I still remember walking into health class my first day in high school and trying to figure out why they were showing us pictures of people’s rashes.
In my case it was doubly confusing, since being homeschooled up until that point meant this was only the third or fourth class I’d ever been to. I’m not sure exactly what a middle school health class is like, but from what I gather it contains at least enough information to both correlate the awkward (and typically crude) discussions amongst students outside of class as well as hint at what’s coming when you hit the Health Class Big Leagues in high school. So yeah, I was a little blind going in.
Truthfully, I’m not really sure what I learned … maybe that adults don’t know what to tell us about sex? It’s dirty and evil? If you have sex your penis will fall off? Whatever it was, it didn’t stick, and it didn’t include any information about emotions, intimacy, and human interaction beyond the nitty gritty “here’s where the parts fit” and “pregnancy is like having an alien in your belly” stuff.
The first school dance I went to was homecoming. I asked a girl from one of my classes who was maybe even more shy and quiet than I was (quite a feat). I remember two things from that event: one was my first time rocking out to Metallica’s Enter Sandman, which is a time honored guy nerd tradition at school dances (note: you have to request the song). The other is that the next time I saw her I had no idea what to say. I didn’t want to be her boyfriend, which is what I thought was the next step after going to a dance, but we weren’t even dating so did I have to “break up” with her?
I could have used some emotional literacy right about then. It might have played a little better than telling her I thought I might be gay. All I remember is feeling like the world’s biggest jerk … fifteen years later and it’s still one of the most embarrassing moments I’ve ever had (to be clear, the embarrassment has nothing to do with mine or anyone else’s sexual/romantic preference, it’s because lying about who you are is not something my parents encouraged).
But that’s the thing about being in high school, adults don’t want to tell you anything you really need/want to know, and they definitely don’t want to talk about how to have feelings. As a result, my emotional vocabulary during year 1 of high school was pretty much just “Awesome,” “I’m mad,” and “That girl is sexytime.”
At home, I probably had it better than most kids. My dad was a good dude and never was there a harder working guy, but we didn’t ever talk about emotions. I think he assumed if he taught us multiplication and subtraction and made sure we were doing our chores that would instill the needed moral character. My mom did a great job of helping my brother and sister and I express ourselves, and I never felt repressed, but I also didn’t really have any framework for growing from a boy into a man and there wasn’t a lot of talk about sex much less intimacy or relationships.
When I look back at high school and college, I realize there was little direct talk and even fewer emotional tools provided around what it means to be an actual human being, and not just some movie superhero. Luckily for me I’ve always been a voracious reader of a wide variety of books so that helped, but from age eleven to twenty-two there is an astonishing lack of real, meaningful emotional literacy for boys and young men (it’s not so great for girls either).
As a man in America I’m all too familiar with the cultural messaging: man up, be cool, play your cards close, be a rock, and the list goes on … . But those things aren’t very good tools when you face some of life’s more ambiguous challenges: like, how long should you wait to have sex for the first time? Or, if a friend dies how long are you supposed to feel fucked up for?
I’m not going to pretend that emotional literacy would solve all the problems in our culture, but when you start acknowledging / sorting / managing feelings and practicing empathy and real emotional interaction with those around you, it opens doors you never even knew were there.
Call it the true “manning up” or whatever you like, but it’s time for men to develop strategies and start supporting each other, and younger generations too. Emotional literacy is powerful, and it is something fathers, teachers, community leaders, and the rest of us should be passing on.
Image of male and female icon courtesy of Shutterstock