How is your life really going?
That was the question that descended a classroom of usually rowdy Year 8 boys into tears, leaving them uninterested in their usual lunchtime ruckus.
The class of about 40 from a regional Victoria school embraced each other as each student poured their hearts out about the troubles they were facing.
About 30 seconds of silence passed before the floodgates opened during a workshop with The Man Cave, as one student began sharing how some issues at home had been affecting him.
“He just shared about how he had been really struggling lately. He had been having some family issues at home and he just broke down in tears,” a Man Cave facilitator, Daniel Paproth, said.
“It was really beautiful from that point on, he was one of the alpha boys and had two of his alpha mates beside him and the second he started breaking down, they just put their arms around him.”
The student’s courage paved the way for his peers to also open up, so much so that when the lunch bell rang, not one of them moved.
“The boys just wanted to keep sharing. They just had their arms around each other the whole time and when the bell for lunch went, they just ignored it,” Mr Paproth said.
“They all wanted to make sure that every single one of them had the opportunity to check in and share, and they waited until every boy was done.”
An entire cohort of mullet-wearing Year 8 boys losing their lunch break to talk about their feelings was further proof that the work of The Man Cave was much needed.
“It really showed me that some of the stereotypes around young men can be challenged, and when given the space to explore this stuff in a safe and empowering manner, they really go for it,” Mr Paproth said.
The touching experience resonated with thousands online after the faces of some of the students featured in a TikTok shared by The Man Cave this week.
Responses from viewers revealed how important and crucial the work of the organisation was, with many TikTok users saying they wished it existed when they were at school.
The Man Cave was the result of a noticeable pattern of “young men causing harm to themselves and others”, Mr Paproth said.
“So we took a look at some statistics around gender inequality and domestic violence, and just thought there had to be a different way.
“We decided to look at it through the lens of working with young men in high school as they’re developing and seek to give these boys the tools to manage their own wellbeing and work with their emotions so we can drive down some of those statistics.”
The organisation has been running workshops for young male students in Victoria and NSW since 2014 and recently celebrated its biggest term ever, having worked with 6,900 boys.
The Man Cave has worked with about 57,000 boys in total across the two states, and provides learning resources for parents and schools via its website.
A workshop involving a Year 7 boy in Werribee had been a particularly poignant experience for Mr Paproth, who had attended the same school in his youth.
“He opened up about not really having any friends and trying really hard to be nice to make friends and just feeling like he was never quite ‘in’,” he explained.
“I broke down that day because that was my old high school, and I felt very similar in high school to the way he did. So to hear that and then see the support that he got from his mates around him was magic.”
He had also been touched by the incredible maturity shown among the students, often in far more sophisticated amounts than adults more than double their age.
One instance was a 13-year-old boy who, after being offered advice on how to get over a break-up, told his peers: “I just want people to listen”.