Category: Identity


So, one thing that is guaranteed to send me into a hulk-like rampage is a bit of casual everyday sexism.  In either direction, I bloody hate it. Why do we put ourselves into little boxes of who is more capable of doing what based on what’s in our pants? Anyway, just for you lucky, lucky people,  I’ve built up a few little quotes that have made me wince recently, finishing with what we will call ‘the canal calamity’, which tipped me over the edge this week.

  1. ‘Oh, the men are going to sit in the living room’ – OK, it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it bugs me. I’ve been at many parties (both family and friends) where, at some point during the evening, we’re expected to split off into our genders. Why? I don’t want to sit with the men! I want to talk to everyone! Is this a party or some sort of cult?
  2. ‘Is that a girl bracelet?’ – No. it’s just a bracelet. From Topman.
  3. ‘Boys, boys, boys’ – anonymous and lovely family member says with mock-disgust to tease my 3 year old male cousin. Yes, she’s joking and there’s certainly no malice, but it happens often and prompts him to retaliate with ‘girls, girls, girls’. I know they’re playing, but I think it sets up an unnecessary divide in his thinking.
  4. ‘Oh and for God’s sake don’t be one of these teachers who let’s boys dress up as girls’. Thanks for that advice, anonymous-family member number 2 but I think I’ll ignore that comment. I was talking about setting up a fancy dress area in my classroom with a variety of costumes for the children to try. I don’t know why a boy wearing a dress seems to be the stuff of nighmares for people of a certain generation, particularly as the person making the comment is never going to step foot in my classroom, so this was pretty enraging. No mention of girls dressing as boys either. I assume that’s allowed but boys lowering themselves into any shade of femininity is clearly too awful.
  5. ‘Girls books here, boys books there’ – Oh, this was a good one. Picture the scene. Summer School, 2016. I was helping out in a rural school, organising activities for a handful of children during the school holidays. Passing through the library one day I was bloody horrified to see someone had taken the trouble of organising ALL of the books into a *shudders* colour co-ordinated and clearly labelled girls and boys shelves. Absolutely hideous. Just let the children choose which books they want to read! Fostering a passion for reading is far more important than boxing them up and controlling what they read. Needless to say, I’ve not darkened their doorway again.
  6. ‘You’ll be alright, Sweetheart. You’ve got a man on board.’ – A bunch of us hired a canal boat for a pleasant trip through Llangollen and over the aqueduct. Captain S, experienced, award winning sailor was in charge of the whole business (as the rest of us were ensuring we drank all of the prosecco, in case the weight of the bottles caused the boat to sink.) At one point, I could hear Captain S having the whole driving process explained to her by a bloke who was walking along side the canal. When I popped my head above deck to see who this mansplainer was, he actually said the above line to Captain S. Little did he know that I didn’t have a clue how to drive the thing, and Captain S was a pro. Yes, I have a penis. Doesn’t mean I can drive a boat.
  7. ‘You’ve got a man with you!’ – To add insult to injury it happened again! We’d just travelled over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and we were mooring up to have some food. Two of my friends (female, for the sake of this story), were hammering in a peg and a ridiculous bloke with a stupid hat and a fag in his mouth sailed past and said ‘You’ve got a man there, ladies!’ in a way that suggested I should be the one using the hammer. I’d already had my go on the other peg! We’re all capable of using a sodding hammer. Look, we can all raise two fingers up to you too. Thankfully, my friends resisted the urge to launch the hammer at his ignorant face.

So that’s the latest rant from RebelliousG. One sure way to fire me up is to assume myself or my friends are incapable (or more capable) of doing something just because of our gender. So stop it.

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Image result for everybody's talking about jamieLimited Edition. Thursday night special. I headed down to my favourite local theatre to catch the one-off live screening of Everybody’s talking about Jamie. I knew very little about the show beforehand. I’d seen the cast perform at West End Live and thought they were very good but, whilst I appreciated the music I had heard,  I couldn’t help but feel this show wasn’t going to be my thing. I know. I’m full of shame for judging it but I think it’s important to admit my preconceptions because….I was bloody wrong.

Everybody’s talking about Jamie was fantastic.  A lively, hilarious, sucker-punch of a show that struts its stuff unapologetically for a glorious two and half hours. The script, by Tom Macrae, is one of the best in the musical theatre I have heard. Witty, sharp, full of acerbic lines from Jamie, but never in a way that is too forced. The way the characters interact always feels very natural and nothing ever seems cringey or false. It’s refreshing to see a modern, original musical where the characters don’t use plummy RP or grating false american accents. This is Sheffiled! The setting brings the production down to the earth, but makes it no less fabulous.

