The year that sons numbers two and three were in grades eight and five – respectively [yes, thankfully, none of my sons has passed an older brother in school] – we had a new principal at our school. My introduction to the new principal came the afternoon of the very first day. She called me at work. Second Son [not his real name] and his associates had been tossing a few grade fives around the playground. Our sons have different last names, so she perhaps wasn’t aware that this was, essentially, a family matter with some unavoidable collateral damage.
“Oh yes,” I said, “Number Two is a bad kid.”
I thought she’d find my approach refreshing – a welcome change from the parental rationalizations, excuses, denials and evasions that are, I’m sure, the daily diet of school administrators.
“Oh no,” she assured me, “He’s not a bad kid. He’s just making some bad choices.”
“Ah. I think you’ll find that those are the kinds of choices he really likes to make.”
I told her she could be confident that Number Two [not his real name] would be dealt with harshly. I’m sure he was, though I don’t recall exactly what we did. It was a while ago. Whatever, it had no noticeable effect, which disappointed but did not surprise us. We’re not ineffective parents; we just make ineffective choices.
About a month later, I was at my desk at work when the phone rang. It was Madam Principal.
“Did you know, ” she asked, “that the grade eight boys, including your Number Two, are kicking each other in the private parts?”
“Yes. The boys are allowing each other to kick them, in order to prove their manhood or something,” she explained.
“It suggests to me that they haven’t yet reached manhood.”
I thought of explaining that remark – how much more it hurts to get kicked in the spools after they have become nominally functional – but thought better of it. Aside from the awkwardness of even talking about blows below the belt with her, we would no doubt have become mired in the traditional debate about the relative intensity of the pain of injured man-jewels versus the pain of childbirth. As far as I know, that controversy has never been resolved.
She went on to tell me that an alarming number of the grade eight boys had been coming to The Office asking for icepacks to pack on their packages while they sat in class. This conversation wasn’t getting any more comfortable for me. The boys claimed that the ice soothed them where they ached. What could be more more soothing, I wondered, than iced testicles. [“Testcicles,” I thought to myself. That’s funny.] Anyway, it was upon the fifth or sixth ice-pack request that Madam Principal began to question the packers and she learned that the boys were actually voluntarily submitting to these sackings.
We called it “flashing” in my day, though I decided Madam Principal didn’t need the benefit of my personal experience on this one. Sometime in early adolescence, boys discover an acute vulnerability that all boys have in common and, quite naturally, they exploit it for fun. And what fun! It can easily get out of control. As we get older, however, the personal cost of this great fun becomes obvious even to guys and so men enter into an unspoken covenant that we will not kick each other in the nards for fun. By age fifty, it is very rare. [Of course, if even one of us were to breach the covenenant, who knows? It’s a fragile peace.] But, this business of willingly offering up the groin to the boot is an odd gloss to the old tradition. My recollection of the olds days is that we excercised considerable vigilance to avoid being the flashee. It hurts like hell. Maybe not as much as childbirth. But a lot.
Madam Principal had been told by one of her cold-crotched charges that this “Go ahead. Make my day” phenomenon had come from Jackass, the television program and movie about very cool guys who do crazy dangerous things and hurt themselves for personal fulfillment and to entertain others. Our boys were failing to heed the “don’t try this at home” caution. This explanation made weird sense. Boys don’t always choose the role models we would choose for them.
Madam Principal asked for my support and assistance in eradicating this practice.
“I don’t know. If being kicked in the nuts doesn’t convince them that this is a bad idea … I’m not sure anything I can say will be any more persuasive.”
I assured her I would do my best. As I always do.
I hung up the phone and got back to work. I was the provincial government’s human rights lawyer at the time. Coincidentally, the phone call had interrupted my work on a particular human rights file. A father complained that the Department of Education had been discriminating against boys by failing to adopt policies to address the underperformance of boys in school. For many years, according to this fellow, boys’ performance had been declining and they had been overtaken academically by their female classmates. Girls were doing better than ever. It’s an issue that is not unique to Saskatchewan. Across North America, boys are falling behind.
Well, I wonder why? Girls don’t face the barriers to academic success that beset boys. Girls read, study, do their assignments. Boys kick each other in the nuts. Girls sit quietly in class, pay attention. Boys sit in class with ice on their gonads. Who can concentrate with frozen testes? Frozen or not, for purposes of academic performance, perhaps it’s best not to have them at all.
I raised the Jackass nutcracking thing with Number Two that evening. While he confirmed that everybody was kicking everybody else in “the boys”, he told me that no one was voluntarily taking one to the groin. “That’s just stupid,” he told me impatiently, as if to suggest that it was therefore out of the question. He had no idea where the Jackass story came from. I suspect that those who came to The Office, asking for ice to numb their nads, did not want to rat out the perpretrator and so had to come up with some reasonable, non-culpable explanation for their distressing condition. Like kicking one another in the nuts, never ratting out anyone is unique to boys – more than that, however, it is a universal guy imperative – part of the Code – what separates us from the animals. Or something.
“Why are you kicking guys in the balls?” I asked.
“If somebody kicks me in the nuts, I’m gonna kick him back.”
“Well, you know Number Two, if you kick someone back, he’ll kick you again. It’s not going to matter that you were just paying him back.” I explained that people who have just been kicked in the nuts don’t have a rational sense of justice. Retaliation leads inevitably to escalation. So. While forbearing from sacking others does not guarantee that you won’t be victimized, it is the only strategy available for minimizing one’s nut pain.
“That makes sense,” he said.