An all-boys school is challenged with the question “What does it mean to be a man?”
This is the whole-school assembly I delivered during Cancer Awareness Week. I considered it to be part of a well-executed school awareness campaign. During the week before my assembly, I put up posters of distinctive men (David Beckham, Barack Obama, Sonny Bill Williams, Jay Z, etc.) with a simple question above each picture:
“What does it mean to be a man?”
The call to action underneath was “if you have an answer, tell Mr. D’Souza.”
I got a range of answers from across age groups—from “having a penis and a beard” through to “manners” and “not showing weakness.” So when I stood at the front of the hall to address the whole-school, the pupil body already had some kind of awareness. I had written and rehearsed something in advance (reproduced below) so I had the flexibility to respond to my audience. However, I also wanted to create engagement. Which is a challenge with an audience ranging from 11 to 18 (and staff). I did this by asking a question. Not a rhetorical question–an actual question of my audience.
What happened is written below.
I’m here to do three things: one – ask you a question; two – give you some facts, and three – suggest how the future could be and invite you to take action.
So firstly, here’s the question I’m asking you: what does it mean to be a man?
Pupil: “Being brave enough to give an answer in assembly.” The audience starts clapping, I smile, and after the seal was broken, there were another three answers.
“You may have seen my posters around school. I got some other answers which were either stating facts or pointing to stereotypes. For example, beyond the obvious biological facts, some people said having a beard means I’m a man, or having manners means I’m a man.
“Someone else told me that “not showing weakness” is what it means to be a man. Others said “taking care of the people around you”, “having lots of money, women and fast cars,” “having a six-pack” or “being a man is different from being manly,” or even “we can’t or don’t talk about feelings.”
I went to Sutton Grammar. When I was at school, being clever didn’t seem as important as being strong and good at sport. I was the small round kid who tried really hard but was a bit rubbish. I decided as a young boy that being a man meant being strong. A very fixed idea.
In response to that fixed idea, I then spent most of the rest of my life being a rebel against this fixed idea. Keep this in mind…
Ok now bearing in mind everything that’s been said, here’s my second point: some facts:
a) two thirds of murder victims in the UK are men
b) the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide
Now I’m not saying that there aren’t horrible things happening to women because of men. There is still inequality between men and women–and we need to eliminate that.
I’m saying that the fixed ideas we have about what it means to be a man squash and limit men and boys. These expectations can make it harder to talk about how we feel. It’s not that we can’t. It’s not that we don’t want to–it’s just hard not to bow to the stereotype.
Thirteen men take their lives every day in the UK.
I have three friends whose dads committed suicide. One of them is my best friend Simon. He was best man at my wedding and I’m going to be best man at his. We were 19 when his dad took his own life. We all kind of knew. But none of us spoke about it, or asked him how he was. He’s ok now and I said to him that I want to talk about his dad when I give my best man’s speech at the wedding. He’s said he would really like that.
However, what’s predictable is that us boys and men will keep the walls up. Men in power will keep the stereotype going: show no weakness, don’t discuss feelings, fight war.
This leads me to my third point – the future – maybe the future doesn’t have to be this way.
Perhaps we could start asking our friends, dads, and granddads how they are—not the obvious way—but how they *really* are. Maybe we could start sharing honestly about how we’re feeling. Maybe we could stop saying phrases like ‘man up’ or insulting weakness.
Remember what I said before about my fixed idea about what it means to be a man? That fixed idea is what I’ve rebelled against for most of my life.
Maybe being a man is not fixed.
Maybe I could take all the best bits from my dad, choose my own role-models, and make up my own version of what it means to be man.
So my invitation to you: smash the stereotype and create your own version of what it means to be a man.
Thank you very much for listening.
And thank you for sharing this!