An aspect of my NANOWRIMO experience not yet chronicled here is the amazing group of students at the high school where I teach who also took on the 50,000. A few reached their goal. Many came along for the ride and produced a substantial amount of writing. They thrilled and amazed me throughout the month, with their passion and zany enthusiasm, and pushed my own work to dizzying production heights.
Their awesomeness is without question. I salute them. Though I was struck during November and continue to be in reflection by the fact that there was not a single male among them. One boy came to our first meeting, though never re-emerged. A colleague of mine brought NANOWRIMO to her classroom in which there are guys, but as far as I could tell, no male students took the plunge independently. And if they did, they weren’t coming to our meetings or must have escaped my notice.
I won’t pretend I was completely surprised. And yet even that lack of surprise is surprising. Why, I wonder, did it make so much sense to me that only girls would take such a thing on by choice? Even among the four colleagues of mine who embarked on the journey, I was the only male. Did it say anything about my own assumptions about gender, and if it did, did the evidence before me not bear it out in some revealing way?
The “I’m a writer!” pronouncement that comes with doing NANOWRIOMO is a bold one, nakedly artistic and daring, even if one has never written a word in her life up to then. It’s the kind of gesture to which teenage males, in my experience, are particularly averse. Once you claim to be doing something like Nanowriomo, you are branded in a way. True, it’s not more of a brand than joining the soccer team or accepting a part in the musical, but a brand all the same. And in a brand conscious culture, teenagers are the most impressionable of all. And while the brand of “artist” in the world at large may be admirable in most circles, in high school, it’s not so clear cut. By the way, this is not to imply that boys are not artistic or that they don’t write or don’t want to write. I believe quite the opposite is true. But how that urge gets expressed, and how public that expression is, well, that’s a different thing entirely.
I noticed something similiar last year when I was the coordinator for Poetry Out Loud, a recitation program in which students memorize, then master the reading of a poem. Though our school champion, and the national champion, were male, only 18 of the 52 state champions in D.C. were male and of the ten students who participated in our own school competition only 2 or 3 (I can’t recall exactly) were male.
Admittedly, these are small data sets, but I’m done thinking any of this is a coincidence.
When it comes to the arts, are we encouraging boys the same way we’re encouraging girls? Confidence is at play here, as is maturity–teenage girls have more of both–but so is the overall perception of the arts, which is largely a function of how the arts have been framed, or I might even say, “sold,” to the person in question. Our culture sells. Better than anything, it sells. Am I selling my own sons soccer and trucks and guns more than I’m selling them writing and drawing and acting? Are my neighbors? My students’ parents?
What sorts of boys and girls does our culture nurture and create? In a culture in which youth are being marketed to from the minute they get up in the morning until they sign off Facebook around two A.M. and come to school on five hours of sleep, they are being sold to. Urged toward thoughts and positions and identities. I think here of video games. I think here of sports. Girls play video games. Girls play sports. But when I consider how these things are presented in the culture, it’s hard not to see a male filter at work. Can that filter be so strong? So persuasive?