Friday, May 25, 2007

Girls and Boys

Way back in the mid seventies, when I was five, I had a best friend - a boy called Michael. My most exciting play-mate - we were spies with walkie talkies, we parachuted little toys out of his bedroom window, we filched cup cakes from the freezer and de-frosted them in the sun. Michael’s family were American – lovely people. Their home was relaxed and easy to be in. His dad was an academic – some kind of researcher in computing. He was one of the few dads of my acquaintance that didn’t scare me – he spoke so softly, with a strong accent.
“Keep your bikes on the sidewalk, kids.”
His mum was studying part-time and loved to garden. He had a big sister who was quiet and studious.

One day when my brother had dropped me off at first school (like infants with an extra year) I found that it was closed because of a boiler emergency. I was seven or eight years old. With trepidation I crossed back to the middle school to look for my brother – but the kids had all gone inside. I was too scared to walk into the big school, so I was stuck. My mum was at work – half an hour walk away, across big roads. With a wobbly lip and enormous butterflies I decided that I’d go to Michael’s house – just a couple of minutes walk. I couldn’t reach to open his back gate, so I went up to the front door. It had a bell-pull – a round brass knob that you pulled and then pushed back. When Michael’s mum opened the door I was so relieved I burst into tears. She led me inside saying, over and over, “you did the right thing, you did the right thing.” She made me welcome and Michael and I played all day.

I never had an issue with the fact that Michael was a boy. I had two brothers at home – one of them my closest sibling in age – as well as boy cousins. Michael was sparky – in fact he had the kind of startlingly fast and analytical mind that causes many adults discomfort. In the playground at school we played Underground City and he developed an outdoor version of a computer game he had designed with his dad – called ‘Hunt the Wumpus’. Sometimes the dinner ladies would blow the whistle and we all stood still. They’d say that the boys were all being too rough and take Michael away to line up against the wall with the other boys. I was outraged on his behalf. When I tried to talk to the dinnerladies they’d just send me away to play with the girls.

Our friendship lasted all through first school without too much trouble. But once we were in middle school it got harder and harder. If we played together there were taunts from all directions, “he your boyfriend, then?” And it was constant. I found it unbearable – humiliating and inappropriate. So, I played with him less. He was lonely and pretty miserable, I think. Most of the other boys played football. I played with girls, which was fun – but I missed Michael. Then he went away to France for a year.

When Michael came back I was almost eleven. We still had two more years at middle school. We didn’t really play together at all any more. But we were both told that we would be going to ‘Middle Schools’ Orchestra’ – once a week, after school. I don’t remember making an arrangement, but Michael and I would leave school separately and meet up a few streets away. We’d walk down to orchestra together, go our separate ways (him to the percussion section and me to woodwind) and then casually meet up again afterwards. Michael told me to bring some money one week and introduced me to the joys of a chilli burger at a new burger place nearby. It was a good time. Then one day our class teacher announced to the class, with glee,
“I saw Annalie and Michael out together last night…”
“Whooo! Oooh… He your boyfriend, then??”
We were eleven. He was one of my oldest friends but I felt that everyone was determined that this should not and could not be so.

Soon we were at secondary school together. After a year or two the pressure to ‘get a boyfriend’ was intense. Who was the only boy I really liked? So, Michael and I ‘went out’ – not a great success! Another blow to our friendship – it was embarrassing to be around each other for a while.

Eventually, at about sixteen, we ended up in the same social group. In this big, mixed group we could actually be friends again. It was good to talk to him. He had a great sense of humour and a lot of talents. We used to go round to his house when the summer fruit came in and eat his family’s raspberry and redcurrant harvest, piled up on French crepes that Michael had learned to make in Brittany.

Michael went off to Cambridge, a doctorate at Oxford and now he works for Microsoft in Silicon Valley. I went to Leeds Uni, came back to Brighton and never left again.

