed crying about it. I simply could not understand why my peers held such a negative view of me. I tried to reason the circumstances away as being the result of superior intellect, but this didn't work. I'm sure it was not an easy thing for my parents to see me so sad, so I also tried to keep it hidden from them. (Isn't that what boys are supposed to do?) I sought to reconcile some of the emotional strain of the situation by withdrawing and convincing myself that I was fine alone.
Having relocated to a new town toward the end of sixth grade, I merged into the life of junior high school much like my peers. We were all new to the school, with an equally low status in the grade hierarchy, all seeking to establish our standing in the local scheme of things. I was placed in all the advanced classes that were offered. While this was great in that I was with a group of intellectual peers, I also was separated from the majority of my classmates, who I only met in gym, chorus, and maybe in the cafeteria.
During the seventh grade, all students were required to take a home economics class. For the first time, I was able to flaunt my domestic abilities with a needle and thread as well as in the kitchen. From a young age I had learned to cook, in part because of personal interest, but also in part because I was a Cub Scout. I no longer had to hide the fact that I could cook and sew from my peers, but I did have to be careful in showing how much I knew and how much I enjoyed these activities. I ended up being at the head of my class for home economics and even started helping other students with some of the sewing and embroidery assignments. It was the first time that the feedback I was receiving from peers was not reinforcing the negative associations of my gender identity in connection with stereo-typically feminine activities.
Because the course was required and I was part of a class of high-achieving students, I wasn't seen as a boy participating in feminine activities.
Instead, I was just a student who was doing well in class. But as soon as the semester in home economics ended and I entered the wood shop class, I had to send my domestic abilities and interests into the gender closet. This produced another magnified moment, this time highlighting how quickly valued abilities in one context can became a source of embarrassment and taunting in another.
Heading into wood shop, many of my peers expected that I would be uncomfortable and fall flat on my face. I surprised them when they learned that I actually knew as much or more about the tools and equipment as they did. All the time I had spent with my father in the garage had paid off. I was a competent woodworker and did just fine in making the semester's big lamp project. One might think that the ability to fulfill both the roles and tasks traditionally classified as feminine and those classified as masculine would have been regarded positively by my peers. Unfortunately, this was not the case; the dichotomous nature of gender reared its head once again. While both my feminine and masculine skills required similar abilities— precise measurement, the operation of machines (be it a sewing machine and mixer or a table saw and drill press), envisioning how differing parts or different ingredients work together to create a final product—the incongruity across situations of being a boy who was successful in the feminine tasks was unacceptable. We seem more likely to recognize difference while remaining blind to the similarity that is demonstrated by differently gendered youth (Messner 2000). This is especially true for boys who demonstrate "feminine" skills.
I was never blessed as a child with good hand-eye coordination or balance; I was a "big 'ole klutz." Early on, I learned to dread gym class, in part because of a disinterest in athletics and in part because of my peers' responses to my lack of athletic prowess. There were, of course, some things I loved about gym class, such as the little wheelie carts for scooting around, dodge-ball, playing with the big parachute, and square-dancing, which I adored. Another magnified moment unfolded at this time. It was a Wednesday and we had gym in late morning, right before lunch. My second tooth was loose. It had gotten to that cool stage where you could spin the tooth round and round, but it held tight by a single thread. It was climb-the-rope day. To me, the rope was the very worst part of the gym classes. I did not have the upper body strength to climb the rope; I even had problems with the interval knots. I was waiting in line, spinning that tooth with all my might, and it finally came out when there was just one person remaining between me and the dreaded rope. I felt tremendous relief in being able to avoid the rope and go to the nurse's office. But I also knew this could have been a gender-defining moment.
