Boys, Breast Cancer, and the Magic of Boys’ Schools

Are all-boys schools institutionalizing sexism? Lori Day says that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I write this post for two reasons. I write in honor of the women in my life who have fought breast cancer, as this is Breast Cancer Awareness month. And I write in response to the September 23, 2011 study in Science Magazine titled “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling.” I challenge its incendiary and unsubstantiated claims that “segregating” boys and girls by gender is similar to the racial segregation of African-American children in the southern schools of decades ago, and that it “increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutionalized sexism.” Here is a small window into my life in a boys’ school, and the transformation I observed, not just in the boys themselves, but also in myself as a woman.

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On a cool autumn morning in October of 2006, over 300 boys arrived wearing pink. Shirts were pink, hats were pink, other accessories and items of clothing that could be bought or dyed pink adorned these boys who gathered together for a photograph in front of white-white New England clapboard buildings under a brilliant blue sky. They casually tossed their arms across each other’s shoulders, smiling at the camera, appearing to any onlooker like the collective innocence and joyfulness of boyhood from a bygone era, made modern by the bold choice of color they had conspired to wear. They wore it in solidarity with a woman they loved who lived in a house next door to the school. A woman who was fighting Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. A woman who just happened to be their Headmaster’s wife and the chair of the English department.

It was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the president of the student body of this boys’ school, working with a faculty advisor, organized a school-wide fundraiser in honor of their beloved English teacher, all of the other women in their lives, and women they did not even know, who were fighting, or had survived, breast cancer. But wait. Boys don’t wear pink! And why would boys care about breast cancer, anyway? It’s a predominantly woman’s disease they have very little chance of ever contracting.

They raised thousands of dollars for the cause. More importantly, they raised their own consciousness about a “women’s issue” that could potentially affect their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, teachers, or female friends. For some of them, that was actively the case.

Here’s what the boys did not do. They did not sport rubber bracelets or t-shirts that said “I <3 Boobies” or “Save the Ta-Ta’s.” Dedicated female (and male) teachers had deconstructed for them the cruel irony of sexualizing breast cancer.

Here’s what the boys did do. During their free time they (and lots of returning alums) visited their teacher who was fighting for her life. Freely and unselfconsciously they expressed their emotions, their affection, their fears. They connected to her as not only an important woman in their schooling and in their lives, but also as a woman battling a life-threatening illness who might not make it, like so many other women who have not made it. They could talk about it, and cry about it, and do that together.

Too few boys access this side of themselves, especially during puberty, and especially in co-ed settings. But boys have great capacity for this kind of emotional expression, and if it does not come easily to them verbally, they can emote through drama, music, or art. Sadly, in co-ed schools, the social milieu between boys and girls does not always allow boys to easily pursue so-called “feminine” interests that are censured by their peers.  How many times in my career have I heard, “chorus is for girls?”

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Poetry, literature, theater, and many other artistic pursuits are judged as feminine at best, and as indicating potential homosexuality at worst. Boys sometimes shut down the artistic and emotive parts of themselves when they feel their masculinity is being scrutinized and that if they are not considered male enough, they could be bullied. So, one of the wonders of boys’ schools is that chorus is for everyone. Everything is for everyone.

What about athletics? Well of course sports play a big role at most boys’ schools. Healthy competition is encouraged and viewed positively as long as it is paired with a deep understanding of good sportsmanship, being a team player, and the lifelong lessons of camaraderie on the field.

Academically, boys take more risks in single-sex environments. They eagerly raise their hands to answer questions about books. They participate passionately in poetry slams. If they are physically restless or less attentive than girls, they are in an environment where that is understood and accepted by both male and female teachers who love boys, are experts in their development, and know how to instruct them, in all their boyishness, to reach their full potential. Teachers in boys’ schools have chosen to be there and are not just “putting up with” boys.

There is much discussion these days about boys falling behind girls academically. As an educational psychologist by training and the first female admissions director in the history of my school, I saw this first hand, and I have also written about it. I feel strongly that single-sex education is highly beneficial for both genders, and for boys in particular it can help address the current achievement gap with girls. We have long addressed girls’ math and science gap, with some (but not complete) success. In our efforts to level the playing field, many believe we now shortchange boys. I consider myself a feminist and I believe that our public educational system favors girls today.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to separate the genders during schooling, especially in the middle school years, is to release them from the burdens of our hyper-sexualized society for a few hours a day so they can focus on academics and learn to their highest potential. In co-ed environments, the cross-gender distractions have reached epic proportions, with girls dressing so provocatively and both boys and girls engaging in the greatest degree of disruptive flirtatious behavior schools have ever seen.

