These underachieving teenage boys were desperate for good male role models in their lives—and I certainly didn’t fit the bill as a woman.
You need to study! I said to the unhappy thirteen-year old in front of me. If you do well at school, you can get a good job and make a good life for yourself.
No I don’t, he replied. My brother didn’t get any GCSEs and he’s done really well. I want to be like him. His small face somehow expressed defiance, hope and vulnerability all at once.
The older brother in question was a drug dealer and gang member. But there was something in what the boy said, which I found hard to challenge in a way that would be meaningful to him. From his point of view, his brother had status, a life of excitement and adventure, and above all a great car and an amazing phone.
As his learning mentor, my role was to lure this boy and other kids away from this kind of life, towards a life of gaining GCSEs, staying in education beyond the compulsory age, and becoming a “good” and “successful” citizen.
The task seemed almost impossible—with some of the boys in particular.
I was working in an inner-city secondary school, serving an area of extreme deprivation, as part of the former Labour Government’s Excellence in Cities (EiC) Programme. The program itself had variable impact overall, but the Learning Mentor strand was fantastically successful.
Many of the kids on the program absolutely got it. They dreamed of escaping from their lives of poverty and hardship, and astutely saw that the learning mentor was someone with the power to help them. Many kids actually approached mentors themselves for help, or asked their teachers for a referral. Mentors were a lot more informal and relaxed than teachers; and having a learning mentor was seen as being very desirable, and conferring special, enviable status on a pupil. One evaluation of the EiC program found that,
The most successful and popular of the EIC strands is learning mentors. The creation of these posts has been greatly welcomed and has enabled the majority of schools to enhance the quality of support they offer to disaffected, underachieving or vulnerable pupils.
There was one type of pupil who presented particular challenges to mentors—and I seemed to have plenty of them. These were teenage boys who also loved being on the program and lapped up the 1:1 adult attention like small children. But in the end, they didn’t seem to actually want to change, and engage academically—which was supposed to be the whole point of the support.
In many ways, these boys had everything against them.
They often had very chaotic home lives. Dad was often absent from their life, or seen as a highly problematic figure; and would be casually labeled by them (and their mothers) as an idiot, a loser, a bastard or worse. I have little idea of what troubles or vulnerabilities these dads may have been up against themselves, having never met most of them; but suffice to say it seemed that life was hard for all the family, present or not.
Mum would be trying her hardest under impossible circumstances, longing to get things right for the son she adored, and lead him towards manhood as best as she could. But all too often, she would be completely out of her depth, as he grew physically bigger, more aggressive and rebellious than she could handle. Some of my mentees’ mums admitted to feeling scared of their own sons.
The lack of good male role models for such boys is heart-breaking.
I’ve already mentioned that older brothers and cousins involved in criminal activity were often held in great awe and esteem. There were also a couple of famous footballers and rappers who had shot to fame from local housing estates, and many of the boys aspired to being just like them one day. On the basis that these men showed that escape and transformation was possible.
But of all the boys who swore they were going to be a famous footballer one day, I never saw one of them actually put his focus and energy into anything that might lead to becoming a top player. The aspiration wasn’t realistic or predicated on hard work. It was more of a fantasy that one day, some agent would turn up out of the blue and whisk them away into a life of wealth and glamour, without them having to do anything themselves.
Some of the teachers in the school were wonderful human beings, perhaps even saints. Theirs was a true vocation, and they quite literally lived in order to be of service to their students, and fight for a better future for them. If any of the boys I mentored had confided a passionate aspiration to become like one of his male teachers, instead of his knife-carrying older brother, I would have been happy beyond words.
They didn’t feel this way, to my knowledge. Why would they? Their teachers were awesome people and true heroes, and I know many of them touched their pupils’ hearts on a deep emotional level. But they tended to come from more stable social backgrounds; and their apparently orderly lives as teachers must have appeared far-removed from the dark, chaotic lives of the boys themselves. Which I guess made them harder to identify with, and aspire to become like, than local men.
And crucially, the teachers were of course the formal representatives of school work, which in the boys’ minds was about the most unappealing, unmanly, boring thing in the world.
In addition, it’s hard for teachers in that kind of environment to spread themselves thin enough to give such needy pupils the bottomless attention they crave. That’s exactly why the learning mentor program was created.
The learning mentor strand was a brilliant initiative without doubt.
