I remember it was right around eighth grade when I stopped being cool enough for my friends: never started listening to gangster rap, couldn’t do a kick flip, didn’t party and was way too scared to raise my symbolic middle finger high enough for anyone in authority to see.
In high school, the cool kids partied ever harder: driving faster, volume louder, finding stronger alcohol — pushing the limits into the unknown in whatever limited way their imaginations allowed. The point was to rebel — against the parents, against the rules, against the “nursery” that had sheltered them safely until then.
I needed that rebellion, too, but I didn’t dare look for it in the same “burning down the house” fashion. Luckily, I found it by taking solos in the woods. First for one night, then two, then a month, then in the rain, the snow.
What were we all looking for? Though it manifested differently, I now see that we were all looking for the same thing: to get as close to danger as possible and to come out unscathed, but, hopefully, changed. We had to obliterate any semblance of the former children we were in hopes that we’d somehow magically be reborn as adults.
Some of us imagined that such a rebirth was waiting on the other side of the next alcohol-induced blackout or would greet us if we emerged alive from flipping the parents’ car or returned from a winter’s night alone nearly freezing on a mountain.
We were seeking initiation into the world of adults, and too few of us had anyone there who understood the process.
The epidemic of male teenage violence that’s on all our minds today is tangled up in trends of boys falling behind in school and career ambitions, and in escalating rates of suicide and diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. Institutional calls for more control, protection and oversight are the very things these boys are wired to rebel against during their teenage years — and are arguably just what they must resist in order to discover their own identities and capabilities. In their rebellion and in their anger, adolescent boys are seeking a sense of agency. They are demanding to be seen, to be a force to be reckoned with. They’re asking for responsibility.
For millennia, in societies around the world, elders and adults have known how to spot the signs of a teenager ready for initiation. But today in America, even though boys haven’t stopped reaching the age when their inner fire wells up, we are failing to meet them where they’re at with a rite of passage.
Fast-forward 20 years: I’m now the program director of Journeymen Asheville — a local nonprofit offering mentoring and rites-of-passage opportunities for teenage boys. Last spring, I was sitting on an old couch with a tattered floral-print cover in a run-down trailer in rural Buncombe County, waiting for one of Journeymen’s prospective initiates — “Sean” — to come out of his room so I could speak with him about our spring Rites of Passage Adventure Weekend. My job was to recruit him for the experience, and he was not going to be an easy sell.
“He’s playing video games,” his grandmother informed me. “He hardly ever comes out, and when he does, it’s in a fit of rage,” she said, calling him once again.
Now 13, Sean had recently moved in with his grandmother after spending the last six years transitioning among more than a dozen foster families since being separated from his abusive mother.
Eventually, Sean emerged, avoiding eye contact and taking a seat by Grandma.
“Can I go back to my room?” he interjected as soon as I spoke to him.
In the dialogue I had with him, Sean listed no men he admired, no one he looked up to, and he had nothing to say about his aspirations. The only thing that evoked his interest was the video game back in his room, set to pause, about which he went on and on. The plot involved a hero on an urgent but obstacle-laden journey home — to scatter his deceased mother’s ashes.
One of the core purposes of boys’ initiation has always been to transport them from their sheltered and nurturing maternal home to the exposed and demanding world of men. As Sean described his video game, I couldn’t help but to wonder if his obsession with it was an unconscious attempt to start a new chapter in his own life.
Three weeks later, I was surprised when Sean actually showed up at the Rites of Passage Adventure Weekend. But as the other boys began to joke around, getting to know each other, he separated himself, finding an old stick and shuffling around, beating random tree trunks.
The pattern continued all day. And the next morning — while the rest of the initiates hung together, bantered and participated in the day’s unfolding adventure — Sean remained on the periphery, seemingly oblivious to what was taking place, periodically asking to go home.
Occasionally, I would catch him watching the rest of us out of the corner of his eye, secretly paying attention and gauging whether anyone was paying attention to him or caring about him.
The second evening approached with the initiates holding bundles they’d assembled earlier, containing mosses, sticks, leaves and the like — symbolizing aspects of themselves and their lives that they were ready to leave behind. Sean was standing with his back to the group, kicking up chunks of sod and holding a single featureless twig.
As the evening’s ritual drumming commenced, one by one, the boys began offering their bundles to the fire. Sean made no move to join in.
I approached him. “It took courage to come here, you know,” I said. “You had no idea what you were going to experience, but you came. Not a lot of people would do that. I really admire you for it.”
He didn’t look up, but he had heard.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“I’m angry!” he growled, looking me right in the eye. A raw and honest rage was palpable in the moment — showing itself for the first time like a flame emerging from under a damp cloth. He suddenly seemed more present.
“OK,” I said. “How do you feel about taking that anger and giving it to the fire over there?”
The idea resonated.
I’ll never forget Sean’s silhouette as he knelt down and threw his stick into the flames, and when I saw the smile on his face as he turned from the fire to approach the other initiates. Something had lifted. He began laughing with the other boys. He even picked up a tambourine and began swaying alongside the drummers.
This might seem like a small step, but I don’t think it was. I saw Sean — like so many other boys during the rites-of-passage weekend — move from resignation and hiding to self-expression and participation.
Boys need men in their lives who understand them, praise them — who challenge them to pursue their full capability and who assure them that their inner fire is OK. But too often, the male elders are absent or hostile. The boys feel it.
If men aren’t truly present as teenage boys transition to adulthood, boys will find a way to initiate themselves. While there are many ways a young man can transition successfully to adulthood, rites of passage can help them embark on their “hero’s journey,” honor their inner flame and learn to tend it responsibly.
Local nonprofit Journeymen Asheville’s next Rites of Passage Adventure Weekend is scheduled for April 27-29. Enrollment is open for boys 12-17, with scholarships available. To learn more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit journeymenasheville.org/ropaw.