I was walking from the local library to the adjacent recreation center when a ten year-old boy and his friend came into my path. They were headed in the opposite direction. One of them, who I’ll call Daniel, said something to me as he passed me by. My attention was buried in my cell phone so I didn’t catch what he said, but I did manage to give him a look that communicated what I felt:
Why are you talking to me? Boot.
From the rec center and now with a freshly-vended soda in hand, I returned to the library. Daniel and his friend had also decided to retrace their steps, and we again found ourselves on approach. I smirked. This time I gave these little shits had my undivided attention.
As we neared each other, I saw that Daniel had something in his hand. When the gap between us closed to a few steps, he held it out, dangling the small, dark object in a way you might handle a dead rodent.
“You want a rat?!” he said with a juvenile chuckle.
I stopped; no facial response. It was a piece of bark. It had some kind of vine attached to it that made it look something like a rat. The normal, adult response would have looked like me rolling my eyes or saying something dismissive. But not that day. Not with this kid.
I grabbed that damn thing right out of the air in which it dangled and chucked it like I was skipping a rock as far as I could. Then I looked at the surprised boy standing in front of me with the deadest, unimpressed stare I could muster.
Your move, punk.
For a moment, I got a glimpse of a look that seemed to say, ‘Hmph, didn’t see that coming.’ But that quickly transformed into a little dance that mocked my authority.
“Ooooo,” Daniel mocked.
I shook my head and walked past him, continuing on my way, neither embarrassed or satisfied. I envisioned an epic moment in which my overwhelming authority abruptly changed the course of this kid’s life for the better. Instead, it only seemed to give him another opportunity to act out.
As I walked on, I could feel the aura of this little snot following me. His mockery continued. So after a few steps, I turned, faced the kid, and basically threw down with the prepubescent punk.
“You got a problem, kid?!”
I don’t remember what he said. He wasn’t arrogant or stupid enough to become violent, but it still seemed important to him that he hold his ground, even if sheepishly. I asked him where his parents were. Mom was at home, he confessed. Dad; he didn’t know.
“Why you acting like this?” I asked him.
He shrugged. He knew he was being an asshole, but I don’t think he cared. My frustration with him quickly turned into a frustration with the world I imagined being around him; one in which walking up to grown man with a snotty comment probably made a lot of sense. I told him that I understood the temptation to act like a fool, but that he shouldn’t. He was better than that.
“You’re a man,” I declared.
That statement might not have meant a damn thing to Daniel, but it should, and it bothers me to think that I might be the only person, and quite possibly the only man to tell him this truth in a way that hopefully doesn’t pressure him to build muscle mass or consume women, but to act right. To act wise. To respect, and in so doing, be respectable.
Daniel isn’t the only man that needs to hear this message. As I write this, I realize how appropriate it might have been for Daniel to repeat my own words right back to me. And because of the privilege I’ve had to be a part of The Crucible Project, I have some idea of how typical it is for men to struggle with feelings of inadequacy largely because no one ever demonstrated how to be or declared them as a man.
I hope it meant something to him. It meant something to me.
“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” (1 Cor 16:13)