In the tiny classroom were nine underprivileged children, four tutors, and one apathetic volunteer. I was that volunteer. “Hello, I’m Louis,” I said. Then, Terrell, a 12-year-old in this after-school program, told me, “Shut ya mouth.” His companion, Chico, laughed, and I checked the time on my imaginary wristwatch. It told me I had the longest hour in the world ahead of me.
Terrell and Chico were typical of the boys who lived in this disadvantaged Cincinnati neighborhood: loud, aggressive, and loudly aggressive. I was a college student who didn’t even like kids. But here I was volunteering one hour of my time after a good friend, who headed the after-school program for middle-school kids, had thoroughly guilt-tripped me because she was in desperate need of male volunteers.
I was supposed to help Terrell and Chico with their homework, which neither of them had. “Don’t worry,” my friend had explained before the lesson began, “just talk to them because what they need most is a good male role model.”
I wasn’t convinced “role model” aptly described me — at the time, I was crushing Pop Tarts into a bowl, covering them with Coke, and calling it a nutritious breakfast — but I was no slouch either. And that would do just fine, I would find out, because I dealt with the smart-aleck kids the same way I handled everyone: with a heavy dose of deadpan sarcasm.
“Look at this picture I drew of you,” Chico said, holding a sheet of notebook paper with a stick figure, whose giant head expressed an enormous frowning face and was topped with an exuberant amount of brown, spiky hair.
“Still using crayons?” I asked. “Can’t handle Magic Markers yet?” Despite the bumpy start, I returned every week — mostly to exchange insults. Let’s be clear: Terrell, Chico, and I joked around because that’s what friends do, and that’s what a good male role model is first — a friend.
When I returned to Evansville after graduation in 2006, I started work at this magazine, and the first press conference I attended was for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ohio Valley where two local companies announced their large donations to the BBBS. During the press conference, a BBBS volunteer reflected on the challenges they faced as an organization. One challenge sounded familiar: the need for male volunteers. I contacted BBBS immediately.
Nearly three years later, I have the same little brother, Steve Hobbs. He likes what most teenage boys like: sports, cars, and girls. He dislikes what most teenage boys dislike: homework, musicals, and Hannah Montana. Simply, he’s a good kid. We play basketball and chess, and we watch every blockbuster action movie together that I can’t convince women to see with me.
When I ask other men if they’d consider being a big brother, they never have a shortage of excuses. The most universal reason is this: Men aren’t the caretakers that women are. That’s the same ridiculous reason I gave in Cincinnati. The real reason sounds more like this: It’s scary. What do you tell a kid who’s trying to find his way in life when, as an adult, you’re still desperately trying to find your own?
So, nearly every week, I’m scared as hell, but I hang out with my little brother because his friendship helps me as much as my friendship helps him. And when a man tells me there’s no way he could have a little brother, I borrow a phrase from my good friend Terrell, look him straight in the eye, and say, “Shut ya mouth.”