An Interpretation of Juvenile Parolees' Gender Constructions at School
Smith, Brian J., High School Journal
This paper interprets marginalized youths' active gender constructions during school. (1) Past and recent sociological work examines the significance of gender construction for understanding juvenile delinquency and school experiences (Cohen, 1955; MacLeod, 1995; Messerschmidt, 1993,1994,1995; Miller, 1958; Miron and Lauria, 1995; Willis, 1977). This work illustrates that an individual's gender can be understood as a socially created concept, as an identity that arises through social interactions (Connell, 1987; West and Zimmerman, 1987). Gender theorists and researchers illuminate the importance of gender construction for understanding various state policies and individual behaviors, and the overall gendered nature of social life. Individuals' interactions with one another as men and women both create and are created by social structures (Giddens, 1981). Furthermore, individuals' structuralsocial locations provide particular resources for their active constructions of themselves as men or women (Connell, 1987; Messerschmidt, 1993, 1994, 1995; Newburn and Stanko, 1994; West and Zimmerman, 1987; Willis, 1977). Youths who occupy the social-structural margins of society, and thus lack adequate access to gender resources such as school success, may utilize crime and/or school resistance as resources to construct themselves as men or women. Importantly, when individuals are actively "doing gender" their actions sometimes function to reproduce existent gender-based social inequalities (Connell, 1987; MacLeod, 1995; Messerschmidt, 1993,1994, 1995; Smith, 1997; Willis, 1977).
The paper focuses on inner-city juvenile parolees' gendered interactions at a community school in a large southwestern city. The analysis seeks to interpret the students' gender constructions within the contexts of cultural ideologies and social-structural locations. Drawing from a year of field research at the school and interviews with youths and teachers, I interpret youths' gender constructions with their peers and teachers as a reflection (and ultimately a creator) of these ideologies and locations. I conceptualize students' gendered identities "relationally," as being created during social interactions (Miron and Lauria, 1995: 31). Students at the community school constructed their gender in a variety of ways; male students used both hegemonic cultural ideologies and locally available resources to construct their masculinities. They often created their identities as men through discussions of crime, physical toughness/violence, opposition to school, heterosexuality, and dominance of females. Female students sometimes created their gendered identities through opposition to male students, and via discussions of physical toughness/violence and heterosexuality. Importantly, students' gender constructions did not rely on ideologically dominant resources such as paid work and school success. In addition, their active constructions of gender functioned to reproduce certain harmful cultural ideologies (e.g., men as being superior to women). The analysis suggests the necessity of creating schools which students' value, where they will want to spend their time and energy on learning useful knowledge rather than on reproducing existent ideologies of gender inequality and criminal violence. When these students rejected schools and teachers and celebrate physical violence and crime they also helped reproduce their own marginalization.
School, Structure, Crime, and Gender Constructions
Theoretical and empirical work on schooling and delinquency recognizes the significance of gender. Miller (1958) argues that masculine attributes such as toughness and violence are important status criteria for lower-class males in delinquent peer groups. Cohen (1955) discusses the significance of social gender roles for understanding male delinquency; he notes that structural and cultural factors regulate an individual's appropriate "sex role." The lower-class male delinquent subculture offers a solution to "male-role" school adjustment problems; through its rejection of conventional society and school it functions to preserve members' egos and provides social status. The subculture provides a resource for establishing one's identity as a "man"; specifically, subculture members do "masculine" activities through which they construct themselves as "rogue males." The "delinquent response ... incontestably confirms essential masculinity" (Cohen, 1955: 139,140).
