Angry Boys, men and teachers

I’m no TV critic, but I know that along with the laughs, the first episode of Angry Boys delivered a punch to the gut.

So perfectly did Lilley capture the mix of rage, confusion and disconnectedness expressed by young Australian men that I felt a little uncomfortable, a little too close.

I’m lucky enough that I get to spend every day with adolescents. Through providence, I’m in the position of teaching every member of a particular Year 9 cohort. Amongst that number I could point out many boys in a similar position to Dan and Nathan, Angry Boys‘ protagonists.

Whether they deal with it through Daniel’s braggadacio and bravado or Nathan’s withdrawn hostility, these young men face a unique series of challenges. Dare I say it, but I feel that in many ways their experience is unparalleled. Added to the hormonal brambles of rebellion, sexual awakening and search for identity, young Australian men have to deal with unprecedented levels of family breakdown and a connected culture that voraciously seeks novelty and feeds on anyone it can. Privacy, increasingly, is a quaint notion. Despite our best intentions and attempts to impart a set of values, the media spruiks a message that gaining attention itself is more worthy than what you’ve got to say once you’ve got it. This is portrayed beautifully in Angry Boys sequences where Daniel raps to his webcam and shows off his Facebook avatars.

Quite simply, It’s a bastard of a game, with constantly shifting rules and there’s no mercy from the pricks, the chancers and desperate trying to claw their way to the top of the pile.

No wonder, then, we see young Australian men turning to drugs, alcohol and taking risks. After motor accidents, the greatest killer of teenage males in this country is suicide. To be vulnerable is to invite more scorn and some of our young men keep the emptiness and isolation bottled inside until it kills them one way or another.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll see Dan and Nathan’s grandmother attempt to lessen the blow of their impending separation, as Nathan is sent to Deaf School, by taking the boys to meet three of their rivals – a skater, a surfer and a rapper. As we’ve seen in the previews, it will be revealed that each of these young men is just as screwed up, if not more so, than our protagonists – fakes, frauds or fools pushed into the spotlight. There is, it would seem to be, no more real heroes. Paradoxically it would seem that prison guard Gran, beyond her prickly facade, is the best role model for the two brothers.

We know that there are no easy solutions to help lead our young men through adolescence. We give it a red hot go, however, spending millions on mental health programs and activities that seek to give young men some sort of compass for navigating this fraught period of their lives. There’s no shortage of commentators and experts, keen to make their mark by identifying some key factor responsible for leaving young men so stranded. It’s clear to see that we’ll never be able to tackle all of the issues that plague and kill them.

What I can and will advocate, however, is men stepping up and offering themselves as examples and mentors to the boys in their lives. From personal experience, I can tell you that the difference that giving a damn about one young man, showing an interest and simply offering a few experiences and perspectives, is astonishing. Aimless youth, content only when they’re destroying something become dedicated apprentices. Bitter, angry young men channel their passion into studies of history and politics, seeking truth rather than wildly refuting everything. I don’t claim to be any great teacher – in fact, some days I consider myself a fairly terrible one. It’s a simple testament to the power of giving a crap about the boys in your life. They thrive on the connection, taking what they admire about their elders and using it as an exemplar to aim for. The growth and development of healthy young men is almost always marked by the presence of figures that give a frame of reference for the stages of development they experience.

You don’t need to be a teacher, or a youth worker, or one of the chaplains we’ve been so caught up about to make a difference. You don’t even need to be a father. You just need to be in a position to check in on a brother, a nephew, a younger mate or a neighbour and chat. A simple ‘Hi’ as you pass by can mean more to some kids than you’ll ever know. They might not be significant feats of altruism, but they add up and sometimes provide the impetus for boys to keep on moving through the day without resorting to self-destructive measures.

The ratings show that we’ve generally been laughing pretty hard at Angry Boys. We revel in dickhead antics, especially when delivered with Lilley’s masterful gift for mimicry and ability to transform his appearance. However, it’s clear to see that Lilley is aiming deeper this time, offering a fairly unpolished picture of what it means to be a young man in contemporary Australia. What I hope we can take from it, besides the cathartic release of laughter, is that our young blokes are in a world of hurt and could really do with a hand.

Guest writer  Mike Stuchbery is a high school English and Civics teacher, writer and occasional broadcaster living in Melbourne’s western suburbs.