In the Custody of Strong, Nurturing Men

TIM BAKER

January 18, 1993|By TIM BAKER

It was the fifth grade. Forty years ago. Someone in the nextclassroom pounded on the wall. ''Bang. Bang. Bang-Bang-Bang.''

Mr. Robinson stopped the math lesson. He spun around toward the sound and listened with exaggerated attention. The banging came from the sixth grade next door, where Mr. Goodwin was teaching American history.

The fourth, fifth and sixth grades were housed in a small white clapboard building called the ''Cottage.'' I was a new student, so I sat wide-eyed at my desk and listened while Mr. Goodwin repeated the coded message. ''Bang. Bang. Bang-Bang-Bang.''

Mr. Robinson went over to the wall and pounded out an answer. ''Bang. Bang-Bang-Bang. Bang.'' The other boys around me began to laugh. We could hear Mr. Bishop start to bang on the wall in the 4th grade classroom across the hall. Then more banging came from the other end of the building. Mr. Callahan or maybe Mr. Ackley. The teachers pounded on the walls for another minute or so.

Then Mr. Robinson concluded their communications with one final funeral blow. ''It's Schmick,'' he informed us. ''Hacking around again.'' He shook his head at the thought of the sixth-grader's punishment. ''Poor Schmick,'' he said and ran his finger across his throat.

The uproar in the Cottage came to an end as suddenly as it had begun. Mr. Robinson resumed the math lesson as if nothing unusual had happened. Whatever they'd done to Schmick couldn't have been too serious. He looked OK when I saw him at recess.

At dinner that night, I told my parents the whole story. That first year in my new school I came home with a lot stories.

Mr. Goodwin had stood on top of his desk to re-enact the Battle of Bunker Hill. Mr. Ackley had drawn a map of medieval England on the blackboard and labeled one of the towns ''East Jockstrap.'' Mr. Robinson had sunk a set shot from half court. Mr. Callahan kept a stack of erasers on the corner of his desk. His aim was deadly. If he caught you whispering to another boy, he'd bounce one of them off your head. I can still sing the song he taught us: ''C-A, double L, A, H-A-N spells Callahan.''

Joe Callahan. Nemo Robinson. Chang Goodwin. Ham Bishop. Bill Ackley.

I was later lucky enough to have great teachers in high school, college and law school. But that team in the Cottage was the best I ever had. They made us work hard. But they also made learning fun. Exciting. I couldn't wait to get to school in the morning. I even hung around on Saturdays.

Previously I had gone to schools in which all my teachers had been women. But suddenly in my new school, all my teachers were males. Like the women teachers I'd had, they were well trained and dedicated educators. But for a 10-year-old boy, the most important thing was that they were men.

The men who taught me in the fifth and sixth grades played a crucial role in my life. They guided me through the first stage of my male initiation into the world beyond my family. In those two years, school started to replace home as the central focus of my life. As I began to move out from under the protective wings of loving parents, I passed into the custody of special men.

Strong, warm men. Men who smiled often and laughed easily. Men who encouraged and supported boys as well as taught and disciplined us. Men who won our affection as well as our respect. Caring men. Nurturing men.

These days we don't often hear ''nurturing'' associated with maleness. The word itself evokes images of breast-feeding. But women aren't the only sources of human nourishment. A surprising number of men have real ability as nurturers. Some of them go into teaching. But you can also find them in corporate offices, law firms and other unexpected places.

The ability to nourish another person, however, has not been the key to male success in this society. A man's warmth may be quietly appreciated. He may bring along younger subordinates and take the time to listen to troubled co-workers. But these caring qualities are rarely rewarded, honored or acknowledged. In this culture a man isn't made a partner or promoted to vice president because his boss likes his style of nurturing.

As men look around, however, and re-evaluate what's important, more and more of us question the models of success we've been emulating. We wonder why we've been trying to make ourselves into warriors. But it's difficult to see an alternative if your mentors in life have cared only about the big game, the big case, the big deal.

Nurturing is one of a man's natural talents. But it's largely undeveloped, and it won't flower on its own. Like anything else, its requires a sense of purpose and the willingness to work at it.

Most of us won't apply ourselves to that task unless we see men we admire who know how to nurture. We need models. I can go back a long way to find some of mine. Back to the fifth grade, to a group of wonderful men who had that ability.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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