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boys to men

The other day, at the beginning of class, I asked the students to write about a specific passage in the novel we were reading, so the students curled over their desks and the room was silent for a few minutes except for the scratchings of pen on paper. I love that silence – I loved it even as a kid (yes, hello, clearly even at 15 I was destined for life as an English professor)  – the silence of a room filled with people thinking.  But on this day, I found myself looking at the boys, all of them first or second-year college students.

They’re beautiful, these boys, even the ones who aren’t particularly “cute.” Their skin stays close to their bones and gleams with health; when they walk they inhabit every inch of their bodies. They’re intent on their work; their arms wave with enthusiasm when they have something to say to the class and sometimes when they talk, their words come out so fast, they get tangled in their ideas and have to start again.

They’re no longer children – they’re at college in Abu Dhabi, which for all of them is a long, long way from home – but they’re not quite men, either, despite the fact that some of them have wispy little beards or long what-do-you-think-about-these sideburns.  I only went to Boston for college, from Illinois – and it felt like an epic distance, so how are these 18 year olds handling entire hemispheres of distance?

I remember the tearful phone calls I made to my mom during those years about how strange and weird it all was, that my sheets smelled funny, the food was weird, and my roommate was from some entirely alien planet called New Jersey.

These not-quite-men boys from all over the world – I have students from Hungary, Russia, California, Pakistan, Colombia, and yes, New Jersey – do they call their moms and sob? Did someone teach them, when they were young, that it’s okay for boys to cry and that frequently you feel a whole lot better after a good sob?

I think about their mothers, spread all over the world and wonder what they think about their distant children; do they imagine their boys huddled over their work, tongues gripped in the sides of their mouths as they write down their thoughts, many of them using a language that is not the language of “home?”  Curved as they are over their work, the napes of their necks are exposed; the tag of one boy’s shirt is sticking up and it’s all I can do not to walk over and tuck it down, as I imagine his mother would have done, were she in the room.

When my boys were babies, I would nestle my thumb in that little divot at their nape and feel their pulse inside – incredibly fragile and incredibly strong at the same time. I miss that neat match of thumb to neck; I miss that babyhead smell.

Mostly, though, when I look at the boys in my class, I wonder about touching. Not in the professor-is-a-cougar sort of way, but mother-child, all those things I do with my boys now. My boys still curl into my lap, sidle up to me and lean on my shoulders, clamber up my legs for a monkey hug. Sometimes, true, I want them to leave me alone, but then I remind myself that these days of easy intimacy are numbered. Girls, I think, get to stay in physical contact with their moms forever but somewhere, somehow, at least in the West, we’ve given our boys – and ourselves – the idea that too much touching is unmanly, inappropriate, wrong. I don’t want to give my sons the idea that “men don’t hug” – and then again, I don’t want them to be teased (or worse) for expressing affection.  Somewhere, I suppose, there’s a balance – but why do I have to teach my boys that hugging is only for “little kids?”

I wonder what will happen when these boys return home at the end of the term. Will their mothers hug them – but quickly, stepping away before they want to let go? Will a mom want to stroke her son’s curly hair at night as he falls asleep but content herself instead with a light kiss on his cheek?

I look at these boys in my class, intent on their work, so far away from home, and I wonder if their mothers were ready to let them go.

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39 Responses to boys to men

  1. Stacey April 30, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    My boys are 4.5, almost 3, and 7 months and I am boo hooing over here. I can’t speak for other mothers around the world, but you expressed my feelings about that transition from boy to man perfectly. I’m pretty sure that it will break my heart to let them go, but I suppose that’s why we practice a little at a time. Going to get a tissue now…

  2. Jackie April 30, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    What a lovely post Deborah. While I don’t have boys, this piece still speaks to me.

  3. susan w. April 30, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    Good post! My son is 31 years old, but I am not ashamed to admit I still take every opportunity to rub his head, kiss his cheek and grab a hug every once in a while (not often enough for me). Now I have his own little boy to sit on my lap and cuddle while reading a story, though, which brings back a lot of the sense memories.

  4. Alexandra April 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    I don’t know what I’m going to do when my boys are gone…and that dark day is almost at my door. My oldest, my one that I waited a lifetime to finally have, is 17.

    My middle, my sweet quiet one that let me carry him in my arms until he was 3, is 15.

    And my youngest…the baby of my old age..the one who accuses me of “holding him back” because I won’t let him do what his other friends of the same age, 10, do…what will I do without the kisses the hugs the soft heads of hair within five feet of me at all times.

    What will I do…

    Lovely, dear lady…so lovely.

  5. Anna May 1, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    Our kids grow up too fast! Before we know it they are flying the coop and moved on. I am not ready for that day. Beautiful story!

