Wrestling with Words

I loathed my physical education class at Walter G. Nord. The middle school years are already full of youthful angst, self-image crises, and a myriad of questions about life. Throw into that mix, a locker room of confused hormone-raging boys and you get a circus of gawking, towel flicking and embarrassment.

I was not the athletic type but I always gave everything a try. It was during my seventh grade year when my gym teacher introduced wrestling to the annual scope and sequence. After a few minutes of intimidating technique reminders on throws, pins and holds, guess who got to be the first to demonstrate their wrestling “prowess”?

Elmer and I took center court and settled into our instructed beginning set-up positions. Elmer was one of the kids that seemed to have it all together and we all knew how it would all go down because one of us was athletic and the other was proficient at tripping over his own two feet.

cometsHe pulled my arm behind my back, took my feet out from underneath me and pinned me down in an instant. I felt something pop and immediately felt a surge of pain. I tried to hold them back, but the tears began to edge their way through the corners of my eyes and that’s when it happened. My P.E. teacher looked at me, pointed for me to move out of the way and exclaimed, “Man up, boy!” “You’ll be fine. There’s nothing wrong with you.” I cowered to my original standing spot and overheard the faint insults from around the room. Things like “what a wimp” and “someone needs to grow some __ __ __ __ __!”

The taunts quickly faded the next day when I showed up in a brace due to a broken collar bone; however, the sting of the insults had already left their deadening poison and I began to ask myself if it all might be true. Was there something wrong with me? Why am I different? Why couldn’t I be like the other guys (with the girls and the bulging biceps)? I retreated to my cubby and did my injured best to draw the school newspaper’s cartoon for the month.

Did you know that young men are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, flunk out of or drop out of school, commit violent crime, binge drink, or die by their own hand than girls? According to The Mask You Live In website, this is because of “our society’s failure to recognize and care for the social and emotional well-being of our boys.” I believe that we have been raising boys on a bias of masculinity and the results are damaging.[1]

Spiritual mentor and filmmaker Rhoda Jordan shares this story: “The boy sobbed on, his pink eyes spilling tears. The father let out an exhausted sigh. Then he looked over at my 2-year-old. Pointed at him. ‘Look at that boy over there. He’s not crying. He knows you’re not supposed to cry.’ I’ve heard this nonsense far too many times. Boys being told that they shouldn’t express themselves. Being told, even, that it’s something only girls do. What is this mad, widespread delusion? Simple: It’s the delusion that masculinity is king. That aggression, toughness and competition trump compassion, expression and collaboration. We’ve short-changed our boys and men by defining masculinity in such a way as to constrict the complex essence of their humanity.”[2]

Jack Fischl, one of my current and favorite columnists, recently wrote: “Much of the language we commonly use to speak with boys about their behavior inherently pushes them to adhere to gendered, hyper-masculine stereotypes. Common phrases like ‘man up,’ ‘be a man’ and ‘suck it up’ are all part of this rhetorical tradition. What we usually want to communicate with these phrases is that our boys should learn to be independent, responsible, honorable and capable. These are all qualities essential to becoming a respectable adult man, but they are poorly communicated with chauvinistic, ambiguous phrases like ‘grow a pair’ that send dubious messages about binary gender characteristics and what defines being a man.”[3]

When we speak from our pulpits, encourage or sons, mentor our young men, and teach our boys on how to treat others, may we all keep in mind that words do matter. Let’s work together to build our young men up and teach them to embrace the God-given talents and strengths they possess rather than trying to hold them to a societal, cultural or religious ideal.

I carefully positioned myself into my bed that night. A spasm of pain shot from my shoulder and made my body shutter. I pulled the covers up over my head and bit my lip trying not to cry because I didn’t want to be a “wuss,” I wanted to be a “real man”.


[1] http://therepresentationproject.org/films/the-mask-you-live-in/

[2] Jordan, Rhoda. “The Problem With Masculinity.” Huffingtonpost.com. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 17 July 2014. Web. 22 July 2014.

[3] Fischl, Jack. “7 Positive Phrases We Should Be Teaching America’s Boys About Masculinity.” http://mic.com/articles/93303/7-positive-phrases-we-should-be-teaching-america-s-boys-about-masculinity. Mic Network Inc., 14 July 2014. Web. 22 July 2014.


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