Thursday, February 9, 2012

What kind of man? A note to some of my school-teachers

You told me, Miss Teacher, that I needed to be a man. But what kind of man did you want me to be?  You mocked and humiliated me at six years old, because men play rugby, and I refused.  Did you want me to be a humiliated man? 

Maybe you wanted a man compliant, who would cram himself into your narrow ideal: A rugby playing man.  Not the moffie* you named me in front of the kindergarten class.

Stop crying, you said. You can’t be a man if you cry.  What kind of man would that be?  A man who denies his sadness and his fears?  A man ashamed of his own tears?  A small man, emotionally stunted like the rest.  Incapable of expressing anything but gruff stoicism, the unacknowledged suffering – even to himself – poisoning his life in so many unconscious ways.

Mr Teacher, you caned me when I did something you thought was wrong.   Did you want me to grow up like you, with the view that beating a child is a good way to impress your views on him?  I would check the welts and bruises to see how long they would stay.  Up to three weeks I discovered.  If a parent beat a child like that today, they would in court charged with child abuse, for assault.  What would that teach me about being a man?  That if we disagree on how things are done then physical violence is a good way to solve the dispute.  I didn’t know it then, but I know it now, that your definition of manhood was narrow in the extreme.  Physical power trumps all: in the classroom, on the rugby field.  On the battlefield.  Institutionalised violence started early back in the 1970’s.

And what of you Miss Teacher?  You were very young and still a Miss.  I wonder now what kind of man you chose to share your life with.  I hope a man who is caring, a man who holds you when you cry, a man who can share his sadness and his fears;  his tears.  A man, I hope, who was strong enough to rise above the narrow band of being you tried to instil into the young boys in your care.  A man who solves his disputes by listening and sharing, not shouting and beating.  For if the latter is the case, you might be as miserable as I was when you and your kind tried to beat me into your constricted mould.

There was some value to all of this.  I was able to take the bullying of army life:  by suppressing who I was and what I felt and by keeping my thoughts in check.  I’d learned to tough it out and take the pain, all the way to the battlefields and back again.  Then I spent the rest of my life learning that I am much more than all that.  That the beating, fighting, killing and pretending to be ok with it all kind of man is not the only way.  There is a fuller, more whole kind of masculinity, I discovered, which requires me to be stronger, but in a different more compassionate way.
Replanted in the fertile soil of the freedom I created for myself, I grew beyond what Miss and Mr Teacher had in mind.  In spite of you I grew into a man.

*Moffie – derogatory word similar to “queer”


Anonymous said...

A beautiful, brave man you are, in spite of all the BS you were subjected to. May all young men read your wise words.
As I woman, mother & lover I thank you for this.

Paul said...

@Anonymous: I'm glad you found my words meaningful. Thank you for writing such a touching comment.

Hanneré said...

This is so beautifully expressed.

I came to your blog from the "Somewhere on the Border" page on Facebook. Am interested in war and trauma for reasons both academic and personal, so I plan to make use of your reading list!

Paul said...

Hi Hannere, Thank you. If I can be of any use in your exploration of the subject, please feel free to get in touch. I am involved in the start-up of a project to do with Legacies of Apartheid's Wars. Trauma being an important part of it.


Anonymous said...

Your words rang so true to my if-not-rugby-plyer-then-moffie upbringing. It stings thinking back. Both sad and comforting to know others went through it. Brave and kind of you to put it out there in words. On a side, I don't know if you've ever read Moffie; BRILLIANT.

Paul said...

@anonymous2 Thanks for being another male voice who knows about other ways of being a man. I'm happy to see my young nephew living a fuller life without some of the pressures we faced. Heartening that some things have begun to change.

MAC said...

Hi Paul. I like this. I was also trained to be tough. I was forty eight years old and in therapy before I ever let myself cry. It let out a lot of poison. It has made me celebrate the strength of women who cry and battle on. Keep blogging.

Fiona Wallace said...

Well done, Paul - what a great antidote to the rose-tinted memories many white South Africans still hold so dear - the 'good old days' were horrifying in so many ways. I applaud your courage.

Paul said...

Hi Fiona, thanks you for taking the time to read my blog. I appreciate your supportive comments. More so because you knew the system from the teachers perspective. It must have been difficult having alternative views to the mainstream.

Paul mason said...

Dear Paul

I was sitting here at home working on my PhD on masculinities in contest during the 1980s when my cell phone told me that a new email had arrived. My partner had forwarded your piece on a fuller masculinity. I read it and was moved. It is deeply true: speaks to my life past and present and ongoing, as well as affirming the importance of what I'm saying in my PhD. Your words reflect the essence of what I am saying, and what you and I are saying is so important that it needs to reach a wide readership. This is why I will be converting my thesis into a book for publication in the larger world (not just to be read by my supervisor and examiners and gather dust in a university library).

Your return to Angola by bicycle is an emblem of more than your own healing. It also symbolises the necessity of all men thinking carefully about what it means to be a man, and finding alternative ways; ways of being fuller men.

One of the texts I have been analysing is a memoir about a conscript’s time in the Rhodesian army from 1978-80. At one stage in his narrative he is hugged by a fellow-soldier with whom he has established a genuine and nurturing connection. This is the first time he has been hugged by any man. I thought to myself - I've been luckier than him. There are a number of men I love. Two of these have been my intimate friends from the age of 8 and 10 years old. I hug men as a matter of habit. We still live in a culture in which such intimacy is unusual.

Aluta continua with the project of male emancipation. Your words are a gift.