For those who question “segregating” the genders, I must point out that single-sex schools are usually not monasteries or nunneries. Boys and girls interact with each other at home, in neighborhoods, in churches and synagogues, in co-ed sports teams, at dances, in joint community service projects, in dramatic productions and in so many other ways. But during the short school day, boys can be singers or girls can be hockey players and no one of the opposite gender is there to evaluate how well they are performing their gender role as our society prescribes it. No one of the opposite gender is there to show off for or to shut down in front of. Everyone gets to explore freely—without stigma—what it means to be boys or girls, and most importantly, what it is to be human.

Many prospective parents coming through the admissions process used to notice, when they visited our campus, that the boys were exceptionally polite and respectful, opening doors for them and shaking their hands firmly with good eye contact and a friendly smile. That is because these behaviors and values were expressly fostered and supported as a school community. There were no standardized tests to teach to or to replace other important lessons, including the value of respect and empathy for women, which was explicitly taught in health classes where no girls were present and honest conversations could take place comfortably.

Parents sometimes asked me if the boys are always as “good” as they seemed during their tour of campus. I had a good comeback line for that: “I fill the school with boys, not angels.” Of course they got in trouble and made mistakes! But failures were teachable moments, and the faculty, which was 50% male and 50% female, all knew how to capitalize on serendipity. Boys had trusted mentors and strong role models of both genders, and that is such a gift. I think it should be the experience of all boys, but co-ed schools draw mostly female teachers, especially at the younger grades. Male teaching candidates are often drawn to boys’ schools where they know they can make a difference with boys, and also enjoy the companionship of other men.

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These boys eventually graduate with a strong moral foundation and go on to predominantly co-ed schools where they encounter girls in academic, athletic, and artistic situations, having learned to approach them with respect and from a position of self-confidence that has remained intact and strong. They have been nurtured as growing young men, learning emotional literacy and taking risks in ways that co-ed environments can sometimes discourage.

Good single-sex schools that use gender as a lens to better understand boys (or girls) cut to the heart of what it means to develop into a healthy young men or women. They combat stereotypes rather than encourage them as the study falsely (and without evidence) asserts.

There are bad single-sex schools just as there are bad co-ed schools. Boys’ schools have a reputation for being bastions of white male privilege, racism, sexism, classism, and bullying. Everyone saw or read Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and so this image of the elite hardscrabble bullying culture of a British boys’ boarding school is what many people consciously or subconsciously think of when they hear the term “boys’ school.” Thank God things have changed. It is not that there is no bullying anymore because all schools have bullying. But without the presence of girls to compete for, boys actually have fewer flashpoints between them and greater camaraderie. The friendships they develop in school often last a lifetime.

Single-sex schools (unlike the discriminatory “separate but equal” racially segregated schools of our pre-Civil Rights era) are a choice. Separate does not mean unequal. It can mean different, and different can be good. It is not forced on anyone. In fact, it is sought out and usually purchased at a high price by parents who can afford it and understand its value, leaving it an option for very few middle and low-income families. Most people do not pay tens of thousands of dollars for an education that harms their children.

What is needed is for more public schools, especially in poor urban neighborhoods, to be allowed to offer single-sex education, even if it occurs simply in academic classrooms within a co-ed building. The research done to date by the Department of Education concludes the opposite of what the Science study purports…that academic achievement and social/emotional development resulting from single-sex schooling results in short and long-term positive outcomes for both boys and girls. The Science Magazine study upset me greatly. It was completely dissonant with my own education and experience. Boys’ schools are by and large exceptional learning environments for young men. They are also extremely tight-knit communities.

By the way, five years later, the Headmaster’s wife is alive and well, one of only a small number of women to have ever survived this long with Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. She credits her excellent medical care, a loving family, supportive colleagues…and lots and lots of boys.

