Charles Caleb Colton was an English writer best known for the aphorism “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That quotation has stuck with me over time, especially since I began working with young people. When I was a kid and I used to copy my older brother, a cousin or my parents, I never recognized or intended it as flattery. Usually, I wanted to annoy them, especially big bro. Underneath that, though, there was absolutely an element of honor in the mimicry typical of younger kids.
As I grew older, I had less desire to imitate anyone. I didn’t really have a role model in my life after my father died (when I was 7), so I tried on a few different borrowed personalities and personas, not settling on much of anything beyond sarcasm through my teenage years. To make a long story short, I had a really rough time adjusting to college, largely because I realized that I didn’t like the person I was at that point. After an excellent liberal arts education and some amazing nonacademic experiences, I figured a few things out to some extent…well, still am, to be honest. Importantly, I reckoned with my masculinity as a fatherless son, coming to terms with the idea that I would have to define my own values. Like my cousin once told me, I had no choice but to be a “self-made man.”
Now that I’m a teacher and a coach at a high school with a predominantly male student body, I am shocked by how much time I spend thinking about masculinity. In central Brooklyn and in the African-American community at large, fatherless sons are everywhere. Oprah even offers a “life class” on the topic, whatever that is. When I was coming up, I used to imagine the lives of children of divorce with intense jealousy, convinced that having any father was better than none. That, I know now, is far from true–and I should add, I’m grateful for the yeoman’s work my mother did to get all three of her children through college.
Many of my students have absent fathers, abusive fathers, and parents who are flawed in all kinds of ways. That’s typical of any community, but it seems from my observation that young black men in Brooklyn are particularly prone to unhealthy (or nonexistent) relationships with their fathers. One of my favorite student-athletes, now in his 3rd year, first mentioned his father to me when he was in 9th grade. Out of the blue, here’s what he said to me:
My dad’s voice is so deep, it scares me sometimes…he just got out of jail so he hasn’t been in my life for very long. You know, white people get locked up, too.
This young man is mixed, with a Black mother and a white father. Since that time, he’s told me a lot of terrible things about his father–mostly vague, nothing that could be reported as abuse, but he does not like his dad. For whatever reason, this kid has attached himself to me; it doesn’t hurt that he’s one of my star players and starting his second year in my social studies class. The soccer team I coach…well, we stink. The team is very young and has some potential, but we’re not competitive at the moment. My young protege has the bad habit of, well, acting a fool whenever we lose. He has a temper that he often cant control. After our last defeat, a really miserable performance all around, he screamed at his teammates and threatened to quit the team. He would later apologize, but that tirade was fresh in my mind leading up to today’s game.
Today, we played a miserable, frustrating game against a vastly better team. We lost by a big margin, but the game was played in a pretty good spirit–largely because of this one kid. I was shocked by the upbeat attitude and positive approach he displayed. More than once, he echoed comments I made to the team verbatim; nothing poetic, but it was all positive and a real shock coming from him. He was picking up his teammates, encouraged the team to work harder, and genuinely sounding like a leader. Hearing myself quoted back gave me pause for a couple reasons. First, I was reminded that I’m a role model who is under intense scrutiny whenever I’m at work. High school students are extremely observant (sometimes), and it often surprises me. Having said that, I work hard to conduct myself in a way that I would be proud to see mimicked back by my students…so tonight, I’m beaming.
This kid had no intention of flattering me, and I’m not sure that he repeated my comments self-consciously. It’s very possible that only I noticed it. In any case, it’s a healthy reminder that teachers, coaches, and the other adults who are involved in the lives of young people can and do have an extraordinary impact. At the end of a tough week, it gave me a much-needed pickup along with inspiration for the work ahead.