In those early years, in addition to scouting, my parents also offered me the opportunity to join various local youth sports teams, like baseball. My one sister and I had both taken swim lessons when we were young and enjoyed that greatly, but the thought of an organized team sport didn't appeal to me. As it was, I was already spending enough time figuring ways to get out of gym class. But my parents never forced these opportunities on me. They surely knew that I was not the most masculine boy, but they never demeaned me for lacking an interest in sports. Actually, in contrast to many of my classmates' parents, my own parents weren't very interested in sports. Organized sports were rarely, if ever, seen on television in my house. One could argue that this could have "caused" me not be interested in sports, but this is unlikely considering that both my siblings participated in various sports in their youth.
When I was about six years old, I had another of those eye-opening experiences (another magnified moment) during which I began to understand some of the "real-world" differences between males and females. I had mastered riding my bike with training wheels and was finally ready to move on to riding without them. At the time, I was only allowed to bike back and forth on the sidewalks on either side of my house. Two sisters, Ann and Stella, lived in the house on the left and had a driveway that was perfect for turning around. In the transition to riding without training wheels, one of the hardest parts is learning to turn, continue to stay upright, and keep going where you want to go. At the side of Ann and Stella's driveway was a large bush. During one of my first efforts to turn around, I turned abruptly, crashed into their bush, and simultaneously learned what happens when a hard object—like handle bars—hits a boy in the groin. I was stuck, entangled in both the bush and bike, and in tremendous pain. I cried and was very upset, of course. Who knew that such an occurrence could hurt so badly? As I was a modest child, I was embarrassed by the entire incident. I knocked on Ann and Stella's door to apologize for breaking branches on their bush. They took me very seriously, inspected the bush, and actually thanked me for having broken out the branch that had some rot on it. (At least, that was their story). I was so relieved. I eventually mastered the act of turning on my bike with not too many scars to my ego or body, but my neighbors' support and understanding stayed with me.
Third grade brought my first regular visits to the playground. Of course, we had gone outside to play in the past, but it had been intermittent, as the big kids in higher grades were "too wild" and might hurt us. While it is common for children to create single-sex play groups (Martin and Fabes 2001), I found I was more comfortable playing with the girls. They were less violent and didn't always talk about the stereotypically masculine toys about which I had little knowledge or interest. I didn't fit in well and was picked on and posited to the lowest boy status. However, with the group of girls, I was able to be one of the leaders and had a lot of social support from them. I learned how to play cat's cradle at lunch, got to just relax and sit and talk in the sun at play time, and competed on the swings for who could go highest and jump off.
The dread of gym class persisted throughout my junior and high school years. My gym class loathing was reinforced one year when I was placed with students two years my senior because of my academic and choral schedule. That was a very rough year of gym class for me. As one might suspect, my classmates (who seemingly comprised the majority of the football team) were not pleased to have to count me among them. Making matters worse, the gym teacher "inadvertently" mentioned that I was in a class of seniors "because of chorus." Involvement of any male in choir was regarded with disgust by most the boys of my school.
I had learned to deal with the psychological harm accompanying this masculine departure, but that year I understood that gender violations could also result in physical pain. That fall, one of the games of flag football, which was supposed to be noncontact, resulted in my first cast. This was the first concrete example of my life in which the disapproval of my gender portrayal by my peers, together with the bolstering disapproval of adults (my gym teacher), caused me real harm. I had always wanted to believe that each of my classmates felt different and out of place to at least some degree, but from that point on I became increasingly critical and distant from my peers and even wary of the adults in my school. I was disappointed that adults would not present a better example for students, but I now recognize that deeply imbedded categories of masculinity are part not only of youth culture but of adult culture as well.
Athletic interest and involvement has long been held a bastion of masculinity. Being a successful athlete enables men/boys to affirm and define who and what they are, especially in opposition to femininity (Connell 1995; Messner 1992). Having had little athletic interest or skill as a child (and I still don't today), my experience of masculinity was problematized in this regard by my peers as well as the adults of my world. I had become a large-bodied, strongly built youth, with the quintessential football figure.
The idea that I was disinterested in the football and wrestling teams seemed utterly foreign to my athletics teachers.
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