A couple of months ago, I married the man I have been with for the last nine years. It is also coincidentally eight and a half years since I graduated from high school.
There’s much to be said about marrying the first person you meet and start dating and the conflicting messages that go along with it (Great! Good! Fantastic! You’re not a slut! But what’s wrong with him? Did he get a chance to sow his wild oats? Sigh.), but what I want to write about is my job and how it changed my view on marriage—and how my impending marriage changed how I approach my job. I teach at an all-boys school where I am in a distinct minority; there are roughly thirty female teachers out of staff of more than one hundred. Compounded with a thousand plus students, it has been an interesting experience for a reasonably vocal feminist and educator.
Boys and young men have an incredible capacity for compassion and consideration. In the lead-up to getting married I was overwhelmed by offers of help and support from a demographic best known for epic Diablo 3 sessions: sneaky (and illegal, per school policy) cans of Diet Coke whenever I looked frazzled; taking my co-curricular teams for training whenever I had a mishap to iron out; or offering to sing or film at my ceremony were genuine and heart-felt offers of love from young people and they have made my job feel ever that more worthwhile.
From mentoring and working with young people I’ve observed a real shortcoming in pastoral care with how we teach and model marriage and relationships—particularly when it comes to boys. The ones I work most closely with are the same age I was when I started my own relationship, and in them I can see the same anxieties, fears, and hopes I had.
I don’t shy away from who I am and what I believe, both in my employment and in my relationship. If young people ask me a professionally appropriate and respectful question about human relationships, they deserve a sincere response. In the process of teaching them, I’ve learned plenty about the gaps in their education, and in a way, my own; there were no adults willing or able to tell me, in my final year of school, that sometimes a day spent stuffing around with your boyfriend is actually more beneficial to your mental health and happiness than a day studying, or that the flaky friends who enable your bad habits and who ditch you when you find love are actually not worth crying over. Or, especially, that you don’t have to listen to adults who are in crappy, dysfunctional relationships who try to tell you that you are just infatuated, and that it’s lust, and not love, driving your bond.
These gaps aren’t only for teachers to fill; they’re for parents, and friends, and extended family too. They’re for people who coach, mentor, and nurture the young because they think that it’s a valuable investment in our shared futures:
They want you to support and validate the very concept of building relationships. Young people are going through what is likely the most trying experience of their lives. They are expected to know exactly what it is they want to do for a career and to focus on achieving this to the exclusion of all other things (apart from co-curricular pursuits or familial obligations). There’s a good chance they are going to hear the word ‘socialising’ being used in a disparaging manner by both parents and teachers alike.
There’s a lot of dialogue about suicide amongst young men and how our boys are neglected emotionally, but I become increasingly irate when the same voices complaining about this are the ones telling kids they need to stop wasting time talking to people online, or going out with their friends, so they can study. Building and sustaining quality relationships on any level—romantic or otherwise—is vital for quality of life and for preserving good mental health and connectedness. (And I won’t even go into the shitbag of sexist connotations associated with the word ‘socialise’; men ‘bond’ or ‘network’ and it is VITALLY IMPORTANT, but not too often, whereas women ‘socialise’ and fritter away their time. Don’t even get me started on it.) Extending on this…
They want you to support and validate their own relationships—the ones that start when they are young and still in school. Perhaps I wouldn’t hold this position if my own life experience didn’t give testament to the potential for high school relationships to blossom into worthwhile, life-long partnerships. There are plenty of young people who happen to find the person they care for and connect with while young, who don’t get or stay together just because of status or sex. For them, rituals, shared experiences, and compassion drive and motivate them to build the partnerships they’re in. They want to recognise special dates and create meaningful traditions as a couple. They want their relationships to be recognised with the same validity as adult relationships. Many of them go through the same hardships as adults, helping their boyfriend or girlfriend deal with grief, loss, stress, mental and physical health concerns, disadvantage and poverty, or it may be that they’re dealing with these things themselves.
The young people in your life are going to hear plenty of disparaging comments about the instability, lustfulness, or superficiality of their love; I know I did. They don’t need it to come from you.
They want you to support and validate the concept of romantic relationships, and to be vocal in affirming your own. You may be the only adult in that young person’s life who can provide any sort of role modelling. There are plenty of kids growing up without a decent male figure in their life—and probably the same number without a decent female figure. They don’t want you to make crappy nineties sitcom jokes about women loving shopping or husbands forgetting anniversaries. They want to hear from you that loving another person is worth the time and effort, and they want to learn strategies to nourish and strengthen a relationship. On a recent school camp I went on, I overheard some older male colleagues joke about how their wives wanted to ‘waste all their money’. I’m not particularly good at keeping my comments internal, so I blurted out, “How could you talk about your spouse like that?” They responded that they were just joking, and the phrase you’ll understand when you’ve been married as long as we have may have come into play. These are good guys who do love their wives, but do they not get that the seventeen-year-old boys around us hear and absorb those messages about women and normalise them? I was honest, and said that I would be heartbroken if I ever learned that my fiancé had made the same comments about me, and likewise for him.
Young folk, and particularly young men, deserve a great deal more than the platter of turds served up to them by the patriarchy, and they deserve a better world view than the one on offer from Dane Cook and Tucker Max. They deserve to hear that relationships and marriages can be far rosier than the bleak pictures painted by angry men’s rights activists and jaded cynics.
And if you value quality human relationships, they want to hear what you have to say. I know I did.
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