LITTLE BOY BLUE REVISITED

We’ve had a lot of responses to our series of blogs detailing the grim picture for boys and men in America today. Now columnist, educator, and former First Lady of Colorado Dottie Lamm has picked up the torch in “Our Boys Are Falling Behind in Education” (Denver Post, April 18, 2010).

She begins with this preamble:

“What’s the next battle for an aging feminist?

Boys.

Granted, the battle for women’s rights and equality has not been completely won, but the new reality is that in the future, it will be males who are most endangered.”

She concurs with the findings in one of my earlier blogs: That since by 2017 (only seven years from now) the ratio of female to male graduates will be 1 ½ to 1, we’re already in the midst of a terrible crisis, and notes that though women have lobbied for generations for their rights and talents to be recognized, they most certainly weren’t lobbying for a complete role reversal, where they’re predicted to “reign supreme in all fields but the sciences.”

And women, she feels, have not even begun to internalize the fallout from such a seismic shift. So she poses this rhetorical question: “How many college-educated women today would want to marry a man with such low educational achievement skills or ambition that he would be permanently relegated to the role of full-time ‘homemaker’—not by choice, but by default?”

Then Lamm turns to causes, and refers to issues I’ve spent most of my adult lifetime studying. Both of us are convinced that we’re now paying the price for forcing our kids into reading and verbal exercises at an ever earlier age. We used to wait until they were seven or eight, but for several generations now we’ve been forcing them into early-learning kindergartens before they—especially boys—are ready for it. Lamm points out that, generally speaking, “the verbal parts of boys’ brains do not develop to capacity until fourth or fifth grade.” Furthermore, brain-scans reveal that the language area of 3 ½-year-old girls mirrors that of 5-year-old boys.”

We both agree: What results from immersing boys into verbal instruction at such an early age is that we set them up for almost certain failure. When girls their own age can run circles around them in classwork, the wounds to boys’ sense of self-worth can be so deep and long-lasting that they just plain give up, convicted that they’re just plain dumb; that nothing they can possibly do will be enough to enable them to reach performance parity with girls. Quite simply, it’s the Dunce Syndrome all over again: Tell a child enough times that he’s dumb, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Studies have also shown that small children’s eyes find it difficult to focus on print. On the other hand, boys are wired for action from birth on. That’s why the best thing we can do for them is let them roam the great out-of-doors free of regimentation during the first seven or eight years of their lives. Instead of Gameboys and videos, they ought to be outside climbing trees, wading in creeks, playing in a sandpile. Our own son Greg, just turned seven, was not quite ready for first grade work, so we pulled him out until he was almost eight—by that time he was so ready he raced through two grades in one year.

Studies have shown that children who are force-fed too soon (many are pushed into reading as early as three or four so that they’ll get a head-start over the others) invariably are passed later on by those who were permitted to begin schooling at a later age. Furthermore, those who start too young get burned out earlier than those who wait.

Lamm notes that “boys are far more likely to be held back a grade in fourth grade and then again in ninth grade, an action that promotes a suspension rate for boys that is twice as high as that of girls. This in turn leads to a male dropout rate of 32 percent compared to 25 percent for females.”

And let’s face it, girls remain considerably more mature than boys through college and later. I had 34 years of classroom experience in which to compare the two genders. Believe me, it was no contest: the average coed was about three years ahead maturity-wise, far more ready to tackle serious issues such as marriage and long-term commitment than were the males. But males do eventually catch up—usually by the late twenties or early thirties.

Lamm feels it’s almost criminal that we as a society have failed to do a thing about a problem of this magnitude, pointing out that the U.S. Department of Education “has yet to launch a single probe into the gender gap.”

Lamm concludes with these revealing words: “If a man’s movement develops for boys, I’ll join it. And, as an aging feminist, I’ll still fight to take big chunks out of that glass ceiling for women. But as a grandmother of three young boys, I’m going to do my darndest to keep young boys from sinking into that academic mud floor.”

Advertisements

DRILL SERGEANT MOTHER HENS

Without a doubt, those four words describe her perfectly. More on her later.

