Above: Hamlet Bannerman, “His First Day at Work” (1890).
I never knew a male teacher until I entered middle-school. Before that, all of my instructors were female, predominantly middle-aged, and generally caring, compassionate, and even-tempered. The only contact I had with other men and boys was limited. And early on, they largely rejected me. More precisely it happened around puberty, when the boys at school became singularly preoccupied with team sports instead of the more solitary pursuits of the jungle-gym and I was decidedly left permanently on the side-lines. Lacking any natural ability, I didn’t know how to throw a ball and my attempts were regarded as utterly disastrous and worthy of ridicule. Two friends, one short and frail and the other prodigiously chubby, were equally unathletic, but they succeeded at using humor to their advantage. While they lightheartedly mocked their own failures, I couldn’t speak. As a result, I tended towards introspection and singular obsessions. While not inherently harmful, if such thoughts are properly directed and guided, as adults, men who grew-up ostracized later accomplished great advances in the arts and technology. But I lacked both a mentor and a strategy, so my desires became desperate and fixated.
I often stayed glued to me desk and colored or drew while the other kids played ball. When forced outside, recess and lunch-time became a dreaded purgatory away from the relative safety of the classroom. For I think my teachers understood that a misfit was in their midst and in an example of instinctive maternal concern, almost every one of them tried to protect me. The girls in my class acted similarly and a few of them invited me into their inner circle. Oftentimes school was an extension of my home-life where dad was away busy working, my detached older brother didn’t hide his aversion to my presence, and the only remaining interested companions were my mother and sisters. But even there, I would frequently escape alone into the backyard and daydream for hours. I secretly wished for a kindhearted and strong man to notice me; one day, he showed up – and he talked to me.
In middle-school, I was no longer taught multiple subjects by a single teacher in one classroom. My homeroom teacher was a short but masculine man who also taught math and science – my worst subjects. Ever since 1st grade, I observed this man from a safe distance. Unlike the female faculty, he sort of swaggered about and took a more obvious active role in the daily routine of the older boys, because he also coached some of the sports teams and acted as a sort of man about the house when something broke down and needed immediate attention on campus. He incessantly wore a big ring of keys and I could hear them jingle with his heavy approach down the tiled halls. I avoided him.
As a student, I thought of him as powerful and distantly cold. My performance in the courses he taught was consistently abysmal. I never volunteered to answer a question. When he called on me, I always answered incorrectly. His frustration with my lack of certainty and skill showed on his face and he would utter an audible sigh. He pulled me aside one day and reprimanded my absence of enthusiasm. I felt rejected. At the same time, I watched with keen interest as he seemed to favor certain boys as his favorites; they were the same bullies who were my tormentors. In my mind, he was in league with them. Mid-year I was sent out of class for special remedial help. The female tutors were considerate and helpful; I improved, but I became increasingly sullen and withdrawn.
When my family moved to another town and I changed schools, the 8th grade teacher was a man. He was older, prematurely grey-haired, and slightly balding, not physically impressive, but similar to Professor Jordan Peterson from The University of Toronto, in that he exhibited an unpompous composed certitude that earned immediate respect. He spoke the truth and he was kind. He taught my favorite subjects and I longed to stay all-day in his class. For the first time, since I bounced carefree and unbrutalized in kindergarten, I began to actually enjoy being at school. On a fateful day, as if a heavy iron chain had been unleashed from my wrists, I was able to raise my hand and answer a question. I was correct and he congratulated me for making some unique observation. I still haven’t forgotten that moment.
It’s remarkable in the early-21st Century to see hoards of young men attend rather philosophical lectures by the bookish Peterson and the diminutive high-pitched Ben Shapiro; the soft-spoken Bishop Thomas Paprocki garnered a similar response from the typically uninvolved Catholic male; these men, though not perfectly conforming to the stereotypical idea of the robustly masculine, have unwittingly become male role models to a generation of boys that rarely knew a man who spoke truth with such certitude and a distinct empathy for the human condition.
