From the March, 2004 issue of Touchstone

Shooting the Rapids by Anthony Esolen


Shooting the Rapids

Anthony Esolen on Manhood in the Making

The summer before my eighth grade, a couple of young men from town showed up at our door, asking my parents if they could talk to us about my enrolling in something they called the “Higher Achievement Program” at the local Jesuit high school. They had heard, they said, that I was very bright, and they thought I’d be a great addition to the program. I actually thought that somehow they were recruiting my assistance, so for this once in my boyhood vanity overcame shyness and I agreed.

Day Camp

I now see it was a “day camp,” for six weeks, for about fifty or sixty kids, all of them boys. The program was the invention of a youngish Jesuit priest who had gotten into a lot of trouble when he was a kid in the city until somebody offered him a chance to use his brains a little one summer; and now he wanted to return the favor by giving other boys the same chance. The whole thing was simple enough. He had picked up four or five instructors (including the two who had called at our house, brothers who worked as a team) to teach reading comprehension, literature, writing, and art.

They divided the boys into five groups, each named after an Indian tribe (we were the Algonquins) and placed in the charge of one of the teachers. Your group would have its own “homeroom” where you could leave your jacket or your lunch, and you’d rotate round the rooms through the course of the week. Mornings were devoted mainly to the schoolish stuff, only it wasn’t like school, either; it was, on the whole, interesting. The art room was filled with large and small pieces of wood of all shapes, hammers, nails, saws, and so forth—an art room with boys in mind.

The literature teacher was, I now suppose, a graduate student from the nearby Jesuit university, a pleasant burly young fellow with long hair and sandals, whose Polish name was too complicated to pronounce. “Just call me Mr. W,” he said. Mr. W had us read and talk about—what else?—The Lord of the Flies. He was great. After lunch and recess on the basketball court outside, they’d usually troop us into cars and take us on a field trip: An infernally hot doughnut factory and a bookbindery are the two I remember. Those, and the local public swimming pool.

From these morning classes I soon began to see that my vanity was not wholly mistaken. The boys came from all over the place. Some were very high achievers, sons of lawyers and doctors, and seemed to have been chosen on account of it. Many, however, were troubled kids from the city, kids whose parents (in those days, even of troubled kids you still spoke of their parents in the plural) wanted to get them off the streets for part of the day at least, for part of the summer. A few of the boys had obviously been failing in school.

The Higher Achievement part of the program, then, had two angles to it: The priest was hoping that one kind of boy might inspire higher achievement in another kind of boy, while having some fun and learning some things himself.

Whether it happened that way or not, I’m in no position to tell. Besides the couple of others from my hometown, I met only a few of those boys again. Two of them enrolled along with me a year later at one of the diocesan high schools. They were at best marginal students; one of them, a good kid from a terrible home, ended up doing a lot of drugs, fell afoul of the law, and has spent much of his adult life in the clink or on probation.

What it did for me, though, is another matter; and since the very idea of a Higher Achievement Program set aside for boys is almost unthinkable nowadays, I thought I’d describe what it did, lest such truths be backhoed over while we put up the next asexual subdivision.

Clumsy Lefthander

There’s a kind of boy who either has asthma and allergies, wears coke-bottle glasses, or is left-handed and clumsy. I was left-handed and clumsy. My father wasn’t around much for the first seven years of my life—he was a salesman on strict commission, and worked a rural route that had him on the road till eight or nine at night. He did it to set our family on a secure footing (we, five of us at the time, lived in a tiny four room house, no shower, no washer, no dryer, not even a bathtub till I was three).

It was the right choice, but I paid for it. A smart kid who can’t hit a baseball is going to pay for something like that. I do not remember a time before I could read and write—apparently I taught myself to do those things before I turned four—and, while growing up, I could work all kinds of complicated arithmetic in my head. That won me a certain notoriety: “Tony, what’s my average if I go 13 for 54?” “.241.” “What’s the square root of 19?” “4.36.” I could usually beat the calculator, but what good was it?

I never had much to say to anybody, never felt comfortable. No Boy Scouting, no riding bikes all over creation, no trooping up to the dam, no hanging over the river from the trestle, no taking cars apart; and, after the terrible age of 13, no showing off in front of girls. My father must have worried a little about it: He signed me up for Little League and became the team’s coach, encouraging me while at the same time allowing me to keep my self-respect, God bless him. He would start me in right field, bat me once, maybe twice (I drew a lot of walks—swinging the bat was not my strong suit), then take me out. More on Little League shortly.

That Higher Achievement Program put me in the company of other boys, in a moderately well-structured and well-supervised setting, away from sports and, far more important for a shy kid like me, away from girls. We were supposed to learn something, but the teachers weren’t ridiculous about it. They watched us, so things never did degenerate into The Lord of the Flies; but more than watching us, they talked to us, shot a few baskets, drove us here and there, and took us seriously. It wasn’t overtly religious. One of my teachers had a racy novel that I dutifully filched and skimmed.

