The author about the time he started attending boarding school
THE HURDLES AND HOOPS OF BECOMING A MAN Steve Dresselhaus
For some mysterious reason which still baffles modern science, there is a point in human development at which each human male must prove to himself and to anyone who is watching that he is the toughest, baddest , and coolest individual life form ever to walk this planet. This life phase is what scientists have termed profundus stupidus maximus (PSM) . Fortunately, this period of a guy’s life is of limited duration, starting in the earliest stages of toddlerhood and ending at what is commonly termed late assisted living. Human females have their own condition called chronic moodius erraticus maximus which corresponds roughly in length to that of a male PSM, but since I am married to one of them and I consider life to be sacred and precious I will not develop this point publicly at this time.
One of the best environments in which to observe PSM for research purposes is a boarding school where a bunch of boys are glommed together in what is essentially a permanent sleepover sans parental oversight. Sure, there were dorm parents vainly attempting to keep track of 35 boys simultaneously, but it was like controlling hooligans at a British soccer match. I never did discover what the dorm parents had done or not done to merit such a banishment, but like Napolean on St. Helena, or St. John the Apostle in lonely exile on the island of Patmos, there they were at this remote outpost of pre-civilization. My boarding school was the Siberian Gulag of missionary assignments. Whatever the dorm parents had done must have been really, really bad.
My school, high in the Andean mountains of Venezuela, was the inspirational source of the Burning Man Festival which, in a bit of little known historical trivia, was relocated from my school to the Nevada desert about thirty years ago.* My dorm was the birthplace for exceptionally novel and boundary-testing deportment , exotic traditions and science fiction level behavioral creativity. Every day came with an inviolable mandate for each boy to be the toughest, weirdest, most radical kid around. Margaret Meade would have served humanity better by having chosen my school over the Samoan Islands as her choice for fieldwork.
Amongst the boys, the status quo was feared far more than death and was something from which to flee and from which to hide. The status quo was to ego what the Black Plague was to medieval life and culture. It was masculinity’s apocalypse. Every day provided psychologists with an overflowing cornucopia of exotic behaviors to study, all of them concentrated into one small , easy to isolate location. Not every boy behaved like the spawn of Beelzebub. There was always the good kid, the teacher’s pet, the kid who always made his bed neatly and who was unwaveringly and milktoastianly compliant with all the rules and regulations. Like a pudgy American house dog waiting for food spills in the kitchen, these boys hung around the school’s staff looking for new rules to obey. These were the boys who, when they grew up, settled into American suburbia and became the “White and Nerdy” models for Weird Al Yankovich. Their obituaries will someday be four lines long: name, dates, survived by______, and “volunteered at the local library.”
Every culture, whether it be a tribal group in the Amazon jungles of Brazil, Eskimos in the northern tundra or a boarding school in Venezuela, has its own time of testing–its own rites of passage into manhood. Some tribal groups will make the candidate for manhood live by himself on a mountain plateau for thirty days of deprivation, surviving on his wits and whatever he happens to find to eat and drink. In some cultures, young men must kill a lion or a buffalo or some other fearsome beast bigger and more dangerous than themselves, using nothing but their hands, teeth and a rock or two. In America, manhood is achieved through attaining the highest score in a video game or by drinking multiple consecutive 7 Eleven Big Gulps. At my Andean boarding school, manhood was attained through a non-standardized series of pre-approved behaviors, most of which inflicted pain and included self torture and the exercising of various high risk activities. While the rites of passage were not formally scripted or officially assigned, and all were individualized, there was a common core through which each boy had to pass. Just like in Olympic figure skating in which there is a formula by which a spectacular performance can lead to a gold medal , there was a boy-to-man formula in my dorm. The formula for figure skating is a witches’ brew that includes compulsories, artistic impression, and moves like axels and oil changes, which, when multiplied by the technical difficulty minus the temperature of the ice and the bribes paid to Russian judges, all tally up to the winning score. Each route to manhood, while it did have the compulsories, ended up being as unique as a snowflake. Right now I’m wondering why I am comparing figure skating with the road to manhood since the two concepts are oxymoronic and incompatible beyond any conceivable reconciliation.