John McCrea is an absolute star in the title role, serving up sass, high kicks and prom queen realness. Jamie’s pain at being rejected by his (bastard) father (played by Ken Christiansen) is palpable, and the fall out from his Dad’s criticism is devastating. Christiansen is also brilliant within his role as Jamie’s homophobic, anti-drag father who struggles to accept his son for who he is. We all know a ‘Jamie’s Dad’, unfortunately, and Christiansen portrays the tough role well. Jamie’s mum is played by Josie Walker, who wins the audience over from the moment she sets foot on stage. Anyone who didn’t have a tiny tear (and wish there mother would sing about them like that!), during ‘He’s my boy’ is made of pure stone. Shobna Gulati also adds glamour and hilarity in the role of Jamie’s alternative parental-figure, and his mum’s best friend, Ray. Lucy Shorthouse plays Jamie’s meek ‘fag hag’, Pritti, to perfection and has a lovely singing voice to boot. The whole cast as an ensemble are something special and you can tell they have worked incredibly hard to build this production into the success it has become.

Dan Gillespie Sells has created one of the best musical theatre scores. Interestingly, each song doesn’t sound like it should be from a stage show. Any one of them could be played on the radio and no one would think any different. From the opening, upbeat earworm, ‘Don’t even know it’, to the heart-breaking, ‘He’s my boy’, Gillespie Sells shows he has a fantastic talent and creates a perfect score for the story.

The message of Jamie is so important. Through its story of drag queens, frustrated teachers, loyal mothers and confused teens, it encourages you to be whoever you want to be – whether that’s a flamboyant drag artist or studious medical student. It’s a vibrant, modern musical that I know the sixteen year old me would have loved. Though I had my doubts, Jamie has strutted its way confidently into my top five and taught me a valuable lesson – I have to get myself to London to see it live.

Jamie is a killer production, with mesmerising choreography, some wicked one-liners and a heart-warming story that urges its audience to get out of the darkness, and into the spotlight. Image result for everybody's talking about jamie

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Home, I’m Darling is a fresh, original play from Laura Wade with all the makings of a classic. Directed by Tamara Harvey, Home, I’m Darling, is funny, thought-provoking and, in parts, quite sinister, and it certainly leaves the audience with plenty to mull over.

Katherine Parkinson plays Judy, a former business woman who has taken voluntary redundancy to spend six months living the life of a fifties housewife. Problems arise when six months turn into three years, and an obsessed Judy is struggling to hide her money woes from her husband, Jonny. As the couple have to choose between living the frugal, fifties life of their dreams or facing their problems in the twenty-first century, they also have to deal with Jonny’s confused feelings for his boss, Alex, and his desperation to get that important promotion. As the plot unfolds, there are plenty of hilarious moments from women uncomfortable in their time. Judy’s mother laments over her own mother’s post-war suspicions, including when a new dairy product came to Britain. (‘My poor mother. Frightened of a yoghurt’). Then, there’s Judy, who has totally lost touch with the present day. (‘People standing in doorways sucking on a biro’.)

Parkinson gives an electric, and poignant, performance as Judy. When we meet her she is the epitome of perfection, serenely cooking breakfast in her gingham palace, before waving her husband off to work with a peck on the cheek. As the story unravels, so does Judy. Near the end of the play she is dishevelled and terrified at the prospect of stepping foot into 2018 (she doesn’t even know what ‘Bake-off’ is!’). Although some might be frustrated at her retreat into this male-dominated world of a fifties housewife, Judy maintains that it is her choice, therefore it is a feminist choice. She is likeable and you can’t help but feel sorry for her as she makes mistake after mistake in a desperate attempt to keep her fantasy alive.

Judy’s friend Fran acts as a mouth-piece for the audience, gently questioning Judy’s choices and even dipping her toe into the fifties pool herself. Fran’s husband Marcus undergoes quite the transformation as he moves from cheeky, ‘huggy’ chappy, to creepy sleezeball. Drysdale gives an excellent performance as Fran, particularly as she is torn between the love for her husband and the allegations set against him. Sian Thomas is striking as Judy’s frustrated, former-hippy mother, Sylvia, who is fraught at the prospect of her daughter living the ‘repressed’ lifestyle she fought against. Sylvia’s monologue about the forgotten drawbacks of the fifties, and the ridiculousness of modern nostalgia from those who weren’t even alive in the era, is particularly fantastic and delivered so passionately and naturally that it is easy for the audience to forget they were watching a scripted performance.

