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Every kindergartner’s roadside switchblade

I threw away a book last week. It was at a church book sale.

At first, the act of chucking a paperback into the recycling bin was thrilling. A heart-stirring act of rebellion. But later, as I drove away, I began to second-guess myself, wondering if that wasn’t simply an act of censorship on par with book-burning episodes from histories past. If there was content I disagreed with, wouldn’t it be fairer to find ways to engage in conversation with would-be readers?

But then again, if you saw a knife on the ground near a group of kindergartners, wouldn’t you lunge for the knife?

That happened to me, by the way.  Last spring.

May 28, to be exact: it’s forever burned in Ben’s head as his best-day-ever. “Dad, do you remember May 28, 2019?” he’ll occasionally announce out of the blue. “When you took the day off work to come on our kindergarten field trip?”

I certainly do, son. I fondly remember the kindergartners poking their fingers at the jars of hot sauce and mayo on my patterned shirt, then teaching you all a very loud marching chant that kinda annoyed your teachers, and also, helping save your classmate from that knife. 

It was at the very start of the trip, where the 20-odd kiddos waited in line for the city bus. I heard Ben’s classmate say, “What’s this?” and hold up what was clearly a toothy, rusty, dirty, discarded switchblade.

“Don’t touch that!” I hollered, and very safely wrestled the kindergartner for possession of the blade.

“We do not pick up knives that we find on the side of the road,” I announced, in one of those moments that feels very much like a Thing You Never Thought You Would Have To Say.

It became a legend for the rest of the field trip, and beyond. “Did you hear that someone found a knife?”

Anyway, back to the book.

I had tried to be sneaky. The book I wanted to discard was within reach, and I thought that placing it under the table to grab later for disposal would be less attention-getting, but somebody saw me. “What are you doing?” she said, as I awkwardly crouched to put the book on the floor.

“Nothing,” I said, very convincingly, placing it back on the table and backing away. I disappeared again into the milling crowd, circling like a discreet vulture, waiting for the time to strike.

I finally spotted an opening.

I might have just let it sit there, unpurchased, undisturbed; after all, what do I care? Let the people read it if they wish. But I couldn’t help but see it as one sees sunlight glinting off a rusty, roadside switchblade.

The more I looked at it, and considered leaving it there, the more the alarm bells would ring. I couldn’t, in good conscience, allow someone else to pick it up and take it home.

It was a book called Every (Young) Man’s Battle, and three key inspirations were causing me to take aim at it.

The first was an Instagram story.

There’s a fellow named Brendan Kwiatkowski, originally from Fort Langley, currently taking his PHD at the University of Edinburgh, with a focus on the messages about masculinity that shape our culture. On Instagram, he’s sharing aspects of his research and questions under the account name Re.Masculate.

A few weeks ago, he spent time revisiting the work of Every Man’s Battle through his current research lens. Sharing photo of page after page of the book, he exposed the messages and language of the book, showing words that convey messages like women are responsible for men’s feelings and actions, and passages that suggest that men’s motives for relationships and emotional disclosure are almost always sexual.

(Though the Instagram story has now expired, Brendan went on to share more of his perspectives through this interview/essay on a different blog, a dialogue on Purity.)

The second inspiration was that I just finished reading Linda Kay Klein’s 2019 book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.

Klein artfully and authentically uses her own personal storytelling, memoir-style, to talk us through her own experience of growing up in a culture that shamed women (and men) for their basic sexuality. She uses her story as a framework for her research: over 12 years, she interviewed dozens and dozens of women that grew up in similar environments, and in her book, retells their stories with faithful, clear-eyed directness.

“How did you come to believe that about yourself?” she at one point asks an interview subject, referring to feelings of worthlessness and shame.

The interviewee begins to unpack the reasons why she believes she’s broken, but Klein interrupts to clarify. “I meant, what external messages did you internalize that caused you to believe that about yourself?”

The interviewee can’t even answer the question. She just pauses. She says (paraphrasing): “Thank you for asking that. I never even considered that I could ask that. I’ve only ever seen these messages as coming from internally to me, as being fundamentally about my own brokenness. It never even occurred to me to ask if there was an external source from whom these messages were coming.”

There was.

There is.

This book was one of them.

And that’s the third inspiration.

I don’t want anybody else to accidentally absorb any more messages that trick them into a sense that their defaults are design flaws, or that their very self and sexuality is shameful.

So, heart racing, I hustled that book into the blue bin, like a roadside knife from innocent hands.

Driving away, I wondered if that was the equivalent of censorship. After all, why not start a dialogue instead?

Did the infamous May 28, 2019 not teach me anything?

Step 1, remove the knife.
Step 2, talk about why you removed the knife.

Consider this blog post the second step.