—Photo Flickr/Jon’s pics

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About Lori Day

Lori Day is an educational psychologist and consultant with Lori Day Consulting in Concord, MA, having worked previously in the field of education for over 25 years in public schools, private schools, and at the college level. She writes and blogs about parenting, education, children, gender, media, and pop culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Comments

  1. After reading your article, I can’t help thinking about The Dead Poet’s Society! “But boys have great capacity for this kind of emotional expression, and if it does not come easily to them verbally, they can emote through drama, music, or art. Sadly, in co-ed schools, the social milieu between boys and girls does not always allow boys to easily pursue so-called “feminine” interests that are censured by their peers.” This is so true. And you make such an articulate case for single sex schools. I do agree that it does allow for a certain sense of freedom and perhaps boys, especially, can really benefit from them. Thanks for such a well-written, articulate piece.

    • Thank you so much. Girls benefit just as much from girls’ schools, and I may write about that soon as well. Many of the reasons are the same and some are different. It’s a shame that there is so much misinformation and outdated thinking about single-gender schooling. I notice that people who know nothing at all about it make totally negative assumptions, often ones that are in fact *opposite* to the truth, and then proceed to bash single-sex schools with assumed authority. It’s a shame. I see single-sex education, in some shape or form, as a solution to some of the problems with our current educational system, but at this rate it will never get anywhere!

  2. Here in the New Orleans area (where the public schools are not an option) all but one of the Catholic schools are single-gender schools. It’s a huge part of our culture here. I would guess that about half of the children in our city attend single-sex schools starting at grade 8, and many starting at grade 5 or 6.

    And it’s been that way for over 100 years.

    I’d love to see a study done here, with such a concentration of people who’ve attended single-gender schools.

    • Lisha, that is a really interesting concept. There is a tradition of boys’ schools here in New England, too, but it is part of an overall strong co-ed independent school culture. So to all of you down in the big easy, there is nothing unusual (or negative!) about boys’ schools. I’d love to hear more about this if you care to contact me. If you go to my website, http://www.loridayconsulting.com, you’ll find my email, etc. Thanks so much for weighing in!

  3. wgolenbock says:

    Our son attended the Fenn School and then The Roxbury School. What amazing places! There are no finer educational opportunities for boys. We are grateful to both institutions for their love and guidance. Please feel free to email me if you want me to tell you any of the fine points about our son’s incredible single sex school experiences. Today he is captain of his University soccer team, has a fantastic girlfriend and is an a fabulous chef once a week at his fraternity!

    • Nice to hear that Max is thriving at MIT, Ms. Golenbock. He is a special young man who was well-loved not only by those tremendous schools, but also by two strong, supportive parents. Nice work, an unbeatable combination.

  4. So moving, about the boys and their English teacher! I t completely agree with you about single-sex schools. My daughter (4th grade) wants to go to a local all-girls’ secondary school and I’m crossing fingers she gets in when it’s time.

    • Pauline, fingers crossed as well! Girls’ schools are just as wonderful as boys’ schools. My own daughter is a sophomore at Mount Holyoke and it’s her first single-sex experience after going to public schools K – 8, and then a co-ed private high school. She has never been happier. She feels so empowered as a young woman, and loves that the gender distractions are not there with her in the classroom where she tends to be a serious student. MHC is part of the 5-college consortium in Western Mass, so she sees plenty of boys at all kinds of joint activities, but she loves having an all-female academic experience. Thank you so much for writing, and best wishes for your little girl!

  5. Transhuman says:

    What I valued from my all-boys high school experience was being taught by men. Of the staff of teachers, there were two women who served as role models for what a good woman was. The male teachers however were able to connect with the students and impart more than just the three R’s when they delivered lessons.

    • Transhuman, I love these kinds of testimonials. I think most adults are so accustomed to the fact that most teachers are female, that they don’t stop and consider that boys are missing out on important mentoring. I found that at my school, male teachers were often able to reach students who had previously seemed “unreachable.” I will also say that at times it was hard to be a female teacher/administrator there, because the boys so favored the men. But that was part of the mission, and something that I had to accept, even though it was sometimes painful. I knew it was all good for the boys, and they had many beloved female teachers too, as my article attests. One of the most difficult things for me as admissions director was making classroom placements. Since I was the one who knew the incoming new students, I was primarily responsible for choosing their teachers/advisors. I got a TON of pressure from parents, who were paying a lot of money, to put their sons with male teachers. All of the parents said their sons needed that or that they had come to my school so they could get it. But the mission of my school was not to have an all-male faculty, as was common when you were growing up, but to have a 50/50 male/female faculty. So…not all boys could get a male homeroom teacher or a male advisor. And in many cases, the teacher I felt was the best “match” for a boy and his learning style and personal circumstances was a woman, but the parents often protested. It all worked out. I’m just saying that this was how much male teachers meant to these parents, and why they were so interested in a boys’ school. I so wish we could attract more men to the teaching field, but that’s a topic for another post! Thanks so much for writing.

