I had a coach and gym teacher back in junior high school that used to call us guys a bunch of “Yo-yos”. We knew that wasn’t a good thing, but it also seemed like kind of a silly insult. Now that I’m about the age he was, and have deliberately subjected myself to the company of 13-to-15 year old boys, I know exactly what he meant by the term.
These kids can’t sit still, and bounce around mentally just as much and as fast as they do physically. You can get their attention, but it’s like having it on a string; it constantly goes off in different directions and has to be pulled back. Similarly my own experiences with them are up and down. I’ve gotten involved because I want the lads to be of future benefit to society, but there are times when I think society might be best served by me drowning them in the river. Then there are times…
Last night we got together to watch Glory, the movie about the black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, during the Civil War. The movie quickly got their attention (exploding heads in the opening scene will do that) and it appeared they were soon caught up in the story, even taking the unusual steps of raising their hands to ask questions about what was going on at different times in the movie. I’d stop the movie and answer the questions, giving them additional history about the Civil War and the politics of that time and using the opportunity to point out contrasts between different characters and how the actions of various men reflected their thoughts, assumptions and expectations (good and bad) of their fellow soldiers.
The boys became so engrossed in the story that they started offering exclamations and commentary when certain things happened on the screen, showing their own frustration with what the men in the movie were experiencing. When the 54th arrived in the South and was put to work felling and hauling timber one of our young men made the observation that, “They’re still just like slaves!” At the end of the movie when the written epilogue revealed that the fort the men had sacrificed themselves to storm was never taken, another young man exclaimed, “What a waste!”
This was an excellent opening into discussing the movie, because I could ask him why he thought it was a waste. His response was because they had been killed with nothing to show for it; I asked the rest of the group if that was true, which led to some good responses as they started to grasp the significance of the “blood sacrifice” the regiment had made toward earning the respect of the nation for themselves and for their people. We also spent a long time talking about the dynamics of the flogging that one character received in the movie and whether or not it was “just”, what it “cost” different people in the movie and whether it served a greater good. It was a very interesting discussion with some saying it was a racist act, while others saw the need for discipline to be enforced for the benefit of the regiment.
The boys were energized by the movie, and I was energized by their interest and the quality of their questions and answers and by the way they listened to the observations from the dads in the group. Before the movie started I had told them to watch for how different people had different expectations about the soldiers (even among the soldiers themselves) and how these expectations were reflected in different actions…and led to different results. A key thing I wanted them to understand is that “hard” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad” and that “no pain, no gain” doesn’t just apply to one person at a time. (Click on the link earlier in this post to see the original study guide and questions I use with this movie if you want to know more).
It was a good for me to review the lesson on expectations as well. Both the men in the movie and the boys in the class have to deal with the expectations — positive and negative — of others. Whether the boys made the connection or not, they, too, are judged by others simply because of their age and the “expectation” of their behavior. Sometimes they are dismissed as uncontrollable and barely human; other times they are held to an idealized and unrealistic standard; often the person holding both of those attitudes is myself.
What the men of the 54th needed, and what these boys who will be men are needing, is to be seen for the value that they have and for what they will be. Training can be hard and unpleasant for all concerned, but training exercises are a piece of cake compared to the real-life lessons that await. We do them no favors by thinking of them as just so much fodder to be thrown away, or by cutting them slack now out of mis-placed pity for how tough things are going to be for them later. Thinking back to my own days as a “yo-yo”, I can see the difference others have made in my life.