Messerschmidt (1993,1995) builds on Connell's (1987) and West and Zimmerman's (1987) gender perspectives to formulate a gender-based theoretical framework for understanding why males are more likely than females to engage in delinquency and crime. The basis of Messerschmidt's theory is "structured action"; he argues that crime, oppositional behavior, and violence can be resources for the "situated accomplishments" of gender; he notes that "masculinity is always individual and personal, specific forms of masculinity are available, encouraged, and permitted, depending upon one's class, race, and sexual preference. Masculinity must be viewed as structured action-what men do under specific constraints" (1993:80,81). There are multiple masculinities, each constructed in a particular situation and based upon one's location in the social structure. An individual's socially structured milieu creates available resources for "doing" gender/ constructing masculinity (1993:83-84). Such masculinities are not equal; there are "hegemonic and subordinated masculinities" (1993:81). In western countries hegemonic masculinity is culturally defined "by work in the paid labor market, the subordination of women and girls, heterosexism, and the driven and uncontrollable sexuality of men, and underscores practices toward authority, control and aggressiveness" (Messerschmidt, 1995:15). According to Messerschmidt, street crime is one "subordinate" resource for doing gender when other resources are not accessible. That is, street crime is a gender resource for marginalized individuals, and it is not a resource that is accepted or privileged by dominant cultural ideologies and practices. Messerschmidt suggests that lower-class and racial-minority boys are more likely to use crime to construct their masculinity because legitimate/dominant resources are not available to them. For these boys, who are denied resources such as "paid work," "the street" provides the resources for gender construction (1993: 102-103). They are the least likely to envision a successful career for themselves and to perceive school success as important; consequently, school and work are less likely to have gender significance for them. Lacking legitimate resources by which to construct their masculinity, they rely on street crime to show that they are "men."
Different types of femininities ("emphasized" and "subordinated/resistant") are socially constructed by females depending upon structural constraints and available local resources (Connell, 1987; Messerschmidt, 1995). Emphasized femininities, which articulate appropriate female identities and roles in society, are put forth through hegemonic cultural ideologies; emphasized femininities include heterosexuality, physical attractiveness, and female family roles (Connell, 1987). Subordinated and resistant femininities involve ideas and practices which are not valued by dominant cultural beliefs, such as independence, physical toughness/violence and opposition to authority. Importantly, due to structural "gender relations of power" -- men's social power over women -- "femininities are polarized around accommodation or resistance to masculine dominance" (Messerschmidt, 1995:180). Marginalized young females may utilize crime/ physical violence as gender resources if other resources are not readily available to them (Messerschmidt, 1995). Female students' gendered interactions with male students at the community school consisted of emphasized femininities and involved both accommodation and resistance to masculinities.
Several qualitative researchers have examined lower-class delinquent youths' schooling experiences and gender constructions. Willis's (1977) research with the `lads' in England illustrates how these white lower-class young males resist and reject school in order to accomplish masculine identities. Willis's lads see school work as `feminine', place preeminent value on masculine, working-class physical labor, and spend much of their time making a `farce' of school. For Willis, structurally influenced social-cultural level factors such as the school, family, peers, and class enable one to understand and interpret the lads' activities. MacLeod's (1995) ethnography focuses on two groups of lower-class male teenagers in Clarendon Heights, a northeastern housing project. MacLeod argues that the "Hallway Hangers," a mainly white male group, utilize street crime/violence as a resource for white masculinity construction. He suggests that one reason the Hangers do not do well at the local high school is because the school does not respect their street identities; however, MacLeod's insights about schooling and the Hangers' gendered identities are limited by the fact that he does not provide any ethnographic data from the school setting.
Building upon the above theories and research, this paper interprets how structurally marginalized juvenile parolees at a community school often socially constructed their gendered identities through dominant cultural ideologies, social locations, and available local resources. The analysis illustrates how the students' active gender constructions reproduced ideologies and relations of gender inequality. Furthermore, students' gender construction activities ultimately and ironically helped produce their own marginalization; resisting and rejecting school increases the likelihood that they will continue to be disadvantaged socially and occupy the margins of conventional society.
