Michael Copperman finds that the right moment to mentor usually comes on the way to somewhere else.
I’m glad to get the opportunity to write you this letter—I don’t see you as often now, only once a month maybe, less in the summer when you’re off shooting rifles all over the country. In a way, I’m glad for that—you have a lot going for you now, in that you’re able to show your acute intelligence in your high school classes, in how you have a good group of friends and a pretty girlfriend and an overpowered pickup with tires taller than the roof of my weenie little sub-compact. You’re nearly grown—hell, you’re a foot taller than me and thick in the shoulders and your voice is deeper—and you have obligations now as an upperclassman, things to do, places to be. You don’t really need me anymore, if you ever really did—and that’s okay. We’re friends on whatever terms work. But it’s nice to be able to write and be honest with you, now that you’re old enough to be addressed as an equal.
See, when I met you at seven years old, you were short and pudgy and pale, bowl-cut blond hair curling everywhere– a sad, mad little Fraggle. You didn’t know much about anything, but you were angry a lot, which was one reason your mom had sought a mentor— nobody really knew how to deal with your rage, yourself least of all. The first day we met you didn’t ever meet my eyes, though you were glad for the company as we tried to build a Lego ship according to the endlessly complicated instructions, step after step finished, the pieces coming together for a while and you smiling and laughing, but then when we couldn’t find a required part, you went stiff, clenched your fists and started to shake with frustration.
“It’s okay, J.,” I said, but you didn’t agree. You bellowed and howled and threw the ship to the ground and stomped until you’d broken everything we’d worked to assemble. I stood by, powerless to stop you and unsure just what I ought to say or do under the circumstances.
The circumstances were complicated, after all. I was well aware you had a lot to be angry about: your Dad was only a couple months in the ground, and the loss was fresh and it wasn’t fair, an early and sudden cancer with little warning or time and you still too young to understand death even given preparation. His Subaru was still there in the driveway in front of the big yellow house back in the hills that your Mom was selling now, unable to make the payments and not needing all that domestic space in her new life as a single-mother with two young boys. When she first had coffee with me to talk about you, she was grateful to have another adult to talk to about the difficult position she found herself in, and all the problems of your young life came out in a rush: how you’d been closest to your father, who was the only one you’d listen to, how lately you’d scream when you got angry and ignore directions and refuse discipline, how a couple times you’d hit adults hard enough to hurt them. I was immediately cautious about claiming I could do anything to help because I’d already learned that often, especially with kids, I didn’t know how to make a difference—I’d just come from my own coming-of-age trauma trying to save kids from poverty in Mississippi and failing miserably, and I had no intention of trying to stand in for your dad, a former military pilot, tall and assured, a proper hero. I figured maybe I could come by once a week and be steady and calm. I think that judgment was right—nobody can replace a father, nor should they try. But life wasn’t easy for you, and right from the beginning, seeing how hard things were, I hurt along with you.
You had some hilarious ways of coping with the hand you’d been dealt. You were always smart and precocious and mischievous, and so you’d make up stories all the time not to deceive others so much as to have a way to control and shape the otherwise chaotic world. Often, I got taken in, believing the military event you’d just described had really happened, or that the accident really had occurred and the rescue was real and the technology had been created and the miracle of medical science was indeed achieved and the car had run off the freeway and soared into the sky and somehow landed intact in the hayfield, every passenger okay after all. And when I was skeptical, I learned to keep it to myself, to stand back and nod and appreciate the quality of your invention. When I tried to teach you things, like an appreciation for deep and subtle and emotionally moving movies, instead I found that you were right—it really was a lot more fun to watch action films where stuff blew up and dialogue was pithy and absurd. I tried to find things I could teach you, but it turned out you were better than me at just about everything—better at video games, better at predicting who’d win the World Series (take that this year, Yanks!), better at finding your way through the corn maze in the dark and jumping your bike and better at shooting hoops and throwing and catching a football and hitting baseballs and finally even bowling, so that by the time you were in high school all I had left was pool, and somehow I kept getting unlucky and scratching the eight-ball even when I was ahead so that you won anyway there, too. I’d come to your ball games and I was impressed with your skill with a bat, with your blocking. You were growing up.
Of course, I’m making it sound like you were always in control or happy when the truth was that there was struggle and difficulty with your younger brother. C. is one of those kids who adults naturally laud, a cute and well-behaved performer. He was a bit too charmed to be an easy younger brother for a boy the world didn’t always favor. Sometimes we talked about how much you hated C., and sometimes about how much you actually loved him if only he weren’t such a scheming little punk, and sometimes we talked about what it was like to be a fatherless Jewish kid, in a public school with a mom who wanted to manage your life, a little too heavy-set and brainy to be the guy the girls wanted, things not always going your way, and how maybe you just needed space, or time, or— who really knew, just … something. Mostly, things weren’t so serious, just you riding shotgun and making things up and me pretending I believed you as we drove somewhere to shoot hoops or pool or catch a movie. It’s amazing how much happens on the way somewhere else. I’m going to remember that, if I ever have kids—to pay attention to the lulls of transition, when so much of what actually matters gets said.
