The Schoolboys by Andrew McMillan

I was once part of a team carrying out a Gender Audit of an academic institute, one involved in the field of international development. I ran a focus group with the senior male professors and got them to role play their female research fellows, for whom their career prospects were far more limited. It was one of the most hilarious and depressing experiences of my professional career. They simply couldn’t do it, and when they tried they were so lacking in empathy, it was frankly embarrassing. It was an expression of this dominant culture, one practised by those who held power in the institution and had no awareness of how it affected those who were not white, middle-aged men.

My sons look different – well, different to the majority of boys their age; they have long hair of ever-changing colours (red, bleach blonde, black), have in the past wore eye make-up, and their clothes are black. Gay, faggot, queer, are terms regularly used by passers-by at them, and sometimes those looking for trouble. The currency of such a derogatory term has increased massively in the past five years among people. It is an indicator of the way in which, what lies beneath can easily come to the fore, to the mainstream. In other contexts it is this type of behaviour that blocks pathways to opportunity for many people who look different. It engenders a fear, a dislike of ‘others’, whether they be refugees, a woman breastfeeding in public, or people with ginger hair.

Andrew Author PhotoAndrew McMillan’s poem, The Schoolboys shows the subtlety of this type of discrimination; the one that lurks and only comes out at particular times, one that is not the whim of a teenage child either, but from someone who has for many years possibly not seen such behaviour as exhibited by the subjects of the poem. There is a wonderful contrast by the boys’ playfulness and the repressed woman, all against the backdrop of Thatcher’s death and the celebrations; “they briefly mention Thatcher and the town/that came together for a party      they/didn’t understand the point of                although/the adults seemed to enjoy it drinking/and setting fire to a doll of her.” Then one of the boys ‘joke insults’ the other, ‘pouting’, but it doesn’t last and then “one puts his hand between the cheap trousers/of the other                the way schoolgirls often/hold hands on their way to class.” All the way through, even though the woman is only briefly mentioned (she tuts, she thinks of her own son), you feel the simmering tension in the spectacle; her lack of empathy, her rage; “the boys sit closer/than they need to                       the lady burns.” You would hope that the modernists are right, and that we are moving towards a more enlightened view of people not in the majority. But we are just at the beginning of a technological revolution that gives confidence to people but also lets everybody know what everybody else is doing, and it is still too early to say how society is going to respond to that.

Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988. His debut collection, physical, won the 2015 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and has been shortlisted for The Forward First Collection Prize, The Guardian First Book Award and the Costa Poetry Prize. Physical was an Autumn 2015 Poetry Book Society Recommendation and a Book of the Year in the London Evening Standard. He currently teaches Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University



The Schoolboys

coming with the bulge of them through the doors
schoolboys in suits so big it seems as though
grown men have deflated inside                       two slump
away from the morning rush of bags                phones
arms stretched out of their muscle by the sharp
sprints of growth             they find their seats and settle

facing me            first fluff ready for shaving
but left to go feral above the lip
words sweating into the air between them
the twelveyearold talk that finds the body
still comical rather than alluring
they briefly mention Thatcher and the town

that came together for a party   they
didn’t understand the point of       although
the adults seemed to enjoy it          drinking
and setting fire to a doll of her

one makes a joke insult to the other
who pretends to be offended   pouting

into his rucksack then out the window
there’s silence  but they are still only
learning stubbornness and buckle quickly
the insulter takes his friend’s face in
one hand             pushing his thin lips together
to parody the mood       the lady sat

by the side of me tuts    the boys let go
and start their conversation up again
one puts his hand between the cheap trousers
of the other       the way schoolgirls often
hold hands on their way to class            the woman
coughs and sighs like a slowpunctured football

she stares out the window          maybe thinking
of her son           by now a man    she goes red
she focuses on a headline            rising
unemployment            lack of manual jobs

the boys move seats         two others wrestle
to impress the girls          the boys sit closer
than they need to              the lady burns

(Published in physical, Jonathan Cape, 2015)

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