Our Boys Speak Adolescent Boys Write About Their Inner Lives

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2000-06-12
  • Publisher: Griffin

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John Nikkah asked one simple question: What do the boys think? From the best-selling Ophelia Speaks to the "girl power" movement, teenage girls are speaking their minds and having their due. But what about the boys? Aside from the works of a few academics, there seems to be no outlet in today's media for the true voices of teen-age boys. Until now. John contacted over 5,000 schools across the country looking for the voices of America's boys. What are their goals, their fears, their hopes, their dreams? What are their lives really like as they stand on the verge of manhood? Our Boys Speak takes the best of hundreds of entries from boys aged 12-18 from varied racial, economic, religious, and regional backgrounds. The essays, poems, diary entries and stories cover topics ranging from sex and dating, sports, religion, depression, violence, video games, family, and just about everything in between. And narrating the essays is John Nikkah, who comes to new understandings about his own teenage years through the raw voices he encounters. This is a book for parents, for teens, for educators and for the heart. Our Boys Speak is just that. It is our sons, our friends, our neighbors, our families, ourselves. Sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, Our Boys Speak is most of all truthful and real.

Author Biography

John Nikkah is a graduate student in clinical psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His clinical and research experience includes working with adolescents as an assistant recreational therapist at the New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction: At War with Ourselves xi
Part I: Our Inner Circle
In You We Trust
Sharing a Room
To Friendship
First Love
Part II: Our World
School Ties
Toy Soldiers
Free to Be
Escaping into Oblivion
Outside Looking In
Part III: Our Selves
Playing to Win
Gone Too Soon
Song of Sorrow
Between Worlds
Epilogue 218(3)
About the Authors 221


Chapter One

In You We Trust

MANY OF YOU are going to be shocked by what I'm about to say, just because it is an extremely uncommon sentiment, but here it goes: I cannot think of one bad thing to say about my parents.

    Now don't get me wrong, it's not as if there's never been any discord between us. Sure, we've had our share of disagreements, times when I would have gladly stomped out of the house or thrown a vase at the TV. But I never did do that. Why? Simply because I always knew that no matter what the subject of contention, my parents were always arguing from the viewpoint of what they thought was best for me. This made it very difficult ever to stay mad at them for too long.

    The truth is that in their relationship with me, my parents have always behaved in the most unselfish manner. For as far back as I can remember, whenever I needed anything, whether it was a ride to soccer practice, help with my schoolwork, or advice on a relationship I was in, they were there for me. Forever putting my needs before their own, my parents acted as if they couldn't truly be happy unless I was.

    However, having parents who fit the above profile does have one main drawback. In a word, guilt. We're talking capital G guilt, colossal with a capital C guilt. No two ways about it, since I had the ideal parents, I had to be the ideal son. That meant never getting into trouble at school, never hanging out with the wrong crowd, and always striving to achieve the best grades.

    On the rare occasion that I did transgress the boundaries defining my self-imposed perfection, I suffered great anxiety. The only way to relieve myself of these feelings was to push myself harder and make my parents proud. In essence, the avoidance of guilt acted as the main motivation for my academic and social successes. Anytime I would find myself in circumstances that involved making an important decision, whether it was to take drugs, get into a car with someone who had been drinking, or simply procrastinate when I had to study for finals, I always thought of my parents. What would they want me to do? How would they feel if something harmful happened to me?

    Answering these questions was never too difficult; the hard part was actually conforming my behavior to them. Although I've been known to stray from the path that bore my parents' seal of approval, most of the time my course of action has been in tune with their wishes. Frankly, I could not bear to think of the heartache my parents would experience if one of my decisions had had ill-fated consequences. The notion that constantly haunted me when presented with a risky proposition was "My parents have always done their best for me, and this is how I repay them."

    My parents were not strict disciplinarians; my choices never reflected a fear of punishment. It has always been the guilt. I tried to think of their well-being over my normal coming-of-age impulses. When contemplating my adolescent years I realized the great influence my parents had on me as well as my attempts to model their own behavior. Our relationship had become wholly symbiotic--it was as if I couldn't truly be happy unless they were.

