The American Enterprise

Save the males: a case for making schools friendlier to boys.

Thomas was one of the first boys I really got along with when I was teaching. This was in Houston, during a summer-school teacher training session, where three other teachers and I were in charge of a group of fifth and sixth graders. Like the other students, Thomas was well behaved most of the time. One day, though, he wound up in a fight with another boy. I thought I'd try to reach him with flattery presented in a serious manner.

"Thomas," I said just before the day was over, when none of the other students could hear, "you are way too good to be fighting in school. I expect you to be the best in the class--because I know how smart you are. That's all there is to it."

I didn't really know what I was doing at the time, but this little comment turned out to have an amazing effect on Thomas. For the rest of the summer, he was a star pupil. He raised his hand constantly, and went out of his way to distinguish himself. If I needed a volunteer, Thomas was there. If I had explained a topic poorly and needed someone with the right answer, Thomas bailed me out. One hour each day, all four teachers worked in the room together leading small reading groups. Thomas invariably asked if he could be in mine, though usually he had been assigned elsewhere. Somehow, a few words from me had galvanized him into action. Since I put my faith in him, he seemed to be thinking, he was going to prove me right.

Even while I was proud of Thomas, my heart bled for him. It had taken so little, and suddenly this boy was looking for acknowledgment from an adult he barely knew! Was he that much in need of someone to notice him?

Boys in trouble

If asked which sex I think is currently in worse shape in this country, I would answer unequivocally that it is the males. Young American males are pretty clearly struggling more than in the past. Certainly the boys I came to know during my years teaching in inner city schools in the South and New York City seemed much more fragile and endangered than the girls.

There is lots of evidence of this. …

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