“What kind of man do you want to be?”
He looked at me like a second head grew out of my neck. His eyes squinted and he leaned back in his seat, trying to process my question.
“I want to be a carpenter or engineer. Something like that.”
“That’s not what I’m asking you,” I began to clarify. “I’m asking you to consider the qualities you will possess as an adult male. What do you want to think about yourself?”
He confidently sat up in the chair. “I’m a nice person. I help other people. I’m good to others.”
I knew he would say some variation of that. In the over 20 years I’ve been working with adolescent males, I have never had a kid tell me that his personal aspiration was to be a jerk.
“Usually, those qualities are practiced from a young age. Most people don’t just become nice or helpful or good the day they turn 21. They habitually practice the characteristics they desire.”
I know it’s tough being black and male and young in Chicago. My own son experienced his first unprovoked verbal attack on the basketball court just two days earlier. His deepening voice, increased height, and heavier weight are proof that my precious baby is growing up, but seeing fat tears roll down his face when he came home after holding in his hurt after being insulted by older boys broke my heart. As much as I wanted to reach out to him, pull him close, and promise no hurt would ever come to him again, I couldn’t. I needed him to feel it. Not because he deserved it. He didn’t. But because he didn’t, I needed him to learn how to process those feelings in a healthy way. I needed him to know it would happen again in one way or another. I needed him to begin to prepare himself for a world that can be hellbent on creating his misery.
My husband talked about hurt people hurting people. He talked about how some kids don’t have a mom and a dad and sisters who speak life into them. He talked about not stooping to another’s level. I sat there watching this father-son interaction, wishing our family could have been immune to the realities of our black son growing up. Wishing that my son wasn’t at the age where his innocence and youth were so fleeting. Wishing that this would be the worst of it for him. If he is going to be built anything like my husband, he’s going to be a target for both his peers and the police without ever opening his mouth. His honor roll status, church drum playing, enthusiasm at seeing his grandparents pull up in front of the house won’t matter. To the world, his self concept isn’t as important as the identity it will impose upon him.
“But we don’t live based on the world’s view of us,” I remind him.
I sit in my office looking deeply into the eyes of my student, hoping my stare and words penetrate him to his core. I see him and the greatness waiting to burst forth. It’s uncomfortably quiet for both of us. I learned the art of the pregnant pause from my dad, another black man, who always believes in the potential of others, even when they seemingly do everything to disprove possessing any, but it still feels weird. My student shifts from side to side, waiting for me to get to the point. Then I say to him what I’ve said to countless boys over the years and what I said to my son a couple nights before.
“You don’t have to give others what they give you. That is the same as giving them your power. Self control, even in the face of adversity, is a precious, powerful weapon. It doesn’t mean things don’t hurt. It means that in spite of the hurt, you choose to own your identity–the truth of the man you really are.”
I feel just as conflicted as I did saying it to my son. I want it to ring true for him, but I also know that on some level our boys have to prove themselves on the street and even in the classroom. We are deluding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that for many having good character is deemed a liability just as much as being a hothead is. Every morning I see news reports of teenagers gunned down. I know that not all of them are innocent victims. I know that some are. The truth of both scenarios petrifies me. And I’m scared of being scared because I don’t want my son or my students to adopt fear. I want them to be strengthened and resolved to be the men they desire to be no matter what circumstances come their way.
My son walked confidently into the living room where my husband and I sat chatting about the day.
“Can I go play basketball?”
My husband grips that fleshy part of my leg just above my knee. His hand says, “I’m scared, too, but we have to let him grow up and be more cautious all at the same time.” It says, “We’ve got this, Babe, because we’re doing this parenting thing together.” It says,”We know our God is sovereign.”
My son grabs his ball and heads out the door. And I’m proud of him and us and every black boy and parent of black boys who choose to walk tall in our America.