Rite Passages (1)

          How might it have been different for you, if on your first menstrual day, your mother had given you a bouquet of flowers and taken you to lunch, and then the two of you had gone to meet your father at the jeweler, where your ears were pierced, and your father bought you your first pair of earrings, and then you went with a few of your friends and your mother’s friends to get your first lip colouring;

          and then you went,

                   for the very first time,

                             to the Women’s Lodge

                                      to learn

                                                the wisdom of the women?

          How might your life be different?

                             —Judith Duerk, Circle of Stones

I have been thinking about rites of passage for a while now, and especially about coming of age rituals.


It was kind of serendipitous. I wanted to give my Comp II class a practice topic for writing a comparative analysis; the actual assignment was ready to go, but I like to give students a run-through activity. So I went browsing on the Web for one website that would offer a choice of comparisons.

I found a site much like this: a site that summarized 13 coming of age rituals from around the planet.


I asked the students to pick two of the rituals, do a little more research, and write up a comparative analysis.

They wrote with horror and glee and a dawning respect about exotic, community-building, frightening, risky, and painful rituals. That was our practice assignment.

When they got the actual assignment, they told me they wished the coming of age activity had been their REAL paper.


One of the rites that fascinated my students was the Bullet Ant Ritual, practiced by the Satere’-Mawe’ tribe in the Brazilian Amazon. This tribe has been isolated from the outside world for thousands of years; the qualities they prize in their warriors are strength and courage.

So the bullet ant ordeal aims to teach the tribe’s 13-year-old boys how to become strong and brave.

The boys themselves go out into the jungle with a trusted elder, and they harvest bullet ants. The elder sedates the ants with an herbal infusion; the boys bring them home, where they are woven, stingers handward, into gloves.

When the ants awaken, the boy must put on the gloves and keep them on, betraying no fear or pain, for five to ten minutes.

According to “Cultures and Customs” from Penn State, “A single sting is capable of causing hours of pain.” People who’ve been shot and who’ve been bitten by a bullet ant say the pain from the ant is worse—hence their name.

The ants’ venom causes long-lasting effects, including violent shaking, paralysis, confusion, and hallucinations.

The boys put their hands in the gloves not once, but twenty times. When they are done, they are warriors.


In their final, de-briefing essays, several students said learning about coming of age rituals was the high point of the class (which featured face-to-face sessions until March, and an abrupt, pandemic switch to on-line learning after spring break wrapped up. The students were a great group, but it was a confused and disconcerting semester.)

I decided to take that activity and incorporate it into this summer’s class as the REAL comparative analysis assignment. And then I thought, well, we could segue from that into the proposal activity: the students could choose a young person or group of young people they felt would benefit, and propose a coming of age ritual for them.

I went looking for examples of current, safe, sensible coming of age rites on the Internet, and I came across Ron Fritz’s wonderful TEDX talk. (https://tedxbend.com/presenters/ron-fritz/)

Fritz and his wife designed coming of age rituals for each of their three kids. The rituals included lessons to teach important values the Fritzes chose; they included a challenge geared toward the child; and they offered up a group of caring, loving elders who, in addition to the child’s parents, promised to be there in certain ways and at certain times.

Lessons about values. A personal challenge. The gift of a supportive community of elders.

I thought about what Fritz had done, and what I was asking my students to design, and I started to wish we had given our boys coming of age experiences.

I started to wish I’d had one, too.


To echo Judith Duerk, how WOULD our lives be different if that entry into the lobby of the land of adulthood had been celebrated with a ritual designed just for each of us? 

I entered my teens feeling like I’d been shoved into a dark room with a flickering flashlight and commanded to find something. The light was weird and wavery, and I had no idea what I was looking for.

I stumbled, a LOT, and the longer I was in there, the worse the stumbling grew. Oh, I emerged eventually, with some new ideas, a battery of bruises, and several scars, but mostly intact. But I can’t help thinking that a coming of age ritual might have given me something like a search light instead of that damp flicker.


I was a bookish, creative kid, with very little self-confidence and lots of apprehension. What if a kid like that had been challenged to do something she’d never dream of doing…say, talk to one person she’d never spoken to before each day for a week? She might keep a journal of the conversations that ensued, and at the end of the week, she might share it with one of her mentors, a grown-up person who was gifted at connection. Together, they’d sift through the seven people that child had spoken to and find someone the child found interesting and would like to know better. The next week’s challenge might be to invite the new person for coffee.

And maybe the person wouldn’t go because they didn’t want to, or wouldn’t go because their schedule disallowed. But maybe they WOULD go, and maybe the shy, awkward child would meet a new friend.

That would be just one kind of challenge tailor-made for just one kind of kid.


Fritz had his kids build things, make things, and push themselves physically. They all came through the experience, it seems, successfully, and probably with a dawning surprise at what they themselves could actually do if they pushed the limits of their beliefs about their own abilities.

I love the idea of a ritual that makes us do that sort of stretching.


Another ritual that captivated my students was the practice of land diving. This takes place on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific, according to ABCNews.go.com. To prove their manliness, boys dive from 100-foot-tall towers of wood.  Not only are participants proven to be fearless, but, the tribe believes, the successful completion of the challenge insures their crops will grow.

