This morning, I am thinking about teenaged boys. I am thinking about why teenaged boys suck.
Why do I say they suck? Because teenaged boys are, almost without exception, annoying, obnoxious, lazy, cruel, abusive, self-centered, vicious, snide, concupiscent fools (Sorry, but I love that word and never get to use it; means “horny.”) who would be better off locked in a box for about ten years and only let out when they stop being bastards.
Who am I to say these terrible things about teenaged boys? Easy. I was one. And I was as much a bastard as any of them, and worse than most, because in addition to being a savage amoral wastrel, I was smart, and so my cruelty was particularly biting, and my foolishness was particularly poignant, because I could have been so much better than I was.
Fortunately, I survived it; too many teenaged boys don’t, because they team up with other spear-wielding thugs to kill the pig, and end up being the pig. Once I got out of being a teenager, and realized just how terrible I had been for all that time, I mellowed: I got better. Most of us do. But I don’t think that all of us gain much from our experience other than regret; I’d like to use my knowledge of teenaged boys — knowledge that has since been reinforced by observation in my years working with teenaged boys — to try to make the situation better. See, I don’t think teenaged boys have to be this way. I think they are put into a position where being this way seems the best option, if not the only one. Left to their own devices, teenaged boys would still be obnoxious — all teenagers are — but not a tenth as bad as they are now.
First let me deal with that last dig at all teenagers. No, actually, first let me say that I genuinely like most of my students. There are a few who are really pretty rotten, but even those grow out of it in time. Most of them I get along with quite well. But that’s because I am a teacher, and I can get them in trouble; they are on their best behavior with me. But then I watch them interact with each other, and I remember how nasty we all are at that age. It’s that contrast, between how they treat me respectfully and kindly, and how they treat each other, with the basest and most flippant brutality, that makes me want to try to make them better, all the time, particularly to each other. Okay? This blog, regardless of the apparent bitter hyperbole (Bitter, it is; hyperbolic, it ain’t. If you think it is, watch a group of teenaged boys going to lunch together. Watch them pick out the weakest of the pack, and pick on him, relentlessly, mercilessly. Even if — especially if– all of them are friends. Friends make the best victims. I can attest to that.) is not born out of hate. I don’t hate teenaged boys, and I don’t hate my students. I know how much better they could be, and I am maddened and saddened that they aren’t like that.
Next thing: why do I say that all teenagers are obnoxious? Two reasons: one, because the teenaged years are hell internally, with the ravages of adolescence and the psychic pummeling of hormones. Everything sucks when you’re a teenager, and so you suck, too, because when in Rome… The second reason why all teenagers suck is because they are all in this impossible position where we start expecting them to act like adults, but we give them literally none of the pleasures and privileges that make adulting worth the effort it takes. Seriously: what makes it worthwhile for me to act like a grownup? I get respect; I get independence; I get freedom. I can have my own family, my own job, my own property. I can be in charge of my own life. And teenagers get none of that. The closest they come is being able to choose romantic partners — but often those choices get refused by parents, or mocked by peers, or rejected by the would-be romantic partners themselves — and cars. Teenagers get cars. In exchange for having to drive everywhere their parents don’t want to, which at this point is everywhere. (Don’t even talk to me about how they don’t have to work and pay bills: many of them do work, and that work is in addition to their actual full-time job, which is being a student, and as one of the people who make that job hard because I make them do work, believe me when I say BEING A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT IS NOT EASIER THAN HAVING A JOB.) And while we put all the responsibility we can onto teenagers, we don’t ever talk about that weight, that stress they have to carry; instead we talk about how lucky they are that they don’t have to deal with all the terrible things that adults deal with. How is that supposed to make teenagers feel? They’re already suffering, and we run them this, “Just wait until you’re older, when things will REALLY suck!” Wow, thanks, Dad, now I’m motivated to try even harder and suffer more now. Because then I’ll get to keep on suffering my way through the rest of my life. Super!
