Boys, Breast Cancer, and the Magic of Single-Sex Schools

This post was originally published on the Good Men Project. Republished with permission.

I write this post for two reasons. I write in honor of the women in my life who have fought breast cancer, as this is Breast Cancer Awareness month. And I write in response to the September 23, 2011 study in Science Magazine titled “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling.” I challenge its incendiary and unsubstantiated claims that “segregating” boys and girls by gender is similar to the racial segregation of African-American children in the southern schools of decades ago, and that it “increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutionalized sexism.” Here is a small window into my life in a boys’ school, and the transformation I observed, not just in the boys themselves, but also in myself as a woman.

On a cool autumn morning in October of 2006, over 300 boys arrived wearing pink. Shirts were pink, hats were pink, other accessories and items of clothing that could be bought or dyed pink adorned these boys who gathered together for a photograph in front of white-white New England clapboard buildings under a brilliant blue sky. They casually tossed their arms across each other’s shoulders, smiling at the camera, appearing to any onlooker like the collective innocence and joyfulness of boyhood from a bygone era, made modern by the bold choice of color they had conspired to wear. They wore it in solidarity with a woman they loved who lived in a house next door to the school. A woman who was fighting Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. A woman who just happened to be their Headmaster’s wife and the chair of the English department.

It was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the president of the student body of this boys’ school, working with a faculty advisor, organized a school-wide fundraiser in honor of their beloved English teacher, all of the other women in their lives, and women they did not even know, who were fighting, or had survived, breast cancer. But wait. Boys don’t wear pink! And why would boys care about breast cancer, anyway? It’s a predominantly woman’s disease they have very little chance of ever contracting.

They raised thousands of dollars for the cause. More importantly, they raised their own consciousness about a “women’s issue” that could potentially affect their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, teachers, or female friends. For some of them, that was actively the case.

Here’s what the boys did not do. They did not sport rubber bracelets or t-shirts that said “I <3 Boobies” or “Save the Ta-Ta’s.” Dedicated female (and male) teachers had deconstructed for them the cruel irony of sexualizing breast cancer.

Here’s what the boys did do. During their free time they (and lots of returning alums) visited their teacher who was fighting for her life. Freely and unselfconsciously they expressed their emotions, their affection, their fears. They connected to her as not only an important woman in their schooling and in their lives, but also as a woman battling a life-threatening illness who might not make it, like so many other women who have not made it. They could talk about it, and cry about it, and do that together.

Too few boys access this side of themselves, especially during puberty, and especially in co-ed settings. But boys have great capacity for this kind of emotional expression, and if it does not come easily to them verbally, they can emote through drama, music, or art. Sadly, in co-ed schools, the social milieu between boys and girls does not always allow boys to easily pursue so-called “feminine” interests that are censured by their peers.  How many times in my career have I heard, “chorus is for girls!”

Poetry, literature, theater, and many other artistic pursuits are judged as feminine at best, and as indicating potential homosexuality at worst. Boys sometimes shut down the artistic and emotive parts of themselves when they feel their masculinity is being scrutinized and that if they are not considered male enough, they could be bullied. So, one of the wonders of boys’ schools is that chorus is for everyone. Everything is for everyone.

What about athletics? Well, of course sports play a big role at most boys’ schools. Healthy competition is encouraged and viewed positively as long as it is paired with a deep understanding of good sportsmanship, being a team player, and the lifelong lessons of camaraderie on the field.

Academically, boys take more risks in single-sex environments. They eagerly raise their hands to answer questions about books. They participate passionately in poetry slams. If they are physically restless or less attentive than girls, they are in an environment where that is understood and accepted by both male and female teachers who love boys, are experts in their development, and know how to instruct them, in all their boyishness, to reach their full potential. Teachers in boys’ schools have chosen to be there and are not just “putting up with” boys.

There is much discussion these days about boys falling behind girls academically. As an educational psychologist by training and the first female admissions director in the history of my school, I saw this first hand, and I have also written about it. I feel strongly that single-sex education is highly beneficial for both genders, and for boys in particular it can help address the current achievement gap with girls. We have long addressed girls’ math and science gap, with some (but not complete) success. In our efforts to level the playing field, many believe we now shortchange boys. I consider myself a feminist and I believe that our public educational system favors girls today.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to separate the genders during schooling, especially in the middle school years, is to release them from the burdens of our hyper-sexualized society for a few hours a day so they can focus on academics and learn to their highest potential. In co-ed environments, the cross-gender distractions have reached epic proportions, with girls dressing so provocatively and both boys and girls engaging in the greatest degree of disruptive flirtatious behavior schools have ever seen.