Home, I’m Darling is a rare thing of beauty. There were no stand-out performances, (although Parkinson was, of course, incredible) because every cast member was a joy to watch. Everyone was playing with honesty which led to a very natural and believable production. It’s not just the acting. Everything about it dazzles. Home, I’m Darling opens up many hot topics for debate, from an uncomfortable case of sexual harassment in the workplace, to the reasons behind Judy’s obsessive, almost fetish-like passion for her fifties fantasy, to the grey-area of Jonny’s feelings for Alex.

Home, I’m Darling is a modern think-piece that will leave you chuckling and jiving long after the curtain call.

 

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‘If you’re in the Maldives but all you can think about is the office, you might as well save your money.’

Ruby Wax dropped into Theatre Clwyd last week. We went expecting comedy, and Ruby provided plenty of that, but we also left bolstered by a great sense of positivity, support and intelligent discussion.

The focus of Wax’s latest tour is her most recent book, ‘A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled’. Ruby’s story is an inspiring one. Years of depressive episodes lead to a breakdown several years ago which spurred Ruby on to investigate what makes her brain tick. Having successfully acquired a masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University, Ruby has begun spreading the word of her recovery (though she makes it clear it is very much still a work in progress) and coming to the aid of others.

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As someone who has experienced anxiety since a child, a lot of messages from Wax’s tour (and book) seem to finally put my own frustrating feelings into words. For example, Wax talks about how our brains haven’t caught up with our bodies when it comes to our evolution, and our minds simply can’t cope with the hectic lifestyles we live today. On some level, our minds still work in a primitive state, constantly attending to our survival. She talks about how the endless lists and information from our complex lives clog up our brains, which are exhausted from sorting the useful information from the trivial. As someone who is constantly feeling like they are sprinting on life’s treadmill, sweating away and about to fall off, this makes a lot of sense.

‘We are dropping from exhaustion from no other reason than we are trying to keep up with next guy…..who’s keeping up with the next guy, who’s heading toward a full nervous breakdown.’

Wax talks about social media and its impact on our wellbeing. Though she is openly pro-technology, she emphasises the stress social media puts on our relationships and need to be ‘successful’.

The main message of Wax’s tour and book is to be present. To take time out from our busy schedules to stop and fully experience what is going on around us. At the theatre, Wax gave us some handy tips to help slow our minds down and tune ourselves in to the present moment. Although the Antony Hopkins theatre is quite large, Ruby created an intimate and relaxed atmosphere, openly taking questions form the audience and not being afraid to digress into an anecdote. Ruby likens mindfulness to a muscle in the brain which must be exercised each day in order to reap the benefits. As we left the theatre, there was a feeling of hope and positivity, as many of the audience admitted to experiencing some level of mental illness. Through her unique charisma and personal experiences, Ruby had gently encouraged the audience to keep going and understand that they are not alone. This was more than a comedy show, as we left armed with plenty of food for thought and a clearer idea of what mindfulness is all about.

It’s Wales Comic Con season – one of my favourite times of year. Unusually for Wales, it’s a glorious day, which makes the always-cheery Comic Con atmosphere even more potent.

We’re lucky to have such a positive event in Wrexham, especially one that celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. For such a special occasion the organisers had pulled out all the stops to attract some huge names (Val Kilmer, Hayley Atwell, Sylvester McCoy to name three). The unfortunate last-minute cancellations which often blight this kind of event did nothing to dampen spirits, and when I arrived on Saturday the excitement was palpable.

When I first started coming to Comic Con about six years ago, I remember I had to queue for 3 hours just to get inside. I’d since become savvy to this and made it a tradition to arrive extra early and enjoy the parade of cosplayers from a spot near the front of the queue. This year I was naively relaxed about the need to queue and, after arriving just after 11am, I joined a queue so long it showed me parts of the Glyndwr Campus I’d never seen before (and I studied there for three years). Despite the mega-queue, there were very few complaints and organisers worked super-hard to get everyone inside in just over an hour. Shout out to all the cosplayers who must have been absolutely sweltering in their heavy costumes (Stormtroopers, Lady Olena Tyrell, Marvin the Martian and Catwoman to name a few!)

The main hall was packed to bursting and I fought my way past superheroes and the odd villain to get to my favourite stall, Goblin Dreams. This is a real gem of a stall which has some truly gorgeous things to offer, especially the handmade mini costumed dragons. This year I bought a beautiful Phantom of the Opera dragon to add to my collection.

One thing that I did notice this year was that due to the huge crowds within the main hall the access for wheelchair users was poor. There may not be much the organisers of WCC can do about this but I did notice a lot of people struggling to move through the hall. It did make me think whether WCC need to reconsider their venue. Glyndwr University is a perfect spot for this event so I wouldn’t suggest moving but perhaps expanding across the campus. Although Welsh weather is never reliable, it was a beautiful day so it would have been nice to see more outdoor events. The heat was so stifling inside the main hall and the vendors tent that it became uncomfortable to stay indoors for too long. It would have been good to see organisers think on their feet and expand into the outdoor spaces.