Setting and Methods
The school was a transitional education center exclusively for youths released from secure care; it was operated by the state department of corrections in a large southwestern city from July 1994 through June 1995. I gained access to the school as a member of an evaluation team. Our official task was to observe and evaluate several different components of a university-corrections partnership program, of which the school was one component. The school was located in a low-income residential and business section of the downtown area; it was on the second-floor of an office building that had several other social service agencies. Students were parolees on the caseload of the south parole office; this office serves the most economically impoverished area of the city. Youths were referred to the school by their parole officer and provided with city bus tokens for transportation to and from school.
There were two classrooms at the school, education and pre-employment, and two full-time teachers employed there at any given time. The lead (education) teacher, Mr. Pitt (2), a middle-aged white male, was employed at the school for the duration of its operation. Three different pre-employment teachers were employed at the school during its year of operation, Mr. Keys, a middle-aged Hispanic male, Mr. Glass, a middle-aged white male, and Ms. Church, a white female in her 30s. The school area consisted of the two classrooms, a lobby area, and a conference room. Mr. Pitt, who ran the education classroom, spent his day seated in a large maroon chair. This chair contrasted sharply with the six small student desks, which were neatly arranged in rows of two. Upon the back wall was a poster board with names of students who obtained either an eighth grade diploma or GED. One wall had two large windows that looked out upon a busy city street. The pre-employment classroom had several large work-tables and a few small student desks.
Students were required to attend classes two hours per day (usually one hour in each class) during either the 8 a.m.-11 a.m. morning session or the 12 p.m.-3 p.m. afternoon session. They could work on attaining their eighth grade diploma, GED, or public school credits in the education classroom. Student work assignments were individualized according to grade level; each student had a basket that contained her/ his work folder in the classroom cabinet. A total of 86 youths attended school for at least two days during its year of operation. Most of these youths were male minorities (African-American or Hispanic/Mexican) and gang members. On average, students attended classes (very sporadically) for approximately two months before being dropped from the rolls; most students were dropped for excessive absences. If a youth failed to attend classes for ten consecutive days he/she was dropped from the roster. There were a total of 12 GEDs and four eighth grade diplomas earned by students at the school during its year of operation. Two students obtained some public school credits and transferred to the public school system.
Methods and Analysis
I spent several days (2-4) per week at the school from July 1994 through July 1995; I was present at the school a total of 95 days, engaging in over 400 hours of classroom observation. I developed a rather close relationship with Mr. Pitt; he viewed me as a confidant and personnel resource. However, I also was careful to establish a non-authoritative social identity during my field work at the school. It became quite evident to students that I did not, nor did I desire to, have any authority over them. I would not instruct students to complete assignments; I did not admonish students or report them to teachers for inappropriate language, or for "tagging" (writing gang graffiti) on their folders, papers, or school property. I did not report students who were "out of area" (e.g., having a smoke in the lobby when they were supposed to be in the bathroom). I never ridiculed or disparaged students' outside activities (e.g, gang involvement, criminal activities). I did not report students who, on several occasions, stole school materials in my presence. In sum, by not doing what other adults in the school setting did, I constructed myself as different from other authority figures at the school. Consequently, I am confident that students' school interactions were not significantly circumscribed by my presence. During the final six months of the research, once I had established my identity with students, I completed 54 interviews with 33 different students. These interviews took place over lunch (which I paid for), and enabled students to further realize that I was "O.K." because I did not report any interview activities or information to correctional or educational staff (see Smith, 1997).
