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Parenthood Plus: March 28, 2012

Occupy the Boys’ Bathroom

The Occupy Movement has been greeted with mixed sentiment ranging from admiration to revulsion. On the plus side, the movement shows young people that folks of any age can come together around their own vision of the world they want. However, one does not have to attain revolutionary goals to work toward social change, as I learned some years ago when I was working with a group of troubled boys.

At the time, I was involved in developing an innovative school-based mental health program. I was filling in at the school for a few weeks, for one of the social workers who had taken a leave. I agreed to work with her boys’ group. The boys in the group were teenagers with significant emotional difficulties, ranging from depression to explosive behavior.

In my first meeting with the boys, the discussion took an interesting turn. They complained that there were no doors on the boys’ bathroom stalls and that there was yellow soap in the dispensers. It was a bit of a detour, but I encouraged them to say more about their objections.

As I recall, Keith was the first to speak out: “Do you think they have any idea how humiliating it is to go to the bathroom with no doors on the stalls? There’s no privacy; it’s embarrassing. It’s like they don’t trust us; they’re treating us like little boys.”

Sam added, “It’s disrespectful, that’s what it is – it’s disrespectful.”

And then Kurt, getting back to basics, pointed out, “Man, it’s a lot of pressure when you gotta go badly and you know you can’t.”

Benji added “It says ‘Boys’ Room’ on the bathroom door! We’re men! Dammit! What kind of crap is this anyway!”

A little later, another group member, Rob, asked the others if it was true that kids peed into the soap dispenser. Jay said that he saw someone do it but no one could really tell until it was too late because the soap was yellow. To which one of the group members declared, “We have to get them to put pink soap in the dispensers! Then we’ll know if anyone pees in there. Then we’ll know.”

Being heard and really listened to was a rare experience for the dozen boys who comprised the group. They knew about what being misunderstood, rejected and isolated was all about; but not in this group where they felt connected to one another. They were angry and united – outraged.

In time their social worker rejoined the group. I filled her in about the boys’ quest for improved bathroom conditions. She then guided them to develop a list of bathroom improvements that would be presented to the principal. She led them through an exercise in which they rehearsed presenting their grievances. Then she urged them to request a meeting with the principal to present their case.

Many weeks later, I came to the high school after the dismissal hour and headed down a long vacant hallway to attend an administrative meeting. I pushed open the Boys’ Room door and was pleasantly surprised to find pink soap in the dispensers and doors on the stalls.

This story affirms that working toward change does not require revolutionary goals. Supporting young people in taking action against social injustices – big and small – is a great way to help them to think critically, take a stand and prepare to become active citizens in community affairs.