    • wgolenbock says:

      Having amazing male role models really helped shape our son since there were no men in his household!

  6. Michael P says:

    Lori,
    Thank you so much for this article. It was truly a positive experience reading it.

    I really do wish I’d had more male teachers in my early education. My own father was not much of a role model–he, himself, having had a rocky upbringing. I excelled in early education and slipped into mediocrity by middle school. When I had two male teachers in high school, I was suddenly good at a whole range of subjects. I realized later that I had felt they were somehow speaking to ME and my own experience in school, and that my success was partly because I was able to connect in a way I hadn’t earlier on.

    The sexualization of the classroom setting is a HUGE issue, and I’m glad to hear you briefly mention it. I, myself, am gay, so obviously I was never distracted because I was attracted to the girls in my classes. However, at a certain point, I was forced to worry about the way girls reacted to me and the way other boys saw the way I reacted to girls. My (currently) best female friend thought that I had a big crush on her in high school! As a result, she treated me as if I were a creep. And the fact that I was one of few of my peers not attempting to get the attention of a girl made it awkward for me to be amongst other boys. And, of course, the simple fact that my peers–male and female–were often so preoccupied with filling these culturally-dictated flirting-and-dating roles made every interactive class so much less intelligent than it could have been.

    • Michael, what a lovely testimonial to male teachers. At my school there were many boys who lacked strong male role models at home, either because their fathers were emotionally abusive or absent, or because they did not have fathers, through one circumstance or another. And boys simply need male role models. No one would question the value of good mothers and female teachers for girls, so I am surprised when people do not place enough emphasis on the reciprocal need of boys. I don’t know whether boys’ schools draw more of these kinds of boys because their mothers are looking for these relationships for theirs sons, but I certainly heard that a lot. I am sure that the public schools have just as many boys with strong male role models at home–perhaps a lot more. This country needs to value the teaching profession more so that more men can be attracted to teach. In the current climate of teacher-bashing, it’s a marvel any teachers show up for work at all, but I guess, when faced with unemployment, people will put up with these terrible working conditions. In response to your moving account of being gay and experiencing the super-charged sexual climate in classrooms, I imagine you would have much preferred a single-sex classroom where you could focus and feel more comfortable. A lot of heterosexual kids feel that way too. Not every kid is precocious the way most of them are these days, and for the late-bloomer, it is just sooo uncomfortable. Teachers really can’t get this under control short of taking draconian measures, as is happening in some schools in England right now. Here is the US, if public schools try to get this situation under control, people start screaming like it’s a human rights violation. Anyway! Thank you so much for writing!

  7. Sorry, but I still think that all-boys schools are a step backwards. I know several women who are married to men who attended Catholic all-boys schools and these fellas had a lot of madonna-whore stereotypes about women.

    Also, I know women who had bad experiences at all-girls schools. If the school was pro-feminist, it was often an empowering experience for the woman. But if it was not pro-feminist, it was a bad experience.

    I believe in co-education and do not want my tax dollars supporting single sex schools. The real world is made up of women and men and girls and boys and it’s about time we started dealing with it instead of excaping into “Mars and Venus” patriarchy.

    • I support single sex education (as a choice). My daughter attended an all-girls school 1st-12 grade, and my son an all-boys high school. He was previously in a top public school so I’ve seen both. Some of the differences may be due to public vs private differences rather than the single-sex aspect, but I found that the nastiness/catiness/machoness is decreased when the competition for opposite sex attention is taken out of the school environment. The competition leans more to the academic than social.
      Both sexes tended to be less conscious of how they looked and didn’t seem to have as much a need to impress. Yet they had plenty of opportunities to see the opposite gender in other settings. The only (slightly) negative was that social activities such as formal dances were a bit contrived.

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