Posted on August 29, 2018
Lessons for a Good Boy – My Story II
I was home-kindergartened. It’s a thing. Don’t pity me; I loved it. I was CEO of memorizing which shapes all the letters are. I can run my fingers through the air right now to remind them of the satisfying texture of macaroni graphemes glued to construction paper. For graduation, our mothers brought me and another homekindergartener to the indoor amusement park in the massive mall in West Edmonton. My homekindergartenermate had zigzaggy brown hair blasting into an A shape. Her enthusiasm for life overcame my caution, and she led me aboard a ride that struck fear into the heart: a roller coaster coasting in a small oval with a gentle crest! That school-day afternoon, the Fantasyland® was deserted, and we had our choice of seats. She mounted the head of our cartoon dragon cart and I retreated to the tail. For the entirety, I screamed in ecstatic horror while she laughed, glancing my way that she might extend her glee.
I don’t think it bothered me then that she was the brave one.
After this illustrious graduation, I was enrolled in a private Christian school in our small town. As you might expect, it was a microcosm of a subculture. A student body of maybe 40 studied from grades 1-12. It was nestled in two bays of a strip mall, constructed of cinderblocks: the lines in the grout spelling HHH sideways. Some student’s walked through those doors for their first day of grade school and walked out on their last. See: dedication.
This is the story of a boy’s education at that school.
Uniform shopping is our prologue. Students were required to adorn their bodies according to their genitalia. I was introduced to “navy”—a blue so dark it was always mistaken for black. Boys wore a white collared shirt buttoned-up snug, next a red striped tie, then a navy sweater-vest containing the combo. It was my first tie, with a treacherously fun-to-play-with clip at the top. I was told it was a fake tie, but I couldn’t fathom how it might be more real. Alas, I closeted my glow-in-the-dark t-shirts and shrinking sweatpants: gone were the days of wearing out fleece knees on the linoleum trying to figure out how Pogs were fun.
The girls wore white blouses with continental ties, swirling pleated navy skirts, tights, and clunky black heels. Maybe a bow upon the locks. I was oblivious to the other uniform rules governing appearence… no dyed hair, no tattoos, and no earings for boys, for instance.
The school was busless, so students were dropped off and would congregate in one large foyer/hallway/cafeteria/theatre. When it came time to enter our classroom, titled “The Learning Centre,” we were signalled by the clangs of a black-handled bell. Children pavlovianly silenced themselves and assembled single-file. Surely the human barcode of our uniformed bodies against white-washed walls filled the fantasies of the Zebras that Z is for.
ACE was the brand: Accelerated Christian Education. Our Christian ritual was not unvarnished pews and Y-shaped communion chalices, but an airbrushed liturgy with chrome finish. United States of American Christianity: pristine smiling lamination was the ACE style. Our hands were guided patriotically over our hearts during chapel and always away from the flesh of our companions.
Behaviour was meticulously quantified. Once in the learning center, we sat in private desks buttressing the perimeter, hidden from our neighbours by varnish and wood. To rise from your chair permissionless was punishable; this right is granted pending the insertion of a miniature national flag into a hole drilled in the edge of each divider, beneath which each pupil possessed a laminated apple tree with five apple stickers. Goodness garnered “merits,” a paper currency for purchasing candy and toys. But each transgression throughout the day—whether procedural or moral— would fell an apple from your tree: a “demerit”. I think three apples was a demerit, and five apples was detention. Or was the apple the demerit? Three apples detention, five the strap? I never found out. Only had detention a few times for not completing my work. I probably cried when that happened. At least I avoided the infamous “strap.”
Most of our study was not lecture, but self-directed work in saddle stitched modules branded as PACEs: Packets of Accelerated Christian Education. Each printed in glorious Pantone. Mathematics was daffodil: Word-Building violet. Finishing your assigned daily Social Studies pages meant the chunky gratification of toppling a lime block above your desk; passing an English PACE meant getting a cherry star on your chart. Important vocabulary in the PACEs was underlined in orange, all while cartoon animals clawed for our fleeting attention. (I remember one comic cautioning a girl not to forget to brush her hair thoroughly.)
While work must be completed in led, the ruby ink of scoring could scribe runes to unlock the next pages in the workbook (once all wrong answers were corrected, of course). But the Supervisor’s swift emerald initial was the most mystical glyph, having power to approve or override whatever it may. (To touch the green pen was gravely forbidden.)
Recesses and lunch hour would thrust us from isolated study into socialization. Though I was nearly mute, I enjoyed trailing the girls in my school, especially the highschool seniors. I liked the bounce of their long hair and preferred the starkness of tights to the wispy riddle of trousers. With the aroma upon her neck, one lass brought a meadow into that cement box. To rest in that aura… you can understand my obsession with settling by her side. But most of all, I sought out the girls because I found them sweeter and softer: I felt protected with them. When it came to playing, young girls had more fun: they played hopscotch and skip-rope! Me and my girls, we loved weaving, crafts, and paint-by-numbers. Not sure what the boys were up to.
