Some conversations just stay with you. Ten years ago this week, I had a discussion with my daughter, and it’s one I’ve thought about every September since then. She had just started high school, and it was her first day in a new school, in a new city, in a new country. During recess on that first day, a bunch of girls gathered around the new Grade 9 girl and asked her a simple question: “What kind of music do you like?”
When the girls all laughed and walked away, after hearing of her preference for country, she realized that she had just failed her first high school test. That night when she asked what she could have done differently, my initial advice was, “Well, you might have said you liked heavy metal, or rap, or reggae, or something edgy.” But after thinking a bit more, I told her that she had actually handled things in exactly the right way; that it was good to have been honest. It was in that spirit of honesty, that I told her that in high school, I had been a very uncool kid, that her mom had also been a very uncool adolescent, and that she should try to accept the fact that she was from a very long line of very uncool people.
I was reminded of that comment about heavy metal last Friday, as I was sitting in Mr. Gomes’ Theory of Knowledge class. Mr. Gomes had asked his students to think about the context of art, before inviting us to listen to the following song (I think that “song” is the right term.) from a group known as “Cannibal Corpse.” (You can’t make this stuff up.) It’s just a 30 second clip, and even if you aren’t a death metal fan, I ask that you listen closely the lead singer’s voice.
Although I am something less than expert on death metal, I offer two observations:
First, after listening to “Make Them Suffer” — that’s the tune’s stunningly appropriate title — you will not find yourself humming that melody or singing it in the shower any time soon.
Second, a hackneyed music critic might point out that the singer’s growl has to fight for space against atonal guitar playing and blast beat drumming, as he rages against the man, and the machine, and perhaps all of modernity itself. His raspy growl sounds like the voice of Cookie Monster on Scotch, steroids, and cigarettes. It is a demon-like sound. It is the voice of hyper-masculinity.
Mr. Gomes claims that death metal has Nordic roots, so perhaps Cannibal Corpse is an artistic echo of the ancient Vikings, a group better known for their plundering and pillaging than for their singing. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but for now just hold on to that voice and to its connection with hyper-masculinity.
An hour later, I found myself in a Year 1 English class, where the boys were doing an exercise on courage. One grade 8 boy wrote a short reflection about a time he happened to stumble upon a violent scene at night, in a dark alley, in a big city far from home, when he was all by himself. The other boys listened closely, as he read his story, and they seemed to grow even more respectful, as afterwards he talked about his own sense of fear. The author confessed that he still wondered about how he had handled himself that dark night. A few boys nodded their heads in silent agreement, and as they did, you could almost see them put themselves in that alley, as they tried to figure out what they themselves might have done.
There were two very different voices Friday morning. The screaming rage of the testosterone drenched Cannibal Corpse clashed with the open, honest questioning sound of an early adolescent boy. Yet both voices were, in very different ways, talking about fears and anxieties, and about trying to make sense of things.
I find myself wondering about the difference between those two voices. Granted, death metal vocalists are an extreme, and in my mind a profoundly unattractive example of adult masculinity, but I wonder if there is something in our culture that subtly pushes all of us towards a narrow version of an overly hard view of manhood?
Was Cannibal Corpse’s lead screamer ever an open, honest, questioning 13 year old? Did he ever just talk, in a natural voice, about what it’s like to be frightened and alone? And if he were able to do that, what caused his change of heart and voice?
We are all shaped by the culture that surrounds us, a culture that quietly tells us how real men are to behave. For example, it’s a small thing, but if you’ve ever been close enough to the field during a high school football game, you’ll notice that the quarterback almost always calls out signals in an exaggeratedly husky voice. No QB would ever just politely state, “2 38 38 hut.” Instead, almost every adolescent assumes the persona of a cave man as be growls, “2 38 38 HUT!!!”
One of false truths boys unfortunately learn early in life is that, in order to survive, you need to hide any sign of vulnerability. If you are nervous or scared, for instance, you will be tempted to wear the mask of the stoic. A few years ago, a high school boy told me that he had a problem with severe anxieties, and when things would get to him, he found it calming just to go to the Health Centre for a few minutes. Because he worried about what others might think, every time he left the Health Centre, he always grabbed a band-aid. “That way,” he confided, “if someone asks, ‘Why were you down there?’ I can always say, ‘I just needed a band-aid.’ And I won’t be lying.” He almost laughed at his own joke.
Yesterday we had a great turn out for our Terry Fox Run, and one of the things I remember about the original “Marathon of Hope” was the shock the first time I saw Terry Fox run in shorts. Years ago, it wasn’t all that common for folks with prosthetics to wear anything other than long pants. It was as if everyone got the message that it was important to cover up our perceived wounds, to hide our less than perfect selves. Terry, as you well know, sported those spiffy ‘80’s short shorts, and in doing so, he forced all of us to see him for what he was, and to instantly grasp what “The Marathon of Hope” was all about. There was something extraordinarily powerful about Terry’s daily display of his own vulnerability.
The hidden curriculum in most all boys’ schools is all about, “What does it mean to be a man?” And I’d like to think that we have very little posturing here, in part because it’s pretty easy for boys to be themselves in this kind of environment. One of my favorite UCC memories is of a Prep assembly when the captain of the Grade 7 soccer team, rather than offering a traditional end-of-season rah-rah speech, instead sang a song he had written, based on the melody of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” as a tribute to his CAIS title winning teammates. (I still wonder if he would have sung that song had there been even one 13-year old girl in the audience?)
Finally, one of the things that I really like about UCC is that this is a place where it is ok to be quirky. Whether you are passionate about the monarchy, Suduko, or the opera, whether you enjoy being a War of 1812 re-enactor or a member of the Random Acts of Kindness Club, I think a defining strength of our school is that the boys applaud those who follow their passions and strive to do their very best.
It’s my hope that as you come of age, as you struggle to find your own voice, that you won’t need a mask, or an artificially husky baritone, or even a band-aid. I hope that your definition of manhood is broad, that you won’t be cowed by the Cannibal Corpses that shout you down or try to marginalize you, and that you’re comfortable enough in your own skin, so comfortable in fact that if the occasion ever calls for it, you can admit you are interested in anything you like — even if it’s country music.