But this isn’t about all teenagers; this is about the boys and the special ways that they suck. And the special reason for the extra suckitude of male adolescent humans is this: it’s competition. That’s right: I’m still on the same topic, just homing in on one particular aspect now. The rise of toxic masculinity. Also known as: Boys Will Be Boys.
We very carefully and meticulously teach all boys that competition is the only way they are allowed to find happiness. Sports, video games, playing Army with their friends; it doesn’t matter what era, what environment a boy grows up in: he is taught to fight, and to revel in victory. Even me, as non-competitive and anti-sports as I was, I was taught to take great pride in the fact that I was smarter than most other people. I was pulled out of class for advanced reading and advanced math; I remember in first grade I wasn’t even pulled out, I was just given access to the more interesting books to read, sitting in the classroom with all of my peers who were struggling with the Dick and Jane style readers while I got to read on my own; and my math workbook had some kind of banner on it reading “ADVANCED” in some large font that could be read all the way across the room, by the kids in the remedial section of the class. Spelling bees, gold stars, student of the month, honor roll; all of these things separate us into winners and losers as readily as do sports. And where girls are taught, at least some of the time, to play cooperatively, using their imagination, playing dress-up and baking cookies for each other, boys are sent outside to wrestle and break stuff, especially each other.
(*Note: I recognize I’m being grossly stereotypical in this depiction of children’s upbringing, and of course there are exceptions; I had massive quantities of stuffed animals and was encouraged to use my imagination. Lots of girls play sports and are as competitive as any boy could ever be. I’m speaking in generalities. Bear with me.)
Breaking stuff, then, is really all we know how to do. So we get very good at it. We find each other’s vulnerabilities, and we stab at them, again and again. And the rest of society? They laugh, or at most, they say, “Take it outside,” with a strong intimation of “Come back with your shield or on it.” I was taught that story, that ethic, when I was a child. What the hell was I supposed to do with Spartan battle training when I was in elementary school? How was I supposed to think about it? How was I supposed to deal with that moral fable about the Spartan boy stealing food, keeping an animal concealed under his tunic while he is being interrogated by the farmer he is stealing from, until the boy drops dead because the animal has disemboweled him under his tunic, and the Spartan boy showed no sign of the pain. What the hell do I do with that? Do I admire it? Do I try to emulate it? I do: because my friends will, and so will my enemies, and if I say, “Jesus Christ, that’s insane, that kid should have given up and admitted the thing was under his shirt,” my only reward for that honesty would be a contemptuous sniff and the old standby insult, “Pussy.” Or something along those lines. I was taught that Spartan story in elementary school, while we were learning about the ancient Greeks. I did not learn how they admired close male bonds, both Platonic and romantic: I learned how Achilles savaged Hector, not that he did it as revenge, because Achilles was maddened with grief over the loss of his lover and companion Patroclus at Hector’s hands. No no, I can’t hear about that love; that’s gay, bro. Tell me more about how Achilles dragged Hector’s body around Troy through the dust of the battlefield. That’s manly as fuck. That’s the guy I want to be.
Did you know that in the Odyssey, Odysseus meets Achilles in Hades? And Achilles says that he regrets his famous choice, to die young and be remembered gloriously? The greatest of all Greek warrior-heroes, and he wishes he had lived a quiet life as a farmer, surrounded by loved ones.
Yeah, they didn’t teach you that story, did they? Or if they did, it wasn’t when you were young and impressionable? Or they didn’t emphasize that story, focusing instead on the slaughter of the Trojans by the Greeks in the wooden horse? Or the slaughter of the suitors when Odysseus finally returns home after twenty years away –and his first act is not to embrace his son or his wife, but rather to kill and kill and kill?
That’s what we teach boys. We teach them to fight and to win. No wonder that they act like everyone is their enemy, and they have to hurt them all, as much as possible: that’s what we want them to do. Teenaged boys suck because we do, and we pass that torch straight into their eager hands. Burning end first.