However, we were almost exclusively women. I could do everything within my power to be a good role model and inspiration to my boys. But in the end, none of them was ever going to aspire to become a softly-spoken middle-class woman—and neither should they.
At one point, I was working with two such boys in Year Nine (aged 13-14), who were part of a close friendship group of four. All four were the absolute bane of their teachers’ lives—intelligent, lively, often angry and breathtakingly disrespectful to authority, and with apparently no interest at all in their own education. Between them, their teachers and myself, we agreed that the four of them could probably benefit from some intensive academic group work.
It was great fun. One surprising fact about many disruptive kids is that they often become “good” in 1:1 or very small group settings, as they soak up the adult attention they are so hungry for to their heart’s content. We called it a revision group, and focused on English and Maths.
As an added bonus, they got to escape lesson time each week to attend the group, which made them the envy of the other pupils. (That was always yet another factor which made the mentoring program attractive to the kids!).
It struck me that all our successes were kind of short-term.
Yes, they might have grasped some basic algebra through playing with a magic trick involving calendars. Yes, their self-esteem was definitely increasing through this work. And when they said things like “That was such fun!” and asked to stay in through break to continue studying, it felt exciting for all of us.
But fundamentally, the change was not going deep enough. Above all, even though they enjoyed learning as a small group of friends, away from the rest of the class, they still couldn’t make the connection to valuing learning in general, behaving themselves in lessons, and engaging with their classwork.
I was at a loss. I believe even now that what they needed above all was an awesome male learning mentor from a similar background to themselves, who could have modeled an attractive type of good man that they could picture themselves growing into.
It was nice that they had me to help them, but I was keenly aware of my own limitations as a female mentor, for boys desperate to understand and embody masculinity, but with no access to the all-round role models they needed.
All of us in their lives (their parents, their teachers, myself, other statutory and non-statutory agencies) wanted to help them. And all of us could give them some parts of what they needed. But I started to realize that none of us could give them the complete package of what they most needed, as they struggled to become men in a confusing and hostile world.
I dreamed of exposing them to a man (or men) who were both:
- Deeply masculine, cool and credible and
- Passionate about studying. But did any such man exist in their or my world?
Then it struck me. The Samurai were the men who might be able to reach them. These men were rough and brave warriors. But they were also dedicated, accomplished scholars.
I ordered in a few kids’ books on the Samurai through the local library, full of colorful, alluring pictures and easy text; and printed off some Internet resources. And then presented this to the group one morning, telling them we were going to make a display for the school corridor. They were entranced.
It was very easy to weave in the Samurai’s dual commitment to warriorship and scholarship right from the start of the project. The boys were almost open-mouthed at this new, strange idea; that the most manly and admirable of all men would also intently pursue the finer arts such as poetry, painting and calligraphy.
The boys poured their hearts into creating that display; and while they peacefully drew and colored pictures of weapons and armor like rapt little kids (it often struck me how childlike they could be in private, with their guard down), we had long, unselfconscious discussions about bravery, and sincerity, and protecting others, and about the importance of learning and study, in order to become whole, balanced men.
Their bright, loving, receptive souls drank it all in, as one more input which I prayed might provide some counter to all the dark influences and hopelessness which their young minds were continually being exposed to.
Of course I’m well aware now that holding up warriors as ideal male role models is by no means unproblematic. But at that time, it was the best I could do, and I believe it did some good. Enthusing about the joys of university to these boys, who had no connection at all to that world whatsoever, wasn’t hitting the spot.
Given that violence was something that affected and preoccupied them all—and was seen as an unquestioned indicator of manhood—talking about the Samurai as an alternative, positive model of masculinity seemed like a valid and helpful way in to their world.
I don’t know where those boys are now, or how they’re doing.
They would be in their mid-twenties now. Thinking back to those days and that piece of work we did breaks my heart in a way, when I think about how the best I could do for them was refer them to some history books, and hope that some beguiling images of ancient warriors might partly fill the gaping holes created by their lack of a “good-enough” relationship with their own dads or other trustable male figures.
This is in no way a criticism of single parent families (whose children do NOT necessarily suffer adverse outcomes); or any of the parents concerned, all of whom were vulnerable in one way or another. And in any case, the lack of strong male role models was just one of the many disadvantages these boys faced in life.
But I need to hope and believe that with all the love and effort that so many of us put into helping these boys, some things must surely have taken root and grown, and that they are safe and happy now—and perhaps even on the way to raising good men and women themselves . . .
Photo credit: Getty Images