Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

for love of boys: a letter from a friend & colleague ~

A friend sent me a note after my previous post. Her husband, she said, had grown up in a family  that substituted isolation and alienation for love, hard ‘discipline’ (most of us would call it verbal abuse) for compassion, and religious fear for reflective belief. It was, she told me, a profoundly sad & ugly childhood.

Her husband is a lovely man: gentle, kind, very bright, and gifted in many creative arts. Not to mention just a heck of a nice guy. But his knuckles are scarred from the doors & walls and other things he has hit over & over. And there are equally deep scars — although not visible — he wears from being hit with words, over & over again…

What is it with this culture & ersatz manliness? Why must all boys be raised to be warriors? And not even warriors in the honourable ancient Asian traditions: trained in art & literature & language… I do the warrior traditions of Native American tribes & Japanese families & Chinese dynasties & Indian eras dishonour by comparing my friend’s childhood to these polyvalent traditions. What our culture does cannot be called training boys into warriors. No, we throw our boys away — discard them in childhood for the very traits we respect in many men.

Scientists have said in various articles that the obsessive passions fueling their childhood paths would not be allowed today. A diagnosis of Aspberger’s is probably the best many could hope for. Athletes? ADHD. The creative dyslexics (creativity & dyslexia often go hand-in-hand)? Unless they are in very good schools, no money to counsel. No time in a test-driven environment for poor test-takers. Medicate them (and I’m not impugning legitimate medication, but the tendency to over-medicate boys, specifically) or, eventually, expel them.

As a mother of sons, I plead a lack of objectivity about the plight of boys. And make no mistake: boys are endangered. Not as a ‘species,’ but as happy beings. As the logical terminus of millenia of evolution.

We lock many of them up — what else do you do with 10-year-olds who beat up homeless veterans? Never mind what causes a 10-year-old to turn from a child into a violent monster. We can ask ‘what do we do with these horrible monsters?’ But there are other questions… Are we even asking the right questions?? Yes, a 10-year-old who beats a homeless man is very sick. So is the society that produced him. And the veteran he beat up: what nation lets such a huge number of its (male) veterans end up homeless, after they risk their very lives for us??

It’s only been a few centuries that we have taught our boys how to read. Only a few centuries that boys haven’t had to help the tribe or family hunt for food, or scrape existence from the furrows of a field. It’s a few short steps backwards to a time when all men were hunters, warriors, scouts, & workers with their hands. Some men still are.

But as Mike Rose  says in his excellent work The Mind at Work, and as Matthew Crawford argues in his book Shop Classs as Soulcraft, we only pay lip service to our maker roots. The dream of the working class hero may be a Bruce Springsteen song, but with the demise of industrial arts programs, and the substitution of ‘respectable’ — if low-paying — ‘white collar’ computer jobs  for the hands-on skills of the past, it’s only a myth for today’s boys.

My younger son once wanted to be a machinist. He was fascinated by how to make things — his favourite ‘toys’ as a child were locks & keys & socket wrenches. From the age of no older than two years, he loved tools. My father-in-law, the night foreman at McDonnell Douglas, talked him out of it. I had dropped by our local Vo-Tech to pick up enrollment info (much to the dismay of many of my academic friends), but Dad told Noah there was no future in being a machinist. That robotics & mechanisation had dealt a death blow to a profession dating back to the Bronze Age. What machines can’t make, we ‘off-shore’ — sending the jobs of former skilled union workers to places with exotic names. And another job for boys who don’t want to sit in school for 4 or 6 or 10 years goes down the tubes.

Our schools are prisons for many boys. Recess as I knew it as a child has gone the way of Slinky toys — changed to fit the ‘needs’ of our test-crazed culture. At one point, we still had ‘big & little’ recesses, as well as a decent lunch hour. Now, ‘reformers’ cite the longer hours of Japanese schools and their successes, neglecting to mention the longer lunch hour, the time for play built in to the schedule. Teachers of small children will tell you: children do NOT ‘sit & behave’ well for extended periods. Not even girls.

Think of boys as our cultural canaries. What is good for boys is good for girls, as well. Hands-on learning, time to absorb, visible products, large motor play. But just as important is the freedom to be themselves. As long as boys are forced into very narrow ‘man molds,’ some will go crazy. Just today I heard another story of a boy crushed beneath the implacable expectations of his macho father. He turned up in a bar, two days after Sandy Hook, covered in pig’s blood, ranting about killing his father. Every person who knew him saw it coming from early childhood. Twenty years later, he ‘snaps.’

I have no easy answers. I’m not even certain I’m asking the best questions. But I know that starting with ‘How can we better love & raise our boys to be kind & happy men?’ is a better start than ‘How can we put armed guards in every American school?’ Let’s not be content with merely treating the symptoms of this national disease.


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