Over the course of the year, throughout my Loretto experience, I have consistently found myself in a position where I’m surrounded by a high percentage of women. Now, normally, I would conclude that this is nothing to write home about, I’d say it’s just an aspect of the program that I knew I was signing up for when the year began in August. Fortunately, I’ve noticed that something other than the comedic aspect of constantly being surrounded by women has emerged from the year. But, before I get to that, let me start at the beginning…
I live with two other Loretto volunteers; two strong-minded, inspiring women, Ariana and Teresa. Already, I’m outnumbered 2-1. Then, factor in the 14 sisters who live 15 steps away from our front door, and whose company we frequent. (I’m down 16-1). There have been times on Sunday mornings during mass at the Loretto Center where the priest will take note of the fact that I’m the only male in the congregation and adjust his words accordingly. “Pray, my sisters and brother…” I do have to give a “shout-out” to my pal Brian Hammond, a co-member who frequently attends mass and reminds me that I’m not the lone survivor of the male race.
To add to the comedic, unequal balance in gender, our home is located on the campus of Nerinx High School –an all girls school. Over 600 girls between the ages of 14 and 18 swarm the area I live every Monday-Friday. (616-1!). I’ve been stopped, questioned, and scowled at on multiple occasions by staff and faculty members of the school who are unfamiliar with me. “Um, excuse me, who are you?” “Can I HELP you?” And this, after a brief explanation, is always followed by, “oh my goodness, I’m so sorry!” or “we’re very suspicious of men around here.” I suppose this could be a little jarring or insulting, but I’m getting good at laughing it off. The suspicious glares as I walk from the community car to the community house are almost welcoming at this point, they are reminders that I’m home.
On the more serious side of the gender matter, when I go to work each day at my school in East St. Louis, I find myself surrounded by women once again. The staff, including full-time and part-time employees numbers around 30 people, three of which are men, myself included. The student population is a little more evened out, but the fact of the matter is, only 40% of the 143 students in Kindergarten – 8th Grade are male. Which means you can tell the difference between the number of girls and the number of boys just by eye-balling it. This doesn’t matter though, because the smaller number of male students actually makes it easier to find specific kids to relate to. I find myself forming meaningful relationships with some of the boys. With few other male figures in the building, it gives me the opportunity to bond with some of them, which has kind of been fun.
One of the more tragic aspects of working in a trouble-filled city like East St. Louis is that many of the students I work with do not have fathers that play an active role in their lives. You would think that over time, students would persevere, they would find the good in their situations and be thankful for the parent that they do have, but this isn’t usually the case. The lack of a male-figure in the students’ lives, especially for the boys, seems to be a deciding factor in most aspects of their lives, including their behavior. They put their fathers on pedestals and brag about the smallest things that they do for them. Those students who have active fathers talk about them as if they are badges of honor. And, honestly, I see a large difference in those students who have dads and those who don’t. I digress, my point is, male authority figures are a rarity in the East St. Louis community, so it’s been nice to feel useful in this sense, no matter how unexpected it has been.
The relationships I have with the students are a two way street, we seem to each be taking something important out of our interactions. I am granted the opportunity to spend a minimal amount of time with some testosterone, while they’re given the opportunity to process what it’s like to have a relationship with an older male who isn’t a member of their immediate family. I think the relationships typically work out. Over the course of the year, there have been ups and downs as each student has matured and processed certain confusions and difficulties in their lives, but in the end, I think we’re all better for having known each other. Each relationship, whether it’s watching the Kindergarteners grow emotionally over the course of the year or witnessing an 8th grader transition toward manhood, has helped me continue to move toward a better understanding of self as I navigate the world of poverty and all of the challenges that accompany it.
The question that I consistently find myself coming back to whenever something arises at school is, “what does it mean to be a man?” These boys in the East Saint Louis community are forced to grow up so quickly. How are they suppose to know what a man is, what they should strive to be like? In my opinion, it’s wonderful for boys to be raised by strong female role models, but there are undeniable benefits to having the same gender in their lives, too. Tricky situations often present themselves, like 3 4th graders beating up another boy for “being weak”, I see this as a desperate struggle from the other boys to remain off of the bottom of the “food chain.” They are trying to prove themselves, to be strong. But what can I do in a situation like this? How can I step in? The problem at hand is that these 9 year-old boys are struggling to express themselves emotionally and are turning to violence, which they see as an acceptable form of expressing themselves. What I’ve learned is that there are countless opportunities at school to present the boys with healthy, alternative ways to express themselves. Real men have feelings and acknowledge them, there’s no need to suppress what we feel. And so, that’s why I keep the line of communication open and snag every opportunity I can to make a lesson out of gender or gender roles. Boys don’t need to be tough, gender doesn’t dictate your favorite color, and it’s OK to like dancing.
Stepping into this Loretto adventure back in August, I had no idea how my eyes would be opened to these different understandings of gender. I thought I knew so much more than I actually did, and it’s been humbling to discover the openness of both women in Loretto to letting men into the community, and the open hearts of the students at school to befriending a stranger.