I like hanging out with the boys

Published 8:44 am Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Column: Notes from Home

There are some things adults are not supposed to say out loud. We can think them, but we know we can’t say them. It’s not “colorful metaphors” that I mean; it’s those politically incorrect, socially awkward, or criminally libelous things that sometimes pop out at the most unfortunate moments.

Like others, I started learning about what words and phrases were off-limits as I made the long, slow transformation from teenager to grownup. Some of the things I learned not to say are obvious, like calling out “fire” in a crowded movie theater (when there isn’t a fire). Others are more subtle. I learned not to talk about politics at family gatherings. I learned not to tell ethnic jokes at work.

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And I learned that I’m definitely NOT supposed to say this: I like boys.

In a society damaged by men who do really bad things to boys, is there a more dangerous thing to say than that? Did he say he likes boys? Sicko. Predator. Get my shotgun!

Here’s the context when I say it: I like hanging out with boys who ask me to be their mentors as part of confirmation class at church. If they ask, I say yes. It’s part of their faith formation. It’s one of my responsibilities as an adult member of the congregation.

When we are one-on-one in the fellowship hall or at a movie together, away from pressures to act or talk in certain ways, meaningful conversations take place — about fears, joys, hopes — the parts of anybody’s reality that often come to the surface only when we are talking to someone we trust. I try to make my words and actions demonstrate that they matter, that we are both children of God.

Oh, those boys can be challenging, even infuriating sometimes. They forget about meet-ups we’ve scheduled or text their friends when we sit together at worship. There are boys I’ve mentored with whom I have almost nothing in common, other than being Lutheran and male. Some of them don’t ever read books for fun! Imagine!

There are others with whom I bond, and who remain in touch with me for years. Despite the difference in our ages and experiences, we find we have common interests in music, science and films. These are the ones who do read books for fun, usually.

But whether we become friends or lose track of each other, I stand by what I said. I like them; they are worth hanging out with. They have energy. They have opinions and needs and vocations. They see right through the crap and hypocrisy we adults hide behind. Boys of a certain age, teenagers, are often interested in fairness and justice in ways that are uncomplicated.

The boys need this connection with adults, whether they admit it to themselves or anyone else. It takes time for the lessons learned to sink in, though. I needed the men who stepped into my life when I was a teenager, the men from my church who learned my name, took an interest in me, showed me they cared, and listened to me without insisting on how “wrong” I was and how “right” they were.

I hope the boys I’ve mentored over the years have gained from the relationship, but I know that I have. Part of why I like boys — even the ones who drive me crazy with their boundless energy and inappropriate behavior — is because I think I still am one; deep inside there’s a reckless boy that wants to get wild and take risks. It’s good to let him out to breathe every so often.

Because there are men who mean something different when they say they “like boys,” including men hiding under the robes of pastor and priest, all of us, me included, need to watch out when we hear a man say what I say. Other adults need to make sure that man is trustworthy. There need to be clear boundaries. But the boundaries we set up shouldn’t stop men we do trust from learning from and teaching the boys in our communities.

One final note: You may be wondering why I’ve not written anything about girls. They are also worth getting to know — as the father of two daughters, I know this to be true. The thing is, I’ve never been asked to be a confirmation mentor by a girl, and if I were, I don’t know what I would answer. Girls, you see, make me nervous.

Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column appears every other Tuesday.