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Boys Wonder: Montpelier High School Students Dig Into What It Means to Be a Man

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Published January 17, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated January 17, 2024 at 10:13 a.m.


Joe Carroll at Montpelier High School - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Joe Carroll at Montpelier High School

The students in Joe Carroll's new class at Montpelier High School talk about the kinds of things one might expect from teenagers — skiing, favorite movies, grades. But the 10 boys in an elective called Healthy Masculinity delve into more complex topics as well: the mixed messages they get about what it means to be a man; how traditional concepts of masculinity have harmed women; and ways to respond when a peer says something ignorant or misogynistic.

Since the #MeToo movement began in 2017, there has been a renewed spotlight on reducing male violence and mistreatment of women. National data also indicate that, compared to women, young men have fewer friends and higher suicide rates. Carroll's semester-long class gives boys on the cusp of adulthood the rare chance to share private thoughts and feelings in a supportive, judgment-free environment — and to envision what kind of men they want to be.

Soren Bay-Hansen, a junior, said the class has been the highlight of his school year.

"It's, by far, the most powerful, personally impactful class I've taken," he said. "Having this space has changed my mindset on a lot of things. I've been able to share information and ... say things to friends I normally wouldn't say."

Reactions like that are just what Carroll hoped for when he created the class. He was inspired by training he took with other Vermont educators last year through Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit MCSR, formerly known as Men Can Stop Rape. The organization's Healthy Masculinity Action Project aims to help boys and men embrace the idea of "strength without violence." That includes combating harmful expectations and stereotypes about what it means to be a man.

Carroll, who also teaches Latin and philosophy, first planned to start a school club focused on masculinity but decided a credit-bearing class would draw more student buy-in. He recruited an inaugural class, capping the number of students at 10 to encourage open, deep discussion. He limited enrollment to juniors and seniors because he thought they would be best suited to handle the mature subject matter. Carroll said he believes it's the first high school class of its kind in Vermont.

Watching his students share their ideas and support each other has been "super cup-filling," Carroll said. "It's totally renewing my teacher soul and making me want to do more and more of this work." He plans to offer the class again next semester.

On a December morning, the atmosphere in Carroll's classroom was relaxed, with meditative flute music playing from a speaker. Students went around the room, answering lighthearted icebreaker questions projected on the board — an activity Carroll often uses to begin class.

The teens talked about the films they could watch repeatedly (Fight Club, La La Land, anything from Studio Ghibli); where they could imagine themselves living when they were older (London, British Columbia, Vermont); and what sources they turned to for news (YouTube, social media, the New York Times app.)

Because a reporter was present, the class then departed from its usual course, during which students often share personal stories and thoughts under a confidentiality agreement. Instead, class members answered questions about why they had enrolled and what they have learned.

Emmett Jarvis, a senior, said that when he heard about the class, it sounded like "a neat concept," a form of gender studies, but also a "fellowship space" to connect with other young men. He said he liked the mix of structured activities, in which the group discusses masculinity and gender roles, combined with more free-flowing conversations about personal struggles and how to navigate tough situations.

Fellow senior Callum Robechek said he appreciated the respect that classmates show toward each other.

"This is a place where we're absolutely comfortable to come in and say, 'I'm feeling terrible. Here's something really personal that I'm struggling with,'" he said.

Through thought-provoking activities, students are able to explore the concept of masculinity and why certain traits associated with it — such as dominance, aggression and stoicism — can be harmful. In one exercise, they were shown images of different male characters in popular media, including Olaf, the snowman in Frozen, and the Norse god Thor, and talked about the masculine traits each possesses. They also looked at advertisements for products such as razors and discussed what messages they convey to their target male audience.

"I think before I took this class it was hard to speak out against people saying slurs and stuff because I wasn't really educated on what it all meant," said Colden Hollingsworth, a junior. "Now I think it's easier to speak out because I know why it's wrong and I can tell that person why it's wrong."

Steven Supan, a senior, said examining Greek words for different types of love — familial, brotherly, romantic — really resonated with him. The class talked about how males are often wary of saying "I love you" or hugging friends because they don't want to be perceived as weak or effeminate.

Supan said he came away from the discussion thinking, "I'm definitely going to try saying 'I love you' a lot more, just because it seems odd to me that I have such a barrier saying it."

Talking about these matters can feel uncomfortable, even subversive, at first. Bay-Hansen said that earlier in the school year, some of his peers made fun of the class and called him a "nerd" for taking it.

"I was like, 'Nah, you guys are wrong. It's awesome. I love it,'" he recalled.

Some of that resistance is likely because there are so few opportunities for men to discuss masculinity in an honest, open way, said Keegan Albaugh, who founded Burlington-based Dad Guild, a support network for fathers, in 2018.

Albaugh said the Montpelier High School class is the kind of supportive male community that society needs more of. When men or boys see a peer show vulnerability, "that is always contagious," he said.

Students in the Montpelier class said they have developed strong bonds and often eat lunch together in the cafeteria after class. Some have encouraged friends to take the course next semester.

"If Mr. Carroll can help us create this amazing space and then all of us go out and find a way to make this kind of vulnerable space in our lives, we're just spreading the good vibes," Supan said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Boys Wonder | Montpelier High School students dig into what it means to be a man"

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