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An Englishwoman in Washington: Jocks and outcasts

Teenagers across America are in the midst of high school graduation celebrations, at the end of the school prom season. I have yet to understand these national rituals; but it already seems clear that the class of '99 has not been great for white teenage boys living in the suburbs.

Throughout the graduation season, the media's focus has been on grim statistics revealing the problems of adolescent white boys. Three out of every four students with a learning difficulty are boys. Boys are more likely to suffer depression and commit suicide than girls. More girls than boys go on to higher education. In fact, in virtually every category besides eating disorders, boys have more problems than girls. And the Columbine High School shootings remind us that, since 1991, all school shootings have been perpetrated by white, teenage, suburban boys.

So why have teenage boys suddenly become a cause for national concern? It is not simply that one or two boys in each generation will turn into crazed killers. All boys in modern-day America apparently suffer from a range of hitherto unrecognised problems, making them a danger either to themselves or to others.

Experts tell us that the American adolescent male falls into two categories. They are depressed, lonely and uncommunicative, or they are aggressive, reckless and cruel. The loners have very little adult contact, tend to get obsessed with the internet and suffer from isolation and severe depression. In the schoolyard these boys are known as 'outcasts'. The Columbine killers probably fitted this profile - but the experts assure us that the real damage is done by the other type: the 'jocks'.

Before moving here I thought that jocks was slang for a style of underpants, but I have learned that the jocks are similar to 'rugger buggers' back home. They are loud, insensitive, cliquish boys from middle-class homes who excel at competitive sports and rule the roost in the schoolyard. Typically jocks taunt boys they consider inferior, prey on young women and make life miserable for anybody outside their clique. They drink and drive fast cars, causing many car accidents and road deaths around prom season.

The jocks are considered the more dangerous type of boy, because apparently it is their cliquish attitudes that create the outcasts. As Michael Thompson, co-author of Raising Cain: protecting the emotional life of boys, recently explained to Salon magazine: 'Boys are very, very tough on each other. I call it the culture of cruelty... There is a process of sorting through who's in and who's out. Kids who are really cast out are at risk.' Once a boy becomes an outcast he runs the risk of becoming a psychopath. 'Most American boys are not given enough practice in articulating their inner lives. They're emotionally illiterate... You get some boys who are more gripped by violence in the media, and then if they get too severely alienated or depressed, or their only company is another boy who is also depressed and alienated, then they can just spiral downward.'

A diverse range of institutions is now looking for ways to address the 'boy problem'. In Washington we have the hard cop/soft cop approach. While therapists reach out to the 'outcasts', the police and the authorities punish any sign of aggressive behaviour. Numerous boys have been suspended and even arrested for making jokes about Columbine to their fellow students. Local parents are also doing their bit. In nearby North Virginia they have launched 'Project Graduation', which aims to replace traditional drunken graduation binges with drug-free, alcohol-free, parent-organised parties.

At a national level, the Supreme Court has recently ruled that the courts, too, should play a role in regulating teenage relations. The court ruled that a school should have acted when a 15-year old girl complained that a classmate was harassing her and told her he wanted to 'get in bed' with her. Not to be outdone, the Senate has just amended a bill in order to set up a National Commission on Character Development.

Whatever you think of teenage boys, there is something disturbing about all these measures. With their behaviour policed all the time, how will boys ever become well-adjusted adults? Of course teenage boys are naff and rarely do the gracious thing, but that's what being a teenager is all about. We used to think it was character-building to learn to deal with the trials and tribulations of life, like experimenting with girls, alcohol, cars and even guns, in your own way. Competitive sports that the jocks love and the outcasts hate used to be about 'learning to win or lose' with equal grace.

These days, teenage boys are prevented from working these things out for themselves. As Justice Anthony Kennedy put it when he dissented from the recent Supreme Court ruling: '[This] decision... makes the federal courts the final arbiters of almost every disagreement between students.' In such a climate it is little wonder that boys become neurotic, confused and directionless.

But with any luck, controlling boys' behaviour will not be so easy as the experts think. They say that boys can be educated out of their risky, aggressive and experimental behaviour if they are caught early. With this in mind, in a recent study psychologists treated a bunch of five-year old boys and girls to a five-day educational about the dangers of firearms. At the end of the week they left them alone in a room with a real unloaded gun and observed what they did. While the girls were cautious and some went to fetch an adult, all of the boys played with the gun and, knowing that they would be reprimanded for doing so, lied about what they had done when later questioned.

It is a relief to know that male curiosity - and just plain naughtiness - is not so easily crushed as the experts hope.

Helen Searls

Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999



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