    The bottom line is that no matter how flawless our relationships with our parents are, the absence of conflict can be a problem in its own right. Take the essay "Dysfunctional Mediocrity" from Chey Pesko, for example. The writer sets up the story as he would a movie. His poker buddies are the ones with the "real" problems. Chey is just an observer, watching the action from a safe distance. In his poker game, good families are as rare as good hands, and Chey feels as guilty as if he'd cheated misfortune at his friends' expense.

    The next story, "The Game," by Joel Ashcraft, also depicts a happy childhood. Joel talks about how his relationship with his father has enriched his upbringing, instead of focusing on the ways in which this bond might have alienated him from some of his less fortunate peers. In fact, while there is indeed a downside to growing up without any major family turmoil, the stability and joy that a solid family provides are priceless treasures that Joel, much like myself, wouldn't trade for the world.

    In writing the pieces that appear in this book, many of the boys were very open about the problems afflicting their homes. Of course, such uncensored self-expression is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to our behavior in the real world. Whether our home life is "satisfying" or "dysfunctional," we all see our own families as somehow abnormal, and live in fear lest someone discover our dreadful secret. After requesting that his last name be kept anonymous, Jason describes a typical scene at his besieged household in "America the Beautiful." While the chaotic scene should strike a chord with anyone whose house is ruled by pain, anger, and resentment, it's Jason's ability to see past his own selfish needs and empathize with the rest of his family that makes this story so excruciatingly heart-wrenching.

    The poem "Junkyard," by Mike Grohsman, picks up where the preceding selection leaves off. As his childhood lies dying a painful death, the speaker explores issues of abandoment and loss. He is unable to save himself, and has long since given up any hope of his family coming to his rescue. Unwilling to blame his father, Mike gives him credit for trying his best. But in the end, he believes that both of his parents turn a deaf ear to his distressing cries for help.

    The next story probes beneath the surface of a family home to find a morass of secrets and lies. Dave Langley's essay "My Dad's Trippy Psychedelic Room" probes into the dark corners of the family basement, where he discovers his father, a war veteran, reenacting a scene from his days in the service. Scared and confused at what he finds, Dave runs away from the sight of his father's pain. While Dave is unable to understand his father's experiences during the war, what is particularly sad is how father and son deal with the aftermath. Unable to discuss the occurrence openly, the grown man and the little kid both choose to pretend as if nothing had happened and go about playing the part of a "normal" family.

    Of course, all families have their share of problems, but the next stories dealing with divorce and single-family households reveal issues specific to children of broken homes. Jeffrey Dussich's "13 to 40" is one of the most insightful and painful accounts of divorce that I have ever heard. As it chronicles how he was forced to grow up too fast and adopt the role of "referee," Jeffrey's tale of struggle reveals the ravaging effects that an acrimonious divorce can have on kids of any age.

    The next memoir, "The Hard Side of Life," also provides a rare look into the life of a troubled family. Shuffled between his biological mother and various foster homes, the writer is the victim of senseless abuse and perpetual loneliness. His quest to find a real home has yet to end, but we pray that he will one day find the love and support he deserves.

    The last essay comes from Robert. It is through his eyes and painful experience that we can finally come to understand that he is not unique. Millions of young boys like him are left to fend for themselves. And without the proper parental figures to guide their way, they end up dealing drugs, abusing illegal substances, committing crimes, and landing up in jail. Fortunately, Robert's story has a happy ending--the perfect ending for this chapter.

> Chey Pesko , 18, Wantage, New Jersey


What a shot this would be--I mean, if anyone I knew ever saw me where I am now, I would be categorized as some prime-time junky from some life beyond reproach. I mean, this is a scene right out of some cheap mobster movie. First, the slow circular pan of the apartment, which reveals scattered garments and an occasional beer stain on the carpet, not to mention accumulated dust in hard-to-reach places. A table made of finished oak comes into focus.

