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What to Make of Boys?

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A new program focuses on who boys are by nature and who they become by nurture.

by Romel Hernandez

The BAM!boys bound into the school office, bursting with energy and excitement, gabbing a mile a minute.

The 11 boys, all of them fifth graders, are told to quiet down and listen up as they plop down on oversized beanbags. There’s something important, something strange and scary, they need to know about. 

A monster is lurking in the basement of the school building. Just yesterday, a grown-up went down to investigate and never returned. A few of the boys smirk at the story, but everyone’s listening intently.

The boys are to go on an adventure down in the bowels of the school to drive away the monster. The catch is, the monster kills anybody who gazes at it directly or who dares to explore alone. So the boys need to be blindfolded, hold onto each other to move as one, and work as a team as they venture into the basement to do battle with the murderous creature.

Are they ready? Are you kidding?

The spooky haunted-house game is actually part of a support-group program called BAM!–Boys Advocacy and Mentoring–developed by Peter Mortola, associate professor of counseling psychology in the graduate school, and his two partners, Stephen Grant, a school counselor and social worker, and Howard Hiton, a licensed professional counselor.

Mortola believes that modern society has overlooked the emotional and social needs of boys as they are growing up. He says that boys’ natural openness and curiosity are stymied by society’s expectations of how they’re supposed to be. As they reach adolescence, boys start posturing–trying to act tough or cool. They shut down emotionally. They grow alienated. As men, they lose touch with themselves and struggle in relationships.

“A lot of boys are suffering–socially, emotionally, academically,” Mortola says. “I just don’t think we understand boys very well.”

While some programs have been developed to empower young girls, Mortola says, few options exist to address the unique needs of boys. A report called “Connecting with Boys” by the Search Institute, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to youth issues, finds that “boys may need to be challenged with opportunities that help them develop relationship skills, nurture their inner life of values, and foster a sense of caring and service to others.”

Mortola’s own interest in boys’ issues was informed by growing up male, of course, and also by his later experiences working as a schoolteacher and counselor.

“I kept running into pretty troubled boys,” he says. Seeing data showing that boys have more difficulties in school piqued his interest further: “I wanted to understand more about the problem and how to address it.”

In 2003, Mortola teamed up with Grant and Hiton, who share his professional interests, to create a new program focusing on boys. Together, they bring 30 years of experience to the endeavor. Together, separately, and with other colleagues, the trio have led more than 30 BAM! programs for boys and nearly a dozen training sessions for educators and counselors in Portland Public Schools and other Portland-area districts. They hope to see BAM! programs sprout up in schools and communities across the country.

Drawing on their firsthand experiences in working with boys, Mortola, Grant, and Hiton penned and self-published a BAM! guidebook for group leaders. The book has since garnered the attention of Routledge press, which will publish it later this year.

There appears to be an audience for what they have to offer, judging from the crowd at a recent Washington State School Counselors Association conference, at which more than 80 professionals, men and women, jammed a room to learn about BAM! from Mortola and his colleagues.

“There is a tremendous need for places for boys to explore who they are–outside the box,” says Lois Orner, director of family and youth services at Portland Impact, a nonprofit social service organization.

“Over and over again, I heard stories from moms and dads who felt their sons weren’t fitting in,” says Orner, who first introduced Mortola, Grant, and Hiton because she thought they would work well together. “There has been a movement to give girls the opportunity to really take a look at themselves and to get empowered, and boys need to have that same opportunity. That’s why BAM! is such a great curriculum and meets such a need.”

As they grow up, boys are frequently told how not to behave, Mortola says. He and his colleagues created BAM! to give boys the tools they need to become “emotionally literate and relationally competent.”

BAM! is designed for boys in preadolescence, an in-between time when boys retain their starry-eyed sweetness but are increasingly aware of the social pressures and demands of manhood. The guidebook lays out the program’s philosophy and offers detailed how-to instructions for running a boys’ group.

The 10-week program is built on a foundation of strategic storytelling, in which adult group leaders share their personal struggles in an effort to encourage boys to relate their own stories. Mortola, for example, tells the boys he was once known as the “strikeout king” of his Little League team. He relates how he burst into tears of frustration when his would-be home run was instead called foul. The purpose of the story is to help boys see that it’s okay for them to feel and express a wide range of emotions.

