On Dating and Spartan Boys
February 28, 2015
Posted By: Shaunescy
BY SHANE BORROWMAN
The ancient Spartans were known for many things. Good parenting doesn’t make that list (not
that their methods weren’t effective, in context). I’ve been thinking about Spartans a lot, though, ever
since my daughter got her first boyfriend.
I never remember to put the portable phone back on its base. So most of the time, when the
kids call someone, they have to do it from the kitchen, from the wall-mounted, cord-restricted model
that hangs on the wall. There’s not even enough cord to get around the corner into the living room, so
chit-chat takes place (in my daughter’s case) as Sam sits on the stool she uses to reach the high shelves.
I don’t deliberately eavesdrop…but it’s impossible not to hear her side of a conversation while I
peel potatoes, dice onions, or stare blankly into the refrigerator, wondering why I didn’t thaw something
and if Top Ramen is a dinner-worthy dish when it’s accompanied by a bowl of salad.
A couple months back, I heard her achieve an impressive level of small talk.
Sam was on the phone with a boy from her class. This isn’t, on its own, an odd occurrence. She
played on the same soccer team he did last spring, the same flag football team last fall. They—as part of
a group—play football or basketball during most recess breaks.
They talked about school and homework and how it was good not to have too much to do on
any given evening. They talked about bicycle-related injuries and the lasting power of some scabs. They
compared AR levels, and considered, in mournful tones, the limited reading selections available to kids
far beneath them. Sam gave a lengthy description of the Seattle Aquarium, bringing in an impressive
level of detail, one far more comprehensive than I could have brought to mind. She even remembered
the name of the octopus.
It might have been Rocky. I don’t remember, Google isn’t much help, and I refuse to ask.
When she hung up the phone, Sam just hovered in the area, not exactly coming over to me but
clearly not leaving, either.
“So,” I said, pretending my curiosity wasn’t screaming at me, “What’s up with him?”
Sam didn’t really answer, instead just fumbling through some sentence fragments about their
plan to eat lunch together tomorrow, but she still didn’t leave. This is usually my only indication that
something’s going on, and Sam wants to talk.
I decided to go bold: “Is he your boyfriend now?”
She nodded. Smiled. Hugged me.
“Dad,” she said, “I gotta tell you this: When we hung up, he said he loved me!”
Part of me died. Part of me aged at least a decade instantly.
I showed no reaction.
We hugged some more. “Yeah,” I told her, “That’s pretty crazy.” Sam agreed that it was more
than she was ready for…given that she’s not quite ten yet.
Sam headed for the driveway, looking to shoot some hoops before dinner. She does this in
almost any weather, does this until her hands are so cold that they’re little more than pink paddles that
she uses to slap the ball around. It’s good exercise, and I don’t regret the hours it took me—and my
father—to put this monster adjustable-height backboard together in my December-frozen garage.
Once she was safely out of the room, I could give some thought to my reaction to the Sam-with-
…and I was shocked to find that I didn’t exactly have one.
The situation seemed to call for a few clichéd tears, maybe a maudlin reflection on how quickly
time passes and how “It seems like only yesterday…blah, blah, blah.” But that wasn’t there. I didn’t
shed any tears, and it felt like exactly nine years and ten months had gone by since the day Sam was
The situation seemed to call for an early dose of he-better-be-good-to-my-daughter rhetoric,
but that felt both foolish and silly. They’re both in fourth grade. They see each other at school, eating
together at lunch and hanging out at recess. With the exception of his one-time, blurted-out declaration
of love, they don’t even seem to talk about anything unusual or age inappropriate.
My thoughts turned to the Spartans.
Since 300 came out years ago, the Spartans have enjoyed a sort of renaissance. Various legends
about the Spartan war machine have been rehashed in film, and a whole spate of classical historians
have suddenly been able to find publishers for their long-abandoned dissertations. But popular fiction
and historical revisionism haven’t really touched upon the one story I always liked most: The Spartan
Boy and the Fox.
An army travels on its stomach. That’s as true in modern Syria as it was in ancient Greece.
Modern armies have entire logistical machines to support them, though, whole groups of both military
experts and civilian contractors whose sole purpose is to keep the soldiers fed.
This wasn’t the case for the Spartans. Their soldiers foraged from the countryside as they
moved, and to make them better at foraging…they were taught from childhood onward to steal.
Stealing (without being noticed) was a virtue to be admired. Stealing and being caught couldn’t have
brought more shame…or a more serious beating.
In my favorite story—probably apocryphal—a Spartan boy steals a fox while traveling from his
barracks to the training ground. With no opportunity to ditch the fox for later retrieval, and nowhere
else to hide it, the boy slips the mostly subdued fox into his tunic. He joins his companions on the
practice field and spends hour after hour wielding shield and spear in the hot sun…always keeping the
fox close to his skin and away from his instructors’ eyes.
The fox remains unnoticed…until the boy suddenly falls to the ground dead. When his body is
turned over, the fox squirms from his tunic and runs away. Unable to escape by squirming out of the
cloth’s folds, it had begun to gnaw and tear at his insides. All day.
But the boy, a true Spartan, gave no sign of pain, even when it ultimately killed him.
The boy is a hero in Spartan legend, a figure to be admired for his cunning (since he managed to
steal something without being seen) and for his stoicism. Faced with the choice of either taking hour
after hour of horrible pain or being discovered as a thief, the boy chose pain.
So my mind turned to this boy as my daughter got her first “I love you” that came from
someone outside of the family circle. It seemed like a good story, a good metaphor for what I should be
feeling. But my heart just wasn’t in it: Sam had her first boyfriend and seemed to be handling the
situation pretty well for someone who still orders off of the children’s menu.
Things get worse, though.
A few days ago, I asked if Sam and her friend were still going together (a benign enough term
that I can get my head around it). She said they were, despite a brief cooling off period while he missed
a few days of school because of illness.
“He told me to call him tonight,” Sam said. “What should I do?”
I took a deep breath. Then I took another one. “Call him,” I said, “but not until after dinner.
Make him think you might not call at all.”
I’m not sure what to make of that, either. My inner father isn’t overwhelmed (not entirely,
anyway) by the idea of Sam growing up, and a decade of being manipulated in various relationships
apparently left me in a position to teach an impromptu seminar on the best ways to provoke anxiety.
I can’t even guess where I’m making my mistake here. Except when I ponder the nutritional
value of Top Ramen.
With Love, Dad
Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western. He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films. He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship. Visit http://www.shaneborrowman.com , home of Shane's blog, Kairotic Palaver.