* * * * *

Most of the truly important lessons I’ve learned in life, I’ve learned the hard way. Unquestionably, my most significant growth occurred after I was fired . . . twice. Everyone ought to get fired at least once in life, just for the learning that follows.

It was at a book-signing that she came up to me, introducing herself with these trenchant words: “You don’t know me, but you ought to: Years ago, at ______, you fired me before you took over as Vice President. That was a big mistake, because I could have made you a success, so you wouldn’t have lost your job.” Turns out, she was right: upon the advice of my predecessor, I had fired the one person who could have saved me. In those days, I was incredibly naive about the real world outside cloistered academia. My relevant epiphany had not yet taken place.

That was the slow slogging result of years of door-to-door book sales and fund-raising. Can’t remember the breakthrough moment, only that my life has never been the same since. That’s one thing that really amazes me about life: the greatest truths are known and internalized by so few.

Here it is:     Every organization has two chains of command: de facto and de jure. The truly successful people know which is which, and act accordingly.

One of them, the de jure, everybody knows about instinctively–the logical one. The one on letterheads and power-flow charts. The person on top (usually a man) is the boss. The next one down is next in importance, and so on, each one proportionally less important, until you get to the bottom. These are the ones most everyone goes to when they need something. But is it valid? Ostensibly, yes. If you ask the person at the bottom for something, you go through your entire spiel, and chances are the answer will be, “Terribly sorry, but you’ll have to talk to _______ [the next person up]; and so it is that you keep getting bumped up to the top. Almost to the top, because the boss is always too busy to talk to you. Same with phone queries.

The other one, the de-facto, almost nobody knows about, because it’s not on letterhead or power flow charts. The only ones who know about it are insiders, and they won’t talk about it. Why? Because it’s too precious, coming under the abstract heading: “Knowledge is power.”

It works this way: in each department, there is a go-to person (usually a woman). There has to be, or the entire organization will collapse, for somebody has to be in charge, know how to negotiate the system. Combined in that one person are two oxymoronic qualities: being both a drill-sergeant and a mother hen. Externally no nonsense and hard as nails; deep down, loving, kind, caring, appreciative, tender, empathetic, and supportive.

What is really intriguing is that these de facto go-to people each report to another, higher up, just like them. Up and up and up till you get to the very top. That’s why, when I want to get or learn something, I by-pass the letterhead people and start with the top. Not the CEO, of course, but most likely his personal secretary (usually a woman); I call on her because she runs the entire organization. It would disintegrate without her.

Even her supposed boss trembles in her presence because he is powerless without her. Alienate her at your own risk because if she loses faith in you, you are history. All she has to do is cash in enough of the thousands of chips (“I owe you’s”) she has in her arsenal, and you walk. Since she alone has in her mental lock box all the corporate memory (also all the skeletons, and she knows in which closets they can be found), she cannot possibly be defeated. Not only is she a king-maker, she is also a king-unmaker.

I’m guessing the reason it’s usually a woman is that women (down through history generally being considered of less value than men) have learned to rule by networking among themselves and through empathetic men. They laugh at letterheads and power flow charts. They let those on them strut and preen their feathers as they grandstand on talk shows and to talking-heads. They laugh because they know where the real power is, how to use it, how to get things done—and how to stop everything in its tracks.

* * * * *

Now back to Sacramento two and a half weeks ago. On Friday evening, when we entered the restaurant meeting room, no one greeted us. We had to introduce ourselves to each one. Clearly, no one was in charge. All we had were middle-aged alumni who’d been told to show up; well, they had, but without a shepherd they were as clueless as milling sheep. Then suddenly, there was a shout: “She’s here!” “Debbie’s here!” It was almost spontaneous combustion in the room. Debbie Bighaus had finally arrived from the northwest. The one person, the Facebook Wagonmaster, who was single-handedly responsible for our all being there, had arrived—our de facto drill sergeant-mother hen.

Let the party begin!

MEMORIES THAT BLESS AND BURN

Last Wednesday, I revisited my past, the face of which was a long ago student of mine, Donna Diebel Beehler.

All too rarely, does the frantic pace of my life slow down enough for reflection. And without reflection we lose focus; we risk veering off course, forgetting to re-ask ourselves Life’s Three Eternal Questions: “Who am I?” “Where have I come from?” “Where am I going?”

