Every once in a while, Free Verse receives writing from folks incarcerated across the country. One of our most prolific correspondents, Michael Webb, has written several pieces reflecting on his childhood, his parents, his emotions, and his beliefs. Now, we’re excited to present one of our favorite pieces from Mr. Webb.

MASCULINITY - Michael Webb

At the age of 5, living in a home that was dysfunctional & without my father present, I found myself looking to my community for a male role model. My community was heavily infested with drug dealers & users, and was defended by violent gang members. In my community, my cousin was the one person who I looked up to for guidance. He taught me my beliefs and views: “men don’t cry” and “show no fear.” My cousin reinforced his teaching in action, too. As a child, I was always an overweight kid and other kids would tease me about my weight. I would go home with tears in my eyes. When my cousin saw me crying, he would slap me up side my head and say, “Didn’t I tell you, men don’t cry?” His teaching shaped my beliefs and views about masculinity. I began to carry these beliefs around with me in school and in my community. I became the very essence of what my community was: violent, emotionless, angry, and fearless. This belief system even contributed to the senseless murder of Mr. J.R. that I committed on January 10, 1989. I was sentenced to 25 years to life.

My belief system about masculinity was to show no fear, fight, fight, fight, and men don’t cry. I lived this from adolescence into my early adult years and while incarcerated. This helped me to survive, so I thought. No matter how reckless or angry I was, there was something inside of me that felt incomplete. The feelings of guilt and shame led me to search for a transformation within myself. I asked God for help and received the blessing of taking the First Step curriculum developed by men at San Quentin. The model on Masculinity, although challenging, helped reshape my views and beliefs about masculinity. The challenge for me was to listen to other men express their views about masculinity - views that were against what I believed. For example, during an exercise called “Man Box,” we had to identify the characteristics of what masculinity is. I immediately identified masculinity as men don’t cry, show no fear, and don’t ask for help. Other men expressed that men do cry, show compassion, and ask for help — all the things I didn’t agree with. It was hard for me to see others’ opinions, beliefs, and views, contrary to mine. However, when I heard men who I respected talk about crying, grieving, and asking for help when times got hard, I began questioning the teaching of masculinity I received so long ago,

The model, Masculinity, has taught me one important lesson: that masculinity is how I choose to stand firm in who I am as a man. Recalling the times when I was bullied about my weight and ran home crying and my cousin slapping me, this module helped me understand that there was nothing wrong with my masculinity, I was just afraid and hurt. Crying was my way of expressing my pain.

With the newfound beliefs, views, and awareness I’ve gained from the First Step curriculum, I came to the realization that seeing a man cry and express his emotions doesn’t make him any less of a man, in fact, it makes him more of a man. So today I walk with my head held up high and feel comfortable in my own skin, despite what others may think, say, or feel about me. I will carry these beliefs and views out to society upon my release from prison and be the example for other men to see that a man can be compassionate, loving, forgiving, sensitive, and not afraid to ask for help and he can still be masculine.

If my cousin and I had the opportunity to take the First Step curriculum years ago, I believe the possibilities and accomplishments I would have received would out-weigh the harm I caused to so many people by tenfold. Furthermore, I would have been a better human-being, I would have applied myself more in school so my family and especially my mama would have been proud of me.