Drew Chambers wonders how he’ll know that he’s no longer a boy.
I’m not sure whether I’m a man yet.
Mainly I think this is because no one has sat me down and told me that I am a man, or taken me off into the wilderness to cast off my boyhood by killing and skinning a wild beast with my own hands. I have passed a heap of potentially meaningful milestones so far in my life—graduations, confirmations, awards, summer programs—but nothing so far that’s left me with a glowing, definitive feeling of manliness.
Coming to college was probably the closest I’ve come to embarking on a story-like coming of age adventure, and though I’ve grown up a lot in the last three years (learned how to interact with other people, made some good mistakes, come to some important realizations), I’m still wondering whether I’m done becoming a man. Which is why it would be a lot simpler to have a big, life-threatening ordeal, followed by a ceremony, to let me know that I’ve made it.
I went through something like that once, but it was when I was definitely still a boy. It was at a boys’ summer camp in North Carolina, which I attended every summer until I was about 14. This camp had an exciting, though sometimes emotionally traumatizing, promotion system. Campers could be promoted every week if their counselors considered them worthy—a very clever control mechanism that I and my fellow campers bought into completely.
Not being promoted was a BIG deal. I cried. And mostly because the far-off goal of this promotion system was the rank of “Little Chief,” which was renamed “Paladin” once the camp switched away from its originally all Native American naming system. Those older campers promoted to this rank got to wear braveheart-style black and white face paint and stand in a circle at the weekly council ring, beating on drums and lighting big fires, all of which they did in complete silence. They were unspeakably cool.
Rumors abounded about the special tests they had to go through to achieve their rank, because Paladins weren’t just promoted, they were nominated by their counselors and then had to pass through a series of unknown trials. Did they have to survive in the woods on their own for three days? Run over a mountain in a rainstorm? Start a fire from scratch?
All of these seemed plausible, but all that we knew for sure was that their ordeal ended with a 24-hour period of silence.
One special council ring night, I made it. I was nominated, and the next weekend at our big group overnight I finally went through the secret ordeal. The other nominees and I were taken by our counselors in the middle of the night to a river, where we were given the chance to jump feet first into a three-foot wide, ten-foot deep tubular hole in the bedrock of the river bed known as the Ranger Hole. If we could reach the bottom of this hole and retrieve a rock, and then remain silent for the next twenty-four hours, we would be paladins.
This actually was one of the more terrifying and awesome things that has happened to me in my life. I went down to the bottom and got a rock, which I brought up to the surface and then lost within three minutes. I had some trouble with the silence part, but they gave me another shot and I got through that, too.
And as much as I’d thought I’d feel different, I didn’t. I was still that goofy, insecure, and occasionally picked on late adolescent who’d jumped into that pool. And, in hindsight, I really don’t know whether the camp directors and counselors were up to something more than crowd control with the whole promotion system and that ridiculously dangerous secret ordeal. Maybe they were trying to teach us to work toward something slowly, and to take responsibility for our behavior little by little until we no longer needed counselors to push us in the right direction?
I suppose that’s what it means to grow up and become a man. You learn to leave behind your counselors and parents and teachers and face your actions and ensure that they are worthy of being claimed. Maybe manhood begins when we start to understand the complications of being autonomous human beings—struggling with self-realization and decision-making, trying to do right by others, learning what drives us, or guides us, or tempts us.
Becoming a man isn’t about getting it all figured out. It’s about accepting the responsibility to keep trying to figure it out. As I see it, manhood isn’t so much a title as it is a lifelong pursuit.
A version of this essay was published last year in The Carletonian as part of the “What it Means to Me to Be a Good Man” series compiled by Chase Kimball, then a senior at Carleton College.