Allowing Boys Tenderness
I am always grateful for the Friday afternoon sessions at my home with the senior class at Fenn—our Pen to Paper Club. Started three years ago by a member of the Class of 2011 to answer a longing to do something different in the afternoon, we set up a voluntary ninth grade club to read poetry and to write and draw in response to it. My offer was guidance and a place to gather away from the school with appealing food and drinks: think salt and sugar.
It quickly became clear that all of the ninth graders wanted to be part of the club and that while poetry was the supposed main reason for its existence, the real reason the boys wanted to come to the Headmaster’s House was to be together as seniors away from the everyday workings of school, enjoying each other’s company and sharing hilarious and often moving, meaningful stories about their lives—in their families, in school, and in the world.
While poetry may be the vehicle to provoke memories and honest conversation, it always amazes me how quickly and easily they will move to honest and open conversation about embarrassing or tender moments in their lives. They laugh a lot, too—fine, open, contagious laughter that tells me they are in it together at least for this short time on Friday afternoon.
I reflect a lot on the nature of gender and how it defines how we operate in the world. I am more and more convinced there is a lot of evolutionary biology mucking around inside us that leads us to do what we do. Being with males in an intense way for the last thirty-four years as a parent of three grown sons and on a boys’ school campus for twenty-one (even as I taught and advised at a women’s college for twenty of those thirty-four years), I am struck at how tender males are and can be in their own company around common ground that unites them—losing a hard-fought game in its final moments, fear of losing a mother who is seriously sick or at risk, sadness at the death of a beloved teacher or peer, the terrible embarrassment of failure for a classmate. Boys so often rise to tenderness when given the opportunity by adults who cede emotional control to them in a safe place where no judgment is being made about strong feelings—sad or happy. They want so badly to belong, to count as something, to be seen as accomplished by their peers and their classmates. They want so badly to be remembered as significant during their time at school—not to be one of those kids relegated to the sidelines or fading away behind the others as they walk from one place to another.
Pen to Paper has morphed into a ninth grade gathering time where every boy gets to speak his mind—whether it is about the poem we are reading or the things going on at school and in their lives or in answer to a provocative question I throw out soon after we read a poem. I work hard at finding ways to ensure that each boy has a voice, to reveal what I know is truly special about each of them, to applaud individual triumphs, to commiserate about disappointments, and to acknowledge and accept when they are angry at someone or something.
The small miracles of connection and tenderness I experience weekly with them as we talk and eat together redeems even the most disappointing and exhausting week. How lucky to be in the company of boys at the cusp of manhood who can speak so openly and freely to what is important in their lives, accompanied often by laughter and connection.
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