ALL BOYS ARE RARA AVIS
The Rara Avis factor is strong with young men just entering puberty. Balancing between responding to influences and the desire to be unique, most of it centers on hair. One is tempted to call it “cock plumage.” The particular young men I’ve tended to follow do not have tattoos nor scars and a minimum of piercing. I have a suspicion that this is in part to avoid easy identification, since at that age one is also torn between being obvious and being covert, slipping around in scenes that might be dangerous Hair can be changed as anyone who watches crime mysteries knows.
Programs that can identify faces and surveillance cameras are everywhere — both features that the invaders of the Capitol ignored except for those with training as terrorists — so boys experimenting must be more wary. Even terrorists can never control moles and rats. In a context where allegiances change or are for sale, there is no safety.
In part my attention to the boys-to-men comes from my love of potential. Part comes from having two younger brothers who separated from me early — I’m a mystery to them and they to me, though my mother always told me to take care of my little brothers. But I’m alive and they are dead. Their lives were hidden, safe, and boring. Mine was nothing like that.
Through teaching and ministry I’ve known boys a little more sharply and closely than most people. Most seem to me particularly idealistic, wanting to make a difference, and then sometimes collapsing into despair or death. I’m aware of the tone and trajectory of the well-known novels written by “lesbian” women. Maybe their “second selves” were historical or Third World boys, but these female authors were in relationships with other women. I think of Mary Renault in particular. To portray a sexually connected boy is to escape a lot of cultural encumbrance about women. Are there literary critics who have considered this? Oh, yes.
There’s even a “society.”
It appears that antiquity was Renault’s cover to protect herself from criminalized male same-sex love in England until she and her female partner went to South Africa. But also, Renault was driven by her conviction that there was an ideal noble society, much like the one described by Edith Hamilton and exalted by Britain. My high school teachers, about the same age as Renault, shared that point of view. (I find Celtic indigenous concepts more to my liking.)
The last boys I knew in person was a class of boys in a nearby small town “English” class who had managed to accumulate themselves into one group expected to be athletic heroes at any cost. They did not rebel against their coach who was ruthless, but they managed to drive off all teachers. Until me — who left to save myself — not from them but from the madness of Trumpian administrators. This was 2003 and I was paying no attention to politics, but the double-crossing, extortion, neglect of duty, and greed were strong at that local level.
One of the boys’ defenses was vulgarity, obscenity, saying the forbidden — but that didn’t shock me. Rather what I heard was the desperate indignation of idealistic young men who thought they were wronged — which they were. The destruction of their bodies and brains were justified by the goal of winning games in order to glorify the town.
On my first day a nerdy boy challenged me to explain how I would save them if the classroom were attacked by a shooter or an explosion. Luckily, I’m enough of a paranoid that I had already noticed that the addition was cut-off from the rest of the building and below ground level so the windows were high. I told him that if the stairs were blocked, we would push the 4-drawer file cabinets over to the windows and climb on them to get out.
One boy no sooner entered the classroom than he asked to be excused to go “help the coach.” I didn’t argue. Let him go — he wasn’t learning anything anyway. What the “help” was, I didn’t ask.
Another boy in a flannel collarless Irish shirt announced that I was not really teaching the class since I abandoned all curricula in order to discuss. He transferred out. He had inherited land in Ireland and as soon as he graduated, he left for there.
The problematic crisis came when a boy was self-stimulating in class, was called out by a fellow student curious to see what I would do since he was considered key for winning the next game. I put him on detention which kept him off the team. The superintendent asked me to withdraw the detention, then ordered me to take the boy off, and when I still refused, exploded. I resigned. I’m not sure whether the boy played but the story got a lot of “play”. It was worse than detention. The class took my side. (They did not “take state”.)
In this collection of bullies and characters there was one boy a bit larger and more mature than the others. They never plagued him. A lawyer’s daughter had become my coach. “He’s the son of the head of a motorcycle gang,” she informed me and named that man. He had been a student of mine decades earlier in Browning! I always liked him though he tended to ignore rules. In those days he rode a horse. You see how easy it is to gather boy stories?
it’s been twenty years. I don’t know how much these characters remember. Some of my past administrators, the worst, have died of old age and alcohol. They used to come to Valier to drink, but the bars have been seriously curtailed and so has drunk driving enforcement. Now they say home with pot, which is safer than meth. At bottom is the school anxiety our age is supposed to have overcome with research and workshops. What happened to all that stuff? Did they delegate everything to the women who have become administrators? I have little interest in finding out.
We need a new understanding of what it is to be human, especially for the sake of young men. We need a new paradigm for schools and we’re getting it but not in the public school context. We need a new culture but not the one that seems to be developing, the one that has been experimenting with ignoring morality.