Enter Sandmann: A Teachable Moment About What We’re Teaching Boys

If you’re like me, you’re thoroughly sick of seeing the sweet, pubescent face of Nicholas Sandmann as he stoically exercises his “right” to encroach on the personal space of Vietnam vet and Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, and smirk in his face.

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You’re probably also emotionally spent from indignation over this Catholic boy’s brazen display of disrespect for his elders, especially one who served our country during a war, and that it seems his parents didn’t teach him the virtue of humility. But what’s been overshadowed by this MAGA-hat(e) incident is the actual reason why Sandmann and his classmates were in Washington DC: to protest abortion rights. This begs the question of all religion-based high schools: What lessons are they really teaching our impressionable adolescent males?

I find it disturbing, in a Handmaid’s Tale kind of way, that schools like Covington Catholic are teaching teenage boys that they have the right, even the responsibility, to tell grown women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies and their own futures. And that this particular school sponsored a field trip so that the boys, our future leaders, can practice applying the theory of this “right” in a real-life setting.

I can’t help but wonder does the imparting of knowledge like this lay the groundwork for these teenage boys to grow up believing that they inherently have some level of power or authority of over women? That perhaps if they can influence something as critical as a woman’s choice about her reproductive health, they may also have the right to arbitrate other important things like when a woman is choosing to have to sex with them versus when she just needs a little coaxing? Is that the lesson men like Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, and Brett Kavanaugh somehow learned in their formative years that paved the way for adult behaviors like the sexual assaults they’ve been credibly accused of?

We teach boys not to cry because it shows weakness; we teach them in grammar school not to hit girls because they are weaker than they are; we teach them that aggression in sports brings victory and in life brings the spoils of success. But what are the specific examples we, as a society, are setting to ingrain in them the belief that women are thinking, feeling, intelligent beings who are their equals? Aside from Gillette’s flaccid attempt to shame men out of their lifelong inclinations toward toxic masculinity in an ad for their products, what values are we really instilling in our boys? While everyone has the right to his or her opinion on abortion, the question of whether or not someone has the right to intimidate or force a woman out of choosing one is a matter of law. And that answer, in most places in the US, is an unequivocal no.

While we’re talking to our boys about respecting their elders and not pulling little Sally’s hair in homeroom, let’s make sure we’re also teaching them the difference between having an opinion about women and respecting women’s legal and human rights.

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Inside the Closet I Briefly Shared with Beatrice Darby

novel coverMy debut novel, The Revelation of Beatrice Darby, was never intended to be semi-autobiographical. Naturally, I envisioned my title character as the quintessential literary heroine beleaguered by unrequited love and the societal restrictions of her era. But as with most stories, the characters writers create become organic. At times, it seemed that this magnificent, imaginary young woman was telling me her story, and I was merely typing it. My inner teenager must’ve recognized herself in Beatrice and realized she could finally explore her locked-away feelings from the safe distance of time, maturity, and a whole lot of life experience. Like Beatrice, I had a secret fascination with a much older, inaccessible woman, my high school business teacher. I was anxiously, embarrassingly, crazy in love with her much the way Beatrice feels about Abby Gill. And like Abby, my teacher was enchanting. I fell under a tantalizing spell of authority, charm, and forbidden sex appeal that rendered me a jubilant, stammering mess around her.

In my essay, “Girl Crush: The Perils of Being Hot for Teacher in the 80s,” published online by T/Our Magazine,

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I revisit this secret place in my adolescence, and how it felt juggling bare-handed the flaming balls of friendship, fitting in, and a desperate fear of exposure. Although America’s criteria for what was socially acceptable in Beatrice’s adolescence in the 1950s differed sharply from mine in the 1980s, the one thing that hadn’t evolved was the overall sentiment toward homosexuality. Yes, the consequences of coming out in the 80s weren’t quite as severe—I never feared being chased through the woods like Frankenstein by a mob of torch-wielding townies—but coming out as a lesbian in the 1980s was essentially tantamount to social suicide.

While I had succeeded in passing as a “normal” high school girl, that success came at a price: two subsequent decades of chronic panic disorder. It also damaged my self-worth, leaving me grasping for self-acceptance until I was nearly forty years old and in the process of clearing out mental debris from the end of a long-term relationship.

I flatter myself to think the character of Beatrice Darby is a version of me. In a small way, I’ve found redemption in her, a heroine to be admired for her uncompromising will to fashion her life from her own custom-designed mold rather than a cookie cutter used a thousand times before. I hope readers will enjoy rooting for her as she perseveres through every fretful, awkward, unbearable situation throughout her journey. I root for her because she’s flawed yet triumphant, and no matter how hard she stumbles or falls, she always manages to pull herself up by her sensible shoe straps. ♥