  6. Pish Posh May 1, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    I wonder the same thing about my fresh-faced students. They’re in the midwest, not Abu Dhabi, but many of them are so homesick for towns that seem far away, and are really only a few hours. Nice to meet another English Professor! 🙂

  7. I think about this a lot too, as a mom of two boys, and worry that my days of physical affection with them are numbered. But maybe, as you say, it doesn’t have to be. Maybe if I try to continue that affection beyond the normally acceptable age limit they will grow up to be men who are, in turn, more affectionate with their children. My six-year-old often puts his arm around his guy friends if they are hurt or pouting to comfort them and I’m so proud of him at those times. I’m a little worried, too, always glancing around to make sure nobody will make fun of him and I wish that weren’t the case.

  8. Kim@MamaMzungu May 1, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

    What a beautiful post! As a mother of young boys I think about this nearly each time I get in a good snuggle. I never want it to end. A family friend has a wonderful blog called “Looking Up” (her grown boys tower over her) and she writes poignantly about having grown boys. I encourage anyone and everyone to check it out!
    Kim@MamaMzungu recently posted..50 Shades of … What!?!?My Profile

  9. kristin @mondayswithmac May 2, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    I am going to guess that they weren’t!! My little one is still an infant so I can hardly imagine a full day away from him let alone a semester!
    kristin @mondayswithmac recently posted..Last Minute Inspiration: Postcards from Parenthood Blog CarnivalMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 4, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

      the cliche is real: it goes FAST. lots of parenting cliches don’t bear out, but that one does, in spades. fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a rocket ride…straight through to beards, whiskers, and drinking whiskey.

  10. Kim Pugliano @The G is Silent May 2, 2012 at 12:52 am #

    Oh Deborah that was so beautiful, from beginning to end. In my family, both sides, the men still kiss and hug their fathers. My husband kisses my 12 year-old and they squish up together on the couch (we all do). I will ache for my Noah when he leaves, I just know it. My sister will be the same. We are so very affectionate, my family.

    Really great post.
    Kim Pugliano @The G is Silent recently posted..Comment on I Can’t Imagine Middle School in 2032 by Louise DucoteMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 4, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

      I love that my 11 year old still is huggy, at least with me, less so with dad. And he still tosses his arms around the shoulders of his friends but I fear those days are numbered…it’s odd, watching the waves of “conventional behavior” sort of lapping at his toes, and I wonder for how much longer I will have my boy, and how or if he will be able to remain his affectionate self.

  11. Emily May 2, 2012 at 12:58 am #

    When I was in school I always thought of my teachers as far-removed and stern. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that they might feel tender toward their students, or parental, and I think that’s why I like this post so much. It’s so humanizing. And isn’t it wonderful to grow up, to reach the other side of a big divide (in this case, teacher/student) and realize that we’re all in this together? We’re all connected. We’re all trying to understand something basic about life. I hope their mothers do give them hugs when they step off those airplanes. And I hope your boys grow into men who know how to snuggle! 🙂
    Emily recently posted..Apartment LifeMy Profile

  12. Mayor Gia May 2, 2012 at 4:46 am #

    Aw, what a nice, reflective post. And I bet the answer is “no” (to the mothers question)
    Mayor Gia recently posted..I Can’t Teach My Mom How to Drink Wine but I Can Teach Her How to TextMy Profile

  13. WilyGuy May 2, 2012 at 8:44 am #

    Here I clicked for some Motown Philly (back again) but alas I had to read your incredibly inspired writing…I suppose I shall live, lol.

    I didn’t go away to college, so I didn’t go through this separation until a few years later moving out on my own, only to fail at love and independence, moving back home to be bolstered with confidence anew.

    WG
    WilyGuy recently posted..Pinky, the Travel DivaMy Profile

  14. Karine May 2, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    It’s 1:20am and now I want to go in cuddle with my baby boy (but I wont because that would wake him up and then we’d be up all night long… Hubs would kill me!). He is 7 m/o and I love to just sit there and smell his little head, hug him close to me as his chubby little hand grabs my hair and gently rubs it against his cheek….. ah! And now I’m crying!