Michael was a great friend. I am glad that we had a chance to re-kindle our friendship in our sixth form years but I wish we’d been free to let that friendship grow and develop throughout our childhood. If Michael had been a girl then I think we would have been given that freedom.

I don’t find it cute or funny when children barely out of nappies are referred to as ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’. I don’t like the ‘jokes’ and teasing. Quite apart from the assumptions being made about those children’s future gender identities and sexualities – it gives the message that there can be no real friendship between boys and girls, and so, presumably, men and women. That is certainly the message that I received (loud and clear) in my childhood. It also implies that the most significant fact about a person is their gender and helps to re-inforce a simplistic, rigid gender model. I don’t think that does anyone any favours – and for some children it is positively painful.

In our family we are noticing that the home educated children we know are not as rigidly divided on gender lines. Pearl, in particular, is not being harassed out of her friendships with boys. She is happy up a tree or swinging on a bush with a group of boys or girls – and often her group is mixed. That is good to see. I really hope that she continues to have that space and keeps the freedom to define her own relationships, rather than being pushed into someone else’s idea of reality.

28 comments:

Liza said...

I totally 100% agree with that post.
I hate when tiny children are teased for being friends with a child of the opposite sex.
When Andrew started nursery the staff there did it all the time, there were always comments like "oooh is she your girlfriend" made when Andrew would choose to sit beside a friend who happened to be a girl at story time or circle time.
It put him off being friends with girls for a while, untill he started school and became very good friends with a little girl in his class. but that eventually fizzled out too when people - children and adults, kept teasing them about their friendship.
Its so sad that they can't just be left alone to develop friendships with whoever they chose regardless of gender :(

Anonymous said...

oh allie i read that whole piece with mounting dread thinking that something really bad must have happened to michael, because that's why people write elegiac pieces about childhood friends...

was so relieved at the end to find he was ok !

love,fiona ( taking things too seriously as usual )

Beth: said...

This is such a good post -- essay, really. Good enough to publish somewhere.

jax said...

I'm with Fiona, I was expecting a disaster too!

I don't understand why ppl try to fix children into gender roles so firmly. I have noticed that my children gravitate to friends of the same gender at many times, but it's by no means exclusive. Big's best friend from her first nursery was a boy called Alex, and they were inseparable. Small will cheerfully play with little girls as well as little boys, and I hope that they will keep that up. His list of friends for his birthday party includes both.

Gill said...

Great post Allie - very thought provoking! I preferred playing with boys in infants school and had been 'socialised' out of it by junior school. I remember feeling confused and outraged, but then just inured to it, as to so much else.

Thomas said...

Wow. Following on from Gill's comment, this is a good example of what's wrong with school socialization.

Both different age and opposite sex friendships are effectively precluded, reducing the pool of potential friends by 93%

If we take limited school catchment areas into account, no doubt the pool is further reduced.

'EF' said...

My best chums were boys when I was little, but this was out of school. I always found boys a lot more interesting to be friends with as a kid because they talked about interesting things (erm..am not sure I still feel the same way lol) but often friendships with boys were kept secret in school because of the merciless taunting.

It got too much for me in junior school and that is why I chose to study for the 11 plus - I just had to get into an all girls school and away from the taunting. It was a relief to be in an all girls school because it removed the hellish taunting about girlfriends and boyfriends, and it was a much more studious atmosphere. Friendships with boys change once they get into the age where girls are all over them....I think in lots of ways boys feel forced to play the 'boyfriend' role before they are ready.

I do believe that it is a total myth that boys become rabid in teenage years and only after 'one thing'..from what I know, boys blossom into men over a very long period..they are shy, sensitive and only become mature in their early thirties...am I completely mad? LOL.

The way the yoof-culture is and all this concentrating on boyfriends and girlfriends is really wierd I think...and when I was a kid, the age that a person was supposed to get romantic differed from area to area. i grew up in North London/South Middlesex for a while, and there we didn't hear talk of girlfriend/boyfriend until about 14-15. When I moved to B'ham I was totally shocked that kids as young as 9 were supposed to be having boyfriends/girlfriends in the playgrounds.

