Melissa Walsh

That 'Rapscallion' Heart of a Boy

Powerplay Communications | April 2011 | That 'Rapscallion' Heart of a Boy

My mother’s quest to understand boys recently prompted me to re- read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while traveling with my family over spring break. I’m so glad I did. As a mother of four “rapscallions,” the experience of re-reading the adventures of Mark Twain’s “rapscallion” Huck Finn was an epiphany.

Huck’s narration reinforced for me how critical it is for those of us mentoring boys to nurture patiently and boldly a boy’s “rapscallion” instincts into the sense of noble purpose he’ll require for his rite of passage into manhood. Twain provided several mentors for Huck, from the widow who sought to “sivilize” him to Aunt Sally who nearly lost her sane mind caring for him and Tom as they executed their “elegant” plan to rescue Jim. And just as Huck’s pap was the antithesis of a father’s love and respect for a son, Jim became the man- hero Huck and Tom needed.

My first reading of this great classic was as a high school student. I must not have gotten much out of the story back then, because I didn’t remember much about it. But now having re-read this story as a mother of sons, recognizing more clearly my calling to raise boys as the most important mission of my life, Twain’s prose echoes in my mind each time I feel that urge to scream at the top of my lungs, “Boys, what are you doing?!!!! What were you thinking?!!!!”

Three of my four sons are about the age of Huck and Tom, early adolescence. And because we live very close to the middle school, I often find myself hosting half a dozen or more adolescent boys in my home after school. Arriving home from my day at the office, I step over the mound of large shoes kicked off near the doorway, holding my breath for the stink of course, and head straight to the kitchen to bake scores of pizza rolls and stir a fresh pitcher of kool-aid.

Sure, adolescent boys don’t smell great, they track in mud, they’re loud, they eat a lot, and they’ve destroyed many things in my home, “by accident” of course, but I’m so glad to know where they are and what they’re up to. And it’s been fascinating to observe them up close. Soon they’ll have driver’s licenses and be lost into the world. Yet though I fully appreciate how precious these American sons are, their squirreliness leads me to feeling from time to time quite “looney,” just as Huck described Aunt Sally after the spoon prank. (I identified strongly with the character of Aunt Sally.) Instead of aiming to “sivilize” them, as Huck accused the widow of aiming to do, I send them outside into the suburban wilderness of manicured lawns and blacktop or insist that they work off the testosterone spikes with the free-weight set in the basement (a worthwhile investment for any family with adolescent boys).

Increasingly, I grow a deeper fondness and empathy for boys this age. I enjoy their child’s curiosity coupled with their rather mature conclusions about the events and people around them. I smile noticing how their total height has yet to fall into proportion with their long, lanky limbs and large feet, like six-month old floppy-eared pups awkwardly scurrying about on oversized paws. Re-reading Huck Finn enhanced my appreciation for adolescent boys, as Huck’s narration of his journey invited me into the heart and mind of an adolescent boy. I learned that an adolescent boy’s rationale and motivation are more dependent on what he senses in the present and less on what he visualizes for the future, though ironically so much of what the boy discovers in the now shapes the man he will become.

We (mentors of boys) must learn to live in the moment with them as they, in the here and now, discover who they are and will become. I’m convinced that adolescent boys do not discover their identity and purpose by pondering it, but rather experiencing it. They actively pursue discovery of their identity and purpose through hands-on exploration and action-packed challenges.

In The Wonder of Boys, educator and therapist Michael Gurian concluded that American parents and mentors are failing boys by not supporting them properly during adolescence, a period of life he dubs “the hero’s journey.” According to Gurian: "Our culture has robbed boys of the hero’s journey in myriad ways. Some among us have feared its warrior extremes and thus tried to teach boys to deny their need to perform and compete. Some among us, seeking to utterly destroy the male sense of role, have taught boys to avoid protecting and providing, to avoid that piece of their heroism. Some among us, too busy to help boys become the hero each needs to be, have neglected our elder responsibility. Most of us, feeling unheroic ourselves, have avoided looking into a boy’s eyes and seeing his desire to be a hero."

So what would Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) think about how we’re raising American boys today? I suspect he’d be disappointed that beer commercials have become the premier medium for conveying a manning-up message, that drinking alcohol is prescribed for manliness. I also suspect Twain would be appalled at the pervasiveness of ADD diagnoses, labeling typical “rapscallion” qualities as disorders and then drugging the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer out of our boys.

A great truth that Mark Twain so brilliantly presents in Huck Finn is that adolescent boys are, at their core, seekers. We ought not so readily label them dysfunctional, criminal, at-risk, or hyperactive misfits. Every adolescent boy is a sapling of a man-tree living in the moment of discovering what kind of tree he was designed to be, each wanting to grow up tall and straight and each wondering what kind of fruit he was created to bear. Adolescent boys take risks to discover their courage, wrestle with one another to discover their strength, tease one another to discover their propensity for wit and humility, and roam the neighborhood to discover independence. We, their mentors, must be there for them to enable them to discover their virtues freely and responsibly on the hero’s journey. We must be present, discretely holding our breath while stepping over their shoes. We must live in the questions of discovery with them, actively listening, respectfully advising, and unconditionally loving them as they experience the joys and struggles and endure the consequences of the hero’s journey.

Mark Twain said, “There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life that he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.” Well said. Let’s embrace the rapscallion that is at the core of a boy and support it, not tame it, into becoming a man on a good mission.

“A boy remains a boy until a man is required,” warned Daniel Boone’s mother. Indeed, let’s remain close to our adolescent sons as they meet requirements for manhood. As we patiently and boldly nurture them with a concoction of equal parts love and respect, let’s remember to listen up, laugh it up, and lighten up.