That year, my homeroom teacher was a highly organized and super-efficient, but also controlling and hypercritical woman. Her meticulous micro-management style overreached to everything from the arrangement of the cloakroom to the way in which chalk should be correctly erased from the blackboard. In her classroom, I hardly ever took eyes off the desktop in fear of being noticed. But I forcibly endured it all in expectation of reaching the following grade when my homeroom would switch to one of the few men I ever admired and trusted.
During a strange reversal in the order of the universe, that year I almost couldn’t wait for the summer to end. Those first weeks of 8th grade were unmistakably the happiest days I would spend in school beginning from kindergarten to my senior year. Unlike my former homeroom, my new teacher’s classroom was filled with an eclectic collection of various antique historical prints, reproductions of famous artworks, and portraits of prominent historical figures. There weren’t any billboards filled with brightly colored craft-collages or posters of ponies frolicking in a flower-strewn meadow. There was also an obvious deficiency of art projects utilizing construction-paper and glitter. This was a man’s room and I liked it.
I also thought that he acted like a man. He had a masculine bearing which was difficult to describe. One of my few comparisons was that of Hugh O’Brian in the television-series “Wyatt Earp.” As a terminally scared boy, I adored the man and the reruns of the show. In the town of Tombstone, all hell could break loose, but the mere presence of Marshal Earp upon the scene, created an immediate de-escalation. My teacher had the same effect on a group of unruly boys – though, from experience, no one ever got wildly out-of-hand in his presence. Unlike several of the female teachers, he never raised his voice. He elicited respect with just an intense stare. Everyone got immediately quiet. Then, he could diffuse the slightly uncomfortable and tense situation and put the class at ease – with a dumb harmless joke. He was never afraid to be self-deprecating and that made him seem approachable and human.
Almost at once, I think my teacher realized that I was struggling and that I looked up to him. In hindsight, nothing he did was ever obvious or reminiscent of preferential treatment, but he took the time to say a kind word to me or compliment something I did. That meant more to me than anything. It made me believe that I had worth; that a man thought well of me. His small acts of approval and encouragement caused a confused young boy to rethink both his perceptions of himself and his relationship to male classmates – as well as adult men. Instead of wanting to be with men, I wanted to be a man.
What nearly happened to me was almost a return to the traditions of pre-industrial cultures wherein a boy was apprenticed to a master artisan or craftsman in order to learn a trade; and learn how to be a man. But this also marked the official passage into responsible masculinity. This momentous occasion survives beautifully in Orthodox Judaism with the Bar Mitzvah, where the task of training the boy is the responsibility of the father and other men, but almost nowhere else in Western society. Hence, the rise of feeble replacements such as urban gangs, false prophets, extremist ideologies, the cult surrounding male pop and sports superstars, and homosexuality.
In “The Abolition of Man,” published in 1947, C.S. Lewis compared the current state of learning with previous forms of education:
The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.
At my school, at the beginning of each week, the entire student body would gather in the adjacent parking lot to hear various announcements from the principal. We lined up according to our grade, with each class forming two lines: one for the boys and the other for the girls. After the principal spoke, each teacher announced a “Student of the Week.” The award commemorated some noteworthy achievement or effort by the child during the previous week. By the end of the school year, each student in every class could expect to receive the award at least once. During the previous year, my name was called probably during the last week of May or at the beginning of June. So, on that early-September day, I wasn’t even paying much attention when our teacher stepped forward to reveal who would be the first so honored. Someone standing behind me had to give me shove when it was me. I couldn’t believe it.
Over the next few weeks, something strange started to take place within me; I felt safe around this man, but not coddled or smothered. I had always kept my front bangs long, which I combed forward in order to cover my eyes. I brushed them aside. I became less paranoid and squeamish. I sat up straight in my desk. At recess, for some odd reason, I got invited to play basketball with a few other boys. I was semi-terrible, but now I could make fun of myself before anyone else did. My new relaxed attitude fostered camaraderie not the usual contempt.
Then, my thoughts concerning men were just beginning to become sexualized. For awhile, they went away. But everything would soon change.
