One Native Life: Role models important for turning boys into men
- Richard Wagamese | March 11, 2017
Originally published May 28, 2014
Friends of ours are foster parents. They make their living at it and it's a commitment they've made with themselves and with the kids who come under their care. They've been doing this for years and in that time they've positively influenced a lot of young boys. Since we've been friends we've gotten to meet a handful of these kids and it's always been a pleasure. They're shy at first, restrained, scared maybe, but they bloom eventually and become themselves.
Being a former foster kid myself, I can identify with them. I remember precisely how it feels to move into someone else's home and try to find a comfortable place for yourself and how much work it takes to get your feet under you so you can move. It's never an easy thing. You travel with the knowledge that you don't belong. That's never an easy or a comfortable weight to bear at any age but harder when you're a kid.
My friends are getting older. They're both in their sixties now and they can clearly see a time coming when they won't be able to do this work anymore. Everyone outgrows child rearing and it's no different with foster parents. They want to rest. They want to enjoy each other. Sometimes their energy lags and sometimes, so does their patience. But there isn't a day when their care flags or their understanding of what makes boys tick surrenders to their tiredness.
They've got three boys in their home now. All of them are under sixteen but just barely. It means that they're an emotional and a physical handful. They're growing into their bodies and becoming men and along with that comes a host of changes and a hundred different ways of coping with them. They fight like brothers. They tease and jibe. They react to the emotional surges that happen of their own accord and they question almost everything. It's called growing up.
It's actually kind of funny to watch. I find it funny because I remember so well how completely out of orbit I felt at that age. My body was different, my voice was different and then there were all those feelings. Throw in the idea of girls and things in my head were a mad house. I had big feet and a round head until I was fourteen. I had a severe brush-cut and goofy glasses and I couldn't talk to people. My life was one big ache for acceptance.
The world held mysteries that were always hinted at but never explained. When you need to rely on speculation because you're too timid or afraid to ask questions of things or people, the resources you're left to are always your own. I imagined a lot of wrong things. I surmised dreadfully. I calculated out of fear and confusion. There wasn't a man around me that I felt connected to in any big way to ask about the things that were going on inside me.
That was the big thing. I was a displaced boy trying to understand the process of becoming a young man and role models were at a premium for me. The men I most admired were other kid's fathers but I could never talk to them. Wandering through my stiff adolescent world I never had the benefit of a guide. It's tough territory.
So when I'm around those guys I try to remember all that. I try to remember the fact that I could never for a moment forget that I was a foster kid. I try to remember how it felt to have to shop for a feeling of permanence and stability and how indecipherable grown ups were. Particularly the men. I remember how hard it was to learn how to be masculine through mimicry and how a lot of the behaviours I saw didn't fit with how I felt inside.
So I joke with them. I tease lightly. I play the clown and get them to laugh. I use their lingo and their references and I try to talk about the things theyre interested in. I try to show them that grown ups aren't all boring, dull, uninventive and non-spontaneous. I try to show them that some of us can still be kids too because I really needed that when I was them. I didn't need a cop back then. I needed an ally, a confidante and a buddy. I try to give them that.
See, kids trust what reflects them. If they can see themselves in you they hear you, they pay attention to you, they're not afraid of you. When you're not infallible it allows them the dignity of the occasional oops themselves.
As grown-ups we need to remember that because in the end, we're all role models and we're all foster parents.