"I try to laugh about it
Cover it all up with lies
I try and
Laugh about it
Hiding the tears in my eyes
'cause boys don't cry
Boys don't cry."
- Smith, Robert; Tolhurts, Lol; Dempsey, Michael. “Boys Don’t Cry” The Cure
Tuesday morning just after 5:30 am, the phone rang for a Spanish teacher job. Since I had Monday off, and spent at least four hours of it writing and editing, I was happy to work. Well, as happy as I ever am to sub. The job started at the rally school, but ended at the school with the messy gym teacher who left me no plans last week.
When I reached the middle school, I found the other Spanish teacher who was happy to see me, as usual. I’d be running her first class so she could have a prep period, and then I’d be at the other school. The teachers offered me a seat and coffee. Being at this school is such a different experience from the teachers who ignored me during their lunch party the prior week.
First period students were chatty each time the other Spanish teacher left the room, but most of them worked. The boys who had gone to the Celtics playoffs game the night before were a little less focused. Luckily, the girls had gone on Saturday so they were over it.
At the second school were magazines and packets for the two seventh and two eighth-grade classes to complete. All four classes were good, especially considering it’s middle school. Most kids (especially girls) went right to work while a few (mostly boys) needed encouraging/reminding/me to sit with them/to be separated, but they were in the minority.
One group of four boisterous boys asked my name. When I told them, “Ms. Milstein,” one asked, “Can we call you M Dog?” I laughed and declined. Then they proceeded to tell me their nicknames. I’d forgotten it was a first-name teacher school. When I’d subbed gym last week, these same students wanted to call me “T Dog”, which I also turned down.
This reminded me of last week when I’d subbed gym at the high school. At the end of the day, one eleventh-grade boy shot hoops by himself. At some point, the ball rolled near the door. I watched him pick it up and notice his reflection in the door's glass. For a long time, he stood before it; practicing moves that he thought made him look cool. I pretended to look anywhere else and somehow refrained from laughing. At one point during his admiration of his reflection, the ball got away from him and bounced near me. “Sorry,” he said, “I was…” but didn’t finish his sentence.
After lunch I got sick. I’ll spare you the details but let me say it was a stomach thing. And the classroom on an eighty + degree-day was considerably hotter than outside, which wasn’t helping things. If the students weren’t so good, I don’t know how I would’ve managed.
When I got home, I fell asleep until my children came off the bus. My daughter wanted to tell me all about a t-shirt with puppies and clouds or clouds that were puppies owned by two girls in her class. “Can we buy one?” she begged. My son proudly told me about the bee that stung his leg while he played football during recess.
Most of their reports are like that. My daughter tells me about what she’s learned, and her feelings. My son tells me about football.
Of course, this is an over-generalization about my children. My son talks about football and plays bloody war video games, but he talks about inequality and the environment. He looks out for his sister. He treats all girls with respect. He appreciates flowers. He doesn’t like it when students misbehave at school. He’ll be a good boyfriend someday, in my humble opinion.
Female writers, especially of middle grade and young adult books, need to watch how they portray their boy characters. It’s easy to write teenage boys as if they’re like us. They are and they aren’t. Boys are more physical and less focused. If they’re working, it’s usually not as quietly or still. They project a false bravado. They’re funny. At least when they aren’t being jerks. (I mean that last word with love.)
I read Maggie Stiefvater’s book Shiver. Her character, Sam is sensitive, but she provides reasons for it. And I’m aware what someone feels like inside and how they behave are often quite different. Males have soft sides, but we can’t ignore the parts that are less soft. I would imagine it’s easier for women to write male characters than it is for men to write female characters. But maybe that’s an overgeneralization too.
While we can be aware of differences, whether we are writing gender or ethnicity, we want to be true to our characters’ experiences while still writing about our common humanity.
When I teach, I make a little more room for boys, while still making sure the girls don’t feel the boys are getting away with everything. It’s a fine line.
Teachers, what do you observe in your classroom? Do you see big or small differences in gender?
Readers, do you think male characters ring true or come across as unrealistic?
Writers, do you struggle writing a character of the opposite sex? If so, why?