The summer my dad’s high school baseball team went to the state tournament, I learned that high school boys didn’t act like the men I believed them to be. I have my Barbie® dolls to thank.
They must be my dad’s players, I thought.
My mother, making the same assessment, headed to our front door while calling an announcement to my father that he had “guests.” Too young to adequately interpret the slight inflection in my mother’s voice as she said “guests,” I got excited that my dad had some other men coming to visit our home. They were the young men I watched playing baseball when my dad coached, and from what I could tell, they acted just like the Dodgers my dad liked to watch on TV. I also understood them to be grownup versions of the boys I played with during recess and in our neighborhood after school.
A pint-sized feminist of the 70s with a tinge of tomboy, I found boys absolutely fascinating as future men. I loved competing with them on the same kickball team or against them in foursquare. I especially liked the challenge of their counter play and their mysterious mannerisms.
I already knew I wanted to marry a boy one day – but a day long into my future - after I had learned to bring home bacon and how to fry it in a pan. I had even picked out the kind of boy I would like to marry: a real-life version of astronaut Tony Nelson on “I Dream of Jeannie” or the real-life Bobby Sherman or David Cassidy should either of those gentlemen be willing to wait for me.
With that doorbell ring, I now had high school versions of men almost inside my home. The last place I wanted to be was sitting on the floor playing with Barbies when my mother opened the door to greet our testosterone-driven visitors.
I only had time to scurry down our hallway, taking sanctuary just inside my bedroom doorway – the closest position I could maintain while listening without being seen. I also knew I would be able to peek unnoticed from there. So, after my mom left them alone in our living room to see what was keeping my dad, I peeked.
The young men filled our couch while one perched in a chair. They looked uncomfortable. Nervous. Then they saw my neglected Barbies, and one of them quietly said something that made them all laugh.
I was horrified.
Then the one that had said something picked up a naked Barbie, grabbing her by her stiff, tight thighs. He rotated his wrist so that she appeared to dance in front of the boys on the couch. The other boys started to giggle and talk funny, and one more Barbie was picked up by a boy on the couch, and he forced the Barbies to pose breast to breast. Then they spread the Barbies’ long, unbending legs.
I didn’t want to keep looking, but I was afraid not to. What was happening to them- the Barbies and the boys? Why were they laughing? And why did I feel that something naughty was going on?
I was scared for those Barbies and their Barbie friends on the floor. I was also scared – somehow – for me.
Those boys were not the men I thought. Or were they? Is this what grown boys were like? If so, they had a dark side I had not encountered during kick ball or foursquare.
I thought about stepping into the hall to see if they would act like the men on the ball field again. I wanted to rescue my Barbies – to see if I could make the boys stop. But fear outweighed the passion that palpated my heart.
I remained frozen. Fearful.
The boys heard my dad coming the same time I did. When they quickly dropped the Barbies, my fears took on fuel. Those boys didn’t want my dad to see what they had been doing. It had felt wrong to them too, and yet they had done it anyway. That left me more afraid.
I stayed in my bedroom while they talked to my dad, my heart beating faster than it had before. I thought about my abandoned Barbies, wishing the boys away. When they finally did leave, I headed straight to the living room and dressed each Barbie in a complete outfit – dress, shoes, hair accessory. Each ensemble restored a bit of my courage. I wanted my Barbies to know I was sorry. I hoped for inanimate forgiveness.
With the last artificial woman fully clothed, I approached my dad – only 10 years older than his players – with accusations of abuse. He heard how I had watched the boys manipulate my dolls with as much detail as I could muster. Then he looked at me, and then at the ground, and then back at me. I knew he was trying to think of words to say. I couldn’t understand why it took so long.
His slight pause held my anger. His chosen words dissected my passion for justice into measured pieces.
“Boys can be like that,” he started. “I’m sorry.”
Then he shared more words about boys and how they get goofy about girls and girl things. He acknowledged that what his ball players did was not right. But somehow I understood my dad didn’t regard what they had done as punishable. He wasn’t as worried about those boys and their futures as much as I was. Or was he? I couldn’t tell.
Maybe he was worried about something else. Maybe my dad – in that moment – began to worry about the grown up version of me. Now a parent myself, I can imagine that as possible.
Girls playing with dolls. Boys playing with dolls. Girls playing with boys who played with girls as if dolls.
Maybe Tony Nelson had a dark side too.
Fortunately, I never had to find out. My high school suitors always behaved as the gentlemen I aspired them to be, and my husband – even as a future husband – far exceeded my Barbie-shaped imaginings of life with a husband and a home of my own.
I now have two sons - boys of my own to raise. One whose notions of marriage may forever stay in the idyllic place I resided prior to the Barbie harassment incident and another who is the same age of the ball players who committed the Barbie abuse. The oldest is a man-boy, locked by disability in a place that will hold him forever young. The youngest is but a few years from becoming a man, as near as I can tell.
I remain uncertain about manhood – how and when this fascinating phenomenon occurs. I have heard it can happen to a boy when in he’s in high school or maybe only begin then but not take full affect until later. It doesn’t happen the same for each person born male and, for some, it might never happen at all.
Some boys cannot grow up.
Some boys choose not to.
Some boys grow into men at the cost of their childhoods.
Some boys grow as men by maintaining the best of childhood.
Some boys fight their way into manhood.
Some boys attain manhood despite themselves.
I still wonder if the boys in my parents’ living room that day became the men I had believed they were. I want to believe they did. And I want to believe that they got married and had little girls who played with Barbies, and that they helped those little girls dress their dolls when the outfits were unruly, using the utmost respect and tenderness.
That’s what men who once played a gentlemen’s game would do once they had grown past childish games.
At least that’s how I imagine it in my grownup Barbie world.