Can a woman teach a boy to be a man? The question takes one single mother on a journey toward discovering the strength that lies within her to creatively find positive male role models for her pre-teen son, who battles typical childhood foes, likes school bullies and raging hormones, alongside the added challenge of having Cerebral Palsy.
MaryAnne Howland shares more about what prompted her quest to create a rite of passage support group for her son, a Black Mitzvah of sorts, to gently usher her son into manhood.
Below is an excerpt from Howland’s new book that chronicles her experience, Warrior Rising: How Four Men Helped a Boy on his Journey to Manhood —Markette Sheppard
It is said that we love our sons and raise our daughters. I like to think that I have done both for Max, but there was a moment when he was twelve years old that I became acutely aware of my shortcomings in raising my son alone. Max came into this world needy, and my inclination was to marshal all my resources to tend to his every need. Deep down, however, I knew that it was my job to teach him to fend for himself, to be strong and self-sufficient, so that he would reach his highest potential. At the same time, I recognized that some things were simply beyond my individual scope and capacity. More and more mothering wasn’t the answer.
Since he was sidelined by his physical challenges, I knew I would never be a soccer mom. Max was never going to make that march of pride up to the podium to accept an MVP trophy. He wasn’t going to know the rush, the sense of celebrity, the admiration from girls that many young men feel when they excel at basketball or track or football. But his instincts are acute; he knew he’d need to forge his own path to feeling accepted, to earn the kind of attention that young people crave. And his observations from the sidelines were that the guys garnering the most thrilling energy off the field were the bad boys. They were the exhibitionists, masking their insecurities with aggressive behavior.
Max chose to enter the bad- boy arena with the face of a warrior. He wanted in on the battle for glory, but his vulnerabilities were as pronounced as ever, and that’s when the bullying began. He no longer wanted to wear the braces on his legs that helped him walk taller because they actually made him feel smaller. The awkwardness with which Max’s legs functioned was the equivalent of having a target on his back.
Join #SerendipityLit #author Maryanne Howland this Saturday at noon for a Mother’s Day Virtual Tea Party and discussion on her new #book, Warrior Rising!https://t.co/KRdruviU4r #Events #Books #WarriorRising #books #BlackMitvah #MothersDay @maryannehowlan1— Serendipity Literary Agency (@serendipitylit) May 5, 2020
There’s nothing crueler than children making fun of other children who are different, whose deficits make them objects of confusion, unsettling anomalies. They don’t understand that the impact of their cruelty lasts long after all the kids have left school. And to the recipient of their cruelty, their motives are irrelevant. A child like Max leaves an attack with scars of public embarrassment and the lingering sting that he just isn’t like the other kids. His uniqueness is the kind that no child ever wants. Max fought back with great vengeance, and given that he couldn’t overcome his enemies with force or might or speed, he launched his battle in the form of words. The school halls had become a theater for open war.
I knew things were going off the rails when one day, from the mouth of my lovable boy I heard, “If he keeps fucking with me, I’m gonna punch him in the face.” What? Trying for the moment to mask my shock at the profanity, I asked, “Who are you talking about?” “Ricky. He’s an asshole,” Max said. So I had two issues to deal with: my son felt completely free to swear like an angry football fan on the losing side in front of his mother, and he also wanted to slam his fist into the face of a classmate. Which to address first?
“First of all, I don’t ever want to hear you talk like that again, young man. It is disrespectful to me and to yourself. You know better, so do better. I am not raising a heathen.”
His tone grew soft as he apologized. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I didn’t mean to say a bad word. I’m just so mad. I won’t do it again,” he promised. But he did do it again, and often. It was always followed by an apology, but his swearing became more frequent, more colorful, and more and more soaked in anger. I wasn’t sure what to do about it. My son had always been respectful in his interactions with other people. And yet neither of us was prepared for a situation in which other people were hurling attacks at him. I knew that what I was seeing now was the outside world pushing its way into the cocoon of safety, civility, and respect that I had woven for my son.
“Second, I don’t want you fighting anybody. That’s just what this Ricky wants you to do. Don’t let him win by getting you to stoop to his level. You’re better than that,” I told him. “Besides, all that is just going to get you suspended. And if that happens, then I’m going to be angry with you, and you don’t want that,” I threatened.
I was careful not to let him know my real fear: that because of his physical disadvantage, he could get really hurt. I knew that, with his fragile ego, it was exactly what he didn’t need to hear. But I also knew that my advice and threat of punishment were not what he needed either. He needed ammo that he could use to win his next battle, the kind of ammo that I do not have in my arsenal of calm and restraint. In fact, I really wanted to confront Ricky myself and beat his ass!
And it was not just the cruel boys hurling cruel comments at him. Max was suddenly consumed by the strange creatures with multicolored fingernails, carrying smart little purses to match their tight shirts and short skirts, who constantly threw shade at the boys and giggled in groups. He drowned in envy at the sight of these girls draped on the arms of his competition, snuggling against lockers or stealing kisses in corners. There were none for him.
“No one likes me,” he said with downcast eyes and a frown that reflected the misery of a hundred nos. “Today this girl nearly knocked me over in the hallway. She didn’t even say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I know it’s because I’m different and I walk funny,” he said.
His confidence and self- esteem began to wilt like cut roses on a hot, dry day. All I could do was hug him, but I knew that it didn’t help much. A mother’s hug can salve the sting, but the open wound is still there.
At a time when all boys struggle to be comfortable with their changing bodies, Max had the extra challenges of seemingly small things being extremely difficult for him to do, like tying his shoes and buttoning his shirt. Putting on a tie and buckling a belt were nearly impossible. He hated that he had to ask for my help. It made him feel like he was weak and unattractive. He became unsure of himself and overly self- conscious. When he looked in the mirror, he did not like what he saw. His spirit was deflating. You could see it in the way his shoulders drooped and his glasses sat lopsided on his nose. He simply stopped caring. It broke my heart.
Besides the bullies, girl problems, and struggles with putting on his clothes, Max stumbled academically. His individualized education program (IEP) included accommodations for longer testing times, tutors for math and English, and behavior modification techniques to curb his enthusiasm for attention. “Put your hand down. Wait until I finish, and you might get the answer to your question,” his teacher would have to say much too often.
Despite Max’s urge to become his own man, sometimes after a particularly hard day, he would sheepishly ask if he could sleep in my bed, wanting the comfort and protection of his mother’s warmth. Since he was too old, too big, and too fidgety, I’d let him sleep on the floor beside my bed, and he settled for that so we could talk some in the dark.
“Are you awake?” he would ask when I would slip into a light snore.
“Yes, I’m awake,” I would mumble, and he would talk some more until he fell asleep.
I knew it was time for him to become his own man. I also knew he needed the kind of guidance and support that I was unable to provide. He needed to learn the secrets of success among men.