I decided to show a short You Tube video clip in class the other day. It’s a montage of scenes of men crying from various movies complete with cheesy background music, a song Don’t Cry Out Loud. I used it to open a discussion about how stereotypes put unnecessary limitations on people.
The initial reactions were mixed.
“I would tell those men to not be ashamed of crying because it’s better than keeping it in,” said one student. “If I saw … only women [crying,] I would be more used to it because I’ve seen women cry more than men.”
“I would tell them grown men don’t cry, [but] it’s okay to cry sometimes,” said another.
“It feels weird to watch grown up men cry because growing up you don’t see a man cry...,” chimed in another.
“When a man cries there has to be a reason why, a strong reason why a man should cry,” one student said.
A young man candidly admits, “I started laughing on the first clip. I think because it was unnatural to me. Maybe I couldn’t understand it so I expressed it through laughter.” His response is similar to what many of my students feel. He says, “If I was in the same room with any of these men I would try to make him stop crying. If they were women instead of men in the video, I don’t think I would laugh.”
This kind of double standard hurts men and women, I explained to my class, adding that sexism is not just about women being treated as if they are inferior to men. It’s about limitations put on both sexes. Men have to stifle their feelings and act tough, while women’s tears lose value. As one young woman stated, “If there was a woman crying I guess that wouldn’t be as sad.”
The emotional life of men came prominently into my curriculum as I introduced Sherman Alexie’s debut young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s the story of Junior, a teen boy who is bullied on his Indian reservation for being small and smart. He’s also bullied at the white school he attends for being Indian. His character is a self-described crier. Despite Junior’s sensitive nature, my students love him and can’t wait to read the next chapter of his travails.
Another reason for tackling the topic is Francisco. He’s cried four times in my class in the last month. Apart from these incidents, I can’t think of a time I’ve seen a young man cry in the context of a regular class period. Francisco cries when he suffers stage fright. He cries when he gets the answer wrong. He cries when he thinks I am telling him he is wrong. I have seen him put his head down on his desk for a full 20 minutes and weep in silence only to sit up again, red-faced, wet-desked, after the class has left. I teach high school, and usually by this age it is so engrained in boys that they do not cry.
Francisco’s peers are not used to his tears either, so they respond as expected. Bullying. Teasing. Alienation.
I thought that if I could get my class to empathize and even accept our crying protagonist Junior, then maybe they could do the same for their classmates like Francisco.
Of course, I worried that even bringing up this topic would upset Francisco and leave him in tears, but I hoped the benefits would outweigh the discomfort. I began by asking students to write about a time they heard someone use a sexist joke or a time they were the victim of a sexist joke. A prompt like this usually guarantees generative writing, but Francisco left his page blank. He insisted he had nothing to write. However, at the end of class he wrote this in response to the clips we watched, “It feels very sad and emotional to see men cry. It is very natural for grown men to cry. What I would say to any of those men is that it’s okay, just let it out, there is nothing to be ashamed about.”
At least on paper, Francisco is already a liberated 14-year-old boy. He knows he should be respected for who he is, tears and all. The rest of us just need to catch up to him.
Thomas is an English teacher in California.