Being kind, caring, and able to express your feelings in an honest and healthy way is more important than 6-pack abs.
Every week when I’m in the classroom with a group of 12-14 year old guys in our after-school program, I think back to my teenage years, and remember what it was like to be 13-year old Jermal.
What did I like? What was I scared of? What did I hope for my future?
When I was 13, I read this article that said if I did 19 push-ups a day (because 20 was too many, for some reason), that “she” would notice me (whoever “she” was).
When I was 13, the only thing that mattered was getting the attention of high school girls.
When I was 13, I met a girl from Barbados. Her name was Grace, and she was on summer vacation visiting her aunt.
The first time I saw Grace, I was instantly sweaty and not a single coherent word came out of my mouth when I tried to talk to her. I knew those were signs that I liked Grace from the moment I met her.
Over the next few weeks, we got to spend more and more time together—always in the company of my dad or her aunt—but we had so much fun. Grace was funny, caring, and smart, and did I say funny? We spent most of our time together laughing in each other’s backyards.
As the summer was winding down, I finally mustered the courage to ask my dad, “How do you let a girl know that you like her?”
He actually wasn’t that helpful, so I asked my stepmom. She said, “Jermal, she already knows!”
These were 13-year old Jermal’s thoughts: “What a relief. So I don’t have to say anything, Grace already knows that I like her …”
My stepmom’s wise response: “That doesn’t mean you don’t have to show her that you like her Jermal.”
Naturally, my procrastination got the best of me, and even though it was on my mind for weeks, I waited until Grace’s last day of the summer to act. Ten minutes before my curfew, I asked my dad for permission to go out. He said, “Yeah, you have ten minutes your curfew. If you’re late, you’re grounded. You know the rules.”
Time was not on my side, but it didn’t matter—I grabbed my shoes and raced out the door to her aunt’s house. It was probably a full five minutes later (all-out sprinting) when I reached her door, totally out of breath.
Grace’s aunt opened the door, and I got out the words to ask for permission for Grace to come outside for a few minutes. By this point, I know I’m already past my curfew, but I didn’t care. Grace took her time coming outside, and I finally was able to nervously tell her that I had one of the best summers of my life with her and all sorts of other nice, sweet, and genuine things about how I really felt about her. Then I asked if it was OK if I kissed her … and she said yes!
It probably wasn’t awesome for Grace, I was sweaty (obviously), nervous, and inexperienced, but still to this day, it was one of the most memorable kisses ever for me. And yes, being grounded sucked, but that moment was definitely worth it.
Fifteen years later, when I think back on that summer with Grace, the message is clear to me.
I spent two months getting to know Grace, and after spending nearly every day together, at the end of the summer, I still felt the same way she made me feel when I first met her.
We were friends first—we knew all about each other’s lives, we liked to laugh together, and we were honest and from the heart with each other.
This is the message that I want young men to know as they transition into manhood and navigate all these weird moments around dating and relationships, expectations about how they’re supposed to act, and fears around putting themselves out there emotionally: Honesty is the key to the most special relationships, and memories you’ll probably have. It’s how I feel about my fiancé now, my best friend Jake, and even my father.
Forget that “19 push-ups a day will make her come your way” line. Those 19 push-ups don’t make any difference if you aren’t kind, caring, and able to express your emotions and feelings in an honest and healthy way.
I hope we can inspire all the young men in our lives to realize the next steps will take courage, but if we are honest with ourselves and others, we won’t miss out on some of the best relationships and moments that life throws our way.
Photo: Getty Images