Becca Balint | 'Be a man!' and other lasting impressions


There's a new patch of sidewalk along my morning run that has recently caught my attention.

Oak leaves have stained the cement with tannin. Although undeniably recognizable as the markings of oak leaves, the edges are smudged, not crisp or clean. They'll be there a long time; some impressions seem to stay with us for an eternity.

I started graduate school deeply concerned about issues of equity and fairness in education. I had experienced sexism as a high school student and wanted to ensure that young girls' voices were heard. Infuriatingly, sexism against women and girls still exists; we must continue to be adamant and vocal in our opposition. We all lose when sexism shapes the conversation and drives stifling dynamics in classrooms across this country.

Thankfully, girls have made some big strides, and our concerted efforts at equity in the classroom have paid off. Many more girls are applying to college and graduate schools, and we have made significant inroads into many professional fields that have long been dominated by men. But our boys are not faring so well.

From flagging achievement on benchmarks and tests, to high rates of expulsion and discipline, to dropping rates of college applications, many parents of boys are worried that their sons are not thriving. I meet these parents all the time. As a teacher, I sat on school Action Planning Teams years ago to try to tackle the gender and poverty achievement gap; I am troubled that we have not made much headway.

This thorny problem brought me to the Governor's Institute Conference at Middlebury College last week to wrestle with the question of how gender issues play out in education. Students, educators, administrators and citizens examined what we are getting right in how we educate our girls and boys and what we are getting wrong.

I invited a male friend along to the conference, as he is keenly interested in issues of gender and equity and how bias limits choices for both girls and boys. He is a thoughtful, action-oriented person eager to make a difference. We each posted pictures and blurbs about the conference on social media. My friends weighed in positively on my post; he told me he was teased by male acquaintances about attending the conference at all.

He wrote, "It's the 'be a man' training in action. I get it. I have heard it all my life." Reflecting upon it later, he bemoaned this frustrating dynamic and how limiting it was. He said, "As you know, the prisoners and the jailers are both ... in prison."

Both men and women sometimes adopt and reinforce these limiting gender stereotypes and expectations of themselves and each other. He mentioned a woman we both know who seems to have bought into the "Men Don't Cry" message; it is very discouraging and disheartening to watch this bias play out.

Obviously, schools exist within the larger societal context. The seemingly intractable problems in education are our own personal struggles writ large. I have come to believe that any effort at solutions must start from an examination of our deeply held beliefs — sometimes dangerous and often erroneous — about the nature of girls and boys.

This week I am holding my friend's words close to my heart and using them to find a way forward. He wrote, "How much richer, more affirming, more loving might life be if we stepped out of these roles that tell us to be something smaller than our full selves? It's sad that it's so ordinary and so accepted." Yes.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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