Where ARE You Guys?

(This piece, or something like it, appeared in the weekly column I write for my down-home weekly newspaper in July. It concerns graduation ceremonies at an Ottawa high school, but my observations, I’m quite sure, apply to schools all over North America. At least. And here we go again with another school year, and worries that only get more pronounced.)

I was sitting in a warm gymnasium on a bum-squaring chair, draped neck to knees in a black polyester academic gown, sweating and watching 112 kids I didn’t know make their final pass across a high school stage. It was Commencement at the east Ottawa high school where I drilled (and thrilled?) suburban grade nines in literature, life and verb tenses, from early May until late June’s parole. I had spent many a stifling June evening — this was my first morning graduation exercise — sitting in similar high school auditoria and gymnasia (and one cafetorium!)

My most recent school is named after Canada’s first woman Senator, Cairine Wilson. CWSS started its school day at 8 a.m., and maintained its morning persona by holding its graduation exercises at 10. Whew! One mixed blessing of that unusual hour is that the city councillor, the MPP, and the federal Member of Parliament were all present for the ceremony and, naturally, all had something to say. Fairly painless, though my fellow staff, who were buying squares on the how-long-will-this-take lottery, might not agree. The speeches were gracious and not overly long, and the MPP made a rather stirring appeal to the young people to be adventurous global citizens, to truly change the way the world operates. Nice!

The principal, an earnest, energetic and hardworking young man – yes, I’m getting to the stage where my bosses and my doctors seem like upstarts to me – was surprisingly nervous and bland in his speech. Still, there are always nuggets for a word nerd/performance geek like me. He told the students that “you are the gifts from our hearts to the future”. Perhaps a tad overheated, but still I found it sweet. Among his (too) numerous quotations was this soaring, simple truth from the saintly Mother Teresa: “There is a greater hunger for appreciation than for bread.” I love this statement, even more true in our well-fed part of the world than in Teresa’s Calcutta.

GIRLS. BOYS. There’s another truth that I expected to find at yet another high school graduation, and I did. It’s the same story as when I started keeping statistics at my former high school, somewhere in the mid-nineties, about the relative achievement levels of boys and girls. Looked at through my Advancement-of-Women lens, it’s a happy story: females are the majority in nearly every university faculty, including medicine and even law in some places, because they are absolutely kicking the boys’ arses in high schools. Wow! I say, “You go, girls!” But while I don’t blame the boys, I am worried about them. Despite our prosperity, things are not easy for the kids today, and it seems clear to me that there are far too many guys being left behind. I’ve been keeping statistics for years now, and the recent numbers were a confirmation of what I’d seen back home.

A few numbers for you. (Hey, what can I say? It made two stuffy hours pass more quickly.) Graduates? 62 girls to 50 boys, not a huge spread but significant. Top students in the various subjects? 24 girls to 5 boys, including a 12:2 ratio in maths, sciences and physical education, for goodness’ sake! Ontario Scholars? 23 girls, 8 boys. French immersion certificates (bilingualism being SO valuable, especially here in Ottawa)? 19 to 6. Students averaging 90%? 5-0. Shutout.

There’s a lot more scribbled data where that comes from, but that’ll do for now. I wish I had thought to add up the tens of thousands of dollars by which the scholarship awards to girls exceeded that given to the guys. (I’m old-fashioned enough, or something enough, to still find this public announcement of scholarship amounts slightly déclassé.) There are plenty of reasons and theories behind this clear and growing gender gap, but I’ll bet that whatever high school you know and care about most had similar numbers. I just think we should be noticing these things and talking about them. Are we letting down the lads? Is there anything we can do?

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