As an ethnographer, I entered the field with a general interest in understanding the regulations, daily activities, and social interactions that constituted the school setting (Fetterman 1989; Jorgensen 1989; Lof land and Lof land, 1995). While in the field I began to focus my observations on specific activities such as gendered social interactions; I was uncomfortable with and disturbed by the gendered activities at the school; my recognition of these feelings made me to realize that I should further explore these activities. I believe that I quickly became aware of the prevalence and nature of gendered activities at the school in part due to my understanding of feminist critiques about the gendered nature of social structures and interactions. As an ethnographer dedicated to understanding the meaning and significance of the gendered activities, I generally did not take part in them. Rather, I focused on documenting and interpreting these activities and did not interfere with their occurrence. I began to interpret these interactions within the contexts of students' local lives and theoretical perspectives on delinquency, schooling and the gendered nature of social life (Geertz, 1973; Jorgensen 1989; Lofland and Lofland 1995). Field work facilitates "thick description" and interpretation of a culture or group (Geertz, 1973); a thick description of social life interprets the meaning of social activities within social and cultural contexts and systems. In this paper I attempt to thickly describe the gendered meanings of students' activities by interpreting these activities within dominant cultural ideologies and the students' social-structural locations.
Although the specific purpose of this paper is to explicate a particular activity-juvenile parolees' gender construction within and against the school- it is important to provide a brief overview of the social processes that constituted the school setting; it is helpful to understand students' gendered activities within the general school context. Students are often active participants in schools, and may resist its cultural and ideological objectives and messages (Giroux 1983; MacLeod 1995; Smith, 1997; Willis 1977). The students at this community school were living on the social-structural margins of society: all had been incarcerated and were on parole; the vast majority of them had histories of failure in and trouble at school; the vast majority of them were minorities living in poor neighborhoods; and, many of them were proud and active gang members. Teachers and students at the community school had different perspectives on what constituted appropriate identities, communities, and knowledge. Teachers sought to create a specific identity (individual American worker) that challenged students' local (e.g. gang) identities; teachers did so in attempt to put the youths into the "mainstream" of American society (Apple and King, 1983; Goldberg 1994; MacLeod 1995; McLaren 1994; Smith, 1997). Teachers spent an extraordinary amount of time attempting to instill dominant cultural ideas and values to students -- non-localized/ universal, tradition ways of dressing, talking, writing, and learning -- so that students could become successful, law-abiding adults. Students generally did not consider school knowledge and future careers to be very important and strongly valued their local identities; thus, they often resisted teachers' attempts to transmit the importance of school work/knowledge. Students' resistance to conformity, like many of their gender constructions, was primarily rooted within the importance of the local: local knowledge, local neighborhood/community, local everyday activities, and local identity. Youths' resistance to the official goals and objectives of the community school helped them maintain their local identities. Yet, it also functioned to (re)produce their marginal social and economic status; students' failure to perform well at the school only exacerbated their marginality and risk for future official delinquency involvement (see Smith, 1997).
Students' Gender Constructions
The social construction of gendered identities was often a central component of everyday interactions at the school. Relying on dominant cultural ideologies and socially available local resources, these marginalized students often constructed themselves as men or women in relation to peers and teachers. The remainder of the paper presents an interpretation of these constructions; first, I illustrate how male and female students often constructed their gendered identities through social interactions that revolved around the following: street crime, sexuality, physical toughness/violence, crime, and ideologies of gender inequality. Following this illustration, I depict how some male students constructed masculinities through their opposition to the teachers and school.
Male Students' Gender Constructions
During their school interactions with female students, males often relied on the following resources for gender constructions: "insatiable" heterosexuality, the use physical power and violence against women, and the objectification of women; thus, during these interactions males (re)produced ideologies and relationships of gender inequality (Connell, 1987; Messerschmidt, 1993,1995; West and Zimmerman 1987). Many male students constructed their own masculinities through the heterosexual objectification of females. (3) Male students would often talk about sexually using and dominating females. In the following example from field notes, several black male students socially demonstrate their heterosexuality and construct a white female student as a sexual object:
Donna puts her hair up in a ponytail. Arnie comments that Donna likes freaky sex. Jim says that's why she puts her hair up in a ponytail, so you can hold on. Jim simulates doing this and having sex. This gets a big laugh from the other male students. Donna is quiet during this interaction.
