The year is 2000. I’m the grade 9 counsellor at Gladstone Secondary School. I’m sitting with Teresa Tran, one of my students, when I hear someone yelling in the background. I turn around and see young Charlie Tang approaching me. Charlie is Teresa’s “boyfriend” – remember these are the days before ‘hook ups’ and cell phones. Charlie’s language is so colourful that even the parent who is standing next to me (a big, burly guy who happens to be a longshoreman) is blushing. I quickly, quietly and calmly ask Charlie to go home and to come see me first thing in the morning before school.
When I did speak with Charlie next day, the story, as with all things to do with adolescence, was not black and white but rather grey. It had been his birthday and he was upset that Teresa was not going out with him after school to celebrate. He was also angry because he had seen Teresa talking to a boy in the hallway (wow, in a school of over 1200, what are the chances of that happening?). As I spoke longer with Charlie I began to realize that he, like so many of my boys in grade 9, had no idea how to express himself in a healthy way; he did not have the ability to express his emotions in an acceptable fashion; in terms of emotional literacy, he could not read!
I write of the past because of something absolutely outstanding that is happening in the present. This past week, Chris Kennedy wrote about signature schools and how they are reflective of place, school and district community. I’d like draw attention to a signature program that is reflective of a community’s emotional needs; a program that helps guide a group of mentor-less young men; a program that helps boys reclaim the joy of innocence, the happiness of adolescence and the unlimited potential inherent in each of them.
Now in its fifth year of existence, the Boys Club Network offers Hope, Opportunity Positive Mentors and Education to these boys: young men who because of the “cards that have been dealt to them” are at risk of falling victim to drugs, crime and even the streets. The Boys’ Club principles are profoundly simple: establish connectedness, trust and accountability. Having originated at Templeton Secondary School, the Boys Club Network operates independently with the cooperation of school districts in Vancouver, North and West Vancouver. Speak to the founders, Secondary Vice Principal, Walter Mustapich and Drama Teacher, Jimmy Crescenzo, and they’ll quickly recite the stats that Michael Gurian made so famous over 10 years ago:
- Adolescent boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed as emotionally disturbed than adolescent girls;
- Studies show that boys’ self-esteem drops as intensely in adolescence as girls’ does, but the drop is less likely to be noticed in schools and at home;
- Adolescent boys are four times as likely to commit suicide as adolescent females;
- Adolescent boys are routinely found to channel other primary feelings- hurt, pain, grief- into anger;
- Adolescent boys are 15 times as likely as female adolescents to be victims of violent crime. Adolescent boys now commit violent crime at a higher rate than adult offenders;
- Adolescent boys are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability than adolescent girls;
- Adolescent boys receive consistently lower grades than adolescent girls. While female students have neatly caught up in math/science scores, adolescent boys are on average 1 and ½ years behind female peers in reading/writing;
- Four adolescent males drop out of school for every one adolescent female;
- Adolescent boys are in fewer clubs, student government, and school newspapers than adolescent girls; they make up a minority of valedictorians and college scholarship winners;
- Millions of adolescent boys experience post-traumatic stress due to family, cultural, and socio-economic situations. A post-traumatic boy is ten times more likely than his female peer to act out in a way that is dangerous to another person.
Jimmy and Walter devote an extraordinary amount of their time to what is, quite honestly, a “rescue mission” with at risk boys. They do not preach but rather draw on their own backgrounds and the reality of the world around them to create relationships that are life-long with these boys. They meet as a group every week and daily run into each other in the halls – the silent, subtle, head nod serving as the sign of intimacy between them.
At the best of times these boys do not see or understand who they are or what they are doing. Jimmy and Walter speak to what it means to be a young man of integrity and honour. They help them give voice to and comprehend their own respective narratives and then, most importantly, they help them discover the emotional literacy skills to write a new story. They draw emphasis to this approach by bringing in outside speakers who range from the “rags to riches story” to those who have battled with addictions, gangs and much more. In having been fortunate enough to be invited to speak to these boys, I personally found the experience to be not only engaging but also life affirming in the sense of being present in a room where “hope” is palpable; where hope is focused upon as the basis of an action plan – not a mere “what if.”
The Boy’s Club Network is a success and a program of distinction for many reasons (increased attendance, retention and subsequent graduation rates make this apparent to all); however when I speak with Jimmy, Walter and particularly the boys, I begin to appreciate the deeper, oftentimes immeasurable data:
- It promotes an emotional vocabulary that expands their ability to express themselves in ways other than anger or aggression;
- In these meetings and follow up sessions, the boys are placed in a dynamic where they experience empathy and are encouraged to use it if they are to develop conscience;
- They feel and understand the importance of emotional connections through Jimmy and Walter’s “male” modeling of a rich emotional life;
- The boys, many for the first time, see and believe that emotions belong in the life of a man and they begin to realize that in order to grow and mature in a healthy fashion, they must create a life and language for themselves that speaks with male identity.
I see Jimmy and Walter, I listen to their passion, I become engaged. This is learning that is making a difference. This, without a doubt, is a signature program.