Alex hugged his books a little closer to his chest, and surveyed the crowd around him. At first glance, he'd have to guess that about ninety-five percent of the people around him were women, while only five percent were his fellow men. Of that, most of the guys were probably only at the meeting so that they could skip their afternoon classes. Maybe three guys were there with honest intentions, Alex included.
The spring "Girl Talk" assembly was an annual tradition at Alex's school. The assembly was aimed at all the seniors, and was meant to educate students of each gender of women's roles in the changing modern world. Most of the senior boys regarded the assembly as a sissy event for feminists, gays, and girly-boys. A few attended in order to skip out on classes. Most just went home, claiming they'd been at the assembly for an excused absence.
Alex had always liked the idea of "Girl Talk," though. His father had walked out on him when he was three, leaving his mother to raise him all alone. From her, Alex had learned how strong a woman could be. One of the most important and frequent lessons Alex's mother had passed on was that women deserved to be treated with respect.
In school, Alex had seen that not all his male classmates had treated the women with respect. Some rather attractive boys had smiled charmingly and flirted with trusting young girls, then had dumped them or cheated on them after a few weeks. Other guys had been outright abusive and mocking, with claims that a woman's only place was "in the kitchen and making babies."
Alex hated such proclamations, and although he recognized that few of the men actually meant what they'd said, he didn't think their jests were the least bit funny or reasonable.
Of course, some girls had abandoned all their respect and dated such men, or flirted with them, or made friends with them, or even simply sided with them in an argument. Alex never could understand how any woman could mindlessly agree to such a statement, but he'd never challenged anyone on them either. After all, he was a relatively small boy, and could barely stand his own if some other guys decided to gang up on him.
No need to worry about that for the time being, though. The whole assembly was devoted to girl-power and progressive messages for women. Alex wouldn't need to shamefully leave his female friends to defend themselves against sexist statements, nor would he need to fear contemptuous looks from his peers, as they probably would assume he was just at the assembly because he couldn't get a ride home and it was better than class.
Of course, he'd have to be subtle about his note-taking. He hoped to learn some interesting facts and arguments about the modern world of feminism, and intended to write down everything he heard to contemplate later. He'd just have to find a relatively secluded corner of the bleachers where he could be alone but inconspicuous.
And there the problem lay. Before Alex stretched a bleacher full of girls in pink, girls in skirts, girls with long hair and make-up, and girls gossiping. In the far left corner sat some sulking men in grubby jeans and oversized shirts. If Alex sat with them, he was bound to never hear the speakers above his peers' grunts and mocking words.
With a shrug, Alex made the only choice he could, and ascended the bleachers among the girls. A few glared at him, probably assuming his intentions weren't all that they could be. Feeling like some sort of ogre even though he hadn't done anything wrong, Alex settled into a seat behind two blondes wearing too-tight jeans and low-cut halter tops.
Silently, Alex chastised himself for mentally critiquing the girls' means of self expression, then pulled his notebook out of his book bag. Just as he dated the top of the page and settled a textbook beneath the paper for a hard surface, the principal strode to the lone microphone in the middle of the gym and announced that the first speaker was a professor from a community college.
The applause from the bleachers was half-hearted at best as a woman in a trim business suit strode up to the microphone. Her red hair was pulled out of her face in a severe bun, and the thin dark glasses on her nose gave her face a distinctly angular quality.
The woman cleared her throat, then began to speak. "Think about yourself when you were a child," she began. "What did you want to be when you grow up? A doctor? A scientist? A pilot? Did you ever think such jobs were impossible for you because you are a woman?"
Alex took a deep breath and tried to imagine the challenges of the job market being limited to him just because of his gender. His mother had time and time again impressed upon him how lucky he was to be a man, and sometimes he took for granted the opportunities available to him.
In the row before him, one of the blondes whispered something in the other's ear, and both giggled. Alex tried to ignore them.
The woman wasn't finished talking yet. "Did you want to be a teacher or a waitress or a stay-at-home-mom? Why? Did you maybe conform to society's stereotypical gender roles?"
Alex considered himself as a child. He remembered when his mother had taken him to see The Nutcracker Ballet on Christmas Eve when he'd been only seven years old. He remembered the wander he'd felt as he'd watched the dancers performing the old story of the toy that had come to life. As the man playing the nutcracker had lifted another dancer over his head, Alex had marveled at the dancer's strength and grace. That night, he'd decided to become a ballerina.
Of course, that dream hadn't lasted long. While his mother had encouraged the idea, Alex's uncle, who had been to the ballet as well that night, scoffed. He'd made some comment implying that Alex might be gay, which the child hadn't understood.