So it was good to go back to one of the earliest stages of my teaching career, to the campus of Sacramento Adventist Academy. More beautiful even than it had been in the 1960s – except its iconic symbol, its great oak, was no longer there. Other trees vainly attempted to take its place, but it was not the same for limned in a double-exposure image was the tree that was still there – in my heart.

Have you ever noticed how certain moments of your lifetime are frozen in time? When time itself seems to momentarily stop. I looked for the classroom where it happened. It was an early November afternoon, and I was teaching an English class – or trying to, for afternoon classes are, by nature, sluggish. Suddenly, the door of the classroom was yanked open, and a student cried out, “Kennedy’s been shot! Kennedy’s been shot!” With those six words, all classroom control vanished. Television was so new back then, there wasn’t even a set on campus. All we had was radio. We all headed to the gymnasium, as I remember, to listen to ongoing commentary – every last one of us in a state of shock.

* * * * *

Later in the day, Connie and I managed to find our way – no easy task after all these years – to our old home on Pueblo Avenue. It was still there! Just a different color. I embarrassed Connie by stopping, walking up to the front door, and ringing the bell. When a man opened it, looking at me quizzically, I explained: “We used to live in this house.” After inviting me in, and summoning Connie from the car, we revisited that part of our lives: The foyer (once amber bottled glass by the door) where our then little boy, Greg, used to sit in the morning sun, mauling our Siamese cat, Nuteena (fondly called “No Nuts” because he’d been neutered).

Next door, a Majong-obsessed couple used to live – they regularly hosted noisy Majong tournaments. But what we remembered most vividly was that dreadful weekend of Kennedy’s assassination when we crashed our neighbor’s house (they had a TV and we didn’t) and sat with them in their living room, immersed in the gloomy black and white (no color then) images of Washington in mourning beamed into households all across the nation. This couldn’t be happening! But it was. What I remember most clearly: the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves, the firing of guns, the somber bells, choral dirges, muffled voices; standing on the steps of the Capitol, beautiful Jackie dressed in black, holding little John John’s hand, dressed in his now famous blue jacket – and his saluting as the body of his father went past; the long lines of mourners slowly walking by the coffin – and people weeping unashamedly.

And next morning, our neighbor banging on our door, shouting, “Come on over! Oswald has just been shot!” Blood, blood everywhere – the end of innocence for our generation. That did it! We drove down to Sears and bought our first television set.

* * * * *

That evening, en route to an alumni gathering in Rancho Murietta, we drove by one of my alma maters, Sacramento State University. And my mind drifted back to one of the key epiphanies of my lifetime: It was a sizzling summer afternoon and I was sauntering past an open door when I heard a familiar voice, “Joe! Got a minute?” It was Dr. Victor Comerchero, one of the University’s most beloved teachers. I’d taken several English classes from him. After some small talk, he got to the point – bluntly: “Joe, what are you doing here?” Noticing my bemusement, he chuckled and added, “What I really mean is, what are you doing with your life?”

I sputtered, “Well, I’m taking English classes, trying to bring my undergraduate English minor up to a major.”

“The reason, I asked, Joe, is that I’ve been looking over your records . . . . Do you realize you’re half way to a Masters in English? Why are you wasting time with just aimlessly taking classes?”

My mouth gaped open. Huh? Half way to a second Masters? Suddenly, my inner stars came into alignment as I considered the ramifications and resultant possibilities. So many times since, I’ve thought back to that life-changing moment when a busy professor on a hot summer afternoon (with no air-conditioner in his office) cared enough for a student he barely knew, to search his academic records, stop that student as he walked by, and challenge him to build a foundation under his dreams. The result was that I completed my course work, wrote my thesis on utopian and dystopian writers; even before graduation, my proximity to that second Masters catapulted me out of the high school classroom into the collegiate world, clearing the way for my Vanderbilt doctorate and all that has followed.

* * * * *

But my life nevertheless remains imprinted on one seamless bolt of cloth. In God’s eternal scheme of things, Sacramento Adventist Academy was just as significant as Sacramento State University and Vanderbilt University – each would play a central role in my life’s journey; just so, equal weight to the human faces along the way: Donna Diebel Beehler and Debbie Bighaus-West (more on her later), Dr. Victor Comerchero, and Drs Warren Titus and Kenneth Cooper of Vanderbilt University.