Due to the school’s low body count, all Physical Education (a trick name for sports) was practiced in one class. Sometimes two. In the northwest field, I would be tasked with chasing a pigskin carried in the veiny forearms of young men. Meanwhile Sporty-Spices rolled and kicked a foam O in the distant baseball diamond. As my trachea ached from cardio, and I secretly avoided but craved our stitched ballistic, I ogled the female’s funner-looking sport through chain-link, envying their sensical rules and merciful projectile.
When alone or cradled in my attempted coven, I watched my rambunctious sex from a distance, observing them test and stretch our rules: clandestine roughhousing, accidental tackles during flag football, loosening their ties and unbuttoning their collars the moment we were dismissed. It seemed this was somehow expected of boys… to push against the yoke. Girls fit the regiment better: more often receiving congratulatory wooden good behaviour trophies, more stars on their charts for acing their PACEs. I can particularly recall one boy’s frustration at his repeated visits to our principal; likely he was being warned or punished for his poor aptitude at his PACEs.
In short, school was the first time where I consistently had to be a good boy for an audience other than parents.
Academically, I performed exceptionally for the three years I spent there. The PACEwork was barely a puzzle to me. The infrastructure of unrelenting order debilitated the wild, but it became the tame. I found myself rewarded for being the quiet, clever, compliant child I already was (I was supreme at sitting-tight). So, I embraced obedience; I deemed its legendary goodness true. My superego became an authoritarian modelled from the weary supplications of bishops and principles. Weekly I pursued a character-trait clothespins to be affixed upon the shade of my fluorescent work-light: humility ah! Kindness mm. Maybe, in my wild fantasies, thoroughness? At quarterly award ceremonies, I lusted sans-hormones for glistening trophies of fraudulent bronze and marble. I was seduced by the sharp angles of rules and was drawn into a deep affair with the binary logic of proper and improper, binding me in ardour to them this day. Discovering and implementing “how things ought to be” became my fetish.
I flourished in that highly regimented environment. But I felt totally inadequate. Yes, I was a good boy, but I wasn’t a very good boy.
This story is about education, but it isn’t about a double lot in a cinderblock strip-mall or about mastering cursive capitals and simple fractions. It’s about the secret things we learn without lessons. I knew by the time I started school that I was a boy, and I knew it was because of my body that I was a boy. But I also knew I was not like most boys. My likes, abilities, and behaviour were much more in line with a group of folks called “girls.” And so trouble started to simmer in my unconscious.
What my school inculcated was that the difference between boys and girls was a moral matter. I learned to be good, and I learned to be a boy, but they were presented as one thing. You sneak notes? You wear earrings? For a boy, either would lead to repercussions. Being gender-appropriate was a sort of obedience. It’s not that I got in trouble for liking what girls liked or spending time with them, but I did feel evaluated on it, and I knew I was underperforming. I’d never been in an environment where what was meant for boys and meant for girls was so clearly and often differentiated. A schism started in my heart. I felt like a freak. It sent me down a path through feelings of humiliation, isolation, inadequacy, et al. This little school wasn’t the only place programming my gender circuits, but it was an early and overt one. It built the basis of my concept of gender, and what a cracked foundation.
Part of me knew, even then, they got it wrong. By my late teens, still staunchly ramparted by closet doors, I had begun to look back on that mystique with criticism. I saw how a cloud of communal belief protected by the policy of my first school had helped shape my perception of boyhood.
Don’t pass judgement on my school. It was a distillation of a mid-nineties, North American, Evangelic ethic. Christian education is paradigmatic two-way glass. From within it is salvation: a wholesome trinity of learning, parenting, and faith. From outside it is obscure and peculiar and maybe/probably a little/really creepy. I’m not trying to convince anyone either way on that. Look, let’s face it: school is rarely an easy transition for children. In the end, I’m thankful. It went pretty good for me. Bullying was a pervasive trope of the nineties, and it rarely happened at our school. Here I was, a sensitive, effeminate kid, and I was safe from bullying. I was able to concentrate and excel. I did well, considering my options.
The exact school I described here doesn’t exist anymore: there’s one with the same name in the same building, but it has moved past the legalism that wore its shape into me. But the indoctrination I received on gender continues in most schools (and everywhere children learn). If not overtly, then subtly; if not in classrooms, then in hallways. Sure, I believe a strict environment filled with love can be great for some kids, but it makes me sad that gender gets tied up as part of that. I hope reading my experiences here and in coming chapters helps you see the pain pressed into children when we judge them according to their gender instead of their individuality. As you read, think of all the givens about your gender that you are comfortable with, and imagine all those things flipped against you, fighting your every natural impulse. Odds are, there’s at least one stereotype or assumption about your gender that already irks you. Remember that feeling as you read about my experience, and you’ll understand me better. Then, if you’re feeling radical, ponder why we do so much sorting in the first place, and whether it’s worth all this discomfort for so many.