A little over a month after the beginning of the school year, our teacher suffered from some sort of cardiac problem. He was gone. Retired from teaching due to ill health.
Our new homeroom instructor? -My former teacher from 7th grade. She hadn’t changed. The first day of her new assignment involved emptying our classroom of it contents and throwing almost everything out. She took down the prints, the portraits, the little models, and assorted historical artifacts and precious souvenirs that were displayed about the room. She complained about the dusty old books which lined the shelves behind the desk belonging to my vanished teacher. Unceremoniously, they were loaded into cardboard boxes and removed. The place was thoroughly scrubbed and washed; and when it was over – no sign of his presence remained. I viewed it as a violent iconoclasm. I sunk back into my desk. My eyes dropped and I locked my hands together. It was short-lived, and it was over.
I retreated and started to fixate on assertive male Hollywood stars and gender-bender New Romantic pop bands; namely Don Johnson and Duran Duran. This preoccupation aligned my interests with those of the girls and I began to spend my lunch-hours with them. We would sit and they talked endlessly about the boys. I looked across the schoolyard and marveled as one of them jumped into the air to sink a ball into the basket. It had only been a few weeks, but I couldn’t remember being among them. I stared and a boy caught my gaze and he noticed that I was looking at him. I was mortified.
Years later, I would sometimes haunt the public parks of San Francisco; they remained family friendly during the day and were remarkably transformed at night into gay cruising arenas. In the shade of a tree, I sat on a bench for hours watching in amazement as young fathers and their sons would toss around a ball, try to launch a kite into the air, or throw a Frisbee. Even in the heart of liberalism, the health-club culture accentuated the biological physical differences between male and female. It was remarkable to witness as women and their daughters practiced tai chi, interspersed with various ballet positions, while dad tumbled on the grass and lifted a boisterous son onto his shoulders. I audibly gasped when a father would kneel down to show his son how to properly hold a kite string. When the sun set, the streetlights hummed and flipped on, and the park cleared – shadowy figures drawn from the surrounding streets and neighborhoods appeared out of nowhere and began to quietly access each other. Intermittingly, they would pair-up and disappear into the hedges or behind the public lavatory. It reminded me of a few sentences from Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited:”
…I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.
I could never self-exorcise the tenacious demons of the past. In the bars, a guy would strategically glance across the room at me. It was meant to appear inadvertent, but every flick of the eyelid signified something. I kept my head down and tried to memorize the arrangement of the ice cubes in my drink. He was still there. He was commanding, but oddly desperate. That look wrested a response, but felt pleading. When I looked up again, he was standing next to me. Over the next few weeks, he was my mentor and guide through the ways of all-male sex. He was older, kind, and patient.
As a boy, except for one man, no heterosexual male reached out to help me. When I turned eighteen and left home for San Francisco- there were many “gay” men willing to be my friend.
Postscript: After years of having sex with numerous men, manhood appeared as distant a reality as ever. I was still a sad little boy. And I never found a teacher to decisively usher me into masculinity.
With nothing left to lose, I returned to the location of my grade-school; or, more precisely, the adjacent parish church. My old teacher was long-gone. I went to see the resident priest. He was certainly kind, but also unsettlingly compromising. His compassion sounded like an attempt to protect me from a condemning world – that included Catholicism. This approach, though outwardly sympathetic, created mistrust and suspicion. When the priest told me that somehow God created me “gay,” I momentarily wondered if the Church hadn’t placed an impossible burden upon those with same-sex attraction; were the admonitions in the Catechism concerning homosexuality, which specifically described the inclination itself as “objectively disordered,” simply mean-spirited and hurtful? For some, it signifies the return of schoolyard abuse and oppression, with the Church hierarchy as the closeted homophobic bully.
The priests I met who affirmed my homosexuality were extremely cloying. For some, their ear-tickling rhetoric is undeniably appealing. But I had been “gay” in arguably the most LGBT-friendly place in the world, now I needed to hear what no one ever dared to speak out loud.
