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Friday, August 23, 2013

When I Was A Boy: Gender Expectations, "Tomboy" Protagonists, Loss of Innocence, and Inspiration via Dar Williams song lyrics

Me around 8 years old, reading in a tree
I was listening to a CD while driving a few days ago and thinking of a few middle grade story projects. Many of my ideas have something to do with the “changing” that happens between ages 8 and 12ish—a time when kids are expected to start “growing up” and taking responsibility.”
A time when they start noticing and questioning the world around them.
A time when they start seeing that all of the rules and morals and this-is-the-way-things-are-done speeches that adults tend to give...well, those things sometimes get ignored by the adults themselves.
A time when boy/girl relationships take on new meaning, sometimes an unwanted meaning not shared by both sides of a friendship. Not all of us are ready for that “change” at the same time. My hormones didn’t kick in until long after they were due, and, frankly, I didn’t want them to. I liked things the way they were.
I was what people sometimes call "a tomboy," which I suppose just means that I was an active girl who didn't exactly have interests that belonged in the box society marks "GIRL." I used to embrace the word and wear it proudly: "I'm a tomboy, not a girly-girl." But you know what? That designation is kind of a stinker. Why couldn't I have just been a girl who liked to play sports and ride my bike and explore and climb trees? Why did those activities have to give me a label that indicated that an interest in adventure/action made me "boyish." But I digress. At the time, I embraced the term.

Anyway, there are a lot of strong female protagonists in chapter books/middle grade books who would rather be treated like ‘one of the boys’ and the lyrics in Dar Williams’s When I was a Boy nearly brought me to tears with their poignancy. At the end, you’ll notice a boy ‘character’ in the song saying that he felt the same way about having to leave behind some of his tendencies that could be considered ‘girlish.’
I think it’s a song that speaks wisely of gender expectations. It also addresses bittersweet and nostalgic feelings about childhood itself, regardless of whether the child is a boy or a girl. It speaks sadly of the things we lose—the things we trade away in the name of growing up. Here are the lyrics and a video of Dar singing the song in a Charlottesville, Virginia radio station.

When I was a Boy

I won't forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand
I said I was a boy; I'm glad he didn't check.
I learned to fly, I learned to fight
I lived a whole life in one night
We saved each other's lives out on the pirate's deck.
And I remember that night
When I'm leaving a late night with some friends
And I hear somebody tell me it's not safe, someone should help me
I need to find a nice man to walk me home.
When I was a boy, I scared the pants off of my mom,
Climbed what I could climb upon
And I don't know how I survived,
I guess I knew the tricks that all boys knew.
And you can walk me home, but I was a boy, too.
I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah, I never cared who saw.
My neighbor came outside to say, "Get your shirt,"
I said "No way, it's the last time I'm not breaking any law."
And now I'm in a clothing store, and the sign says less is more
More that's tight means more to see, more for them, not more for me
That can't help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat

When I was a boy, see that picture? That was me
Grass-stained shirt and dusty knees
And I know things have gotta change,
They got pills to sell, they've got implants to put in, they’ve got implants to remove
But I am not forgetting
That I was a boy too

And like the woods where I would creep, it's a secret I can keep
Except when I'm tired, except when I'm being caught off guard
I've had a lonesome awful day, the conversation finds its way
To catching fire-flies out in the backyard.
And I tell the man I'm with about the other life I lived
And I say now you're top gun, I have lost and you have won

And he says, "Oh no, no, can't you see
When I was a girl, my mom and I we always talked
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked.
And I could always cry, now even when I'm alone, I seldom do...
And I have lost some kindness,
But I was a girl too
And you were just like me, and I was just like you.


  1. Hopefully, I can remember to check out more of her music later. That's a great song.

  2. Great post, Jess! Though I wasn't really a tomboy, I certainly have nostalgic feelings about my childhood. The song is lovely.

  3. That is a great song. I was totally a tomboy too and this post brings back some of those memories.

    I love the pic of you in a tree reading! :)

    1. Yes, I was quite the tree reader in my youth. Wasn't always the most comfortable, but I loved the sensation of being somewhat hidden among the branches and leaves :)

  4. Lovely, poignant lyrics. Thanks for sharing them with us.

  5. Aww, the end of that is so sweet. It's like they really found their soul mates. Thanks for sharing and have a wonderful weekend! :-)

    1. Hope you had a good weekend~ I ended up going camping (YAY for camping!) :)

  6. "...speaks of the things we trade away in the name of growing up..." Wow, so true. Things like wonder, imagination, exploring. Can we recapture some of that like fireflies in the backyard? Thanks for sharing the lyrics to this song, Jess. It really says a lot :-)

    1. Ah, your comment just gave me a little shiver of nostalgia. Recapturing our youths like fireflies. If only :)

  7. Oh, wow, that was me. And it never even dawned on me that boys went through a similar thing but they have to give it up way earlier than girls. Thanks for sharing this, it really touched me.

    1. Yep, the part about the boy giving up on things touched me too :)

  8. Oh wow!
    That was me until people started talking and my mother started to care. *sad*
    Thanks for the post and the lovely song. I hope she's on iTunes. :)


  9. I was usually found under a car with my dad, fixing it. Or changing a tire with him. I knew how most things connected in a car and loved the smell of grease and grime. When I hit puberty all that changed. =( I missed spending time like that with him. I totally get it.

    1. I think I remember a post of yours where you mentioned that you knew about cars. I'm sure you have lots of good memories.

  10. Thanks for sharing those lyrics. They tell a touching story. Love the ending.

  11. I love this post--I see so much of myself in it. I wonder what kind of world we'd be living in if "growing up" didn't have to include so much loss--of innocence, of imagination, of a sense of adventure--and instead be about being able to grow into more of who we were meant to be. Thank you for sharing that song/lyrics.

    1. Thanks Liza~ glad you liked the post & song!

  12. Love the song! I hadn't heard it. Thanks for sharing.


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