The twofold test of great writing asks whether the work remains true centuries later, and whether the reader's interpretation of the work changes over time.
Henry Rollins' essay, "The Iron," was something I read as an ode to lifting weights. That is the interpretation of a very young man. As I've grown older, his essay is better understood as the value mentorship - or the death of it.
When I was young I had no sense of myself. All I was, was a product of all the fear and humiliation I suffered. Fear of my parents. The humiliation of teachers calling me "garbage can" and telling me I'd be mowing lawns for a living. And the very real terror of my fellow students. I was threatened and beaten up for the color of my skin and my size. I was skinny and clumsy, and when others would tease me I didn't run home crying, wondering why.
Though you'd never guess it today, Henry Rollins started off as a scared, lost little boy. His life changed because a man took interest in him:
Then came Mr. Pepperman, my advisor. He was a powerfully built Vietnam veteran, and he was scary. No one ever talked out of turn in his class. Once one kid did and Mr. P. lifted him off the ground and pinned him to the blackboard. Mr. P. could see that I was in bad shape, and one Friday in October he asked me if I had ever worked out with weights. I told him no. He told me that I was going to take some of the money that I had saved and buy a hundred-pound set of weights at Sears. As I left his office, I started to think of things I would say to him on Monday when he asked about the weights that I was not going to buy. Still, it made me feel special. My father never really got that close to caring. On Saturday I bought the weights, but I couldn't even drag them to my mom's car. An attendant laughed at me as he put them on a dolly.
Monday came and I was called into Mr. P.'s office after school. He said that he was going to show me how to work out.
Today a man who invited a boy into the weight room to lift would be called a pedophile. Would you be alone in a room with a young boy? I sure as fuck wouldn't. Projecting her own Oedipus fantasy, some meddling bitch would call the police on me, explaining that any interest with a young boy must be sexual.
He was going to put me on a program and start hitting me in the solar plexus in the hallway when I wasn't looking. When I could take the punch we would know that we were getting somewhere. At no time was I to look at myself in the mirror or tell anyone at school what I was doing. In the gym he showed me ten basic exercises. I paid more attention than I ever did in any of my classes. I didn't want to blow it. I went home that night and started right in.
This is clearly child abuse. Some woman or mangina would have had Mr. P. arrested immediately. How dare you lay hands on a child?!
Yet the cunts and other boy-killers can't understand that boys grow into men because - not in spite of - pain.
Weeks passed, and every once in a while Mr. P. would give me a shot and drop me in the hallway, sending my books flying. The other students didn't know what to think. More weeks passed, and I was steadily adding new weights to the bar. I could sense the power inside my body growing. I could feel it.
Right before Christmas break I was walking to class, and from out of nowhere Mr. Pepperman appeared and gave me a shot in the chest. I laughed and kept going. He said I could look at myself now. I got home and ran to the bathroom and pulled off my shirt. I saw a body, not just the shell that housed my stomach and my heart. My biceps bulged. My chest had definition. I felt strong. It was the first time I can remember having a sense of myself. I had done something and no one could ever take it away. You couldn't say s--t to me.
Rollins' essay can't help but leave me saddened for today's boys.