The crowds and queues, however, just go to show the success and growth of the event over the last ten years. People are travelling from all over the country to Wrexham and that is fantastic. However, it is sad to see the guests capitalising on that growth, as I couldn’t help recalling my first visit, when selfies were free and autographs were averaging at £15. This weekend some guests were charging fans £20 for selfies and £30 for autographs. I suppose they have to make their money somehow! Some of the guests were sat alone when I wandered through, which did make me wonder if people were too scared to talk to them through fear of being charged per word.

Cynical gripes aside, I do really love this event and I am being very picky. I always take away from Comic Con a feeling of safety and community. In recent years there has been a notable increase in police presence but, in my opinion, that is unnecessary as there is never any noticeable trouble (besides with all those Stormtroopers strutting round, there’s no need for police). It’s not just physical safety, but the safety to be whoever the hell you want. You could rock up dressed as a Pikachu and no one would judge. Everyone is welcome and it’s just what our town needs.

 

I’m conscious not to make these posts all about me. I know that that is sort of the point of some blog posts but I do try to steer the content away from myself whenever I can. Trouble is, I am all I know at the moment, so it makes it quite difficult, particularly when I’m in need of a good vent. Blogging is cathartic. Yesterday, I read something that was such a blatant massaging of the writer’s ego that it made me audibly shudder and make noises I was even embarrassed to make in an empty flat. I really hope this blog is never seen as self-indulgent, because that’s not my intention, but for the time being you’ll have to put up with the ramblings about half-written stories, experimental classroom content and rants about EastEnders until my life takes a more adventurous turn.

Anyway, last week was half term. A chance for a much needed recharging of the batteries before it’s full throttle into killer Christmas season (which, of course, I secretly love). By the end of half term my mind was typically racing and I was crawling towards that Friday finish. The problem with this job (and, I’m sure, many other jobs) is that you can never drop the ball. It’s impossible to switch off. I’ve spoken to teachers who say that feeling of unrest doesn’t leave you until well into retirement. You’re constantly feeling like you need to be doing something and the guilt that follows a duvet day is unreal. It’s one thing I’ve struggled with, as I appear to have lost the ability to relax. I was always a bit tightly strung but since starting the PGCE, it’s just been impossible to chill. Even on a Spanish beach, drink in one hand, book in the other, I had to take frequent breaks to go for a walk, check my emails or just do something! It’s relentless. And dangerous. Because, along with every other member of staff and the children, I was ready for a break.

Now for someone who enjoys being active, it’s not necessarily a bad thing (at the moment, but I’m sure in a few years’ time I’ll feel very different). I’m so precious about the time I have ‘off’ that I’ve started making a list of all the things I want to achieve over the holiday (that’s right. I’m setting myself targets. Welcome to the system.) On the list last week was; a blog post, work on a new story, edit an old story and another little project which I’m not going to talk about yet, but have been meaning to do for a long time. All little jobs that I’m sure mean nothing to anyone else but they’re important to me because, as I’ve said before, I’m finding it hard to express myself at this stage in my life, so I wanted to take advantage of the break from work to explore my ideas.

Guess what. Very little of it happened.

It’s frustrating because I know I am to blame. I make the choice. But a contributing factor is the many online distractions. I’ve ranted about the online world before and I don’t want to run at it with a pitchfork because, obviously, it provides a lot of support for people, including myself. It’s bloody hardwork though, when you’ve got an idea, but you can’t quite pin it down because your phone is buzzing, or an email comes through, or you find yourself scrolling through Instagram without even remembering opening the app. I’ve heard interviews about the online world being an addictive space and I believe that is true. I can’t help opening up these apps in the hope that something will interest me or that someone has got in touch, when 9 times out of 10 those things don’t happen. So instead it’s just a big waste of time.  Time where I could have been writing.

I worry that it’s not just my written work that is suffering. I’m craving a book that I can be absorbed into. A world where I can just sink in and forget the real world. I’m a constant reader but, even with something I’m so passionate about, I’ll gladly interrupt my reading to reply to a whatsapp or a snapchat or check my twitter. I hold stories so highly yet I’ll stop to check my phone. What the hell is that all about?