    Ambient movement interrupts the silence of the large room, as the pan continues from each tightly situated chair to the next, revealing one new face after another until completing the journey, coming into focus on the five individuals chattering like angry penguins. The dim, depressing lights leave grim shadows on each figure's face, leaving specific features like eye color and complexion just out of visual reach. The familiar stench of multi-brand tobaccos, ranging from the trendy GPC brand cigarettes to the wooden-tipped Jewel brand cigars, completes the mood for the attendees of this gathering. Zooming in on the blackened ashtray, there is still physical evidence of a previous encounter of sloth and ill demeanor with the carcasses of old, half-smoked butts, each with its own unique past.

    The jagged cut to the next shot imparts meaning to the whole tomfoolery of the scene. A single pack of Juggler playing cards rests on the table, sitting vertically, as if attentive and listening to every word pouring from the flamboyant table. A pair of eyes fixate on the anxious deck of cards and, as if in slow motion, a clammy hand crawls its way over to retrieve them. The stage was set, the effects were right on, and, as if a quiet voice whispered into my subconscious, "ACTION," the table exploded into a lawsuit waiting to happen.

    "Five card poker, jokers wild," announced the dealer as he looked blankly in front of him.

    "I think we all already knew that, Jim," a voice answered back from across the table, in megaphone format. "We've only been playing the same game, every Saturday, every month, for the past year!"

    Jim looked across the smoky table and eyed the dim face staring back. It was Matt, a tall, lanky teen who lived in this apartment with his father.

    "It's expected of the dealer to announce the game before any cards are dealt," Jim barked back in defense. "It's the cardinal rule of the Dealer Guild."

    I couldn't help but chuckle at that remark.

    Jim quickly glanced at me, before turning his eyes back on Matt. The remaining two individuals at the table, who to this point had stayed out of the ordeal, both let out strange half-laughs.

    "What's so funny?" Jim said immediately. He looked like he was getting agitated. His eyes darted about the table, looking each of us in the eyes. He began to breathe heavier, like an old vacuum cleaner. His face was turning a tinted pink.

    I immediately ceased my amused behavior and slowly leaned back into a relaxed position in my chair. Jim was about to blow.

    "Well, I'm a member of the Bullshit Guild, and I say you're full of shit," Matt barked back like a junkyard dog. He started smiling and leaned back on the rear legs of his chair.

    Jim jumped to his feet. What happened next occurred in a matter of seconds, but the events seemed to unfold in slow motion, with each movement enhanced and magnified to the smallest detail.

    I watched as Matt's facial expression morphed from one of glee to puzzlement. His eyes squinted and his jaw seemed to drop to a level. Jim clasped the nearest inanimate object, the Juggler card deck. I was amazed at his form when he wound up his arm like a real-time major league baseball pitcher. His long arm extended and the force of fifty-four tightly packed cards shot from his sleeve like a cannon. His wrist added a sick twist to the aerodynamics of the rectangular deck, sending it spinning wildly like a Chinese star. The deck homed in on Matt's noggin, striking him in the center portion of his forehead. Still practicing his chair-balancing technique, Matt fell victim to gravity as the force of the deck sent him reeling back, arms and legs flailing wildly. I stood up just in time to see Matt's impact with the red carpeted floor. The room went silent and the scene then seemed to be put on pause.

    Jim quickly attempted to compensate for the outburst by walking around the table to where Matt was lying totally sprawled out and looking at the ceiling. I also inched my way over to the crime scene.

    "Why ... did you do that?" Matt asked the air in front of him. There was a red blemish on his head, which appeared to be the extent of the physical damage. I reached for the deck of cards, which had landed a few feet away after it ricocheted off Matt's cranium.

    Jim grasped Matt's arm, raising him to his feet. "I'm ... I'm sorry. I just ..."

    He was quickly but politely interrupted. "I know you're sorry, but that's not what I asked. I'm looking for a `why.'" There was a pause. "We've always joked like this."

    Matt picked up his chair and sat down. Jim stood in front of him, like a criminal being questioned in court. Without answering, he turned and slunk his way back to his chair at the table. I mimicked his actions, and sat down myself. Lifting the cover of the deck, I removed the set of cards from within. A joker was on top.

    Finally, Jim sighed and began to speak. "Man, when everyone was laughing at me I felt like a damn idiot. And there you were, the ringleader, orchestrating the whole thing."