But it was a kind of brotherhood, a provisional brotherhood no doubt, yet a natural and easygoing one for all that. The boys liked each other. Most of us, in that context, discussed things about God and man that we never had discussed before, things that some of us might never end up discussing again.

And we were allowed to be fools in ways that would have been unthinkable otherwise. To celebrate the end of the program, each Indian tribe was to write and stage a comic skit in front of parents and families. The Algonquin skit was a send-up of a send-up: We did a version of the cartoon Dudley Do-Right, with voice-over narrators (I was one of those), Dudley, Snidely Whiplash, Inspector Fenwick, Horse, and Nell. One of our tribe was a kid with a cherubic face and pretty blond hair. He was well built, he was, but his voice hadn’t changed yet, so we decided to curl up that hair, put lipstick and a dress on him, and have him say Nellish things like “Oh me, oh my!”

At first he grouched and refused to do it, but he really was perfect for it and in his own way quite a ham, so we prevailed. It was a riot: a dark-skinned little Polish kid in a black frock and top hat, twirling his mustachios and threatening to kill, by railroad of course, a 160-pound Nell half a foot taller than he, with Nell half fainting away and crying out for her Dudley.

A Canoe Ride

They say that when boys are by themselves they turn brutish and cruel. Yes, I know about hazing, I know about initiation rites; but on the whole I have found the situation to be otherwise. I think of the passage from boyhood to manhood as like a canoe ride down bad rapids. If you are alone in that canoe you will wreck. If there are girls in that canoe, and if you are, as I was, shy or clumsy or unathletic or just a late bloomer, you will be thrown overboard. You will be thrown overboard, and the girls will lend a hand.

Boys with whom you might exchange a word or two will turn surly or just plain deaf in the presence of girls; there’s no abuse more effectively cruel than that which boys visit upon each other when girls are watching. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Put one or two girls on a Little League team, and have them outplay two or three of the boys. The best ballplayers will be too preoccupied with making sure that they beat the girls to bother with the runts, and the runts will be humiliated. I probably would not have signed up for such a team in the first place.

But I look back upon it and see that I needed that Little League team, with my .058 average and all, and needed it desperately. I tried my best, we were all boys, there were no girls around when we practiced (which was for me more enjoyable than the game), the grown men took us seriously and kept us reasonably in line, and, under such circumstances, the other boys on my team forgave my strikeouts, and we moped together when we lost and celebrated together when we won.

When I got to high school the same sort of thing happened. Schools hadn’t yet visited upon kids like me the insanity of coed gym; so our coach, who was also the baseball and basketball coach and geometry teacher, would give us boys a basketball or football or dodge ball, sometimes show us a thing or two, and let us have fun. Under such circumstances the better athletes took the rest of us in hand. Without getting too sentimental about it, they were kind. They’d still choose up sides, and you’d still be chosen last or next to last, but they’d make as if they’d gotten the better deal of it and that the other captain was a dope. They were good. When girls came by, they were different.

I’m sure the Higher Achievement Program is no more. But that goodhearted priest had been given a grace, and he returned the grace. It’s sad for me to consider that no such program for boys is possible now, now of all times, when there are at least as many boys like me and like those city toughs who would need it, and when so many boys do not grow up in the same homes with their fathers. Boys Town is Girls and Boys Town. The old Boys Clubs are Boys and Girls Clubs.

I used to do umpiring for Little League, but can’t bring myself to do it now; the folly of it all, the over-organization, the stratification into levels of ability, the girls in the dugout, even mothers in coaching boxes, all make me wince. There is no Citadel, there is no VMI. There are altar servers, not altar boys.

A Sole Preserve

That some things needn’t have been the sole preserve of boys never meant that nothing at all need have been. What do we call it when people who merely want something take it away from or spoil it for those who need it? The girls are not to blame—they’re only kids, after all. The parents and the other ostensible grownups are to blame. The lawmakers and lawyers and teachers are to blame. The churches are to blame.

It occurs to me, finally, that everything I have heard for thirty years now about how we all want men and boys to express their feelings has been a bald lie. The last thing we want is that men and boys express their feelings. They may, if they wish, express feelings of weakness: They may cry, if they like, or be afraid, or look to their mothers for comfort.

They may not, however, show anger or indignation; they may not exult; they may not be proud of their masculinity. As for their need, emotional more than intellectual but surely both, to work with other boys or with men at something they can take pride in—and their fear of humiliation or embarrassment before their more articulate sisters—well, those on the left sneer and those on the right cough and look the other way.

That is a cruelty and callousness I at least was spared.

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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