Male students sometimes also socially constructed their masculinities through interactions about "insatiable" heterosexual drives; these interactions also objectify female students. During the following classroom discussion the boys suggested that if a girl is unwilling or unable to have sex, then boys will have to satisfy their sex drive elsewhere:
Arnie, Jose, and Rose (all Hispanic/Mexican) are talking about having sex with a girl who is pregnant. Jose laughs at Rose when she says she is going to wait until she is married. Arnie states that he has had a variety of sex partners. Jose says he will say no to a girl, it would be difficult, but he'll do it if she's ugly. Rose states that a pregnant girl may not want to have sex. Arnie responds "That's a good reason to look somewhere else if she says she doesn't want it." Jose pretends to masturbate and says he's not going to do that just because his girl is pregnant. He'll go with others.
Furthermore, male students would often construct their masculinities in relation to females through social interactions centered around criminal violence and physical power. These constructions reproduce ideologies of gender inequality- that men have and should have power and control over females (Messerschmidt 1993, 1995). Group discussions of using violence against females could become quite graphic. Females were generally silent during these discussions, which suggests their relative powerlessness against and discomfort with male violence. In the following school lobby interaction, several male students create their locally-based masculine identities through a discussion about harming females who have venereal diseases. This discussion revolves around ideologies of crime, male power, and physical harm to women. They discuss how they have harmed such women in the past, and how they will harm a female sex partner if she has given them a venereal disease. In this case, a girl's social identity mediates the punishment she will receive from the males:
Earl, a white male is upset because he thinks he has gonorrhea. Sam, a Mexican male has it. He got checked and got medication. Apparently they and some other males were with the same girl a few weeks ago. Earl says he'll kill the bitch if he has it. Jim, a black male, says you can't let a girl live who gives you gonorrhea. It happened to him once and he didn't let the bitch live to talk about it. Jim says the only problem he has down there is it's too big. In response to Jim's statement about killing her, Sam says the girl is from the `hood. Jim says then you have to give her a pistol whipping or something. Earl says he knows what he'll do. He'll put lemon and alcohol on her pussy. The girls are silent during this discussion. The discussion gets lots of laughs from the male students ... Later that day Sam is in the lobby, bending over, holding his groin, apparently in pain from gonorrhea. He says he's going know the bitch out, kill that bitch, she's dead. He says he's gonna rip her head off, get a big ass gun and blow her head off. Earl says he'll do the same if he finds out he has it.
In general, interactions and ideas about physical power and violence over women were resources for some male students to construct their masculine identities; the resources were utilized to socially place women in their proper (subordinate) status; during the following classroom discussion, a male student tells another male student about how the use of male power and violence keeps a woman in her proper place. Will, a black male, tells a story that reflects and recreates ideas about women as heterosexual objects:
Will (another male student, and a female student are present) is talking about girls and how they will have sexual relations with gang members. He was at a party and one of his friends walked up to a girl and told her she was pretty. She told him that he was too short for her. His friend said-"What you bitch? Will says he hit her and "knocked that ho out."
Gendered interactions often illustrated some male students' perspectives on the overall appropriate social role of a female - being controlled by and subordinate to men. During the following discussion, locally-based violence is used as a gender resource to construct masculine power over females:
Myke, Bob, and Nancy are talking in the pre-employment classroom. Myke, a black male, says his homeboy beat up his woman last night. She went out with some people and came home late. He slammed her against a brick wall and knocked her to the ground. When she tried to move he hit her again. Bob, a black male, says he loves seeing that stuff. Nancy is silent during the discussion, while Myke and Bob get a good laugh from the story.
Male students' masculinity constructions often involved discussions about locally-based crime activities. During breaks from school, male students would sometimes hand around in the outside courtyard and tell stories about their physical power and crimes. In the spring of 1995 one of the more consistent, popular students at the school -- Andy, a Mexican gang member, was shot in a gang-related dispute. His return to the school the following week provided an opportunity for him (and others) to socially construct masculinity through a local resource -- gang crime and violence.