The tower is built of freshly cut wood, tied together with fresh vines; the freshness insures flexibility. Brittleness could mean disaster for the participants, who choose a vine that will get them as close to the earth as they can fall without crashing.

The vine’s ends are shredded and tied around the young man’s ankle, and he scrambles to the top of the tower. While her boy makes his jump, the mother grips a favorite token from his childhood.

When the boy completes his jump successfully, the mother throws the childhood token away. Her boy needs it no more; he now is a man.


For each of his children, Fritz and his wife gathered a community of adults who cared about their kid, who would continue to care, and who could be relied on to be there later on and down the road. The elders might share stories that inspired or that implied, “Don’t worry: we’re all a mess at one time when we’re growing!” They might write down words of wisdom. They might share all together in a group, or the young person might walk from elder to elder, from mentor to mentor, receiving a glimmer and a strand of a lifeline from each.


I think of my son Jim, and other autistic young adults.

The statistics for this group of people are disheartening. College degree completion is low, unemployment is high. A lot of very talented people spend their 20’s playing videogames.

Would, I wonder, a coming of age ritual have helped Jim and folks like Jim?

What if we had posed Jim three challenges that took him outside his comfort zone, but not so far he couldn’t see dry land? Imagine he had, over a course of weeks, navigated those challenges. Then say we had, one at a time, provided him with a group of adults who said things like, “I love movies, too. Once a month, you can call me and we’ll talk about movies,” or, “I was awkward with other kids when I was a teenager. If you get frustrated dealing with the other kids at school, call me, and we’ll talk about it,” or, “When I was your age, my parents drove me CRAZY! When yours are driving you crazy, shoot me an email, and I’ll reply asap.”

An autistic kid might not pick up the phone or sit down at the keyboard and make the connection offered by those compassionate adults.

But then again, they might.

And the individual caring mentors might have become a network, and they might have inculcated the belief that, Hey. I CAN nurture relationships with people outside my family. I CAN make and be a friend.

Hmmm. How might Jim’s life have been different?


There are other, less brutal rites, too, of course.

Amish groups observe Rumspringa, the time before a young person is engaged. During these days, which can last many years, the Amish youth, both boys and girls, can experiment with ‘English’ clothing and equipment. They might drive; they might go to movies. They might drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes.

At the end of Rumspringa, they must choose: marriage into an Amish family, or a life forever outside the community that raised them.

Bar mitzvahs challenge Jewish boys to enter the life of their religion as a full adult. The boy has prepared, studying and reading, and, at 13, is required to present a spiritual reading to the members of his Temple; his ascendance to adulthood is celebrated, often with an elaborate gathering.

Jewish girls may make their bat mitzvah at 12; they demonstrate their learning of their Jewish heritage, too. They may be expected to do some kind of bat mitzvah project, as well, which benefits others. (https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1918218/jewish/Bat-Mitzvah-What-It-Is-and-How-to-Celebrate.htm)


The last thing Fritz said was an essential component in a coming of age ritual is a party, a celebration, and the ones they offered, again, were geared toward each kid, toward what they saw as an amazing time.


My students found that the remnants of coming of age rites in the United States often skipped over the values lessons and the challenges, bypassed the sharing from caring elders, and went right to the party.

In the Quinceanera, a ritual for girls turning 15 in Latina and Hispanic US cultures, the emphasis is on the reception after a religious ceremony. My students were fascinated to learn that a family with a modest income might pay as much as $10,000 for the honoree’s dress.

The reception would be in a fancy hall, and the guests would challenge its capacity. Food would be lavish.

Another rite that fascinated my students, who are mostly hard-working folks juggling jobs and classes, was the all-American Sweet 16. There, the party’s the focus, too, and in wealthy families, or at least in families wealthier than the ones we rub noses with, the highlight of the party is when the 16-year-old gets the keys to her spanking new car.

Pretty heady stuff.


But so many US kids go on to less than glittering success…to drug use and addiction, to failed attempts at college, to early and unwed parenting (which is, of course, not exactly a failure, but often a deviation from long-held dreams.) Suicide is a real issue among US adults, as is incarceration, shared parenting, divorce, and disillusion.

Lessons that teach values, challenges that push a kid to discover what they’re capable of…could such simple things be part of a web that catches people in a downward spiral?

Could coming of age rituals at least be part of a package that offers help and hope to confused and floundering young people, to kids who feel like no one gets them, that there’s no one there to talk to?

I like Fritz’s model—lessons, challenge, supportive elders. If we—as families, as communities, as school, or as churches—could offer a positive, value-infused coming of age ritual to young people…well, as Judith Duerk asks, how might their lives be different?

And even if there’s no entity to give that child—the 13-year-old, the fifteen year old, the seventeen year old—a formal rite of passage, maybe we can each reach out in appropriate, caring ways to the one kid in our life. Maybe we can share a shred or a shard of wisdom. Maybe we can encourage the child who feels alone to make a catalog of wise elders they can call on when need arises. Maybe, in some small way, we can help that budding person realize and celebrate the wonder of who they are: someone who is essential to the whole.


Of course, there are other rites of passage besides coming of age rituals. I’ve been thinking about them, too.