Contrary to popular belief, growing up in a town of 601 people wasn’t all bad. Suzie at Suzie’s Ice Cream Shoppe always knew my go-to frozen treat without me even having to ask, Jim from the auto parts store became one of my favorite people to talk to, and my friends all lived within a 10-minute radius of my home. Life was simple, and everybody knew everybody.
Growing up in small-town USA taught me values that I’ll carry to my grave. It taught me the value of family and sharing our lives together. From the back pew of a small country church, it taught me to fear God and obey his word. In my classrooms, it taught me the immeasurable value of an education.
But growing up in a small, rural town in central Arkansas wasn’t all ice cream cones and Sunday potlucks. We all knew everyone’s drama, and you couldn’t make a quick trip to the grocery store without talking to everybody and their brother’s uncle.
For a guy like me — a guy whose favorite store is J. Crew and not Bass Pro, a guy whose ideal Saturday morning is sipping a latte on the streets of the big city and not hunting in the deer woods of Arkansas, a guy whose favorite artists were Coldplay and Taylor Swift and not Florida Georgia Line — growing up in small-town USA was hard. The worst part is, I know there are others out there who felt, and still feel the same way.
School days found me lonely, with relationships filled by dissimilar interests and forced connections. The day-to-day found me starting to believe what the other guys in my class defined as masculinity — being the six-pack-donning stud, showing cold emotion and no care, treating and talking about others as if they were less than human, and taking up the notion that only those who were just like you were worthy of attention. Each day found me questioning whether or not I had what it took to be a “real man,” at least by my culture’s definition.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the most influential men in my life are from small-town USA, and the principles they taught me and continue to teach me are invaluable, but I needed society to tell me it was OK not to meet the status quo.
I needed society to tell me that my body type didn’t define my masculinity. I needed society to tell me that showing emotion and caring for others was the true test of character. I needed society to tell me that all humans are equal, not less than because of their beliefs or interests. I needed society to tell me that masculinity is humanity, and that humanity is being vulnerable, showing sympathy and taking responsibility.
Today, I’m thankful to have found friends with similar interests and outlooks on life, and I’m thankful to have been a witness to true examples of masculinity in my life — my father grieving in times of trouble and my best friend showcasing genuine concern at my lowest points in life.
I’ll never forget, though, about that kid in high school who couldn’t shoot a basketball to save his life, who blasted and rocked to Taylor Swift, and whose main concern was having a six-pack like everyone else. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that kid in his high school classroom in small-town USA — me not too long ago — and hurt because he doesn’t feel like he’s a real man.
We have to break the mold of mainstream masculinity and steer clear of the path of least resistance. We have to tell young people that masculinity isn’t a set of social cues and cultural submissions, but an ability to reach beyond yourself — to care, to show compassion, to love, and to be human.