    Beautiful post!
    Karine recently posted..All Hell Broke LooseMy Profile

  15. TriGirl May 2, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    It’s amazing the affinity you can develop for those you teach. You hope they are well looked after 🙂
    TriGirl recently posted..Breaking Up Is Hard to DoMy Profile

  16. kgwaite May 2, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    So beautiful – So well said. Sending one off to college next year. Not ready.
    kgwaite recently posted..SilenceMy Profile

  17. Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms May 2, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

    This was a beautiful post. I’m swallowing around the lump in my throat right now. I felt your longing for the the baby smell and that perfect fit between mother and child that becomes more awkward with time. I felt the itch in your fingers to fix that tag. This writing was just so lovely without dripping with sentimentality. Ellen
    Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms recently posted..A Hit and A Miss: The Monday Listicle GameMy Profile

  18. Whacamole Mom May 2, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    You have such a beautiful, poetic writing style – and what an interesting life experience! I am so glad to have found you through Yeah Write 55.
    Whacamole Mom recently posted..Wordless Wednesday: The Language Of LoveMy Profile

  19. Louise Ducote May 2, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

    Hell no their mothers weren’t ready to let them go! Wonderful writing. I wish every one of their moms could read this post and feel a little closer to their world because of it.
    Louise Ducote recently posted..Wanna Get High?My Profile

  20. Kimberly S. (Sperk*) May 2, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    I agree with Louise in that I wish their mothers could read this so they know there is someone close by who is empathizing with them in a most beautiful way. This is deeply lovely. Thanks for writing it.

  21. Lori May 2, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

    I am the mom of a girl, who gets embarrassed when I love on her. I don’t imagine it is that much different from the boys.
    what a profound post though, and how brave to go to Abu dahbi
    Lori recently posted..the world is crazyMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 4, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

      boys & girls both get emmbarrassed, yes, but there isn’t this social pressure that tells girls DONT TOUCH. Whereas I think boys – even if they WANT to hug their mom/dad/friend – are getting the message that they shouldn’t because it’s…weird. Or “little kid” … and eventually after they weather adolescence, I think girls can come back to holding hands and touching; i’m less sure that boys can. thanks for the comment!

  22. Delilah May 3, 2012 at 12:48 am #

    My oldest will be leaving for college in less than 7 years and that is far too soon for me. He’s reached the age where he doesn’t want his mom to hold his hand or hug him in public or OH MY LANDS NO, kiss him in front of his friends. Haha!
    Delilah recently posted..He Said, She Said: True StoriesMy Profile

  23. stephanie May 3, 2012 at 3:41 am #

    Beautiful post Deborah. Well-written lovely observations. These boys are fortunate to have you for a teacher. You obviously listen to them, see them, care about them.
    stephanie recently posted..No Chance to Say GoodbyeMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 4, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

      thanks…but hmm… I do listen to them, and I want them all to find things in themselves to explore that maybe they hadn’t known was there…but of course, as with kids, sometimes they make me NUTS.

  24. jamie May 3, 2012 at 5:32 am #

    Such a lovely post, Deborah. I love your observations, there’s so much love!
    jamie recently posted..April Giveaway WinnersMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 4, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

      thanks! of course, i always love my students near to the end of term (sometimes in the middle of the term, that love is a little bit harder to find!) But mostly they are very dear – they’re trying to hard, and feel themselves to be so MATURE, and yet…they’re just babies!

  25. Michelle Longo May 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    So much here to love! It was great the way you talked about what was happening with your students, brought in your own childen, brought in the moms of your students. It all flowed so well!! Great piece!
    Michelle Longo recently posted..Harpoon.My Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

      thanks! loved the story about the harpoon, too – funny what we can find in our minds, isn’t it?

  26. Megan Lawing May 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Ahhh, this was a great read. I just love it when you can read through something and thoroughly enjoy and cling to every single word. Thank you. And I am just eating up my time right now with my son. He is only 1, and I am just loving every single minute I get to spend with him. Hopefully he will always want to hug and love on his momma. 🙂
    Megan Lawing recently posted..Chicken in a BiscuitMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

      encourage that hugging and loving as long as you can – if we can develop those habits in our boys, I think EVERYONE will be better off. Mostly the boys, who will realize that hugging is not for “sissies.”

  27. Kristin May 4, 2012 at 12:32 am #

    It’s such a fine line. Teaching is so different when we are able to see each student truly as another mother’s child. My heart ached reading this – for what I will have to deal with in the future, and for what so many parents deal with every day. Lovely.
    Kristin recently posted..Glad I Saw It: Mini EyelashesMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 4, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

      I’ve noticed that from the time I had my kids, my teaching has changed – and one surprising change is that I don’t care as much if my students like me. I think it’s because I’m invested in the connection with my kids…but I also notice that I see the students differently – yes, I do, I see them as the kids of some parent somewhere, and wonder if their parents got mad at them, or how they came to be at my school, or what they were like as babies… funny, that perspective shift. Odd.

  28. Jay- The Dude of the House May 4, 2012 at 2:12 am #

    Sounds like you are not only a great mother, but also a great teacher as well.
    Jay- The Dude of the House recently posted..The Dude’s Guide to Surviving Your First PregnancyMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn May 4, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

      awww shucks.

      • Dick Horwich May 7, 2012 at 6:37 am #

        Never . . . seen . . . so . . . many . . . comments.

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