At times I feel like I’m losing the ability to connect. I’ll choose the saddest film, because I want to feel sad. Just to know I’ve felt something. But lately, I’ll find I’m bored after ten minutes and reading old whatsapp messages. I’m desperate for a new TV series that will absorb me and distract me from my smartphone, but after watching introductory episodes of lots of programmes, I just can’t get into anything. I long for the days when I was obsessed with Doctor Who, Torchwood, Lost…..this was about ten years ago when I didn’t have the access to the internet that I have today. I used to just sit and binge and enjoy and feel. I worry that I can’t do that anymore. Nowadays I’m checking Twitter during ad breaks of American Horror Story to see how everyone else feels about the episode. Who cares?

A safe retreat from all this is the theatre. The theatre is different. That is a space where I can immerse myself and I can connect. And, what a coincidence – phones are not permitted.

I’ve heard of people going unplugged and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s a brave thing to do in this era where we’re so dependent on technology but I’m sure it would be good for the mind and the soul. I long for a quiet space, physically or mentally, where I can just sit and think and write and flow, but I’m struggling to see where that would fit into my life at the moment. My goal for next year is to figure it out, express myself and find the time to be unplugged.

It’s that time of the term again. Just a few days left and we’re all slogging away with the last of our energy, dragging ourselves towards Friday (and I include the children in this. We’re all exhausted.). With the end of term being typically hectic, it’s been hard to pin down any kind of thoughts to blog about. However, there is one thing I’ve been thinking about over the last week or so.

Beliefs. What we believe in is important to us. For a lot of people it gets them through their day. Some have more beliefs than others. Some think it causes a lot of problems. Regardless, what we believe in is an important human trait.

In education, we’re expected to be a whitewashed, stripped down version of ourselves. We’re not allowed to appear to have any kind of life outside the classroom at risk of appearing ‘unprofessional’. In most other aspects, this makes me cross, as I think sharing our true selves is part of being a role model of diversity and reality for young children. However, when it comes to religion, I think there’s a thin line we need to tread.

It’s important for us to get the balance right. It’s OK for us to talk about religion, after all it has been around for a very long time and will continue to be around long after any of us have shuffled off, but to impose a view on others is definite no-no. We wouldn’t do it to an adult, so to push a religious view point on a child is to take advantage of their impressionable position.

My Grandad always says ‘Never talk about religion or politics’ and as I’ve grown up I’ve realised this is excellent advice (unfortunately, a couple of times, I’ve learned this the hard way). It’s a road that can easily lead to trouble. Whether we’re the teacher or the parent, we should be opening doors for children, not closing them. Our role is to present the world with an open mind and allow the child to make their choice. We must only educate. There should come a time when each child should be allowed to explore their own thoughts.

Religion can be a fantastic gateway into exploring other cultures and whether you’re Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Agnostic…whatever, it’s a subject that should be respected and used to educate.  I know lots of people who are agnostic but wouldn’t dream of pushing those opinions on the children. I know some people with strong religious beliefs who wouldn’t do so either. I know some people who are less likely to follow that road. There are even more people whose religion I don’t even know because….I don’t need to! It’s a personal choice that doesn’t necessarily need to be worn on a sleeve.

This might seem like a strange stream of consciousness but the position we’re in, as adults, and the way it can effect children, for better and worse, has crossed my mind a lot this week. It’s a powerful position and one that should never be abused.

 ‘It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to talk about what’s wrong. It’s OK to play with girls if you like them, to dress like girls if you want to, to like the colour pink if you like it, [..] to not be all that bothered about football if you’re not all that bothered about football.’

‘How Not to Be a Boy’, Robert Webb.

We’ve all read special books that really mean a lot to us. I’ve got a shelf full, but How Not To Be A Boy felt very personal for me. In my review last week I discussed the messages Webb shared and some of the shocking anecdotes he recalled, but I was wary of including too much of my own personal experiences in a review of a book that was written by somebody else. So I’ve saved them for this week (you lucky things).

I know it’s not my parents or my family who were to blame, this isn’t a dig at them, and I’m not saying that the past has traumatised me beyond repair, but the rules of the patriarchy and society that Webb discussed definitely loomed over my childhood.

For me a big issue growing up was ‘football’. I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t that I hated it (although I have grown to hate the sound of football due to a) Too much exposure of football crowds chanting tunelessly on the TV as a child and b) Now living within ear shot of a football ground.  Why can’t they sing something with words rather than sounds? Songs that I know. ABBA, for instance.) Football just never interested me. Being a fan, my Dad was, I’m sure, disappointed at first but he’s accepted it, after a lot of perseverance. As I grew up, I knew that it was weird that I didn’t like football. After all I am male and all males have to like football, right? I began to notice that people found it hard to talk to me after I dropped the ‘I don’t like football’ bomb. We’d go to parties at the local club or get visits from extended family members and every conversation seemed to go like this.

‘And what team do you support lad?’