Maybe you’d have stopped hanging out with me by freshman year of high school, but then you got dealt another blow—you’d always been an athlete, and somehow they caught the heart condition, the one that kills the high school sports stars suddenly after the game-winning shot or touchdown, that ironically enough comes from having too large a heart. You went to the Mayo clinic and the Stanford clinic and finally your doctor wouldn’t let you play, and so sports too were taken from you. And it was then that I really came to admire you, because many people who get a part of their identity stolen become bitter and never recover. I saw clearly that all you wanted was to be back on the field, to have another chance, to play another game, and you weren’t ever going to be allowed that, but you had the strength to face that reality, to confront it, and finally to find other things, like shooting and hunting, that you could devote yourself to. I don’t know if I could have done the same.
I’m making it sound like you went through an easy and seamless transition to acceptance. The truth was, that year of high school you didn’t have sports, you were pretty awful, obnoxious and back-talking and arrogant, unhappy with your lot and willing to take it out on anybody who tried to tell you anything. There were times that year when I didn’t want to show up on Thursday afternoons; a couple times, I made up alternate commitments, unable in tough weeks to bear you being absurd. You had opinions about everything, and most of those opinions were wrong, prescriptions for being a jackass and becoming an asshole. It made sense that you believed that the world was unfair and so you ought to do whatever you could, rules be damned; that for a time you felt selfishness was justified. But it was pretty hard to be around. Do you remember that time we went to the minor league baseball game, me paying your way and buying you a double cheeseburger to boot, and all you did was complain about the food and the players and the idiots who’d also come to see the game, how you heckled the batters and spit sunflower seeds on the heads of kids below us in the bleachers and threw your hot-dog wrapper at the security guard while I cringed and averted my eyes? After the game, the traffic was awful leaving the parking lot, and I ignored you when you wanted me to hop the curb and barriers and drive straight out of the parking lot. We waited and waited and then there was a merge of two clogged lanes trying to get out that wasn’t coordinated, and I signaled and waited my turn and you started in.
“Go already! You can’t wait. If you don’t go, we’ll be here forever. I told you we shouldn’t wait. This is taking all day. I’m tired of waiting. You don’t know how to drive. You should just turn!”
In front of us and behind us, cars honked at each other, and the sun beat down, and in the other lane the cars continued bumper to bumper, letting nobody in, and I tried to nose out and a guy in a Mustang surged into the gap and gave a smug little nod as he took our turn, and you threw up your hands. “See! He went! You should have gone. What the hell. Here that guy gets to go and we have to sit here. It’s not—“
“Shut up, J.,” I said, speaking slowly and enunciating each word. “Be QUIET. You’re fourteen. You don’t know how to drive yet. That guy who just cut in, who you think I should imitate, is an idiot who’s had one ballpark beer too many and who thinks he can get ahead by ignoring everybody else, and he’s wrong—he’s two places in front of us in line now, but he sucks at life and always will. We’ll wait our turn. Okay. Now, we go.”
I turned into the lane and drove, and when I glanced at your shocked face and your mouth working for words I felt ashamed for telling you to shut up. Later, on quieter streets, I apologized for losing my temper, and you didn’t say anything, just nodded and said, “It’s fine.” For a while, I was worried I’d stepped over a line, but you seemed to want to hang out the next week, and you were more polite and funny, more like you had been. It occurs to me now that maybe you wanted somebody to tell you to stop, to lay down boundaries or ask you to turn back from where you were bound. I shouldn’t have told you to shut up, but I’m not sorry I said something—I only wish I’d spoken sooner. And though I don’t credit that moment for you getting it together, the next fall you went to a new high school, had a fresh start, and slowly, piece by piece, you found a way to let go a little, to make peace with what had happened.
Because I don’t see how anyone could have done much better with the challenges you’ve faced, I’ve never tried to offer you advice about life, and I won’t now even though I gather the reason your school is soliciting these letters from friends and family is to offer some sort of field guide to what it means to be a man. Most of the advice men offer publicly is self-serving bravado about stunts they pulled or girls they did or stuff they won, a backward-looking chest-thumping that serves to disguise the truth: most men don’t really know what they’re doing. The best try to be true to themselves and the people they love as best they can, and if they have principles or ideals they think are important they try to live up to them and try to be honest with themselves when they fail. Me, I’ve betrayed myself and what I believe in at times, have had to learn to live with regret and guilt, and as best I could, I’ve tried to be better. I’d say you’ve done the same: that there’s nothing about ‘manhood’ to tell you.
Here’s how I know you’re all right. There was this fall afternoon I picked you up from high school last year, a day a lot like this one—the rain and clouds had started, there was a chill to the air and the brown and yellow leaves were falling—and when I got there, you were talking to someone, an auburn-haired girl who I thought might be your girlfriend because she was hugging you and you were ignoring me as you smiled and grinned and talked to her. Finally you jogged over to my car and threw your bag in the back.
“Who was that?” I teased. “Your girl?”
You frowned and shook your head. “No, no way.”
And you didn’t explain at first, so that I had to pry the story free from the guy who used to spin tall tales. It turned out you’d been in gym, and this girl had been climbing a rope or pole, some required test of some kind, and she’d been up pretty high and then lost her grip and fallen.
“I saw she was going to fall,” you said matter-of-factly. “So I ran over and caught her. She was just saying thanks.”
Keep being that guy, J.—the fellow who saves the girl from harm and doesn’t need to tell everybody about it, and you’ll be fine.
I’m proud of who you’ve become, who you will be.
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