School is about to start, and my oldest son has been filled with trepidation. But, after visiting his class and meeting his teacher, he’s beyond excited. And it has nothing to do with his classroom or his teacher. It has everything to do with his friends.
My oldest has been part of a great experiment at his elementary school. He was part of a ‘gender specific’ learning curriculum. The boys and girls were separated during learning times, but during arts and crafts, lunch, PE, and recess they were mixed together. We got lucky with his teacher in Kindergarten. She is a ‘boy whisperer’. At the end of his Kindergarten year we found out she was moving to 1st Grade and would continue to be his teacher.
Long story short, my son has been in the exact same class of boys with the exact same teacher for two years. This year, however, we found out they were doing away with the gender specific classes and they were breaking the old group apart. We were told that they were going to completely separate all of the boys into different classes so there would be a chance that he would enter a class and not know ANYONE in there. And it was freaking him out.
See, my son has a level of friendship that I never got as a kid. On the few occasions he let me walk him to class last year I was amazed to see that every morning he was greeted with hugs, and not from his teacher. These boys made it a habit to hug everyone as they walked in the classroom in the morning. They hugged when they left. And on several occasions I saw them holding hands on the way to lunch. These were all ‘girly’ things when I was a kid and frowned upon.
I remember being in 4th Grade and putting my arm around a boy in my class who I considered my best friend. It was a total ‘buddy move’. As soon as I put my arm around his shoulder, three kids jumped back and started pointing at me and laughing. After that I was labeled a ‘faggot’ for several weeks. No one would play with me on the playground because I was, ‘a homo’ and a ‘queerdo’. All because I wanted to put my arm around my friend’s shoulder.
So, I did what was expected of me and held all signs of affection to nothing more expressive than a high five or handshake. Then, when I was in high school, I moved away from every friend I had. I was in a new town, with no friends. One night, I got a phone call from my best friend. He was having a hard time with my being away because he felt so alone. We talked for about 30 minutes before having to hang up (long distance was expensive in the 80’s!).
When we were saying our goodbyes, I was in a very dark place emotionally. It felt like a lifeline was slipping away from me and I was going to have to go back to treading so much emotional ocean by myself again. Then, he said something. He said, “I love you, man.” I paused for a second. Part of my family is what can be called ’emotionally constipated’. No one ever really said, “I love you.” very often, so it was weird. It was weird because he was my friend. It was weird because he was a dude. It was weird because it just felt right. So, I mumbled, “Love you too, man.” before hanging up and going to my room to cry, not knowing if or when I was ever going to talk to my best friend again.
A couple of weeks later, I made the decision to move back in with my mom. It started a fight with my dad, who was taking it very personal. I couldn’t explain to him that it had nothing to do with him, but rather…I was lonely. I had no friends there. I had a best friend back in the town my mom lived in. That’s when he accused me of being gay.
To him, missing my friend to the point of crying then saying “I love you too, man.” was too much for his hardwired ‘uber-masculine’ mind to handle. Obviously, the ONLY way I could love another guy would be for me to be gay. This is where toxic masculinity lives. I mean, why is it okay for girls to hug and hold hands and express their emotions openly with their friends with little fear of being labeled?
Not going to lie, it was weird to see a group of boys holding hands while walking. But it was because of the old fears of being labeled ‘faggot’ were very strong fears back in the 80’s…and they don’t die easily. But recognizing that my boys NEED to be able to express their emotions, is the first step in many to try and break the cycle of toxic masculinity. And, in the long run, it might just save my boys’ lives.
Here’s a quote from a fantastic article that helped spawn this post:
And men are facing the brunt of this epidemic of loneliness. Research shows that between 1999 and 2010 suicide among men, age 50 and over, rose by nearly 50%. The New York Times reports that “the suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.”
We need to be better at letting our boys have strong Platonic relationships. We need to break the cycle.
Which is why, I was pleasantly surprised when we went to go see Captain Underpants! The series of books is about some dude named Captain Underpants who runs around in his tighty whities…except, it’s not. If you read between the lines, this series of books is about the unbreakable friendship of George and Harold and the lengths they will go to to preserve that friendship. The movie is more ‘on the nose’ about it than the books are, but the lesson is a strong one. And one that I wish I could have learned earlier in life. Here is one song from the soundtrack, and it speaks to me so deeply because it’s just a couple of friends who can say “I love you.” without having to append it with ‘no homo’.
We’ve come a long ways. But we have a long ways yet to go.
Added bonus: I was playing this song when I asked the boys for a picture, and while dancing to the song, this is just what they did naturally.