Friday, October 4, 2013

Further Trials And Tribulations Of A Private School Parent

This one is... interesting. I thought long and hard before I wrote this, but in the end, it comes to this: I've discussed this issue with the school. I've taken it just as far as I can reasonably take it. And the school has told me in no uncertain terms that they're not interested, and not concerned -- and so I see no reason why I can't talk about this incident with regard to my kid.

Buckle up. This one's a doozy.

A few weeks back on the way home from school, Jake seemed a little flat. Naturally, I asked him about his day. He explained that he was a bit unhappy about a 'musical number' they were practicing. Now Jake quite likes music, and he likes performing, so I asked for details.

Well, it turns out that it's part of the "School House" system. Anybody not familiar with the British Boarding School system of divide and conquer in the Name of Sportsmanship -- go watch the Harry Potter movies. Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw -- artificially created blocs of students crossing year/cohort boundaries, permitting internal competition in sports and other arenas.

I more or less understand the purpose of the system. It's supposed to provide a ready-made social network for newbies, offer some kind of support, and meanwhile, subtly indoctrinate a set of chosen values by way of peer pressure. I don't much like it, but it works -- and smart kids can see through it effectively enough that the indoctrination doesn't actually work.

In this case, it turns out that Jake's "house" has this tradition of getting the new year sevens to do a 'musical number' - a performance they carry out in front of the entirety of their 'house'.

"So what are you doing?" I asked him.

"We have to sing and dance," he said.

"I don't really see the problem," I said.

"Well," he said, "We were supposed to be able to choose our own song. But the House officers rejected everything we suggested, and now they want us to perform Beyonce's Single Ladies."

(Insert sound of scratching record here as Dirk wrenches his neck trying to look at his kid.)

"Single ladies?" says I. "You guys want to do that?"

"No," says Jake. "But they say we have to. Some of us have to do the dance routine from the video, and the rest of us are like, back-up."

"Oh," says I. "That's a bit ugly. At least you're not doing it in drag," I said, trying to make light of it.

"Well, they wanted us all to do it in costume, actually," said Jake. "But we got really upset, and now it's only two or three of the boys who have to wear leotards."

(Repeat scratched-record sound, only louder.)

For those of you unaware of Beyonce's signal contribution to modern culture, here's an embed which I hope will work:

And if that doesn't work, here's the Youtube link.  Seriously -- watch this so you know why I was freaked out.

Now, a whole bunch of thoughts went through my head at this point:

  • Who thought it was a good idea to coerce a bunch of 13-year-old boys into an embarrassing, highly sexualised performance in front of their peers?
  • Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put underage boys into leotards and make them dance like Beyonce?
  • What did the school plan to do about the inevitable (these kids ALL carry phones) video footage on Facebook, Youtube, etc?
  • Had anybody considered what would happen if a chunk of said footage turned up on Joe Random-Pervert's computer when the cops were investigating him?
I restrained myself, though. I questioned Jake carefully and at length. I established as a certainty that it wasn't the boys' idea. That they really didn't want to be involved. That the whole thing was being choreographed by an older girl. That teachers didn't seem to have any involvement.

At that point, I promised Jake I'd help him out. I told him I could see no reason why he had to publicly humiliate himself, if it wasn't his choice. 

Next thing I did was email someone at the school. I explained the situation, and articulated my concerns. I pointed out that we support involvement with the school's social programme... but as diplomatically as I could, under the circumstances, I suggested that Jake really didn't want to be involved. And I ran the above list at them, plus a few more.

Now, I figured there'd be some kind of result. I mean -- this is a high-end private school. Its greatest asset is its reputation. And it seemed to me that the kind of reputation you get from putting underage boys into leotards and getting them to dance like Beyonce was not at all the kind of reputation that an exclusive private school would want. I figured the whole thing had just kind of slipped through the cracks -- that the school probably had a policy of allowing some autonomy to House Officers (students) to help them develop responsibility, and all that.

Truthfully? I figured the teacher would turn up and have a chat with those House Officers -- talk to them about their responsibilities, point out that setting up these young boys to be laughed at wasn't particularly nice, point out that there might even be legal repercussions. 

Well, my email was forwarded on to somebody supposedly responsible for the situation. And I got a reply.

I won't quote it directly. But I was assured that there was "no coercion". (Apparently, 13-year-old boys just LOVE putting on leotards and dancing to Beyonce in front of all their House peers.) And I was assured that it was an important part of their socialising, and that it was "all a bit of fun". 

Luckily, I also got a written assurance that the boys could withdraw if they wanted.

Did I get an acknowledgement that 13-year-old boys are at a challenging stage of development, and exposing them to sex-role ridicule in front of their peers might not be a great idea? 

No. I didn't.

Did I get an acknowledgment that putting underage boys into leotards and getting them to do the Sexy Beyonce Pelvis Dance might conceivably be misconstrued by enthusiastic law enforcement agencies?

Err... no. That wasn't important either. 

Did I get an acknowledgement that video of the event on Facebook or Youtube could follow these boys for the rest of their lives, and potentially alter their chances of employment, scholarship, etc?

Ahh... I'll let you guess, shall I?

Did I receive any kind of acknowledgement that perhaps the image of underage boys in leotards dancing the Sexy Beyonce Pelvis Dance might possibly not enhance the school's august reputation as a fine educational establishment?

... heh.

In the end, I ran a few role-playing scenarios with Jake. It was clear that if he didn't want to play their game, he'd get no support from the teachers. He'd have to confront his senior House Officers himself, on his own, and withdraw from the project in the face of the pressure and scorn they could apply. I pretended to be a House Officer, and when he said his piece I told him that it was "All just in fun", and he had to think up a reply. Then I told him  that he'd "be letting down his house-mates", and he had to come up with a response.

Finally, I pretended to be another student, and I called him "a pussy", and "weak", and he had to deal with that, too.

He went to school.

And when he came back, he told me that first: two of his friends were overjoyed to discover they could withdraw, and promptly pulled out with him. Secondly, he told me that I'd pretty much quoted his House Officers in my role-playing... and also, quoted a few of his fellow students too. 

In other words, the peer-pressure system of the House tried to do its job, but Jake was well prepped, and he stuck to his guns. He and his two friends are now operating the sound system. They don't have to wear leotards. They don't have to do the Sexy Beyonce Pelvis Performance in front of a bunch of laughing, video-camera equipped kids. They don't have to try and live this down for years.

In one sense, I'm quite grateful to the school. Jake has learned that "authority" and "responsibility" aren't the same thing, though they should be. He learned that the trust he places in his parents is well founded. (Natalie was with me every step of the way.) He learned how to face peer pressure, and how to stand up for his own rights in the face of a system designed to make him think that "team player" means "willing, subservient, unthinking drone." 

I'm really quite proud of him. 

But... I have to admit, I am deeply surprised by the school's response. I've done the best I can, I feel. My responsibility for this kind of thing ends with my children. I can do no more than ensure that the school is aware of the matter -- and if they feel that this sort of thing reflects their values, and the image they want to project, it's no business of mine, is it?

I can only hope this doesn't go badly astray. I have to admit: I have concerns for these young boys. If any one of them harboured uncertainty about his sexual identity, this is precisely the kind of thing that could cause long-lasting harm. 

I guess I've done what I can.