One of the first tests to accomplish on the road to manhood usually occurred around third grade, when we boys would sneak into the dorm parents’ room late at night and touch the sleeping threats to our existence. Like slithering pythons in tall grass, we would silently sneak into their room, always taking a witness to verify the deed. This usually occurred without mishap, although there were known occasions when the hibernating dorm father/bear/beast would startle and seem to wake up. The candidate for manhood would drop to the floor and, like a rabbit seeking invisibility from a hungry coyote, remain motionless, petrified with fear, praying desperately to God, pleading first for immediate forgiveness for the still-in-progress, yet-to-be completed misdeed, and then secondly for protection from the vengeful creature known as the irate dorm father. Our theology at that early stage in our lives was not too well developed and was more karmic than Christian, more fear-based than grace-based, and more about divine retribution than loving forgiveness. Living in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country as we did, our desperate prayers of confession were motivated by the fear of being taken from this planet, as they say in Spanish, “inconfesado” (unconfessed). I don’t recall any of us ever getting caught by the dorm parents, but none of us wanted to be the first.
A second common trial endured while on the road to manhood was known as the “sticking-your-finger in-hot-water test.” In this test we would, like the name implies, stick our finger, almost always the pinky, in hot water and see who could endure the pain the longest. Clearly, the longer the finger remain immersed, the more manly the candidate. The water we used was hot, very hot. Sticking our fingers into the cup of hot water was like Dr. Robert Ballard inserting his thermal probes into the volcanic vents in the spreading zone of the mid-Atlantic ridge. Since we were all the poor children of poor missionaries, we had no expensive instrumentation with which to measure the temperature of the water, nor did we have any elaborate time pieces to record immersion times . Records were not kept, and our lack of proper instrumentation most likely precluded uniformity in testing, but we did what we could and via consensus would determine if the candidate had suffered enough to meet our entrance requirements. For keeping time, we used the time- and tradition-proven method of chanting in unison, “one Mississippi, two Mississippi.” I do wonder how ancient peoples kept time prior to the discovery of the “New World” and our mighty river. I have a hard time picturing a bunch of bearded, long robed Mesopotamians at the hippodrome timing the racing horses by chanting out “One Euphrates, two Euphrates.” Or worse yet, imagine if Columbus had discovered New Zealand first and we had to keep track of time the Kiwi way by chanting “One Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu.”
A third test of manhood was an adaptation of the Northern Mexican torture of burying a person up to his neck next to an ant hill and then pouring honey on his head. In our case the test was to plant both feet firmly into an ant hill, the home to several hundred trillion red army ants, and then seeing how far up our legs we would permit the ants to crawl prior to running away and swatting the little carnivores from our bodies. We would stomp our feet into the ant hill and then watch as the minuscule but well-armed and now enraged defenders would work their way over the canvas tennis shoes, up the socks and then onto our legs. As soon as the ants crossed the sock to leg barrier the stinging would start. No individual sting was unbearable; but the cumulative effect of many stings was not an event to be enjoyed. When we had endured enough, we would begin a frenetic below the waist Macarena, swatting the stinging, advancing hordes off our legs. This was accompanied by running away and stomping our feet hard on the ground in an attempt to dislodge the invading horde. Since allergies to insect stings had not yet been invented by the American Medical Association, we had no concerns beyond the immediate pain.
By everyone’s standards but my wife’s, I have now successfully transitioned from boy to man, but the self-torture continues. Now instead of touching sleeping dorm parents, I confront angry clients and credit scores. Now instead of sticking my finger in hot water, I answer my office telephone, an experience not quite the same but far more emotionally damaging. Now instead of standing as long as possible in the ant hill, I endure my office for unending hours. All things considered and given the option, I would go back to the ant hills.
*I would advise against using this bit of historic trivia in anything that involves money, law or the necessity of unwavering truth since I may have been a bit creatively fuzzy on the details of this point.