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Film prompts discussion about male teen needs

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Wednesday June 06, 2001

Some 500 parents and youth from Berkeley and beyond turned out for a screening of “Boys Will Be Men,” a film dealing with the difficulties of growing up male in America, at the Longfellow Middle School auditorium Monday night. 

The latest film by Berkeley filmmaker Tom Weidlinger, “Boys Will Be Men” premiered in San Francisco two weeks ago. Monday night’s screening was organized by the Berkeley PTA Council in response to what PTA member Cynthia Papermaster called “the deep need and  

yearning in our community to deal with these issues.” 

Papermaster said the prevalence of bullying, homophobia and outright violence at Berkeley Schools has reached a level where parents are desperately seeking explanations and solutions such as the ones offered in the film. 

“Boys Will Be Men” begins with experts describing how boys are often taught to be “tough” and to internalize emotions and feelings. The result, one expert argues, is that boys learn to express themselves by acting out rather than by verbalizing feelings as girls might do. 

In a line that drew laughter from the audience, the experts said boys spend their first years in school thinking to themselves “What is this place called school? It is a place run by women for girls and boys always getting into trouble.” 

The film visits a Berkeley elementary school teacher struggling to prevent hyperactive boys from becoming alienated at a school that seems designed for them to fail. Boys may have different needs than girls, but if they fail to keep up academically they risk developing an “achievement gap” that could haunt them for the rest of their lives, the teacher argues. 

Turning to adolescent boys – boys one expert describes as “tough, stoic and ready to fight at a moment’s notice” – the film follows a group of troubled teens through a wilderness program in Idaho.  

Working together to overcome a series of obstacles, the boys get a taste of pride and self-worth unlike anything they’ve experienced before. Before the ever-present eye of the camera they can be seen withdrawing from their shells of cynicism, becoming increasingly comfortable with sharing their feelings. 

“It’s an emotional experience to see those boys be inspired; kids that potentially would have so much trouble,” said Berkeley parent Craig McCaleb after the screening. 

The film offers “a wonderful explanation for how our little boys become the difficult teenagers they are,” said Berkeley parent Bill Tennant. 

In 25 years of making films for public television, Weidlinger said he’s “never seen a more immediate and universally positive reaction to one of (his) films” than the reaction to “Boys Will Be Men” in recent weeks. 

The film is scheduled air in more than 50 percent of the nations public television markets, Weidlinger said. It will air on KQED June 17 at noon. But Weidlinger said he hoped other communities would follow the Berkeley example and use the film to spark discussions and even reforms. 

After the screening Monday, the audience divided up into groups to discuss issues of male socialization in Berkeley elementary and middle schools and at Berkeley High, where incidents of violence have led to beefed-up security in recent months. 

Several in the audience asked if it wouldn’t be possible for schools to provide male youth with more of the self-esteem building activities depicted in the film. 

“Filling these kids up with knowledge isn’t enough,” McCaleb said. “(Teacher) training has to be more than the ABCs. Like it or not, teachers are thrust into this role, and they need to be trained.” 

As Weidlinger put it, “If you just punish kids for acting out, it’s really not solving the problem for them. If you don’t have kids comfortable with themselves, then that almost becomes a block to learning.”  

In a political climate that places increasing emphasis on standardized testing as a measure of school success, however, there may be even less time allotted for programs that address issues of socialization, Weidlinger warned. 

“The kind of initiatives that I’m talking about, which are less measurable in terms of test scores, may be a casualty,” he said.  

Javanne Strong, program manager for the Berkeley Unified School District’s Drug and Violence Prevention office, said the district is in the process of implementing a violence prevention program recently called “exemplary” by a U.S. Department of Education panel of experts. Many Berkeley teachers have already integrated the so called “Second Step” curriculum into regular classes, he added. 

Strong said the Second Step program trains teachers – and parents who want to become involved – to help kids confront and manage their emotions. Students are given a common vocabulary to help them discuss their feelings with teachers and with one another, Strong said. Through role playing, they learn appropriate and inappropriate ways to express anger and other difficult emotions in the context of school. 

Still, some in the audience Monday said parents face competing pressures that make it difficult to know what to teach their sons. They want their sons to be tough enough to face the inevitable bullying and competition they face in school, they said. But they don’t want to drive their children to become bullies themselves. 

“It’s such a hard thing to conquer,” said Michelle McMillan-Wilson, the parent of a three year old son and a social worker with the Alameda County office of Child Protective Services.  

“You don’t want to send them to school not prepared to deal with other kids, but you want to teach him that it’s OK to cry.”