‘Oh, I don’t like football.’

‘Ahh…..’*quizzical look*

END OF CONVERSATION.

There were rare instances where, following ‘the look’, I’d get ‘So….do you like any other sports? Rugby? Cricket?’ To which I’d fail to redeem myself by saying ‘No’ or when I was feeling particularly brave ‘No but I do like to read.’ It was just totally incomprehensible that I was a boy who wasn’t involved in sports. I started to get sensitive to it and, knowing I was odd, anxious about the conversation which I knew would come. In a lame attempt to tackle it I started to answer with ‘Liverpool’ in the hope it would shut them up.

Of course, as you get older, you realise that you’re not as odd as you thought and there is nothing wrong with being a boy who is not interested in football, but it was such a big deal for me as a child that I remember being elated if I heard a celebrity on TV admitting that football doesn’t interest him or met another anti-football freak like me. Last year, an ex-family member said, whilst I was in the room, ‘Imagine having a son who didn’t like football. You’d be devastated wouldn’t you?’ This is the kind of message I seemed to be confronted with regularly, that I’d failed as a boy because I didn’t like football. Of course, as an adult I was able to shrug off his comments and stick two fingers up behind the idiot’s back, but a comment like that during my childhood would have really upset me.

So I was already failing the stereotype via my choices of hobby, but ‘the rules’ really started to affect me when I started school (Note: this was probably the only time I was ever seen as a rule breaker during my childhood). I don’t know how it happened but I ended up having a circle of friends who were all female. Perhaps I didn’t prove myself to be included as ‘one of the boys’ or perhaps I just thought ‘God, I’d rather be sitting over there with the girls than having competitions about who can wee the highest up the urinal with the boys.’ Perhaps I took part in said competition, failed, and was therefore excluded from anything ‘Boy’ for the next ten years. I don’t know. I just preferred to stick with the girls. ‘Oh, he’s a ladies man’ teachers would tease. ‘Oh he’s gay’, older boys would decide.

I didn’t want to be a girl or dress like them. Apart from a bit of an obsession with the pink power ranger, I wasn’t overly fussed about the colour pink. To me, I just had a bunch of friends. I couldn’t understand why it was an issue for a lot of people. The way I was spoken to, it was almost like I was letting myself down by hanging round with girls. Like I was showing a weakness by associating with them, because they were lesser beings than men (which is obviously totally incorrect). The fact they were girls never bothered me, until people started telling me very bluntly that I should be bothered. I remember in the last few weeks in year six, one boy in my class gave me a bit of a thumping in order to prepare myself for secondary school, where, in his opinion, I was going to get regular thumpings because of who my friends were. Great. It’s always good to have something to look forward to, isn’t it?

And so, like Webb, the ‘Sovereign Importance of Early Homophobia’ came into play. It seemed that because my friends where girls this made me more susceptible to becoming gay and in my town that is a big no-no. Throughout high school the same message haunted me – Do Not Be Gay. Whether it was someone in my family tutting when a gay character was on the TV or one of my English teachers reacting like I’d asked for it when a bunch of nasty girls humiliated me during class. It might have been listening to my Mum use some mildly offensive term to ‘joke’ with my brother or it could have been the time someone close to me gave me a very serious talking to because my gay friend had signed off a message on my Facebook wall with a kiss and, to them, it ‘looked really, really bad.’ The message was loud and clear. Some people decided for me and took it upon themselves to spread the news. All assumed from the company I kept.

I met my then-Best Friend in secondary school and she was a very vibrant and resilient girl. It never crossed my mind that I shouldn’t be friends with her because of her sex, I just thought she was really cool and I admired her confidence! But, by choosing another female friend, I’d inadvertently chosen five years of people telling me I was wrong, without even knowing me properly. I wouldn’t say I was bullied any more than the next person but I did have a label, which I could never shake. I was the boy who had girl friends (never to be confused with girlfriends. That didn’t start until well into my teens and the plural was never necessary). Whether it was a friend putting in a sneaky comment or an older boy humiliating me in front of the whole class just to get a few laughs, there seemed to be something every day. I’d never change it because I believe that my best friend was a better friend to me than any of the boys at my school would have been. We had a lot of common interests and we used to laugh so much! And there were others. I had a whole bunch of friends, most of whom were female, and I don’t regret meeting any one of them. But it’s a shame that my school life was tainted by the most humiliating and hurtful actions just because I chose to be friends with someone of the opposite sex. That decision seemed to put me into a category – I was a boy who chose female company so I must be weak. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the females I befriended were probably more bolshie, stubborn and tough than most of the year 11 boys put together. But they were also the funniest and most supportive people I could wish to be around.

