By Jim Weber
Adapted and reprinted from “Fathering The Fatherless,” the Touchstone Support Team Letter, January 2005.
Six high school football players strolled into the classroom and casually took seats around the tables. They had just finished a very successful season, and, to most observers, they had every reason to feel self-assured. They were all seniors. They were all in top condition. They had proved their value on the field. And they knew they had earned the respect of their peers and their community. But as the meeting began, they looked at us, not with the cockiness you might expect to see in the proud, but with the hope that they might receive something important. We shared the same hope.
Melony and I began to describe what we wanted this group to be: a safe place where they could talk about anything without fear of being laughed at or gossiped about. As a group we would talk through the challenges they face and try to help them come to good solutions. We would be honest, or as they say, “real.” And we would pay special attention to the question of what it means for them to be good men. Riding high on victory with their manhood already proven, a group of young men like these might not take interest in such discussions. But these boys looked hungry for it.
We explained that we knew what the world tells them about being a man: that you’re only a man if you’re can perform well physically, if you can make sexual conquests, and if you can achieve financial wealth. But those definitions of manhood are so limited and dysfunctional, that even the ones who achieve them feel hollow and afraid. Someone might see that they are not real men after all. As I looked at them, I could see the nervous truth on their faces. “Does anybody know I’m not a real man?” “Have I been found out…again?”
“Tell us about your daddy,” we asked them. One boy described a man who was angry, mean and abusive. Two said, “I’ve never even met my father.” One said, “My Daddy’s been in prison, since I was seven.” Another said, “I don’t have nothing to do with my father, ‘cause he’s a drunk. He’s no good.”
“So, how did it feel to be hurt or abandoned by your daddies?” we asked. There were some tears now as they answered. “It was like something was wrong with me, that I didn’t deserve a good daddy.” “I felt as though somebody had died when they arrested my father.” “I had to grow up all at once and become a man, so it wouldn’t be so hard for my Mama.” “Were you able to do that?” we asked. The student paused, lowered his head and whispered, “Naw.”
None of these boys had a good man to show him how to grow up. One way or another, they were growing up alone, with only other boys and the toxic media of urban culture to teach them about manhood. It left them confused and frightened, pressured and angry. Grown as they were on the outside, on the inside they were orphaned boys, wondering how to grow up and who to be.
Somehow the conversation turned from their fathers to what they would be like as fathers. They kidded each other about whether or not they had already fathered children. Cutting through the jokes, one young man said, “Ok, I’ll be real with you. I have a child. And I don’t know what I’m doing.” Then he turned to me like a lost kid looking for a home, “Mr. Jim, can you teach me how to be a daddy?”
How could I refuse? I nearly burst into tears as I said, “Yes, I will. That’s why I’m here.” That’s why we started meeting with small groups of students in this inner-city high school a year ago. That’s why our program has us there almost every day of the week. That’s why we’re doing twelve groups now and want to do more. It’s why we drag our own kids to the football and basketball games of a high school they will never attend as students. It’s why we walk the crowded halls that echo with rude profanities, looking into the angry, defiant eyes of these fatherless students. Somebody has to teach them what it means to be loved by adults who care enough to listen. Somebody has to teach them how to be good men and women.
These boys won’t turn to men over night. They will continue in their street hustling, girl-chasing lifestyles until they learn how to be something other than boys in men’s bodies. As boys they will resist and argue, cut class and make irresponsible choices. They will hurt themselves and others in the process. But a few might hang around long enough to see that real men, good men, give and love and plan and work and contribute to something bigger than themselves. Those are some of the most important parts of being a father. I should know. That’s why I’m here.