The poem “Rite of Passage,” depicts a simple scene – the author, Sharon Olds’, son’s birthday party. I think that the gist of this poem is to comment on the way that boys are brought up in our society. The young boys “jockey for place,” an action commonplace with young boys. However, these kinds of interactions continue on through adolescence. From what I have witnessed as a young male, other males tend to tease each other a lot, and continue this “jockeying for place” as they grow up. In the tender age group of first graders, boys already know that they aren’t supposed to express feelings and to act tough.
Olds makes a great contrast by expressing the appearance of innocence of her own child, “My son, / freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks… / speaks up as a host / for the sake of the group. / We could easily kill a two-year-old,” with the chilling implications that her child suggests. At this point we can see how the practice of raising our children in this way can go too far. Olds’ child is able to diffuse a dispute by arguing that all the first graders could take on, and even kill a two-year-old.
The poem ends on a note that seems almost insane, “The other / men agree, they clear their throats / like Generals, they relax and get down to / playing war, celebrating my son’s life,” after the event that just occurred. The idea that men are unruly by nature seems to be a theme evoked here. After such a seemingly alarming occurrence, the boys just get back to playing as soon as the altercation ends. Olds, as the mother, recognizes this event as frightening, but seems like she is in a position where her son’s actions and friends can’t really be helped at this point. I choose to believe that her inability to help the situation is a comment on how the ideas present in boys are difficult to change, rather than her giving up on the child, but I guess that’s up to interpretation.
I have loved this poem since I read it in my AP English class, and it has stuck with me for years. It reminds me a bit of Lord of the Flies. I love the ideas that Olds presents in such a short poem, and her tone and perspective are very interesting. The themes present are important today, and I appreciate her work!
You can view the poem itself here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47055