Andy is telling the story about how he got shot, showing everyone the holes in his body where the bullets entered and exited. He says he will kill who did it when he gets healthy. He says he didn't even fall down when he got shot, didn't even get hurt by the bullets. He says he was laughing all the way to his house and all the way to the hospital. His cousin says that when Andy was at the hospital he said his gang's name and tried to flash the sign but it hurt too much. Andy says they shot eight times but only hit him twice. Tom, a Mexican male gang member, then proceeds to tell a story about how he and two of his homegirls and one of his homeboys got shot. The girls fell down and were on the ground shaking and are now permanently disabled. He said he had to bring them to the hospital. The group had been at the park, all bowled out (high on marijuana), and a car drove up. Tom tried to see who it was and all of a sudden they shot 50 times at him and his friends. Tom pulled out a gun and fired back, then he put the gun away and got shot. Several times during class that afternoon Andy loudly shouts his gang's name.
During the above interaction Andy emphasizes that the bullets did not hurt him, and that he laughed all the way home. Being a "man," he was simply too tough to be frightened or felled by this shooting. Tom notes how he was attacked, fought back, and took care of his fallen female friends. Thus, local crime and social identity and the activities it involves -- including violence -- are used as resources for creating masculine identities.
Female Students' Gender Constructions
Sometimes female students actively resisted male students' discourses of violence, control, and superiority. Males attempted social-sexual objectification of female students was sometimes rejected by girls who would tell a male harasser to "shut up" or refer to the male as "gay" or a "faggot." Examples from field notes illustrate that these femininity constructions consisted of both resistance against and accommodation to masculinity ideologies. In the first discussion, Molly resists being objectified by challenging Matt's heterosexual and physical masculinity.
Matt, a Mexican male has been asking Molly for oral sex. When she said no, Matt said she probably didn't know how anyway. Molly, a Mexican female, yells out to Matt as he leaves the room that "her two month old nephew's (penis) is bigger than his; she says that she hates Matt and calls him a faggot. During health class the nurse hands out some food. Who will get the bananas becomes an issue. Dawn says she doesn't eat bananas and everyone laughs ... After class Andy says to Christie, a white female, --come into the bathroom with me and I'll show you my banana. Christie tells Andy that you can't even see it cause it's so small. Andy goes up to the bathroom door and tells her to come in but she does not go in.
During the above interaction, Christie also resists her objectification in part through questioning Andy's physical masculinity. In a few instances, girls even physically challenged to fight boys who had been sexually harassing them; such challenges were never taken seriously by males. Females' discursive challenges to males' gendered interactions were important acts of individual resistance, even if they often did revolve around and reinforce masculinity ideologies (e.g., heterosexuality). These challenges can be interpreted as females' resistance to the males' sexual harassment of them; in addition, this resistance attempts to negate males' social construction of females as sexual objects and inferior and less powerful individuals.
On numerous occasions females socially created their gendered identity as women through the denouncement of homosexuality. Ideas about the value of heterosexual women create these statements. An example from classroom field notes illustrates this practice:
Terry, a white female, is watching the movie Philadelphia Story during one of the final days of school. She says that lesbians are sick and that a girl better not come up to her and hit on her.
Female students' femininity sometimes was also accomplished through discussions of locally-based physical violence and toughness against other females (these types of construction were less common than those centered on heterosexuality). During interviews, several female students talked about having used physical violence against other females during gang-based fights (and the willingness to do it in the future). For example one day, Ellie, a female Mexican gang member, told her male friend and I during lunch about her physical fights at school and how it was "bad" when her "homegirls ... kicked a girl in the head" during a gang-based fight at school. During the following classroom discussion, Mandy's local neighborhood identity justifies her use of physical violence and helps create her resistant/bad femininity (Messerschmidt 1995); this violence demonstrates that she is a local girl who deserves respect from other girls:
Mandy, a Mexican female, reminds me during class how she showed me a cut on her lip earlier and says she got in a fight this morning on the bus on the way to school. Some blood asked her if she was a crab (a derogatory term for a "Crip" gang). She said no, and said to the girl -- "Hit me bitch." She says the girl got her in the side and the mouth. She said she was banging the girl's head against the seat and on the bar and punched the girl in the mouth. The girl's mouth was messed up. Mandy says "The fuckin' bitch should not be messing with me."
