Judd winced as he watched Henry flinch. Judd had moved his bulky body so he was practically on top of Henry, but the reaction dismayed him.
“No, son,” he instructed. “What do you do when the guy comes in close?”
“Back him off with a jab.”
“Right. Good. Let’s see.” Judd moved in close again. Henry let his boxing gloved fist fly, grazing Judd’s ear.
Judd let out a frustrated sigh and stepped away.
“No, son. You want to go for the cheekbone. Or the chin. Somewhere the skin is close to the bone. It’ll hurt more that way. They’ll know not to come in close again.”
Henry’s reluctance showed in the slow way he walked toward the stool against the basement wall.
“I’m no good at this,” he said sitting down, eyes downcast.
Judd turned to face his son. “Of course not. No one is when they start. It takes practice. That’s why we’re down here.”
“I don’t want to practice.”
“That’s not an option, son. People aren’t always going to be nice to you. You’ve seen that already. You need them to respect you. They’re not going to respect someone who can’t back up his words.”
“Rebecca doesn’t need to fight.”
“Your sister is a girl. That’s different. A man needs to be able to defend himself. That kid that was shoving you around on Friday. What would have happened if the teacher wasn’t there to break it up? You can’t always go running for help. Do you think it would have stopped there? You don’t think word would have spread? Pretty soon everyone would know that Henry Carlton is easy to push around. Do you want that? A man needs to be able to handle his business.”
Judd grabbed a stool and moved it so he sat facing his son. “Yes. All men. Unless they want people walking all over them.”
“How about all that stuff that you and Mom and everybody say about settling things without violence.”
Judd smiled. “All true. But it’s a lot easier to be non-violent if people know you’re strong. If they know there are serious consequences to crossing you. People don’t try to push you around. If you’d done what I’d taught you on Friday, that boy would know never to bother you again.”
“Dad, that’s what I was trying to tell you. I did what you told me. I hit him exactly the way you told me to. He just laughed. It didn’t bother him at all. Just made him meaner.”
Judd stood up and motioned for Henry to do the same. “That’s why you need to practice, son.”
But Judd noticed something change in Henry. Instead of continuing the pugilistic lesson, his son pulled off the boxing gloves one by one and tossed them haphazardly on the floor.
“I’ve decided to be the type of guy who settles things without fighting.”
Judd paused uncertainly, his eyebrows knit. How would he convince his son to continue? “Unfortunately, that’s not something you get to choose. The world gives you challenges. You do what you have to in order to meet them.”
Henry stood up now. He paced as he talked, his arms gesturing emphatically. “It doesn’t have to be that way. There isn’t just one way to be a guy. There isn’t just one way to face challenges.”
Judd moved himself into Henry’s path, so his son had to stop pacing. “The world has expectations for a boy. We don’t get to choose them. A boy is expected to be able to fight. The world is not kind to boys who can’t defend themselves.”
Henry reluctantly and painfully lifted his eyes so he looked directly into his father’s face. “I’m tired of doing what the world wants. I refuse to be put in a box. I refuse to be told, ‘you need to be this way or do this thing because you are a boy.’ Just because you and everyone else expects me to do something because I’m male, doesn’t meant that’s what I want. I’m a person. I get to choose.”
Judd gently put his hands on Henry’s shoulders. “It’s hard to go against people’s expectations.”
Henry nodded, sighing with resignation. “Yes. Hard.” He slipped from his father’s hands and sat himself back on the stool. “But didn’t you always teach me that the easy way is not always the best way? Maybe if I grow up to be a different sort of man, people will see that. I’ll be an example of how there isn’t just one way to be a man. I’ll show people it’s okay to be different, that not all men have to be the same. Maybe then, there would be more men like me.”
“People won’t be nice to you. They’ll think you’re a sissy.”
Judd sat down on the other stool, again facing Henry. As he did, another sigh escaped his lips. “I can’t change how people see you. I can only teach you the things a man needs to know.”
“You didn’t answer my question, Dad. If I decided I wanted to be a different kind of man, would you think I was a sissy? Tell me.”
“What do you mean a different kind of man?”
“I mean someone who would rather live being gentle and kind than being violent. Even if it means not everyone agrees with me.”
Judd thought for a moment. “Not everyone deserves your kindness.”
“You’re right. But I like myself much better when I’m gentle and kind. I don’t want to be the guy who can go around beating people up.”
“People would know they can be mean to you. They’d know you won’t do anything to them. Look son, this is an important point in your life. If you don’t learn to defend yourself now, if you don’t learn to stand up and make people respect you, you won’t get respect. Pretty soon you’ll expect people not to respect you. It becomes a habit. Do you want that?”
Henry thought for a moment, then shook his head sadly.
“Want to put the gloves back on, then?”
Reluctantly, Henry walked toward the discarded gloves. He began slowly pulling them back onto his hands.
Judd smiled. “ Good choice. I don’t want you to have to live that way. I want to know my son can defend himself.”
As Henry was working his hands deeper into the gloves, he asked, “Why? Why do you need to know that?”
“I want you to be happy.”
“Is cousin Greg in the army happy?”
“What’s he got to do with this?”
“You told Uncle Brad that he could be proud of Greg. But do you think Greg is happy? I mean he sleeps in the desert, has people shooting at him, bombs exploding around him. Do you think he’s happy?”
“He’s defending this country.”
“Right. But is he happy, Dad?”
“I don’t know. But there are more important things than being happy all the time.”
“Yes. Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Henry began pulling the gloves off his hands again. “I know it might be harder. People might push me around. People wouldn’t think I was strong. But I would be true to myself. I can handle all that. I can handle people giving me a hard time, if it means I can be the person I want to be. Now answer my question, please. If I decided not to live in the box everyone wants guys to be in. If I decided to be a different sort of man, one who doesn’t fight, would you think I was a sissy?”
A tense silence descended upon Judd. Henry deposited his gloves back on the floor, laying them down gently this time. He watched expectantly, but Judd couldn’t bring himself to speak.
Henry insisted. “Would you think I was a sissy?”
Finally Judd spoke. “No. I would admire your bravery.”