Personally, I think the early teen years are a time of wonder...and this is spoilt by too much attention to romantic relations between girls and boys...they simply are not ready for it and I don't know wat they think they are playing at. (LOL..*what* I am going on about am not quite sure..bear with please)

Quite a few of my daughters meeting of mind relationships with boys have been totally destroyed by schooled kids taunting. It is embarrassing to be trying to have a relationship when all around people are taking the mickey..why do people do this?

Also, when I was a girl..I could never play those sickening girly games with dolls and all that that the girl flocks did..boys were into interesting things like inventing and science. Perhaps a lot of girls were afraid or unallowed to be less 'girly' I dunno. Were they taunting me cos I was able to jump out the box I wonder? Or were they taunting me cos I was closer to the boys then they ever could be?

I cringe when I see young teenage girls literally throwing themselves at the slightly un-nerved boys...at some point a lot of girls think their only link with boys can be through sexual attraction. That's v. sad.

Hope I haven't rambled too long...this post really made me think.

Luke said...

Yeah, I got that too when I was in 2nd grade...parent's and siblings seem to think that it's funny, but it's painful, really. I hate gender roles >.<

Joel said...

I notice the same thing in our home education group. Most of the playground BS is absent (aside from the fun and playing)

Anonymous said...

I'm 21 and still get harassed like this by my family when I talk about friends that are girls...and even though it happens rather frequently to me, I've never thought about it in this way.

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

My education up to this point has been a mixed bag of moving from school to school and different levels of teasing at each hop, but I only remember being teased about "liking" (a silly crush in fifth grade) one girl. Middle school and on was a different level of awkward social elements of a different sort.

But I did have a different experience than has been mentioned here in first grade, when I had that kindergarten crush with someone tomboyish enough to actually hang out with me. Then I moved away after first grade and the next thing I knew my most awkward year of second grade I had a totally mixed bag of friends in the area of differing levels. But at one point in that fuzzily remembered year I have a memory of playing with girly toys in a room full of girls at one point, and I'm sure I spent more time with that group elsewhere. I didn't have much of the teasing of others in regards to the girl/boy cootie dynamic in those years though, and they never really came back.

There is, however, that weird pre-pubescent period of late elementary and early middle school where that is a still a part of most people's experience. Emotionally, at least, girls reach a point of interest long before guys, and the early-blooming (in both ways), confident guys will often make use of that become the playboy high school student. As someone who is still younger than twenty, I think teasing about it has lessened, largely due to the PC, anti-bullying movement. And yet I hear bad things about the middle school my little brother is about to enter...

(Disclaimer under anonymity: I am a bi guy who has had support from his bi parents about all of these issues for longer than I even realized, so I'm a special case in a lot of ways.)

ted said...

"hunt the wumpus" is a very famous and classic unix program. glad to know that the family of its invertor were cool people know!

Anonymous said...

Microsoft isn't in Silicon Valley ;-)
Make sure when you go to visit him, you go to Redmond and not San Jose.

(I'm not trying to be a dick -- it was a good post!)

Anonymous said...

to 'EF'

I would be one of the mature men in his thirties, of whom you speak. And, I assure you that at a level, it is certainly true that when boys hit their teens that they do crazy and have "only one thing on their minds".
(Actually, that is only part of the picture, and they have a billion things on their minds really.)
The teen years of myself and all of my male friends were very similair in that respect.

But, this should not be seen as a bad thing. Its just part of the process of young manhood, and as such, is a beautiful thing.

:)

MSFTGirl said...

Microsoft isn't in Silicon Valley ;-)

Actually, Microsoft does have offices in Silicon Valley. They are in Mountain View, CA.

Thanks for the wonderful piece on friendship :)

Anonymous said...

