Years ago, one of my former elementary school teachers told me a story I have not forgotten: Men would sometimes visit the school, volunteering as mentors, seeking to uplift, to share substance and hope.
But the teacher couldn’t help noticing how some of the boys in her class would treat the men so badly. They would give them a hard time by being disruptive, hostile, or completely unresponsive.
Perplexed, the teacher one day asked one of the boys why he was so mean to the male mentors. The boy answered simply that the only time he saw a man was when his mother’s boyfriend wanted something from her, usually around the first of the month when she got her check. As far as he could see, “men” were takers, not givers, and most completely absent in his life.
Clear to my former teacher was that at the root of the resentment of many boys was that they saw the failure and desertion of some men — especially their own fathers — as the complete portrait of all men.
Long clear to me, abandoned by my natural father by age 4, is that the hole in a little boy’s — or girl’s — soul, created by the absence of the man who was supposed to love them first, can have a crippling effect. Clear that while a good mother can help heal those wounds and also help navigate life’s course, the value of a positive man in a child’s life is incalculable.
I believe and have said, sometimes to the chagrin of women, that children need fathers, desperately need functional men in their lives. In no way am I diminishing a mother’s immeasurable worth. I am my mother’s son, cradled by my grandmother, nurtured and prayed over by the mothers of the church, by my aunts and great women in my life.
But I also needed a man. To teach me how to relate to men. To model manhood and maleness. To bestow upon me “manhood.”
To show me that real men produce, protect and provide. That real men are more than a figment of the imagination, more than shadows that abandon their families.
That real men work. And show up. That real men read and can make a lifetime of difference in a child’s life with their sacrifice of even an hour each week.
This is at the heart of my call for men to join me in reading to children at south suburban Matteson Elementary School. In last week’s column, I reissued my call. On this past Thursday morning, I arrived at the school of 368 students to find 20 men in Room 3, waiting to read.
Black and white, of all ages, some traveling from as far away as northwest suburban Arlington Heights and also Joliet. Men who came seeking to make a difference.
Men whom I see as an emerging mighty force in this battle to save our sons and daughters — through literacy and their positive male presence.
We marched through the halls, led by Principal Pamela J. Powell, to classrooms. The joyous “Good morrrr-ninnng!” of little voices rang as each man walked in. It was, for me, as stirring as any sermon. Powerful.
And yet, it is not enough. Not yet.
We are seeking before year’s end to have hundreds of men at Matteson Elementary and ultimately to have our Thursday morning reading sessions spark a movement both near and far. To uplift. To share substance and hope. To help save our children.
To be, as men, the change we want to see.
Still Wanted: A few good men.
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