Secondary school was tough for other reasons.  It was a time of unrest in my home life and I needed someone to confide in, a service which was gladly provided by all of my female friends. Had they been boys, it may have been a different story, because society doesn’t take kindly to boys who listen or care.

As for talking about my feelings, I’ve been fortunate to have plenty of people to confide in over the years, should I need to, but the pressure of ‘manning up’ has certainly been there. I had to be strong, solely because I was a man. During a particularly grim period a number of years ago, I confided in a doctor about feeling constantly on-edge and miserable (at the time, dismissive of the ideas that I might be anxious or depressed, because I’d been conditioned to think of those illnesses as weaknesses. I now know that the strongest person can suffer these conditions). The first doctor told me to buck up and fix my feelings ‘the British way’ (whatever that is….having a cup of tea?). The second one told me to find a good woman. I’m thankful that, after many dark months of feeling awful and constantly on the verge of tears, I was able to manage my feelings in my own way, but to someone less fortunate than me, that advice from a professional could have been very dangerous. Webb’s book highlighted just how dangerous the pressures society puts on men to bottle up their emotions can be and it’s terrifying to think so many suffer in silence.

So in 2017, I finally got the advice I needed twenty years ago. It might have come too late, but as I grew up I taught myself that ‘normal’ didn’t exist, that I shouldn’t be ashamed of who I was and that the problem lay in the way my life was viewed by others, not with myself. It would have been great to have been given this advice when I was younger, and I’m sure in a way it was hinted at by some people, but I can’t regret anything because it’s made me who I am. That’s sort of why I shared it (or a slice of it. I have enough material for many, many blog posts).  Yes, it’s been a bit of self-indulgent therapy for me, but I hope that if the teenage me is out there reading this they’ll realise that they don’t need to be ashamed, or feel like the odd one out because it’s absolutely OK to be themselves. You might feel like a failure at the moment, but in time you’ll realise you’re only failing a stereotype, and that can only be a good thing.

Image result for How not to be a boy In the last year I’ve been lucky enough to experience two works of art that have really ‘spoken to me’, having never really understood the phrase before. The first was the touring production of Rent in October 2016 (after which I spent several weeks sobbing). The second was How Not to Be A Boy by Robert Webb.

I knew from pre-publicity that this book would be right up my street, and I was correct. Not only was the main thread relatable, but How Not To Be A Boy is beautifully and passionately written by Webb. I absorbed this book. It was actually ‘unputdownable’.

How Not To Be A Boy is Webb’s memoir with a focus on the pressures he encountered to conform to society’s ideas of masculinity. Webb writes honestly about his upbringing and childhood, and with hindsight is able to identify some of the dangerous messages he was given which effected his adult life. It begins with his closeness to his mother and difficult relationship with his father, and ends with his modern day struggles to steer away from following his father’s path.

Webb’s discussions on gender go beyond the ‘blue for a boy and pink for a girl’ debate, and he relives insightful anecdotes, (some warm, some hilarious, some tragic), in a way that had me unable to resist the urge to fling my hands in the air and shout ‘Amen!’.

Webb talks about the patriarchy, and how the rules and gender stereotypes created by society are damaging to both women and men. A striking moment is when he talks about how ‘clever’ boys and girls are viewed by society. He notes how when labelled ‘clever’, girls have to respond with how hard they’ve worked for it, whilst boys are expected to shrug it off, as if it all came naturally. If you’re a boy who does well at school, excuses have to be found for this ridiculous behaviour, and often you’re labelled with having no common sense. ‘He’s a clever lad, no common sense though.’ (How many times did I hear that growing up?)

A common thread throughout  is of males suppressing their emotions. One of the most heart-breaking parts of the book comes at the mid-point, where Webb tells of the loss of his mother. Webb writes about his grief and suffering so eloquently that it’s frustrating to comprehend why we are constantly told to ‘man up’ and hide our true feelings. We’ve all had experiences with this, to various degrees, and it’s important that Webb highlights the problem in his book. With almost three quarters of suicide victims in the UK being male, it’s of vital importance that we breakdown the ‘man up’ culture and talk about our problems, as Webb does in university. The patriarchy strikes again by enforcing a false notion that only females open up and talk about their feelings. What a dangerous message. Webb talks candidly, and admirably, of his battles with suicidal thoughts and his subsequent therapy sessions, in a way that may give hope to many.

How Not To Be A Boy also brings to light just how old fashioned words such as ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are. As Webb explains, all they do is conjure up archaic stereotypes which, in 2017, are unnecessary. He describes masculinity as a repressive process which needs to be recovered from and explains how the term only really means ‘not being a woman’. Why not a woman? Women are strong, brave, loving, thoughtful, sensible, loyal, trustworthy and millions other admirable adjectives so….why do we have to avoid being like that? Why do we need these words?