    I watched them closely. They were looking at each other, and the other two were busy talking about some freshmen girls, and how it "just wasn't right" for seniors to hook up with them. We were all seniors at the table, but they were speaking for themselves. I dropped the joker into my lap and began shuffling the cards on the table.

    "I get enough of it at home. You know the way my dad is. Whenever anyone is over, he makes a damn fool of me."

    "`You're lying out yer' ass,'" Matt mimicked, trying to portray the sound of Jim's father. "I got ya. I guess it's me who should be saying sorry. Let's play some cards."

    "What game?" I asked, smiling sinisterly.

    Matt shook his head at me, and smiled a little. Jim actually smiled, too. Jack and Drew, who had been engulfed in their own conversation, both looked up. Jack pulled out a pack of cigarettes, took one, and threw the crinkled soft pack at Matt. Helping himself, he then threw the pack to me. I pulled a thin body from the near empty pack and continued the rotation. I pulled a Zippo from my pocket, lit the cigarette, and put it on the table.

    "Bets," I announced. I fondled the lighter and studied it closely. It was black and well worn in. It had been through a lot; it had been with me when I moved, it had been lost between the tightest of car seats, and was even in the ocean at one point, when I was in the Bahamas on vacation with my family. Written on it in big red letters outlined in yellow was "POW," like in the old Batman series when the villains were socked in the face. To me, this antique was a symbol of power.

    "I don't even feel like going home tonight. I think my dad's home. Can I bunk here tonight?" Jim asked, as he threw a gold-plated money clip on the table. It had the initials "J. R." on it. Joe Richards, I thought to myself, "'Jim's dad!'"

    "Yeah, why not. You know the way it is here," Matt responded in a restrained voice. The smoke from his cigarette was getting in his eyes and they began to tear. I stood the lighter up straight in the center of the table. As my hand retreated back to the deck everyone began digging in coat pockets like pack rats. Drew pulled out a small vodka bottle and rolled it to the center of the table.

    I cackled and asked, "Where'd you get that, a hotel mini bar?"

    "I stole it from my parents' liquor cabinet," he answered hoarsely.

    "I wish to veto your bet, under the cheapness clause," I retorted.

    "What's that supposed to mean?" he questioned.

    "He means your bet blows. It's worthless," Jack cut in. "I think we're all in agreement here."

    Looking around, Drew saw that everyone was nodding. He grabbed his bet and put five silver dollars, which seemed to be pretty old, in its place. He looked at Jack, who seemed amused. "Well, what do you have?"

    "I'll find something," Jack responded.

    He pulled out a long silver necklace and held it dangling in the light. We were mesmerized. The light danced all over its surface, blinding me when it caught the right angle. I took the last drag of my cigarette and buried it with the rest of the butts in the ashtray.

    "What is this?" I yelled with my arms spread wide. "We come here to play some poker every Saturday, and every Saturday you guys use it as a reason to raid jewelry boxes, wallets, and liquor cabinets? What do you have, Matt, your mom's wedding ring?"

    Realizing what I was saying, I calmed myself down and smiled like it was a joke. Buying it, they looked at Matt, eagerly, awaiting his bet. He looked at me and got to his feet. He made his way over to his jacket hanging on a hook at the front door and began rummaging in the pockets.

    "You could have been a little more prepared," Drew quickly added, as he blew a smoke ring into the smog-filled room. The halo of smoke quickly dissipated into the existing cloud that seemed to hover above his head like a bad conscience.

    Matt found what he was looking for and yelled over his shoulder, "Hold on!" He made his way back to the table holding a small black bag with a drawstring, sat down, and started to untie it.

    The bag seemed full enough to supply Matt for fifty hands of poker. I was getting frustrated with the slow pace of things. I looked at the alarm clock sitting a few feet from me. It was blinking 12:00 midnight. What? These people have no sense of time here?

    "C'mon, the suspense is killing me," I laughed. By then his hand was in the bag and he was feeling around. I looked around the table and saw that my friends were experiencing the same anguish as I was. Matt's hand stopped moving and it started to make its way to the brim of the bag.