One day Mr. Glass kicked a male student, Eddie, a Mexican male gang member, out of class for telling some other male students a detailed story about having sex with a girl. However, the vast majority of times that teachers were aware of such conversations they simply told students that the conversations were "inappropriate" and should stop; teachers did not critically engage the students' gender constructions and generally did not discipline students for such constructions. The school staff did not adequately address the issue of gender inequality and students' gendered interactions that were centered around the degradation of females. There are at least two possible explanations for this non-response. First is Mr. Pitt's views of female students. Most students spent the majority of their time in his class, and he did not think very highly of the female students at the school. He thought of many of the females as
troubled and promiscuous individuals who were trying to be women (e.g., have babies) when in fact they were young, immature, irresponsible girls; he believed it would be best for male Students to avoid having relationships with the female students. During a discussion about the students I told Mr. Pitt that I thought the male-female interactions at the school were disturbing; he agreed with me but also re-stated his belief that the female students were harder to deal with than the male students. An example from class field notes indicates his perspective:
Randy, a black male, is in Mr. Pitt's class asking questions about getting a GED, and how long it takes to get one. Mr. Pitt says it varies and that it's like anything else, you have to work at it. He tells Randy that Randy could be smart, achieve, be successful. He tells Randy that it is up to him, how hard he works, how much he wants it. Mr. Pitt says it's like a girl, you have to work at it if you want her. Randy responds - not some. Mr. Pitt says then that's not a girl, that's something else. Brad, a Mexican male, says - a whore. A little later, a student tells Mr. Pitt that he heard Mr. Pitt had said the girls at the school were whores. Mr. Pitt says no, he never said that, but why get involved with the women who are in here, who have been in the system. He says -- couldn't you think of someone who is not like you (been in trouble) who would make a better mother.
Second, Mr. Pitt sometimes constructed his own masculine identity through hegemonic heterosexual ideologies in the classroom (4). Thus, on some level, Mr. Pitt accepted the idea that heterosexuality was a normal resource for gender construction. In the following example from field notes, Mr. Pitt makes it clear that he is a heterosexual who will have intimate relations with a woman after school:
Mr. Pitt is talking to a woman on the phone. Jim, a black male, tells Mr. Pitt that he's trying to get some. Mr. Pitt says -- trying? His tone implies that it is definite. Mr. Pitt later tells Jim that he'll be seeing the woman after work.
Gendered Oppositions to Teachers and the School
When students and teachers were in a serious argument/conflict about school rules and procedures, male students often constructed gendered opposition to school Male students utilized heterosexuality and physical power as resources to oppose the teachers and the school. Students were sometimes kicked out of school for the day for failing to do work and/ or disobeying staff directions or school rules and disrupting class. While being kicked out of school by a male teacher, male students often challenged the teacher's heterosexuality and physical power; students would often refer to male teachers as `punks,' `bitches,' `girls,' or `faggots' during conflictual interactions. On some occasions students would sexually and physically challenge/threaten a teacher:
Sam, a black male gang member, is kicked out of classes for the day for continually talking. Mr. Pitt tells him that he can't come back to the school until they have a staffing on him. Sam says "staff this" as he leaves and states that he is going to tell his parole officer that Mr. Pitt is a "Chola" (female). Mr. Pitt hears this and tells him to come back and states to Sam: "That name you called me, you must be one, it takes one to know one.