The BAM! groups also undertake physical, sometimes scary, challenges, such as “trust falling,” in which the boys take turns falling backward into the outstretched arms of their fellow participants; taking a hike up a “mountain” during which they have to work cooperatively to avoid an ogre’s traps along the way; and the haunted-house adventure. The challenges teach the boys that they can trust one another and that they can work together to accomplish a task.

“They learn they can have an experience with boys that is different,” Mortola says. “They can talk about things they haven’t been able to talk about and feel things they haven’t been able to feel.”

With a neat soul patch on his chin and a glint in his eye, Mortola projects the image of the hip schoolteacher he used to be. A California native, he received his undergraduate degree in humanities from the University of California at Berkeley and then taught and coached at private secondary schools, including an all-boys school in Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate in educational psychology in 1998 from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The father of a 2-year-old son, Mortola says seeing his child’s fascination with cars and trucks and anything with wheels has “made me much more curious” about the innate differences between males and females. To be sure, there is a balance between nature and nurture, he says, “but when I had a son, the biological particularities of being a boy really became clear to me.”

The BAM! creators have encountered some criticism from various quarters–that they are reinforcing societal stereotypes by creating cocky young males, or, alternatively, that they are sissifying boys. Mortola says he was once asked by a parent whether he was trying to turn his son gay. “We’re not reinforcing patriarchy or turning boys into girls,” Mortola says. “We’re trying to broaden boys’ emotional and behavioral repertoire.”

Boys are more likely to be seen as problems by society, Mortola says, which explains why they are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, and why they are disproportionately represented in special education. Boys may be more physical than girls, but that doesn’t mean they are bad. BAM! accepts them as they are, “using their energy in a powerful, focused way,” Mortola says, to show them how to become well-balanced men.

Back in the school monster’s basement lair, the BAM! boys are fumbling around, each holding the shoulder of the boy in front of him. They step over dead animals (actually baseball gloves) scattered across the floor and try to ignore the howling and growling they hear around them. They know the only way to make the monster flee is to join hands in a circle and chant in unison–and when they do, the feeling is powerful.

The monster shrieks and bangs the door on its way out of the building. The boys rip off their blindfolds and celebrate their victory.

Afterward, the boys share their feelings about the make-believe experience. One participant, a soft-spoken boy named Kurt, speaks up: “In the basement, I was cut off for a while and it was kind of sc–“The boy is prompted to finish what he was going to say.

“Kinda scary.” The other boys start to chime in, admitting they were scared, too. Kurt is commended for having the courage to say what everyone else was secretly feeling.

“He wasn’t shamed for acknowledging his experience–that he felt vulnerable and scared,” Mortola says, explaining the point of the exercise. “The boys were able to bring out a part of themselves that they wouldn’t normally show.”

Over the course of the 10 weekly BAM! sessions, the boys come to share many such moments and develop close bonds with each other. They get to know each other by taking on nicknames–“Peacock Paul” is a chatty and flamboyant boy with beaded braids in his hair; “Dirtbikin’ Drake” enjoys cycling; “Sleepin’ Sorin” likes to take naps. Even the adults get new monikers, with Mortola becoming “Pickin’ Peter” because he plays guitar.

The boys discuss topics like how a boy is supposed to be (“tough,” “fast,” “fearless,” “no emotions”) or reasons they have been teased (“being weak,” “being too smart,” “making mistakes in sports,” “having a weak stomach”). They also talk about parts of themselves that don’t fit standard definitions of how boys should be (“I’d rather hang out with girls,” “I like to wear bright colors,” “This probably sounds weird, but I like to clean the house.”)

In one exercise, the boys pick out photographs that represent how they feel. One boy, Jesus, selects a picture of a prickly cactus and shows it to the group.

“I wanna be freaky,” he declares.

“Yeah,” Mortola interjects. “I hope you guys keep freaky. We see 10-year-old boys who start to lose their freakiness and believe they have to become macho men, no feelings, no nothing. And we don’t want you to become that.”

One of the boys starts to wiggle and sing, “I want to be–a macho man!”

Without missing a beat, Mortola answers, “Yeah, it’s better to sing and dance it than to actually be it.”

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.

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