My first major crisis in masculinity came in second grade, when the other boys in my class decided they wanted to spend recess digging holes in the sand. The choice made plenty of sense: you’re pretty curious at age seven; you can’t see what’s below the ground; and the best way to remedy that is by digging until you can. The fact that the answer invariably seemed to wind up being “more sand” didn’t discourage them in the slightest. There was always a chance that someone had snuck onto the playground last night to bury some gold plated Power Rangers for safekeeping, and if someone besides us discovered them, we would never forgive ourselves. So every day when the recess bell rang, we would scamper over to the sandbox to begin the excavation anew.
Most of us would, anyway. I was great at the scampering part, but I was never very good at the excavating. I didn’t want to get my hands dirty.
I couldn’t explain it. I still can’t, really. Seven-year-old boys are not supposed to care about getting dirty, and for the most part, I didn’t. As far as I was concerned, owning colored articles of clothing was a completely useless endeavor, as they were all destined to become completely brown within three weeks of being purchased. But something about the idea of making my hands dirty and then having to suffer through the rest of the school day just leaving them like that—or, even worse, being told to go wash them, like I was some type of animal—never sat well with me. So while my classmates started getting dirty in earnest, I stood gamely by, doing my best to embrace the role of the benevolent supervisor. “Good job!” I would say, for instance. Or, “Nice job!” Or…actually, those were usually the only expressions I could come up with. My vocabulary had not developed very much yet.
The other guys didn’t mind. Sure, they thought it was a little weird that I never took part in any of the actual digging, but this was more than offset by the fact that I was smart, which meant that I got lots of Starbursts as rewards for doing well on my assignments, which meant that I had lots of opportunities to subtly grab additional Starbursts for my friends who hadn’t done as well, which meant that I was always going to be at least superficially well-liked, which is pretty hard to differentiate from being genuinely well-liked in second grade (Mrs. Fritz, if you’re reading this, I’m really sorry for stealing all those Starburst, and I promise you it didn’t lead me down a path of convenience store robberies or anything like that. I’m more than willing to replace them, but I’m a grad student now, so it might be a few years before I can afford to).
The only person who my lack of participation really bothered was me. Standing around every recess watching all my peers have gratuitous amounts of fun digging while I only had moderate amounts of fun watching them was nearly unbearable. I wanted desperately to join in the fun, and my classmates would have been more than happy to let me, but my aversion to getting my hands dirty was just too strong. Eventually, I decided that this was just one of those petty things that made me different from other people, and this was something I would probably have to deal with a lot throughout my life, so I might as well start trying to do so in a healthy fashion now, except none of that actually happened and instead I went to my mom and complained.
“All the boys in my class want to dig at recess, and I want to play with them, but I don’t want to dig,” I said.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because I don’t want to get my hands dirty.”
“So use a shovel. You know we have shovels, right?”
My face lit up. We did have shovels! I used them all the time! To dig! And when I dug with them, my hands didn’t get dirty! It was a perfect solution, and my glorious, wise, wonderful mother had come up with it in less time than it took me to put a shirt on. This inspired feelings of loyalty and devotion in me that lasted all the way until that evening when she had the nerve to cook and serve dinner. Devotees of this blog (I don’t think you exist, but if I’m wrong and you’re reading this now, hello! Also, thank you!) will recall that I was not a very big fan of dinner.
I woke up the next morning feeling better about going to school than I had in weeks. Finally, finally, I would be able to participate fully in recess again. Instead of witnessing other people find out what was underneath the sand, I would get to actively participate in the discovery! And, hey, maybe my shovel would revolutionize the way we dug! Maybe tomorrow, all the other kids would come in with shovels, too, and then on the next episode of Power Rangers they would all be digging with shovels, and it would all be because of me, and…wait, what are they doing? Why is Chris grabbing that brown, spherical thing?
“Hey, guys?” I asked as we lined up for recess. “What’s that? Aren’t we digging today?”
“Nope,” said Chris, smiling. “We’re gonna play football! Come on, it’ll be fun!”
Football, I wondered. Does that make your hands get dirty?
“Yes,” the answer turned out to be. “Unless you don’t play it well.”
So I had nothing to worry about.