A friend recently shared the story of how much her first-grade son enjoys ballet, despite ballet being predominantly a girls’ activity.
For the next year and a half, he talked relentlessly about the day he would take dance classes. (We don’t let the kids start extracurricular activities until First Grade, and we limit them to one at a time.) When other boys talked about the sports that they played, he would say “I do ballet” long before he set foot in his first class.
His dad wasn’t sure of the wisdom in having his son dance when we live in a place where competitive sports are an integral part of the definition of what it means to be a boy. Our son held firm, “Yeah, but I’m a boy, and I do ballet.”
On the first day of class, he grabbed my hand and dragged me from the car to the studio. He was the only boy in his class, and the girls gave him a few uncertain looks. A few of them asked out loud why there was a boy in their girl class.
“It’s not a girl class,” he told them. “It’s ballet, and boys get to do it too.”
How awesome is that? He (and, especially, the other boys his age) may not realize it yet, but the men who do ballet are among the greatest athletes out there. Ballet is a serious cardiovascular workout. And not only do they need strong leg muscles for dancing … the men also need to be able to lift and carry the ballerinas. And they need to remain graceful in their movements the whole while. None of that is easy.
I never got bitten by the ballet bug when I was a kid. My sister did ballet for a time, and I don’t remember many boys (if any) in her class. I know ballet never appealed to me personally, and I remember being bored out of my mind having to sit through a performance of The Nutcracker one year at Christmastime.
However, my friend’s son’s story did bring back memories of something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. In junior high, I really got into a different “girl” activity: sewing. We got a brief introduction to sewing in the home economics course that everyone had to take in seventh or eighth grade. In the Home-Ec classroom, along with all the cooking and kitchen equipment, our school also had a bunch of nice sewing machines. We learned the basics about needles and threads, and how a sewing machine worked. I remember a lot of the boys grumbling about having to take Home-Ec, but I loved and looked forward to it for the same reason I looked forward to Industrial Arts (“Shop Class”): it was a wonderful break from the academic grind of the rest of the day. It was an opportunity to put the books away, and get my hands busy making something. Whether that “something” was made of wood, or made of cloth, or made of flour … it didn’t matter. I thought it was fun.
Which brings us back to sewing. I guess I never wrote sewing off as being “for girls,” because growing up I saw plenty of examples of men who were comfortable around a sewing machine. My father ran a men’s clothing store, and got lots of practice with minor alterations and repairs. Of course, most alterations (say, when a person is getting a suit fitted and hemmed) were sent out to a tailor. My summer job one year (when I was twelve) included literally running garments back and forth across downtown Seattle, to and from the tailor my dad used. He was an older Filipino guy, working out of a small office, and could do amazing things with a needle and thread.
So, in Home-Ec, I was excited to learn how to operate a sewing machine myself. I was a boy, and I loved machines. And making things. I wasn’t especially talented, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.
In fact, I enjoyed it so much, when ninth grade rolled around and I had an elective slot open on my schedule … I registered for “Sewing for Pleasure.” To my complete un-surprise, I discovered on the first day that I was the O-N-L-Y boy in the class. (A few weeks later, a second boy joined us — but only because he was a transfer student, and every other elective that would work with his schedule was already full.) As you might imagine, I had to endure a fair amount of ribbing from other boys. (“How’s your sooooooo-ing class going?”) I quickly settled on a stock response, which tended to silence the ribbers: “Hey! It’s a GREAT way to meet girls!” (My dad laughed heartily when I told him this.)
Meeting girls aside, I actually had a practical reason for taking the class. This was the fall of 1983, and I was starting to get very serious about long distance bicycling. I’d recently built my first real road bike (salvaged from a police auction, and then repainted and pieced together), and done a big weekend tour that summer with a friend. I’d even begun dreaming about doing my first Seattle to Portland ride the next June. The key accessory I lacked, and wanted, was a handlebar bag. That would allow me to keep lots of stuff close at hand — plus, with a clear plastic slot on the top, I could read maps or route guides as I rode. No more fishing the map from my pocket, trying to figure out when the next turn was coming.
Problem is, I had virtually no money available to accessorize my bike. I’d invested all my savings (fueled by a paper route and collecting aluminum cans) in building the bike itself. The Cannondale handlebar bag I wanted was way beyond my budget. Then, while reading Bicycling magazine, I stumbled across a small ad from a company that sold patterns so you could sew your own bike bags. In a flash, I saw the way to get my handlebar bag: make my own! I ordered the pattern, and from the first day I walked into class I knew what my final project would be. Every technique I studied and mastered, I kept the ultimate goal in mind: my handlebar bag.
So, as class progressed, and all the girls were making fancy dresses or whatever … I plugged away on my handlebar bag. My mother shuttled me to the fabric store (where I was always the only boy who was there voluntarily), as I searched out just the right materials. (Getting the right length zipper was especially tricky, as was figuring out how to do the plastic map pouch.) My dad helped me cut a piece of sheet metal to serve as the internal frame; figuring out how to sew that in was pretty interesting.
I ended up getting an A in the course, but I got something else that was even more important: a handlebar bag that I’d crafted myself. It was far from the lightest, and far from the most nicely finished. But it was durable. Large. Got the job done. And, most critically, it was mine. Every time I took it on a big ride (and I did use it on my first STP that June), I thought about how I’d sourced all the materials and put the thing together. As easy as it would’ve been for my parents to have just given me a handlebar bag for Christmas, I’m grateful that they didn’t. Having gone through the process of making it myself made it so much more special.
Once the project was complete, I largely lost interest in sewing. Bicycling was consuming more and more of my time and interest, and my folks didn’t have a sewing machine at home I could use anyway.
Still, I never forgot the basics. Ten years after taking that class, I was flying somewhere on a business trip. Sitting there on the airplane, I realized I’d lost a button from the cuff of my dress shirt. Once we landed, I’d be going straight to the client meeting. There would be no time to fix the button. I flagged down a flight attendant, and asked her if by chance there was a sewing kit on the airplane. She said there wasn’t one officially, but she had a small kit (with a few needles, and lengths of thread in various colors) in her personal bag. “Do you know how to use it?” she asked, clearly trying to hide her surprise. I hadn’t thought about it, but I was probably the first young-twenty-something male she’d met who knew how to sew.
Absolutely, I replied. She returned a moment later with the kit, amused. I sourced a spare button from the bottom of my shirt, and threaded up a needle. However, I quickly realized the repair would be a lot easier if I wasn’t wearing the shirt. It’s hard to hold a cuff button in place when your hand is sticking out of that cuff. I slipped into the lavatory, put the toilet lid down, took off my shirt, and sat down to work. Within a few minutes, the button was secure. I put the shirt back on, and returned to my seat with a big smile on my face. The next time the flight attendant came by, I showed off my cuff triumphantly. I thanked her, and returned the sewing kit. I made a mental note to snag one of those kits the next time I saw one at a hotel, and to never leave home again without one.
So, whether it’s ballet or sewing (or something else), don’t be afraid to let your son do something he enjoys — even if he’s the O-N-L-Y boy in the room. Anyone who might make fun of him just needs to get over it. He’s not weird, and he’s not a sissy. He might just be picking up a valuable skill. And he’s definitely learning how to stick with something he loves, no matter what the rest of the world might think.