For those who question “segregating” the genders, I must point out that single-sex schools are usually not monasteries or nunneries. Boys and girls interact with each other at home, in neighborhoods, in churches and synagogues, in co-ed sports teams, at dances, in joint community service projects, in dramatic productions and in so many other ways. But during the short school day, boys can be singers or girls can be hockey players and no one of the opposite gender is there to evaluate how well they are performing their gender role as our society prescribes it. No one of the opposite gender is there to show off for or to shut down in front of. Everyone gets to explore freely—without stigma—what it means to be boys or girls, and most importantly, what it is to be human.

Many prospective parents coming through the admissions process used to notice, when they visited our campus, that the boys were exceptionally polite and respectful, opening doors for them and shaking their hands firmly with good eye contact and a friendly smile. That is because these behaviors and values were expressly fostered and supported as a school community. There were no standardized tests to teach to or to replace other important lessons, including the value of respect and empathy for women, which was explicitly taught in health classes where no girls were present and honest conversations could take place comfortably.

Parents sometimes asked me if the boys are always as “good” as they seemed during their tour of campus. I had a good comeback line for that: “I fill the school with boys, not angels.” Of course they got in trouble and made mistakes! But failures were teachable moments, and the faculty, which was 50% male and 50% female, all knew how to capitalize on serendipity. Boys had trusted mentors and strong role models of both genders, and that is such a gift. I think it should be the experience of all boys, but co-ed schools draw mostly female teachers, especially at the younger grades. Male teaching candidates are often drawn to boys’ schools where they know they can make a difference with boys, and also enjoy the companionship of other men.

These boys eventually graduate with a strong moral foundation and go on to predominantly co-ed schools where they encounter girls in academic, athletic, and artistic situations, having learned to approach them with respect and from a position of self-confidence that has remained intact and strong. They have been nurtured as growing young men, learning emotional literacy and taking risks in ways that co-ed environments can sometimes discourage.

Good single-sex schools that use gender as a lens to better understand boys (or girls) cut to the heart of what it means to develop into a healthy young men or women. They combat stereotypes rather than encourage them as the study falsely (and without evidence) asserts.

There are bad single-sex schools just as there are bad co-ed schools. Boys’ schools have a reputation for being bastions of white male privilege, racism, sexism, classism, and bullying. Everyone saw or read Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and so this image of the elite hardscrabble bullying culture of a British boys’ boarding school is what many people consciously or subconsciously think of when they hear the term “boys’ school.” Thank God things have changed. It is not that there is no bullying anymore because all schools have bullying. But without the presence of girls to compete for, boys actually have fewer flashpoints between them and greater camaraderie. The friendships they develop in school often last a lifetime.

Single-sex schools (unlike the discriminatory “separate but equal” racially segregated schools of our pre-Civil Rights era) are a choice. Separate does not mean unequal. It can mean different, and different can be good. It is not forced on anyone. In fact, it is sought out and usually purchased at a high price by parents who can afford it and understand its value, leaving it an option for very few middle and low-income families. Most people do not pay tens of thousands of dollars for an education that harms their children.

What is needed is for more public schools, especially in poor urban neighborhoods, to be allowed to offer single-sex education, even if it occurs simply in academic classrooms within a co-ed building. The research done to date by the Department of Education concludes the opposite of what the Science study purports…that academic achievement and social/emotional development resulting from single-sex schooling results in short and long-term positive outcomes for both boys and girls. The Science Magazine study upset me greatly. It was completely dissonant with my own education and experience. Boys’ schools are by and large exceptional learning environments for young men. They are also extremely tight-knit communities.

By the way, five years later, the Headmaster’s wife is alive and well, one of only a small number of women to have ever survived this long with Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. She credits her excellent medical care, a loving family, supportive colleagues…and lots and lots of boys.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist and consultant with Lori Day Consulting in Concord, MA, having worked previously in the field of education for over 25 years in public schools, private schools, and at the college level. She writes and blogs about parenting, education, children, gender, media, and pop culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Photo credit KB35/Flickr

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