For each of them, I am profoundly grateful.

ALUMNI WEEKEND TIME

Yep, it’s spring, so it must be alumni weekend time.  I’m certain of it, for we just returned from one in California.

By now, I’ve accumulated enough years on my vintage [in mercy, we won’t say how old] life odometer, to be a veteran of these springtime rites of passage we call alumni weekends.  In our case, they are inescapable because not only do my wife and I have collectively nine alma maters to keep track of, I’ve also taught at five educational institutions (three universities, one high school, and one junior high), over a period of 34 years.   Each of these can be counted on to schedule an alumni weekend each spring.  Translated: it means that rare is a spring when a particular alumni weekend fails to belt out an irresistible siren call.  And it’s all because of numerology.  Actually it’s an insidious attempt by society to keep us broke by reminding us (by snail mail, e-mails, telephone, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, et al) that somewhere, every year of our lives, a five-year-multiple of some sort has reared its ugly head.  And rejecting such a summons is almost a sacrilegious act: akin to burning a Bible—or a National Geographic magazine.

Well, as I said, we’ve just returned from another one.  And this one was impossible to resist: a West Coast high school class was circling its wagons for their big 4 0 reunion.  And I received an invitation that—oh, let me tell you how diabolically wicked it was!  One of those long-ago students e-mailed me, informing me that way back when we were both young and foolish, I’d been one of her favorite teachers, and she’d never been back to an alumni reunion because I wasn’t there and that if I didn’t show up for this one she’d boycott that one too—Did I really want to have such a dastardly crime on my conscience?  And she called in reinforcements for added insurance.  “Trip insurance,” I believe they call it in the cruise industry.

So, of course, we packed up our bags and went.  And it was worth many times over what we paid for it.  I must confess to you that, in life, I’ve had more than my fair share of honors and degrees, but none of them can compare to this tender-hearted former student of mine, who after agreeing to introduce me to the alumni crowd, sat there with me on the front row racked with anguish and embarrassment, declaring over and over in a shaking voice, “I just can’t go through with this, Dr. Wheeler!  I just can’t!”  And the closer we got to our place in the program, the more she shook.  Almost, I thought we’d lose her.

But of course we didn’t: the most moving heart-felt tribute a teacher could ever receive.  Complete with a conch shell in which she had somehow some way, I don’t know how! beautifully inscribed these words inside: “Dear Dr. Wheeler, you will always remain in our hearts”—words no one but me could see.

Of course I hugged her!  Indeed, for a time, I could not speak.  Not until afterwards did we discover she’d been given a standing ovation.  Because, in the brief terrestrial passage of this thing called “life,” rarely are we moved to such an extent that we’re incapable of speech.  All the way back, on our return flight to Denver, I dissected that precious moment to find out why.  The closest I can get to an articulate explanation is this: If we are lucky enough to live a rich full life and be the recipient of honors, the ones that mean the most come from the lips of those who have known us the longest, and say, in essence:

I knew you when—.  I knew you when you were young and crazy like us.  When you loved us unreservedly even when we were most unlovable.  There were times when you lost your temper, when you did and said stupid, even inexcusable things, just like some of us did—but we loved you all the more because we knew the love you had for us was Velveteen Rabbit real.  And it’s because of all that, that we haven’t been able to forget you—that we can’t even imagine not having you with us when we celebrate our 40th alumni weekend.

This is what alumni weekends are really all about.  For we are unreservedly vulnerable only once in life—when we are young.  And though we may be considered successful by the great world later on, if our long-ago peers don’t consider us to be successful (with qualities that really matter, that stand the test of time), when we go back to the old campus on alumni weekend, when we pick up where we left off all those years ago—then we are not really successful at all, no matter what the world might say.  And this is the reason that, if I should somehow live a thousand years, never could I imagine so undeserving, so heartbreakingly beautiful, a tribute as the one I just received.

May God bless her!  And bless all those others who shakily stand up in front of their long-ago-but-forever classmates, to express that rare kind of love that comes—if it comes at all in life—but once.