What John Cena Taught Me About the Practice of History: Making Connections in the Past and Present

Big Brothers and Big Sisters, in conjunction with the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (OPHEA), recently developed a new group mentoring program for teen boys, called Game On! The program is composed of evening meetings over 7 weeks with sessions built around core themes of physical activity, healthy eating, self-esteem, and communication skills. Its inspiration drew from the success of a similar program for teen girls developed in 2001, called Go Girls! Curious about the program, and wanting a new challenge (not to mention a break from dissertation work), I volunteered for the first run of the program in Kingston, ON. Excited to provide input into a new program which seemed to strike some common chords with my research topic, I entered the first week of the program with, I thought, my eyes, ears and mind wide open. What better way to use a skill set and insights gained from my academic work than to help shape a new program? Isn’t this what being an active historian is all about?

Well, a number of issues with this rather arrogant assumption became apparent almost immediately. First, as anyone who has worked with pre-teen and teen youth likely knows, trying to get a group of energetic, boisterous boys to sit down and talk nutrition and body image, while they want to get back to more entertaining activities like playing dodge ball, can be likened to herding cats. My co-facilitator, a young officer at CFB Kingston, and I often were reduced to shrugging our shoulders and changing the program on the fly as various planned activities went in a direction we had not expected. Our first week consisted mainly of a lot of “don’t do that” “hey, don’t hit so and so” and trying to establish a “contract” of respect and behaviour that we all could agree to and promise to stick to over seven weeks. After wrapping up the first 75 minute session we both went home needing to reflect and pop some Tylenol.

Over the course of the seven weeks, however, we learned, as much as is possible given our limited contact, to adapt to the needs of each child in the group. With significant age differences, along with different learning styles and abilities, not to mention varying social backgrounds, finding common ground was often a challenge. Over the course of many games of dodge ball, treasure hunt, graveyard, and the always popular snack time (every week incorporated nutrition education built around discussing food choices after having prepared snacks together), we were able to chip away at some of the ingrained bravado in the boys to have the occasional, if brief, discussion about the program’s core themes. For instance, one discussion about advertising geared towards boys provided a good jumping off point to talk about male stereotypes and role models. (Determined to find a male figure that they could identify and that wasn’t dated, I had spent the previous evening on Google and various sites in order to bring in pictures for our discussion). Sidney Crosby failed to spur discussion (too bland perhaps?). UFC fighter George St-Pierre only slightly more so. Then I hit the jackpot: a John Cena action figure (Cena is a popular WWE wrestler). Most of the boys lit up and started arguing about which wrestler was their favourite, including the “Dr. of Thuganomics” and we eventually drifted into talking about stereotypes of wrestlers and manliness. While we may not have completely convinced them that there were many varieties of “manliness”, we at least had a discussion about it. Attempts to discuss male stereotypes and expectations of girls were less successful, as many of them seemed to be in that awkward stage of being unwilling to admit they pay any attention to the opposite sex (and even more unwilling to admit that they might have been wrestling with their own confusion about their feelings about either gender).

While I think the experience of running the first cohort of the program in Kingston will provide some valuable feedback for future undertakings of Game On!, and hopefully gave the participants some valuable experiences over the seven weeks, its most significant impact has been on my own approach to my sources and my professional assumptions. My research on the Boy Scout movement in Canada is heavy on sources meant for Scout leaders which dispense advice on the best way to grab the attention of boys and keep them interested while also being highly prescriptive about norms around masculinity, citizenship, faith, race and class. The voice of the volunteer leader, working in church basements, school gyms, and community centres to find a point of connection with his or her young charges is much more difficult to discern. Certainly, one’s experiences working with youth today cannot be interchanged with the experiences of similar volunteers in the past, but it has given me a higher appreciation for the sensitivity and improvisational ability these leaders often had to develop to run programming every week that could connect with the sometimes complex world of children.

Active History strives to build historical practice “that listens and is responsive; history that will make a tangible difference in people’s lives; history that makes an intervention and is transformative to both practitioners and communities.” Working in these types of programs has given my own historical practice new insights. I went in assuming I had something to offer, but instead, I was reminded of the need to listen. I began the journey expecting to be of particular use to the program because of my background; I end it having gained far more from it than my so-called expertise could have given in return.

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