I decided to undertake a massive project this summer, which we now affectionately call the Great Wall of Ryan. My house sits on the top of a little hill, which is a pretty novel thing in North Texas. This means that in every direction, the ground slopes down and away from my house, like a little rollercoaster for any topsoil. The only defense I have found for this problem in my front yard is to build a massive retaining wall near the street.
In preparation for this project, about two years ago I imported a large amount of dirt into the front of my yard. Then about a year and a half ago, we were able to swing a deal for a whole lot more soil, which was also dumped on top of the existing pile. And there it sat, for over a year. It was embarrassing. My neighbors would occasionally comment. I was afraid I would get a brick thrown through my front window, but I was handicapped by work projects that I could not walk away from.
This summer I finally got the time, and I dedicated my life to making this wall. And what a wall it is! Nearly 120 feet long, in its two sections framing my yard, and just under 4 feet at the tallest, it is a giant monument to hard work and dedication. And I built it all by myself…with lots and lots of help.
While to my neighbors, the most important thing is that the former Prairie Dog Farm in front of my house now actually adds to the aesthetic of my block, the biggest lesson to me was the kind help that my hard-working friends put into the project without asking for anything in return. And the lessons I learned this summer, alongside teenagers and grown men while building this wall, are what is most worth mentioning here.
Much of the summer played out this way: I would start working relatively early in the morning, mostly to avoid the heat. Then I would call to, or answer a call from one of the teenagers I know, who said he was “bored,” and “do you need some help today?” I would pick the teen up and drive him to my house. We would then work until lunch (which I’d provide), go back at it, and often bust our tails till evening. Many times, we would also feed them dinner before taking them home.
Not a single teen sat in the yard and complained. Not one 13 through 18 year old said, “It’s too hot!” as we worked in 105 degree sun. None of them avoided me the rest of the summer.
What I did hear a lot of were things like, “Wow, this is so much fun. I’ve never done anything like this before,” and “Hey, call me when you need more help.” They always thanked me as I dropped them off back at home filthy from digging, looking like some Depression era dust farmer.
There was the 13 year old who begged me to let him come, after his brother had helped. We spent the day driving stakes and putting up line-levels to set the height of the project. I had to force him to wear sunscreen and drink water. He laughed the whole time, and wondered why I only let him put in some of the stakes. Mostly, he wanted to use my axe and a few other sharp tools to try and cut a log. I let him.
I also spent many days with the 16 year old who practically lived at my house. He stayed in our guest bedroom on the weekends, not because there was something horrible at home, but because he wanted to work. This teen doesn’t even attend my church or youth group. His family is from a different country, and they sent him here alone for High School. He approached my front yard project like it was food, and he a starving man.
We were cutting some blocks for the curving corners of the wall, a task that takes forever and I really dislike, when he asked for a turn at the saw. I showed him how to operate the angle grinder with its sharp diamond blade, and he went to cutting. When he finished, I was astonished at the quality cut he made. It wasn’t quite as good as what I could do, but it was an amazing first attempt. I told him so.
From that moment, he wanted to cut every single block. He spent hours making perfect cuts and angles, which were eventually far better than the work that I could do. I told him that he was good at it, and he became a master at it. He later told me that it was actually his least favorite thing to do, even though he was always the one who asked to do it. He did it because he was proud and accomplished.
But this was far different from what parents and teachers have been telling me about teen guys. Huge numbers of teenage boys are getting barely passing grades in Junior High and High school, and are deciding not to go to college at all. They aren’t doing this to chase after wild dreams in art, music, sports, or to travel the world. Instead they are staying home and sitting in front of the X-Box until their parents force them to get a job. In fact, according to a government official in the State of Washington recently, “Teen males, 16- to 19-year-olds, have an unemployment rate of about 40 percent. That is certainly something unique to this recession.”
So why did I experience such a difference in the guys I was working with? Why were they sweating in 100+ degree temperatures and not complaining? Why were they thanking me at the end of an 8-hour day instead of demanding payment?
I think it is because they were engaging in something that is hard-wired into guys, and part of what manhood is about. They were out building something, working with their hands, and accomplishing a project. They were doing something they were being told not only that they could do, but also that they were good at. They were also seeing immediate results of their labor. When you shovel a pile of rocks for an hour, after that hour the rocks are no longer there.
But the narrative for success that we are telling our young men does not involve those elements. What we tell them is to be quiet and listen in school, which many of them are naturally not any good at. They also need to invest in things that they won’t see any results of for many years.
This is told to teenagers in High School career programs, and as a threat to keep them studying hard. “I mean, you don’t want to not get into college and have to be a construction worker for the rest of your life, do you?” You can almost hear the sad trombone play in the background. But that threat doesn’t appear to be working on many of these boys anymore. Now more than ever, their response to this question is “I don’t care.”
That response says far more than most people realize. “I don’t care” isn’t a complaint. “I don’t care” isn’t a cry for help. It isn’t something you can argue past or even fix through stern lecturing. “I don’t care” really means, “I have lost hope, and I don’t think anything I do will actually matter. So, I’ve given up.” It is a crisis beyond education and employment. Our men are in a crisis of hope, and a lack of hope makes a person’s heart sick. Sick hearts don’t produce healthy lives.
They lose hope when they aren’t involved in things that they see as making any lasting difference in the world. They lose hope when we hold up feminine qualities as good, while simultaneous saying both that any good male qualities are expressed equally through women, and that most male qualities are actually negative. They lose hope when they have no true heroes that express virtuous male qualities. Why should they have hope?
The message is, “Just be a like the good girls. Sit down and be quiet. Try not to be such a boy.”
In our church’s youth ministry, one of the things that we instill in our leadership team is that our job is not to fill buckets, but to light fires. This means that we don’t want to just teach students not to “smoke, drink, or chew, or date people who do.” Instead we want them to know mostly that God built them to do great things, that He put destiny in their hearts, and has an awesome future planned for them.
The only way for them to really see this completely fulfilled in their lives is to be in close relationship with the God who created them and loves them dearly. When they fall in love with that God, they will want to know how He wants them to live their lives and will want to live according to that. Expecting them to follow His rules for any other reason is like expecting people watching a soccer game on TV to also not use their hands during the match. The spectators are not on the field and haven’t committed themselves to the game, so why would they commit to following its rules.
So we believe that when the teenagers fall in love with Jesus, and commit themselves to Him, then they will want to passionately follow what He tells them He cares about. They will try to do less of the things that hurt that relationship, and more of the things that deepen it. Their actions will be fueled by the passion inside, not just from some list of dos and don’ts.
Remember High School Algebra? At some point in the semester a student raised his hand (it was almost always a boy) and asked the teacher, “When will I ever use this in real life?” Our boys are asking that question of almost everything, and our response is to tell them to be quiet and let us put more in their buckets. It is obvious that as a society, we aren’t lighting our boy’s fires. We are just trying to fill their buckets, and they are responding accordingly.
So back to the wall…
What happened this summer is that a bunch of boys got to invest their time in activities that are inherently manly (yes, there are other manly qualities that don’t involve shoveling). They built things that will hopefully last far into the future, and they saw immediate fruit from their labor. They got to work with an adult man who not only cared about them, but also modeled certain qualities, and told them that what they were doing was good and important. And they were also told that they were good at what they were doing, and were thanked for their help.
They left feeling accomplished and good about themselves. These were boys that for a while at least, didn’t say, “I don’t care,” at all. They seemed to care about something a great deal. They left fired-up.
 Arum Kone, a regional labor economist for the Washington state Department of Employment Security, as quoted in The Spokesman-Review. February 13, 2012.