How to talk to boys (about haircuts and girls)

“You’re going to have all the girls at school chasing after you tomorrow.”

This was the problematic remark made by a mother about her son’s haircut, when I was waiting for my own hairs to be cut earlier this week.

It is one of many tropes uttered without thought as to the wider implications of the relationship we have between the sexes and that which we have with ourselves.

In one foul swoop the mother has reduced her son’s interaction with women to that of a satin bowerbird collecting blue bottle tops for his nest. She sets up for him some sort of Georgie-Porgie, pudding and pie scenario where he’ll have a sex-crazed flock of girls swooning after his lusciously lopped locks. There’s a solid notion that he is somehow a reverse Samson whose newly cut hair will provide prowess to attract women.

Let’s start with the mother’s own relationship with men and how this statement may reflect her outlook on the male species. She obviously likes a well-manicured crop of hair on male heads, as she happily sat providing commentary for the duration of both her sons’ haircuts, and then her husband’s. Is it too much of an extrapolation to assume that the main thing attracting her to her own husband was his haircut? Probably (and hopefully) not. Yet she made the above throw-away remark, which would insinuate that this was the main thing – not his personality or intellect. It puts her in a position of appearing superficial if we are to assume haircuts are the main attraction she has to men.

Secondly, let’s think about the boy. It doesn’t do positive things for his self esteem to be told that he’s defining feature of attraction is the follicles on his noggin. There’s much dialogue surrounding the default position of complimenting young girls on their appearance, when adults can’t think of any other ways of engaging. To flip an old adage on its newly shaven head, ‘even if you only have nice things to say, you should on some occasions still say nothing at all’.

Phrases such as “what a pretty set of shoes”, or “what a lovely bow”, or “what a sweet smile you have” are no longer welcome, as they put primary value on appearance. Similarly, boys should be built to value their positive traits and abilities. The boy has made no contribution to the growing of his hair, nor the cutting of his hair. So why make him value it as a strong feature. That’s not to take away from the need to have pride in appearance and professionalism that a neat hairdo brings. But this should be for the purpose of his own pride of self and not for the enticement of the female species.

Finally, and most damagingly, the mother’s remark devalues women. The boy will be left with the impression that one of the main interests of girls is hair. She didn’t say “some girls”. She didn’t say “maybe a girl”. She didn’t say “a few girls”. She said “all” the girls. That’s right. All of the female students at the school will be chasing after him tomorrow. (Without considering the fact that it would be vastly intimidating to be chased by a lynch mob of people enamoured by the way your hair was sculpted) it is not a sensible notion, to give an impressionable young man, that women are so vacuous as to only be concerned with a man’s appearance from the eyebrow’s up.

An innocuous comment can hold clues to a deeper set of values. And in this case I think some reflection is needed – not to mention that perhaps Harry Haircut may want “all” the boys at school to notice his haircut. His mother didn’t think of that either.

Kid #21 – You can guide a kid to textbooks, but you can’t make them think

The twenty-first kid I hated had a real ‘make me!’ attitude.

By ‘make me!’, I am referring to the following sorts of interactions:

Teacher/Parent/Adult/Authority figure: Please, can you tuck your shirt in?

Kid: Make me!

Or

Teacher/Parent/Adult/Authority figure: Please, can you sit down?

Kid: Make me!

And so on and so forth.

For argument’s sake, let’s say kid number 21 was called ‘Tarquin’. He had become so notorious around the school for his defiance that students and staff alike would say, “Have you met Tarquin yet?”, “Is Tarquin in your class?” or “Such and such student couldn’t be worse than Tarquin”.

Who was this child? And did I really want to meet him?

I was covering classes in this school for a number of months. The school was situated in an area of London prone to a certain amount of gang warfare. The gangs were usually made up of vulnerable teenagers and misguided young adults involving themselves in forcing young female members to be involved in various sexual acts, general theft and a bit of knife crime.

My gut feeling was the majority of students in the school were not part of such gangs, but some of those who weren’t continuing beyond Year 10 were probably on the cusp of joining such groups. The school was very active in bringing to the attention of students, the pitfalls of gang culture. Ex-gang members were often brought in as guest speakers; extra-curricular clubs and activities were organised as distractions; and the issue of knife crime was debated as a topic in English classes, using the institutionalised racism of the Stephen Lawrence case as a backdrop (albeit some of the children seemed more interested in the knife side of ‘knife crime’ and less concerned about the crime).

One film studies class was even making a mockumentary about the 2011 London riots, documenting a gang who had resorted to raiding stationery shops for highlighters.

With such a demographic and a number of already lippy students, I was prepared for the worst upon meeting the twenty first kid. Would he be part of such a gang? Is that why he was so well-known?

Apprehensive at every turn, when covering year nine classes, I expected the child to storm in at any moment. Then one day covering a woodwork class it happened…

In stormed ‘Tarquin’. He did not fit the gangster mould at all. I was expecting a much more vicious and streetwise child from a struggling background. Instead he appeared to be a well-spoken middle-class lad born into a good home. So initially I relaxed.

However, he had turned up five minutes late to class and seemed rather unapologetic. I should have been more cautious.

When asked to sit down in a seat, he declared that he was fine and continued to wander around the room. He began picking up tools; saws, chisels and other sharp construction implements, which I had been explicitly instructed to make sure students did not handle. The students were only supposed to work on their written booklet explaining how they were going to construct their wooden pencil box for next lesson.

The rest of the year nines seemed to be enjoying the show. Here was their class-clown ready to spoil the day. He was no Krusty, but if it meant they didn’t need to complete their written element of work, they’d settle for his second rate cousin.

The child continued to ignore me completely, despite every polite attempt to get his attention and encourage him to sit in a chair. There is nothing ruder or more defiant than being ignored completely by a student. Yet there is also an element of knowing with such a child. They’ve realised the limitations of the adults to ‘make’ them do things. Beyond my words I had nothing. I could call a senior staff member in, and soon enough I did, but he treated them the same way. It would have been easier if he’d smashed a window or something, because then we’d have been able to call the police who may have been able to force him to do something. Something like sitting in a cell, instead of the chair I’d originally asked him to rest upon.

But even force with not lead to learning.

And there-in lay the dilemma when later in the lesson he was asked to do his work and responded with, “make me!”.

There is in fact no way to make someone learn. They can only be cajoled, encouraged, persuaded and threatened with consequence, to complete a task.

Instead this child was happy to enjoy his minute status as a celebrity. He wandered the room greeting all his pals, as though he was some sort of politician working a room. He sat at his table like a chairman of an important board meeting, leading discussions in everything but the topic at hand. When the lesson finally ended he swanned (or perhaps even minced) out of the room with an air of contempt towards those he had just spent time with; he obviously had more important places to be.

It’s hard to know with some of these children whether the bravado comes from a place of insecurity or, as stated early, the knowledge that rules can be pushed to their limit (or even ignored) to get what you want.

The problem with this character was he’d only realised half the picture. He knew there were limited short term consequences to his blatant disregard for authority. He was reaping the rewards of his popularity within the safety net of his school environment. But left out to float in the ocean of the real world, he’d be swallowed up by the shark that is society and torn limb from limb like an malnourished walrus – I feel this is an apt metaphor considering his body type.

Luckily I only taught that class until the end of the week and moved to another part of the school, where again the name Tarquin became merely a quasi-outlaw rumoured about in the corridors. A god among pupils and fool among teachers. His destiny was tied up in failure due the size of his ego and belt strap.

So although the child may have suffered from some social autism, if we met again I doubt I’d invite him in for coffee. He’d have to ‘make me!’.