It has been clear for some time that, as a group, men are in flux about their place in the world, a world of dizzying change.
With women, their consciousness raised, now asserting their rights, including the right to seek power in the public sphere and to share power in the domestic sphere, men can no longer expect always to be in charge, always to be the voice of authority — as has been men’s “natural” right for eons of human history.
If and when we achieve equity between the sexes, it will truly be a New Day. But so far over these last decades, progress has been sketchy. Expecting men to voluntarily surrender their “natural” entitlement and share the end-all-and-be-all of power and status: It has been a big ask, going to the essence of personhood as well as manhood.
Kudos to the men who have adapted to this new social context and who treat women as co-equal human beings, colleagues at work, partners in life. Whether they modeled themselves after an admired figure they knew or, more impressively, determined for themselves that they would extend the principle of fair play to all women: These men don’t need their consciousness raised, they are their own enlightened model.
But for some (insecure) men, it’s been too big an ask — to share power and status with women — and the asking accounts for tragically high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. The rise of #MeToo has revealed shocking instances of men in high places abusing their power with women, interpreting their authority to mean all is permitted, even criminal behavior. Apart from this violent misogyny, angry young men are the public face of gun violence — they invariably are the perpetrators of our too-frequent shooting massacres — and of the white supremacy movement, whose members decry white America giving way to a more diverse populace.
In the past, the president of the United States often served as a model of male behavior — there was George Washington, father of his country, and honest Abe Lincoln. But the current one, who in addition to lacking all character is a misogynist, cannot fill that role.
Fortunately, we have a new model, right here in River City, specifically Gig Harbor, Washington: Recently in a public setting, a remarkable young man, a graduating high school senior, reacting spontaneously and from his heart, created a new mold.
It happened at the awards banquet for a program called Students of Distinction. Established in 2003, this program showcases seniors from three local high schools, nominated to compete in seven categories: academic achievement; science and technology; career and technical; music, art, and drama; athletics; community service; and overcoming adversity. Pre-banquet, all students have been subjected to 20-minute interviews by panels of local citizens (I serve on the academic achievement panel), with the students who distinguish themselves in these interviews announced at the banquet.
The overcoming adversity category is often the most moving, with students these days grappling with economic hardship, family collapse, serious health conditions. This year’s group included a young woman from Africa, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose chief adversity was “escaping the political instability, corruption, and civil war of her native country” (as her program bio noted), then, arriving in the U.S. just two years ago, learning English well enough to achieve a commendable 3.58 GPA.
This young woman acquitted herself well in the earlier interview, because ultimately she was announced the Student of Distinction in her category. But at the banquet, when her category was called to the stage to be asked, individually, some softball getting-to-know-you questions, when her turn came, she looked out at the audience, opened her mouth, and froze. It may have been the size of the audience (200-some people), or the fact that her acquisition of English is so recent — whatever it was, like an actor who’s forgotten his lines, she “went up” and went silent.
Fifteen seconds went by, thirty, a full minute. The room squirmed, the emcee didn’t know what to do.
Suddenly, from the side of the room, a young man, a contestant in another category, rose up, wended his way through the tables, and, standing in front of the stage, improvised on the spot. Identifying himself not by name but as the young woman’s “friend” — they went to the same high school — he went on to say: “If you got to know her, she is really, really interesting” and “If you got to know her, she is really, really nice.” That’s it, that was his basic message. Which he repeated, this time, his emotions getting to him, through tears.
As the hall fell into stunned silence, he returned to his table and sat down.
Talk about rising to the occasion, and then some. I can’t imagine anyone in that room not thrilling to the humanitarian rescue they just witnessed. At our table, when we got our breath back, there were tears in our eyes as well, men’s included.
Afterwards I made my way over to the young man. “Young man,” I said, “that was pretty remarkable what you did.” His response? “I had to.” He still seemed a bit overcome, a bit wide-eyed, coming back to earth. (I am not naming names here, so as to spare the young woman eternal embarrassment on the world wide web.)
Though more than a month has passed, I can’t stop thinking about that young hero. Especially at a time of so much bad male behavior and so many bad actors (and not a few faux heroes), this young man’s action is tonic and is, I submit, a model for young men going forward. As more and more women compete for power and status (the young woman in this tale hopes to become a lawyer and advocate for other refugees), ideally they would be treated by their male peers with the respect and friendship this young man exhibited. Key, I think, was that he saw her, not as female, but as a friend. And, being friends, he had to come to her aid.
Also, a political note: In light of the insulting and shocking vulgarism the current occupant of the White House used in reference to the African continent, this young man, who is white, shows, by extending his hand to his African friend, a new way for Americans to be in the world. Out with the ugly American, in with the beautiful one.
Another note: The program category this young man was placed in was athletics. By his magnanimous action, he overturned the stereotype of the jock with the big head and small heart. I later learned he comes from a family known for its athleticism.
In the end, as it happened, unlike the young woman, this young man was not named the Student of Distinction in his category. But, indubitably and beyond category, he distinguished himself as the model of the New Man, pointing the way to a New Day.
Buona fortuna, young man.