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What Do Boys At School Think It Means To Be A Man?

People have short memories. I find, the routines and rhythms of schools are so strong it’s a wonder people remember anything; there is little time for reflection.

Not long ago, I was scheduled to deliver a whole-school assembly. This was a chance for me to make an impact and challenge the pupil body in a recently-gone-co-educational school where the majority of pupils are boys.

During the week before my assembly, I put up posters of distinctive men (David Beckham, Barack Obama, Sonny Bill Williams, Jay Z etc) with a simple question above each picture: ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ The call to action underneath: ‘If you have an answer, tell Mr. D’Souza.’

I got a range of answers from across age groups, from ‘having a penis’ and ‘a beard’ through to ‘manners’ and ‘not showing weakness’.

So when I stood at the front of the hall to address the whole school, the pupil body already had some kind of awareness.

I had written and rehearsed something in advance (reproduced below) so I had the flexibility to respond to my audience. However, I also wanted to create engagement, which is a challenge with an audience ranging from 11 to 18 (and staff).

I did this by asking a question – not a rhetorical question, an actual question – of my audience. What happened is written below.


Good morning. For those of you that don’t know, my name is Mr. D’Souza. I teach Business Studies and Psychology, and I’m one of the Heads of Sixth Form. I’m here to do three things: 1 – ask you a question; 2 – give you some facts, and 3 – suggest how the future could be and invite you to take action.

So firstly, here’s the question I’m asking you: What does it mean to be a man?


That was a question. I’m asking you a question. What does it mean to be a man?

(I continue to wait, there’s more silence, shuffling, awkwardness rises, a teacher points across the room, but I think he’s raising his hand… I look across and a Year 13 pupil is brave enough to raise his hand.)

Me: Yes – what does it mean to be a man?

Pupil brave enough to put up his hand: Sorry can you repeat the question?

(Ripple of chuckling from whole school; awkwardness dissipates.)

Me: What does it mean to be a man?

Pupil: Being brave enough to give an answer in assembly.

(Audience starts clapping, I smile, and after the seal is broken, there are another three answers.)

Me: You may have seen my posters around school. I got some other answers that were either stating facts or pointing to stereotypes. For example, beyond the obvious biological facts, some people said having a beard means I’m a man, or having manners means I’m a man.

Someone else told me that ‘not showing weakness’ is what it means to be a man. Others said ‘taking care of the people around you’, ‘having lots of money, ‘women and fast cars’, ‘having a six-pack’ or ‘being a man is different from being manly’, or even ‘we can’t or don’t talk about feelings’.

I went to a grammar school down the road. When I was there, being clever didn’t seem as important as being strong and good at sport. I was the small round kid who tried really hard but was a bit rubbish. I decided as a young boy that being a man meant being strong – a very fixed idea.

In response to that fixed idea, I spent most of my life being a rebel against this fixed idea. Keep this in mind…

Here’s my second point: Some facts…

  1. two thirds of murder victims in the UK are men
  2. the biggest single killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide

I’m not saying that there aren’t horrible things happening to women because of men. There is still inequality between men and women, and we need to eliminate that.

What I’m saying is that the fixed ideas we have about what it means to be a man squash and limit men and boys. These expectations can make it harder to talk about how we feel. It’s not that we can’t; it’s not that we don’t want to; it’s just hard not to bow to the stereotype.

Twelve men take their lives every day in the UK. I have three friends whose dads committed suicide. One of them is my best friend Simon. He was best man at my wedding and I’m going to be best man at his. We were 19 when his dad took his own life. We all ‘kind of’ knew. But none of us spoke about it, or asked him how he was. He’s ok now and I said to him that I want to talk about his dad when I give my best man’s speech at the wedding. He’s said he would really like that.

However, what’s predictable is that us boys and men will keep the walls up. Men in power will keep the stereotype going: Show no weakness, don’t discuss feelings, fight war.

This leads me to my third point – the future – maybe it doesn’t have to be this way.

Perhaps we could start asking our friends, dads and grandads how they are – not the obvious way – but how they *really* are. Maybe we could start sharing honestly about how we’re feeling. Maybe we could stop saying phrases like ‘man up’ or insulting weakness.

Remember what I said before about my fixed idea about what it means to be a man? That fixed idea is what I’ve rebelled against for most of my life.

Maybe being a man is not fixed. Maybe I could take all the best bits from my dad, choose my own role-models, and make up my own version of what it means to be man.

So my invitation to you is to smash the stereotype; create your own version of what it means to be a man.

This article was originally posted on James’ blog, Jesus Is My Homeboy, and is reproduced here with his permission.

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