During the above interaction, Sam's reaction to Mr. Pitt signifies that Sam does not consider Mr. Pitt to be a heterosexual male. Sam refers to his own physical maleness to indicate what he thinks of school policy. He states that Mr. Pitt is a non-heterosexual man, making it clear that he does not perceive the school nor Mr. Pitt as relevant to his male identity. Mr. Pitt responds to this gendered challenge by questioning Sam's heterosexuality. In the next example from field notes, Wilt uses physical toughness and sexuality as resources to challenge Mr. Pitt and school. His reference to Mr. Pitt as a "bitch" challenges Mr. Pitt's physical power and sexuality. Like many other students did, Sam also refers to Ms. Church as a bitch (symbolizing his rejection of her power over him). During this conflict, Mr. Pitt and Wilt proceed to get into a tense verbal confrontation, which created concern about a physical incident.:
Wilt, a black male gang member, gets kicked out of the pre-employment classroom for the day due to his refusal to stop banging on the wall. He walks into the education class and asks Mr. Pitt for bus tokens. Mr. Pitt told him he needs to work in the other class, and Wilt tells him he got kicked out of there. Mr. Pitt tells him he has to leave then. Wilt keeps asking for tokens and Mr. Pitt tells him that he will not get any and that he has to leave. Will calls Ms. Church a bitch and says Mr. Pitt is a bitch too. Mr. Pitt follows Wilt out to the hallway where they loudly interact with each other, a somewhat tense situation. Mr. Pitt is repeatedly telling Wilt that he has to leave, and Will is telling Mr. Pitt to get out of his face, that Mr. Pitt does not have to follow him out. Mr. Pitt tells him that he'll do whatever he has to and that Wilt is not welcome at the school anymore. Wilt finally leaves.
This paper has analyzed inner-city, minority juvenile parolees' constructions of gender within and against a community school. The analysis reveals that the marginalized students constructed their gendered identities based upon dominant gender ideologies and on local resources such as crime, physical violence, and social locations. Male students often socially constructed their masculinity in relation to females, and utilized hegemonic cultural ideologies (e.g., control, and heterosexuality) and local gender resources for these constructions. Female students both resisted and created dominant gender ideologies. Cultural ideologies and the students' marginal social-structural locations provide the interpretive lenses through which I have attempted to thickly describe students' active gender constructions.
The social construction of gender was a common daily occurrence at the school, and school success and paid work were not used as gender resources by students. The prevalence of gendered activities at the school and the teachers lack of response to the activities is extremely significant. The school and its staff basically allowed particular gendered identities to be created in the classroom. This paper indicates how important it is for researchers to document the social processes that constitute alternative schools in order to understand how marginalized youths experience school. Students' active gender constructions were activities that reproduced cultural ideologies of gender inequality; in addition, students who actively constructed their gender through opposition to school, physical toughness/violence, and/or crime also helped increase the likelihood of their future marginalization. The harmful consequences of studentt activities call attention to the need to create schools that are meaningful and beneficial to marginalized students; everyone will benefit if these students succeed in school.
(1) By marginalized I mean individuals who are located on the structural-social margins of conventional society; students can be conceptualized as being marginal because they were lacking in beneficial social/cultural capital such as: being free (not a delinquent, not on parole), having school success, being white, having good class/economic status, and having paid work.
(2) Names of teachers and students are fictitious.
(3) The following discussion is not meant to deny females students' agency and resistance. Female students' resistance will be discussed later in the paper.
(4) Students often questioned Mr. Pitt's sexuality during interviews and classes. Perhaps this played a role in his own gender construction during class. Students also often encouraged me to try and "pick up" adult women at the school (e.g., Ms. Church), in effect asking me to illustrate that I was heterosexual. During such interactions I simply ignored students' requests or just said `no, no.'
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Brian J. Smith Westfield State College…
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Publication information: Article title: An Interpretation of Juvenile Parolees' Gender Constructions at School. Contributors: Smith, Brian J. - Author. Journal title: High School Journal. Volume: 85. Issue: 2 Publication date: December 2001. Page number: 43+. © 1999 University of North Carolina Press. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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