The restrictions that we live under should be blindingly obvious, but Webb unmasks these hideous stereotypes with flair and style, adding his own thoughts, warm humour, and prompting many outbursts of ‘YES!’  from this reader. In an era where people are angry at clothes shop for removing labels, and the walls of gender stereotyping are being slowly eroded, How Not To Be A Boy is essential reading and a book I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

Somehow the BBC documentary No More Boys and Girls managed to evade me but after a couple of prompts from people who know my interests, I managed to catch it this morning. And I’m so glad I did.

Using a focus group of year 3 pupils in Lanesend Primary School, Dr Javed Abdelmoneim uses a series of strategies to investigate how gender boundaries affect children.

Most disturbing is the opinions girls have of their own gender. The children saw men as strong and powerful whilst women were weak and emotional. According to the children, men could have ‘harder jobs’ – such as authority roles, like policemen or captain – whilst all women seemed destined to be hairdressers. One of the most memorable parts of the programme saw the children draw their own ideas of a mechanic, magician, make up artist and dancer. All of the children associated male characters to the first two professions and female characters to the second two. Of course, their preconceptions were changed when Dr Javed introduced a real mechanic, magician, make-up artist and dancer with opposite genders to the children’s ideas. The girls were in awe of the female mechanic whilst the boys enjoyed a tutorial from a male make-up artist specialising in SFX make-up. It was amazing to see the children understand that ‘anyone can have a chance to do what they like’.

The amount of times the children referred to males as ‘strong and successful’ was shocking, especially as they saw females as the total opposite. It’s sad to think young girls are starting their lives thinking so little of themselves. To show the children that biologically they were all as strong as each other, Dr Javed set up a fairground style strength tester. It was powerful to see one girl cry with ‘happy tears’ after she exceeded her expectations and one boy have a meltdown because he didn’t reach the highest score. It’s important to remember these children weren’t born with these ideas. As adults, we have programmed them to think that boys are stronger than girls. On supply, I’ve visited schools where boys were chosen to move the PE equipment because the teacher needed someone with ‘big muscles’ to help. I’ve seen girls left out of using gym equipment in high school, banished to the dark corners of the sports hall to do some aerobics instead. Is it any wonder the children breakdown when they realise these stereotypes aren’t true?

I’ve talked about my own experiences in school a lot, but it’s still shocking to think that happened just over ten years ago. Split PE sessions with ‘gender appropriate’ activities seems like such an old-fashioned idea but it was happening ten years ago! Although I may have been the victim of a bad careers advisor (and unenthused parents), I remember being told to choose another career path other than one in the theatre. It was heavily hinted at that the theatre was a world for women and, although I would have been happy to be involved in any way (actor, stage-hand, technician…anything!), I was persuaded to keep that dirty secret part of my social life, not my career. What struck me was just how excited the boys were to meet male role models from creative industries, from areas that are usually perceived as ‘female’, and vice versa for the girls. Why should they be denied the chance of following that route just because of the restrictions adults have put on gender? As teachers it’s our job to encourage and nurture each child. Breaking down ridiculous stereotypes and opening those doors to career paths should be part of that.

(As a little side note, I was at a course a few months ago where we were discussing curriculum topics. We were advised to think carefully to ensure the topic we choose inspired all learners and not to ‘choose fairy tales because the boys won’t be interested, or dinosaurs, because we need to keep the girls on board too.’ Well, in my opinion it shouldn’t be a case of choosing the right topic, it should be a matter of delivering the topic in a way that inspires all children. In January our class topic will be dinosaurs and I can already think of many girls who that will appeal to. I had lots of boys last year who loved learning about Little Red Riding Hood. The topic title shouldn’t matter, it’s the activities that draw them in.)

Having a quick scout on Twitter I can see that No More Boys and Girls has come under fire from a lot disgruntled people calling for an end to ‘gender neutral nonsense’. The Piers Morgans of the world are mistaking the programme for encouraging children to choose their gender, when that is not the case. The whole point of No More Boys and Girls is to break down stereotypes that are damaging our children’s view on the World and of themselves. Anyone who is happy for girls to believe they are the weaker sex and live a life feeling second-best, and for boys to live under the impression they must be strong and successful, then break down when they inevitably ‘fail’, needs to seriously consider their beliefs. It’s about raising a generation of confident individuals who aren’t afraid to embrace failures, and who can aspire to be whoever they want to.

Breaking down these boundaries is about nurturing confidence and self-belief, and it starts in the classroom and at home.