I work out three times a week, nothing too serious like Crossfit or weightlifting, just some running and rope work. I don’t even pay attention to what I wear: purple Yahoo! t-shirt, black baseball cap, maroon shorts, red socks, and gray sneakers with an orange racing stripe (I’m not making this up). I like to skip rope, which I have had to explain at times, like to the housekeeping staff at the hotel where I just stayed in Atlanta. They got a kick out of a grown man leaving his “jump rope” in his room. I suppose it could have been worse. Much worse, now that I think about it.
Usually, I work out in the afternoon at the same time that the prep school adjacent to the campus where I teach sends their boys to our gym for physical education. I don’t know if they call it that anymore, which is fine by me, since I am more than a little suspicious of anything ending in “education,” but that’s another story.
Often, these boys invade the tranquility of the locker room with explosions of laughter, yelling, music, horseplay, and lewd language. I am not offended by it, even the language. I know they don’t do it to impress or challenge other people, as college students might. They are merely exploring their world, finding their place in it, and trying to figure out who and what they are, which is why the put-down is their major form of expression. You can find out a lot about yourself by pushing against the other guy and seeing what he does with it. And the put-downs are often witty. By this I mean good-natured and never bullying.
But these prep boys can also have serious conversations, usually about an AP course, sex, their parents, the diving coach (yes, in prep school there’s a diving team), pizza, sex, drinking, trigonometry, and sex. They are capable of abstract, speculative thinking and develop some interesting theories about life. Just the other day I overheard a conversation in which one boy was relating information given to him by his older sister, a nurse, about STDs and a penile discharge that I won’t mention here but that had me laughing. As soon as they heard me, they got quiet and changed the topic.
That, too, is a major difference between college boys and prep boys. College students don’t see people my age (i.e., anyone over fifty). We are invisible to them, which means they often say and do things that have me wondering if I really am invisible. Not so prep boys. They are all too aware of the presence of adults and especially authority figures. We are certainly not invisible to them, and even though I am often the only faculty member in the locker room at that time, they know I am in the last row of lockers against the wall. Once in a while I even spy a head peeking around the corner to see if I am there. They can be as quick as mice.
Boys this age can be very shy, too, which is something I had forgotten. It’s been a while since I was in the eighth grade, and all my children were girls. Even with all the outward posturing, they almost never get completely naked, showering in bathing suits and dressing behind towels. They also seem to know the limits of language and when they’ve crossed the line with joking and sarcasm (e.g., parents, race, and religion are off-limits).
There is a sense of joy and awe among these boys that I find uplifting. They really do make me feel young again, even as I get older while my own students remain the same age. So then I have to ask myself, why should joy and awe be the sole possession of prep boys? Why shouldn’t we reclaim them? Being joyful and awe-filled does not mean being uncritical. On the contrary, remaining joyful in spite of the evidence before us–a second naivete–is much harder to attain, but isn’t that what makes life worth living? In that sense, youth becomes a choice, not a chronological number.
What brought all of this to mind this week? To be honest, more than a few things: a milestone high school reunion, fall, friends baptising their baby, my youngest daughter’s pregnancy. Then there’s the fact that the last time I was in the locker room one of the prep boys played–I had to strain my ears to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating–Engelbert Humperdinck!
I found out later the poor kid was going through a breakup, something I am not unfamiliar with. Maybe next time I’ll venture a word of wisdom, for what it’s worth.