When he'd shared his dreams with some other boys at school, they too had mocked him, calling him a girl. Only after he tearfully poured his heart out to his mother after a particularly bad day at school did she tell him, "Alex, some times people don't like it when men do things that they think are girly. Sometimes, you have to keep your ideas to yourself."
That had been the first time in Alex's life that he had experienced discrimination. He'd always believed that women were the only gender to be wronged. Since those days, he'd given up on his hopes of becoming a ballerina, particularly as little league athletics had taught him he didn't have enough grace or balance to dance.
He pushed those memories away, however, guiltily noting that the speaker was just finishing up her remarks, and he'd barely heard what she'd had to say. The woman recited a few statistics about women in the workplace, then strode away from the microphone. Sporadic applause rose from the crowd, and Alex tried to put as much enthusiasm into his clapping as he could to make up for the fact that he hadn't really been listening.
The next speaker was a woman named Melissa Menendez, and Alex's principal introduced her as a psychologist. Alex adjusted his weight to a more comfortable position, and Menendez approached the microphone.
She began rather boringly by stating, "Most of my work in recent years has been devoted to teenage romance and gender development in high school years. I want to talk to you all a little bit about how you act around your boyfriends, and some mistakes a lot of girls make concerning romantic relationships."
Already, Alex's mind began to drift. He noticed and tried to force himself to pay attention to Menendez's speech, but he couldn't keep himself from thinking about Laura.
Laura didn't really exist, but rather was an imaginary girlfriend Alex had made up at the end of junior year. He'd never had a real girlfriend, and had felt distinct pressure from his peers to get with a girl or two.
In particular, Alex had been ashamed of the fact that he was a virgin. Other boys would brag about the girls they'd been with, and Alex had never been able to muster the courage to declare that he intended to wait for marriage before "going all the way."
He'd been a bit jealous of the girls in school- some slept around, and others maintained their chastity, and while girls in each group were mocked a bit for their choices, they never needed to feel alone. Alex felt like he was the only seventeen-year-old guy on earth who had never had sex, and knew that if word got out, he would never live it down.
Thus, Laura had been created. Alex hadn't been willing to slur a real girl's name, so he had instead created an imaginary girlfriend who went to North Hanbrook, a school about half an hour's drive away. The first time Alex had spoken up to talk about Laura while he'd been showering after gym, he'd felt like he was doing something wrong by talking about her, even though she technically didn't exist.
Over the course of the last year, his lies had become a bit easier to tell.
The girls in front of Alex were whispering to one another again. He tried to ignore them and to once more focus on Menendez's message, but she really wasn't saying anything unique. Alex had heard slogans about sexual freedom before, and wasn't as interested in the idea as he had been his freshman and sophomore year. He would never admit this to another living person, but Alex could only listen to talk about sex for so long before he became bored.
After far too long, Menendez finished speaking. The principal took the microphone again, and she looked rather pale and disheveled. Was it possible that she hadn't known Menendez would address a roomful of high school seniors about sex?
She cleared her throat, then said, "Thank you, Doctor Menendez, for that, uh, enlightening speech. Our final speaker today will be Anne Dobbs, who has written several books on relationships between the genders."
Alex mentally prepared himself for another speech about boyfriend/girlfriend relationships, but when the cheerful-looking young woman with dark, curly hair bounced up to the microphone, she began by saying, "My best friend is a man named Adam Ingles. Whenever we go out together, people think Adam is my boyfriend or my husband. If I went out with another woman, nobody would think we were lesbians. Why is it that when a man and a woman go somewhere together, people always think they must be romantically involved?"
Alex looked around and noticed that some girls were nodding in agreement. He really didn't have any opinion on the matter, though. Even though he'd been going to school with them for almost his entire life, Alex understood nothing about girls, and quite frankly, they made him nervous.
There were some things that the girls at Alex's school did that didn't make any sense to Alex, and he couldn't make any sense out of their actions. He never intended to be judgmental, but Alex just couldn't understand how some girls would spread vicious rumors about their peers rather than confronting them face to face the way guys did.
His mother probably would be disappointed to know how often Alex avoided girls just because he wasn't sure how to act around them. She'd tried so hard to impress upon him the importance of equality between sexes, and probably would pay little heed to Alex's protests that girls really did act different from boys, and he didn't know how to treat them.
He shook his head, and turned his attention back to Dobbs. One rebellious part of his mind rhetorically asked why men never got a chance to talk about their problems like girls did. He shot that idea down quickly, reminding himself that girls were a minority, and men held all the power in the world.
After all, who worried about men's rights?