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.