    "I saw this in the front seat of a parked car at the Getty station," he said. "I just had to have it."

    I watched Jack's eyes widen, for he was closest to the mysterious bag. In Matt's hand was a small gun, black with a chrome-like grip. I eyed the petite weapon of destruction, and realized that this gadget wouldn't suit a midget, if anyone at all. He put it in the pot, where the rest of the bets were.

    "That's no gun!" I exclaimed, grabbing the pistol to further examine it. I caressed the gun's cold grip and took notice of its light weight. I aimed it across the table at a picture on the wall. With the crosshair on a photo of Matt's family at Disney World I pulled the trigger and, as if by magic, a blue and red flame emitted from the barrel. A smile came over my face.

    "Now this is a power lighter," I thought out loud, but quiet enough not to attract attention.

    I laid it back on the table with the rest of the bets. Although stolen merchandise, the gun lighter captured my undivided attention. Groping the joker in my lap with my left hand I realized that the gun would be mine before the night was over.

    The cards flew from my fingertips to each awaiting set of hands. Even I was amazed at my precision. First one, then two, faster and faster until five cards had been distributed to each of us.

    "You thought the gun was real?" Matt laughed. He took a stealthy peek at his dealt hand.

    "At first," I began, "but only at first." I, too, took a look at my cards. What a hand: a two of diamonds, a queen of hearts, a jack of hearts, a seven of hearts, and a six of hearts. I threw my hand down in disgust.

    In all our history of playing, nobody had ever had a decent hand. No royal flush, never five of a kind or full house, merely pairs and triples. We really don't even know the complete rules of poker. We just enjoy the betting.

    "I'm out next weekend," Jim said, while signaling me for two cards. I grazed the surface of the deck, sending two cards flying in his direction.

    "Watch it. Someone might see 'em," he blurted.

    "What's going on next weekend?" Drew said, while raising three fingers. I carefully removed three cards from the deck and placed them in the middle of the table. He snatched them and put his "losers" in a separate pile.

    "I've got to go see my mom in Connecticut. She just got engaged."

    "It's no big deal," Jack said gruffly, "My dad is remarried and I haven't even met his new little wife."

    "You mean your step-mom," Matt added.

    "Not the way I see it," Jack said sloppily, launching saliva across in my direction. Those damn S's always get him, and we have to suffer because of it. He signaled for three and I quickly exchanged them for his discarded cards. The last thing I wanted was for him to speak to me in close quarters and bathe me in his lethal ooze.

    "Matt, what do you need?" I asked.

    Matt looked up and shook his head.

    "I'm good," he responded.

    He looked down at his hand and a small discreet smile came over his face. What could he possibly have? I was not about to lose my lighter and that gun in one worthless hand of poker. I quickly discarded my two, six, and seven. I usually stick with royalty, hoping to double or triple up. I grabbed three new cards but didn't look at them.

    "I raise," I said bravely, throwing a dollar on the table.

    That's the way we usually work. Start out with the big guns and work our way down with smaller bets. I turned to Jim, who seemed a bit bewildered by his own hand.

    "Call," he droned, also putting a dollar on the table.

    He was obviously out. He was a bad bluffer and everyone knew it. We all smiled at him. I gave him the "cut throat" signal and he snapped.

    "I'm dead," he said sheepishly, grabbing his dollar from the pile.

    I leaned back in my chair comfortably, knowing that I had one less threat to worry about.

    "Raise," Drew said, taking out the vodka bottle again, rolling it back onto the table.

    I looked at Jack's face, but his mind was elsewhere.

    "You know what's funny. My mom drove my dad and me nuts. And when he left, he didn't even offer to take me," Jack started. "By the way, I fold," he announced as he threw his hand down in front of him.

    I stayed silent. I mean, what could I possibly have to say? I couldn't relate. I couldn't relate to any of them. My parents had been married from the dawn of time. I began to feel a little uncomfortable. I glanced at Matt, who was midway through a yawn.


Excerpted from Our Boys Speak by JOHN NIKKAH with Leah Furman. Copyright © 2000 by John Nikkah. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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