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Of manly men and rocking well

January 25, 2019

My son does not talk about school. This, I have learned from other parents, is normal. “What happened in school today?” we ask, and they say, “Nothing.” Or maybe they shrug and say, “I don’t know,” before running off to tackle the dog, as if they were small versions of the guy in Memento. They do like writing on themselves with markers, so maybe that is the case.

My son does like to be asked specific questions about school, though, and if I ask what he did at recess, I will get a full, if confusing, accounting of the games he and his friends played. One day his story touched on one of the kids getting in trouble before bounding on to another topic. When I asked why the kid got in trouble, he responded with kindergarten matter-of-factness, “He wasn’t rocking well.”

As a GenXer, I am compelled by my genetic code to roll my eyes at the pure sincerity of such a statement, but I heroically restrained myself in the interests of good parenting. For those of you without kids in a Bethel elementary school, my son attends Rockwell, and the students are frequently encouraged to “Rock Well.” Despite my generational cynicism, I appreciate the sentiment, and my heart swells at my son’s earnest desire to Rock Well.

In all seriousness, though, my son’s words resonated with me in a particularly profound way. For many years, I loved teaching Sharon Olds’s poem “Rite of Passage,” about her son’s birthday party. In the poem, the little boys vie for position in their first grade hierarchy. When two little boys seem about to fight over who is tougher, Olds’s son steps in. “We could easily kill a two year old,” the little boy points out, bringing the warring six and seven year olds together in common cause. The poem always seemed funny to me in the way it portrays little boys as wanting to be tough generals, and my own experience as a boy validated that.

But, as the father of a little boy, my perspective has shifted. Instead of seeing little boys talking tough as something funny and natural, I am plagued by worry. What parent wants to wake up and read the news to discover that their son has become notorious? From school shooters to taunting teens in viral videos, from film producers to supreme court justices, from internet stalkers to presidents, we have plenty of examples of boys behaving badly and it seems like there are not enough of boys rocking well.

Last week’s release of the Gillette advertisement urging men to be the best they can be therefore hit a nerve for me. I have spent the last six years thinking constantly about how to be the proper role model for my son, and how I can teach him to be a good man in a world where being a good man might appear to be a huge disadvantage. The outcry against the video was dismally predictable, with men outraged that they should ever consider changing their behavior.

Many, apparently afraid that any critique of their masculinity is the same thing as emasculation, created rabidly angry videos of themselves dramatically destroying their expensive razors. That’ll show Gillette that I’m a real manly man, they were probably thinking. One man took a picture of his Gillette Fusion in his toilet. He then had to reach in and take it out, so that, I guess, counts as real masculine bravery.

My job is to teach my little boy that being a man isn’t about violence and so-called toughness. It’s about being a decent human and, yes, rocking well.

Rick Magee, a Bethel resident, is an English professor. His column appears monthly in Hearst Connecticut Media. Contact him at r.m.magee.writer@gmail.com

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