Wow...beautiful post! I got here from reddit.com because I was curious. I'm glad I read it! Thanks, now I'm gonna forward this page to everyone. What you write about is sooo true! I'm a guy (26) and I can totally relate to it. I had lots of female friends growing up and I was always scared discussing things about my friends at home because I knew it would lead to taunting. I will definately not do it with my kids!

Anonymous said...

Hmm, not sure how childhood friendships work. But I read somewhere that after a certain age, a man and a woman cannot become best friends unless one finds the other unattractive. That is certainly the case with a friend I made in my 20s. My girlfriend has a best friend who's a guy, but I've never really asked her about him.

Anonymous said...

A really nice read, but you seem to be a bit hypersensitive. Kids tease other kids all the time (although your teacher shouldn't), and it is a bit silly to get upset about it. As a kid, I was surrounded by girls, so had lots of girl friends who I would play with. I think it helped when I was a bit older, being able to talk to girls, whereas a lot of my friends still have difficulties.

Anonymous said...

Yeah... I can empathise with this. About two years ago, my best friend was a girl, and we were teased mercilessly. After a while, we just gave up and became "boyfriend and girlfriend", despite neither of us feeling any sexual attraction towards eachother. Fairly easy to guess how that went.

I only talk to her on computers now...

Allie said...

Blimey, where'd you lot all come from?? Thanks for all the comments - interesting to hear people's experiences.

The last anonymous says I'm 'hypersensitive' - perhaps I should make it clear that I have no trouble being friends with men now! But what I felt when I was eight or nine was just what I felt, silly or not.

Lex said...

story of my life i say .. this has happened with me too, and it was all really ridiculous

Anonymous said...

I'd like to say that it's a *great* post and so true. What I think is incredibly stupid is that at school (I'm 14 now) people will bag you over anything to do with girls even though they themselves have "girl friends" (I believe that having a gf at my age is just stupid and they rarely like each other). I'd like to say more but it's sort of hard to put into words but it's stuff like that this that causes me to think about how ridiculous all this is.

Anonymous said...

Failure to submit to groupthink is a serious crime.

sarvamitran said...

I think good friends can learn to brush off the teasing with time. The interest in teasing someone drops off quickly when he/she does not take notice.

sarvamitran said...

But I'm from India where there is no pressure at all to find a girlfriend/boyfriend, so I may be underestimating the level of teasing you went through.

Allie said...

OK, his dad didn't design 'Hunt the Wumpus' - my mistake. But he did know and play it (this would have been 1975/6) so maybe his dad had crossed paths with the designer. No idea how many computer boffins there were in the mid seventies...

Elaine said...

Your story brings to mind my two older daughters teen years . The oldest when she entered her teens palled up with a lad and they did everything together , they were like siblings and even though she had girlfriends it was Richard who was her 'best friend' the friendship came to and end when she met her husband to be, because he couldn't accept the friendship otherwise I am sure they would still be friends.
Second daughter entered her teens and the same happened she palled up with Danny and they had great times as friends till she moved up to Scotland and they still keep in touch.
Both girls are totally different personalities and the age gap meant one was out of her teens before the next one entered them.
Neither of them went through the teenybopper stage that I did with the boy crushes and David Cassidy/ John Denver worship, but both went straight into partnerships that have lasted, oldest for 13yrs and counting and middle now entering it's 7th year.
It will be interesting to see what friendships JR forms.

gracaa said...

Dear Fiona,

It was absolutely lovely to have had the chance of reading your "boy/girl friendship"post. It really took me to times long past when things were 'real' and not the fakes everyone lives today. I am 66 year old man now, but I remember, with a lot of awe, one of the first friends I had. I was 9 and she 11. Rosalia was the most sweet friend I had till two years after her family emigrated to Brasil ( I live in Portugal) and I never ever heard of her any more. But the sweet memories of her friendship still linger...