Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Can Find A Better Man

A slightly-altered version of a speech given to the student body on Monday, September 22:

"You boys just get better and better every year."

A longtime teacher said these words. "Yo" said them a lot during his 50-year teaching career. This kind, gentle, loving and wonderful human being liked repeating himself. Even as a student, when "Yo" would say this about me and my classmates, the year after he'd said it about the previous guys and the guys before that, I thought he was, at least a tiny little bit, full of malarkey. Nothing just constantly improves without occasional setbacks, and certainly not entire generations or classes of boys.

Studies indicate strongly that it’s psychologically unhealthy to tell children or teens that you’re smart, or you’re beautiful or attractive, or you’re wonderful. Telling you these things, in fact, can be counterproductive. It tends to limit the chances and risks you take, you restrict your own instincts and potential. You go for the easier challenge so that you don’t let down those who think so highly of you, because you worry that failing at something might damage what we think of you.

We adults have worried a lot in the past two decades about your self-esteem. We often act like you are fragile delicate flowers who can’t handle tough things, and we’ve worried so much about your fragility that we’ve failed to let you fail, to fall, to learn how to pick yourselves back up.

I’m not big on superlatives. Something’s the best, or the worst, the least or the most. The song "Best Song Ever" is not. The best song. Ever. Whatever song the five goobers from One Direction danced to all night is also not the Best Song Ever, I can promise you that much. Superlatives are dangerous and overrated, in general, but especially so in the hands of 1D.

Instead of superlatives, let’s focus on what you are not, as a generation of youth:

You’re not the smartest generation, or the best looking, or the most physically fit, or the hardest working. You're just not.

On the other hand, you’re not the teenage generation doing the most drugs, or having the most amounts of inappropriate sexual activity, or having the most unwanted pregnancies.You’re not the biggest bullies, or the biggest jerks. You're just not.

Here’s what you are.

You are the most scrutinized, supervised, scheduled, managed, tested and watched generation, I daresay in the history of humankind. My generation has done everything we can to shield, shelter, sterilize and spoonfeed you. At times I wonder why we don't insist on kids wearing diapers until you’re 12, or remaining in rear-facing seats until you are 18.

I spent a significant portion of my childhood -- I’m not kidding -- stretched out in the space between the rear windshield and the back seat, and another portion playing with Star Wars figures in the rear floorboard. I don’t think I ever put on a seatbelt until I was 15.

Here was my standard weekend as a kid. Wake up. Watch cartoons. Eat cereal. Leave the house. Play with friends. Terrorize the neighborhood. Watch HBO at a friend's house or bike 10 miles to the East Ridge movie theater where no adult once refused to let us buy tickets to an R-rated movie.

The only rule my parents had for Saturdays was this: Be home for dinner or call if you won’t. That was it. My parents would wake up on Saturday morning, and unless I’d been assigned chores, they didn’t know where I was. And here’s the even more important fact: They didn’t know, and they didn’t care. This isn’t a criticism of my parents. It’s a statement about how our culture has shifted so dramatically in just 30 years. Even as teenagers, if your parents can’t know where you are, to the decimal point of longitude and latitude, in a window of 5 minutes, they worry that you might be kidnapped or shot, that you may have driven off a cliff into the ocean… and we don’t even have an ocean anywhere near here, but it doesn’t matter. None of this is about being logical.

Some parents are so worried about you drinking or making bad choices that they decide to let you drink and make bad choices in their homes, under their supervision! As if letting you do these things under their watchful and worldy eye will guarantee that you won’t do it at other times or in other places. Puhleeze.

Ironically, one of the biggest reasons you are so constantly supervised and watched is because you are so constantly taking pictures of yourselves and announcing your location to friends and family through apps, texts, and social media.

And yet, in spite of all that - I sort of refuse to believe its because of it - you are astonishingly optimistic, hopeful, helpful, generous. You’re genuine. (I love that word, genuine. Real.)

You'll hear adults and older people weep for you and tell you how awful kids these days are. Forgive them. They conveniently remember only the times they were angels and heroes and forget the burning crosses, the campus shootings and riots, the homegrown terrorist bombings from wackos all over the political spectrum, the separate drinking fountains, the abused or neglected spouses and children. They forget when they were bad. And they - we - adults - we're bad a lot. And frequently. We still are. We have the capacity to be good or bad, just like all of you. Except we're older and supposed to know better.

Regardless of adult opinions - and for better or worse, good or ill - you will soon be men. You’ll be on the other side of that fence. Many of you think you already are, and to that I say bravo and good luck. There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so, Shakespeare says. Attitude is everything, in other words. I reckon manhood is like that as well.

If you're wondering what being a man entails, or what you must do, or sharpen, or learn, or develop in order to truly become a man, then obviously, look at me. I’m sort of the expert on it.

But let me share what I spent my whole weekend reading. The October 2014 issue of Esquire magazine. The issue theme is HOW TO BUILD A MAN. Great read. Several really powerful features on the topic, and it's pushing the notion of mentoring in big-time ways.

No matter how controlled or supervised you are right now, and no matter how little control you may or may not have over the day or precise moment you become a truly independent person, a Man with a capital M, know that the day is coming, and know that you can dread it, anxiously await it, prepare for it, or deny it. There is nothing about becoming a man but thinking makes it so.

What kind of man do you want to be? What kind of man does the world need to make it a better place than what we adults have wrought?

If you care, and if you want to begin or continue the process of taking the steering wheel of your fate, putting your foot on the brake, accelerator and clutch of your own growth to becoming a man, I recommend taking opportunities, when they present themselves, to be mindful of this. Read a magazine about it. Follow The Art of Manliness on Twitter. Put some of your brain and skin into the game of becoming the man you dream for yourself.

Most important, listen to one another when you’re on this big, intimidating stage, and listen to what you value, to what’s important to you, when you have this mike. When your classmate stood up here a week ago… I mean wow. He opened his heart and soul up to his brothers. Not for sympathy or pity, and not to be a hero. He did it because he hopes hearing his words might give some of you in this room a moment to pause and possibly redirect your lives. His words were uniquely his, but the power of his talk was just one in a chorus of brave guys standing here and sharing something priceless.

I’ve witnessed over 20 years’ worth of talks in this Chapel. Y’all dread them; I love them. The bad ones just serve to remind me of how often they’re good. The adult ones, like mine, just remind me of how powerful a 17- or 18-year-old boy’s words or songs can be when you have the courage to take this stage, the courage to lay your heart and beliefs out there for your brothers to witness and learn.

We can try to teach you. We can tell you things, fill you with advice and our words of wisdom until your ears bleed. But you know what I believe? I believe you already know what a good man needs to be, what it takes to become a good man, even at 8 years old we know.

The only question, and it's an important, lifelong one: Are we willing to do what it takes, what we can, to become the men we want to be?

I believe the answer, for most of you in this room, is Yes. "Yo" was right. He really was. You boys just get better and better every year. And I can’t wait to see what kind of men you become. The world needs more good men.


Bob said...

And what a speech it was! Good Pearl Jam song referenced as well, but Man Of The Hour better.

troutking said...

Sorry I missed it! Glad I got to read it. Nice job.