Fatherless Boys

October 4, 2017


My work with men started with working with boys. It became a natural progression, and perhaps a bit of an obsession, to discover the world of suppressed thoughts and feelings of men.


When my firstborn was four months old, I decided not to go back to work in the IT field in health care. The World Trade Center had come down less than a week before my maternity leave ended, and I wondered why I had worked so hard to become a mother if I was going to leave her in an uncertain world, when I might not be able to get to her, when a crowded building is a more certain target than a single house whose worst statistical probability was going to be to crumble when "the big one" ever finally hit...


Instead, I opened a K-12 learning center focused on students with adverse behaviors--kids who were often very smart, under-challenged, bored with school, and who might start fires on school grounds just because they "found" some matches and there just happened to be a garbage can full of paper towels. 


This was not the only "type" of student the learning center (and I) attracted. It was also kids who had issues at home and school due reactive attachment disorders or oppositional defiant behaviors, and others who just learned differently because of brain chemistry and wiring.


The kids who needed help getting prepared for national tests were typically typical (and sometimes brilliant but had low attention), and the kids who we did most of our philanthropy for were kids who qualified for free and reduced lunch and went to poor or failing public schools.


Along the way, I met a boy who forever changed the ways I questioned what I thought I knew about boys and men and parenting. He was a very big boy even though he was only 12 when I met him. He kept getting "passed" into the next grade because of his size, but his academic ability was not truly tested or challenged. I remember thinking, "What is wrong with this district?" when the administrator at his middle school told me he was going to go ahead and get into 7th grade even though he'd hardly done the work "because we just can't have a boy that big in 6th grade again!"


This boy was gentle and a hard worker, though no one had ever truly given him a chance to learn or had time to teach him the way he learned. His mom worked as hard as she could, but without a father in the picture, it was easier to have evenings spent in peace rather than fighting with the boy over whether he did his homework or not (as if that is the real question to be asking about learning in the first place). He lived in a stressed but loving matriarchal, multi-generational household.


I thought a lot about this boy, but mainly in how to teach him all the things he'd missed while keeping him up to speed on his current work. And he worked hard! But he worked at his own pace, and that pace was not quick. He lumbered wherever he went. At the time, I might have thought it was because he didn't care or didn't have a model of hustle, but my stories changed as I thought about this boy 15 years later.


He lumbered because he was not going to catch up anyway.


Even if teachers cared, they could not teach him six years of learning to get him on par with his peers. He had entered puberty and was crushing on girls. His mom babied him. His grama loved him, but sometimes yelled at him.


He told me about getting caught on a staff elevator at the library, making out with a girl, or maybe more than making out. He asked me where he could see this girl and get some privacy. He was 14. My answer to that now makes me realize how little I knew and how judgmental I was. I told him he needed to give that much focus to school so he could actually take any girl somewhere someday to have a little privacy, but that he could start out by just writing her a little note stating that he wanted to get to know her, not just feel her up in an elevator that was off-limits. That was not exactly what I said, but it was certainly the gist of it and it certainly overlaid all of my privilege and assertions about life onto a boy whose life I knew actually very little about, but extrapolated on a lot.


Then he gave me this:


Dear Amy,

I don't think u can come up wit a solution 2 this but I don't know who is gonna be here to teach me how 2 become a man. It's like I'm starting 2 be sexually active to a degree and I really have nobody to talk 2 about girls and all that other stuff. There is really nobody I can talk to or get advice from when it come down to things most teenage boys think about. If I ever become a dad there is really nobody I could talk to about being a father because I have not had one in my life. 


You know how I'm starting 2 think and I would like to talk 2 my dad about some of this but since I really don't have one, I don't know who 2 talk 2.



His Name


P.S. I hoped she liked it because I wrote that 4 her and I'm about to ask her out tomorrow so if I start to talk 2 her during class you know why and I'll tell you the good/bad news then.


Even as I reflect on this boy and this note, I wonder how he is and where he is. I am aware that my fear of being the object of a young boy's confidence overrode my true ability to help him within the boundaries of our work as pedagogista and student as well as the boundaries of an adult friend to a fatherless boy. I did not want to be the object of his emerging sexuality, and I did not want to be accused of being Mary Kay LeTourneau, or worse, the Great White Mistress. So I stayed aloof behind the guise of "boundaries," but never really got vulnerable to him or his family.


Vulnerability is the major key component to relationship and making them work, whatever their make-up. Easier it is to observe and direct, but to ponder and share with a friend, or even to mentor in authenticity and vulnerability is to risk shame, control, or judgment. 


I say control because in the role of teacher/coach/model/practitioner, one is taught to believe that they control the dynamics of the relationship or session or room. Giving up that control is not a loss of power, and it does not shift the dynamic, except in opening up possibilities for growth greater than one might ever have anticipated in their role as practitioner/teacher/coach/or model.  


I say judgment because it is easy to be judged by the expectations and values of others when you put your true self and thoughts out there. And it is going to take a strong self-identity and steady sense of self to risk being scrutinized.


Shame. If the sense of self isn't steady-- if unsure that the identity you hold to be true of yourself is not really what it externalizes as--and if unsure that the who you believe you are is not in integrity with what you value, then shame is likely going to be riding in to corrupt your sense of self-worth and to uncork the doubt you have about who you are in the world.


I have gotten clear about who I am since this boy was 12. It has been a 15-year-learning. It has been experiential and Socratic. And it gave me the clarity to risk working with families and conflict through the lens of both pedagogista and feminine archetype. Because becoming a man is best taught by men, but short of that, it must be taught by women, and the needs and desires and wiring and roles of the gender binary differ. But we complement. My role as a neutral, a peacemaker, is versatile and fluid in its ability to also be present and persistent in the feminine calling to teach men how to be men.


If I were to see this former student of mine, surely now a majority age nearing 30, I would ask him how he's doing, what he's doing, where his life has gone, where he finds success and where he has misstepped. I would ask him how he learned to be a man. And I would acknowledge that I did not know the answer to his question so long ago was to ask him what he thought being a man was supposed to be. After we had had that answer, we could have gone ahead and begun to clarify the mythos of culture, and then mapped a plan for him to live a life he wanted to live, eventually becoming a mature male human.


That would have been the answer to how he becomes a man. It is the answer to how any one of us without a living model of what we want to see becomes anything. But it is excruciating and lonely in a culture that has set up boys to fail or be super, and even at his young age, my former student knew that he wanted to succeed and do it right, but felt the void of not having a star male front and center in his life to show him how it's done.


I loved teaching middle school. I loved watching babies, toddlers, and preschoolers and learning about the brain in my early learning lab for 15 years. I really love working with educating families, couples, and adults in a similar type of mapping that I did not know about 20 years ago.


Thank you.


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