I met a priest, a small man in stature, but stout and solid. As a “gay” man, I had been accustomed to often valuing the worth of man by the size of his body and the various appendages and parts. Like my former teacher, he had the ability to convey poise and determination without uttering a single word. He knew that I needed a friend, and we met once a week to talk. There was something calming about him; like all good and faithful priests, they have a Christ-like ability to pacify the tumult and uncertainty that blows and crashes against the skull of a tortured mind.
He showed me respect, compassion, and sensitivity, but he also treated me like a man – in that he wasn’t afraid to present some difficult choices that I alone had to make. But it didn’t end there. He expected accountability. He set the bar high. This was Catholic boot-camp. I knew this was my last chance and I didn’t want to flunk-out.
It was a struggle, but I did it. Slowly, I realized that masculinity wasn’t something outside of myself that another man could bestow upon me. It was my birthright, yet it had to be earned through dedication, hard work, and sacrifice. Being born a male doesn’t guarantee manhood. For instance, some men are just born with a certain proficiency in an individual sport – a tall frame is advantageous in basketball. Nevertheless, those who may have a biological edge, except they don’t practice or work out, can conceivably find themselves overpassed by someone less physically equipped but more strong-willed.
This is why adult men are so important in the maturation of boys. Boys, and even other men, need guidance from men. In my experience, some men have an innate aptitude for leadership, but the vast majority of men who have influenced me over the years were themselves men who received excellent guidance from other men – often in the military or through orthodox and strict seminary training. Some of these men had good relationships with their fathers – some did not. In those with an absent or abusive dad, somewhere along the line – another man entered their lives and served as a sort of surrogate father figure. Not surprisingly, these men turned around and did the same thing for others.
For those men struggling with masculinity and same-sex attraction – it’s never too late. Find a traditional Catholic parish, I guarantee that the priests will welcome you. When I left homosexuality, at first I was impulsively drawn to priests who appeared convivial and smiling. Overall, where these men congregated, I found the liturgy uninspiring, female-driven, and limp. I started going to a parish which offered the Tridentine Latin Mass. In the beginning, the priests on the altar looked startlingly serious and severe. They wouldn’t want anything to do with me, I thought. Yet, in the same way that they had a sure and masculine command of the Liturgy – they also could express the truth with equal conviction. And, although a sizeable percentage of their congregation is composed of large conservative families, surprisingly, these parishes also drew a not insignificant number of young single adult men. Therefore, my issues with sexuality were not foreign to the resident priests. These parishes also often support an active men’s club. Join it. Some of the greatest benefits to me psychological health as a man have been a result of friendships with heterosexual men.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.
Most importantly, try to reconnect with your family if you are estranged. If you never knew him, get to know your father. In childhood, the relationship I had with my dad was distant at best. I didn’t understand him. The truth is, sometimes a hurt boy will raise another hurt boy. Fault is difficult or impossible to determine. The past is only meaningful if we learn something from it.
My plea to heterosexual Catholic family men: reach out to boys and young men who you know are troubled. Everyone has at least one in their extended family. Take the time to pay some special attention to this boy. In addition, if you know a young man with same-sex attraction, perhaps he already came-out; invite him to day out with you and the guys. Go for a hike in the mountains, on the beach, or through the forest. Talk to him. In a gentle and unemotional manner, ask the young man about what it was like growing-up. Ask him about his father. This will prove to him that you are interested in his thoughts. No man in all probability ever had this conversation with him. He might shut-down, tell you that everything is fine, or you may have a moment of true honesty.
All boys long for this sort of attention from men, hence the continued popularity, especially among young men, of such films that incorporate a theme of apprenticeship and older male guidance as in the “Star Wars,” “X-Men,” and “Harry Potter” movie franchises.
Young Catholic men who are pondering a career – consider a vocation as a grammar-school teacher. In parochial schools, the number of male teachers is even lower than that of public schools on account of the significantly lower salary. You may not make a lot of money, but you could save a life.
According to the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University:
…male educators make up 2.3 percent of the overall pre-K and kindergarten teachers, while male elementary and middle school teachers constitute 18.3 percent of the teaching population. It evens out a little more at the high school level with men representing about 42 percent of the teachers overall.