Back in Montreal in the 1970s, when I was a kid, my dad did his best to make me a man.
To be fair, he wasn’t working with promising material. I was a little athletic boy, meticulously groomed, and generally preferred the company of girls. When I was running, which was not often the case, I would flap my arms like a chicken.
I wasn’t interested in “boys” like sports, including hockey – an indifference that might have got you beaten back then if you were reckless enough to admit it to other kids. I preferred to do crafts, collect stickers, and watch old Hollywood musicals. I even liked cleaning my room.
On weekends my dad would drag me across the street to the park to play ball. Guess it was his idea of what dads and sons were supposed to do on the weekends, but it never ended well. I was just the wrong kid to play wrestling. When he was throwing the ball, I was running in the opposite direction.
“You’re supposed to catch the ball!” He would scream. But it didn’t make sense to me.
“Why would I gladly throw myself in front of a moving ball?” I would ask, although that usually makes him angrier.
“It’s called ‘catching’. You’re supposed to ‘catch’ the ball, not drop it on the ground.”
“What’s the difference? I can always pick it up and send it back to you. I don’t understand the point of this game.”
“The point is, I throw the ball at you, you catch it, then you throw it back at me.”
“Why don’t you just keep the ball if you want to? I don’t want it.”
We would come and go like this for an hour before he gave up and drags me home swearing to cut off his head.
I hated sports – playing them, watching them – and I rejected all my parents’ efforts to get involved in a sport. Ultimately, a decision was made for me without my consent.
“We are registering you for judo,” they once announced. “You have to do something physical.” This was their justification, although I suspect they were more concerned with giving me self-defense when the inevitable day came for me to be beaten by my taller and physically superior peers.
I hated judo from day one. I hated the smell of feet on judo mats. I hated the macho posture of other boys, and I especially hated the angry instructor.
Because I was the smallest in the class, there was only one possible training partner for me, a chubby kid who was a few years younger. I hated him too. He must have felt empowered to finally have someone in the classroom who was shorter than him because he immediately started insulting me in French and taunting me.
We only faced each other once. I think it took him about 10 seconds to nail me down and squirm like a bug. I reacted the only way I know of: I started tickling him. It did the trick, but he complained to the instructor and refused to train with me again.
After that, there was no one else to fight with, so the instructor took me on. Most of the time he would use me to show the rest of the class the new moves he was teaching. I became the judo equivalent of the crash test dummy. He was throwing me around the room like a rag doll. I was twirled in the air and hammered to the ground like an old mat.
“I hate judo!” I cried to my parents.
“You hate everything,” they replied wearily.
“No, but I really hate judo.”
Fortunately, I caught a terrible flu which caused me to miss the rest of the spring judo class. When the next session started in the fall, the topic, to my relief, never came back.
Then there were the Boy Scouts. After a few months, my father took over and led it as a paramilitary unit. We had marching exercises, inspections and firearms. Lots of guns, in fact, since my father was a collector.
By the time we turned 15 – the legal age in Quebec at the time to be able to use a firearm – he led us to an empty lot that my family owned in Lachute. We tried shooting rabbits and when that failed we would pick up a small tree and then shoot it until it fell. My father didn’t like trees.
The shoot, admittedly, was fun, but it was always accompanied by camping in the dead of winter, which it was not. Winter camping isn’t fun for a boy with a small bladder, especially one trying to stay warm by wearing snow pants without a zipper.
“Can I stay in the car and listen to the radio?” I would beg, but no, I couldn’t.
I never learned to catch a ball, or to fight, or to hold my bladder for an entire weekend, but to the surprise of many, I didn’t go gay.
I’m 42 now, and the best thing about being an adult is that no one makes me play dodgeball anymore. If someone tries to pick on me or push me around like big kids did in the playground, I can hire a lawyer to take care of it.
As I begin the journey to become the old man that I probably always was meant to be, I am finally released from a level of manhood that I never aspired to and never really got to, even when I tried.
So why are we still forcing boys to try?
Jason Kunin lives in Toronto.