With all the recent debates I’ve witnessed in all kinds of contexts about blaming the victim vs. making everyone a victim, I keep wondering why we’re so sure everything is black or white. I thought I’d distill the basic concept into a microcosm—a single fictional kid whose story is an amalgam of too many I’ve taught.
A child—most often a boy when the story unfolds this way—grows up in a home with parents who yell obscenities as the go-to means of conflict resolution. Maybe things even escalate to physical altercations—pushing, throwing things, destruction of small, meaningful tokens in acts of vindictive anger. He’s seen it literally all his life. It’s not just between his parents. He is sworn at, beloved toys broken before his eyes as “punishment.”
He’s been told by his parents that he’s a worthless little pain in the ass. If he cries, someone yells, “What the fuck are you crying about?” He doesn’t dare get mad at adults so much bigger than him. Or maybe he does. Maybe the only way anyone in his life hears his three-, four-, and five-year-old anguish is when he yells, “Leave me the fuck alone!”
Oh, you can judge his parents all you want, but what if they have toned things down from their own childhood homes where fathers brutally beat mothers? This stuff seldom comes from nowhere.
Anyway, the kid starts kindergarten. He arrives at school with five years of futile anger built up in his tiny body. To him, adults are people who never listen to you, who take things from you and destroy them, who pretty much seem to wish you didn’t exist.
A classmate takes the glue without asking, and the boy shoves him and says, “Gimme back the fuckin’ glue stick!” The teacher rushes over to settle the dispute and to correct the boy’s language. He is disciplined for shoving, and now this crazy teacher seems to think that “using his words” is going to keep him from being pushed around. What words? She just said he can’t use what is, to him, the most important “I’m really serious about this” word he knows—fuck.
To much of the rest of the world, this kid’s a foul-mouthed bully. He pushes, shoves, swears, and finally gets himself suspended. In kindergarten. Who’s the bad guy, the principal or the boy? You tell me, is he a bully or a victim? Is it really that clear?
I’m not coming down on grade schools. Kindergartners need to be safe from each other. I get that. The truth is, the school has very little influence here. They can do everything they can think of to help the boy learn more appropriate methods of conflict resolution, but at 3:00, he goes home, back where people swear and slam things around. It’s not the kind of stuff that gets a kid taken away by social services, but it definitely shows him that the shit they’re teaching at school is for pansies.
By second or third grade he’s a holy terror. He comes without his homework done and glares daggers at the teacher if he’s made to stay in at recess. The thing is, he’s not actually mean. He’s fiercely loyal to his friends. He’s not the kid who roughs up weak kids for the heck of it or makes fun of people—unless they make fun of him. Heaven help the kid who starts messing with him, because this boy will beat the crap out of real bullies without compunction and proudly take the suspension.
By middle school, he’s smoking weed. It chills out his parents, and he’s discovered that it does the same for him—helps him live with all the anger and pain. By now, someone at school somewhere has said, “I don’t know why you come to school. You’re going to end up in jail anyway.” The pot dulls the shame.
With 30 kids in a class, it’s hard for teachers to deal with a kid who will NOT open his book, who glares when asked a question, who sits and draws pot leaves instead of working on the math problems everyone else is doing. How can they help a kid who won’t work? If he’s not being disruptive, they leave him alone. He fails, year after year.
This is where many non-educators say, “Hold him back. That’s the only way he’ll learn.” For one thing, the research simply doesn’t bear this out. Holding kids back seldom has anything but a negative effect. For another, how long do you want to hold him back? Do you want this boy in your daughter’s seventh grade class when he’s 15?
Besides, in actuality, he can’t get homework done in the chaos of his home, and he’s been told he’s worthless so many times he’s starting to find it harder and harder to see himself as anything else. Holding him back won’t fix this.
By the time he’s in high school, should he be old enough to make better choices? Sure. But tell me how he should have learned that. At home? He’s a victim. At the same time, he’d better figure a way out of the victim hole. Without an education, he’s screwed. No matter how sorry we may feel for him (since we know his story), he’s going to hit a whole new level of cold, hard reality in a few years.
Someone I know was talking about a new freshman who was suspended his first week at school. They looked at his Facebook page, and there are pictures of him with guns and smoking from a bong, and the adult said, “The kid’s a thug.” All I can think is he’s 14. He’s a child. He didn’t come from nowhere. He has a background, one that most likely left him as unprepared for the access he has to weapons and drugs as if he were five. He’s not a thug. He’s a child. Do I want him to be messing with this stuff around my kid? No. He’s dangerous—I totally get the suspension. But God, how sad that he is where he is.
In our punishment-focused society, we too often believe that authority and force are inextricably interwoven, that shame and punishment are the best leverage. I look at the posture of the cop who killed Eric Garner, and it’s there—legs spread, arms crossed. It escalates the situation, but so does Garner’s refusal to cooperate, especially considering the gathering crowd. I get why the cop was on the defensive. I get why Garner was, too. As a teacher, I could see in the video that that exchange wasn’t going anywhere good from the beginning. Take more time, take the audience away from both, and it could have ended so differently. We just don’t give people the time and space to really work things out. Everybody has to jump in and judge, pick a side, find a bad guy, and nobody wants it to be themselves or the one they most identify with.
The best thing about ACE is having two teachers there. When a kid starts to escalate, one of us can keep the class going while the other steps out into the hall with the kid. “What’s up?” I ask as soon as we get out there. Amazing how quickly a kid de-escalates when someone cares enough to listen and he doesn’t have to put up a front for his friends. He doesn’t have to worry about looking “weak” to the rest of the class, and I’m not worried about sacrificing the authority I must have if I’m going to manage the class so every kid can learn. When there is only one teacher and 30 kids, there just isn’t time. When there is one cop, and then a group of cops, and an audience… No one wants to feel unjustly harassed or to have their authority questioned.
I facilitated a house party last week where a father told me he thought it was perfectly appropriate (and much more cost-efficient) to have lecture-hall classes of 300, even in high school. We pile so much on cops and teachers and the people we ask to keep the peace and care for children, as if all we have to do is shame and intimidate people into obedience when what we really need to do is build relationships.
There was a time that beat cops knew their neighborhoods, knew which kids were coming from rough homes, knew which kids only responded to a tough demeanor and which just needed someone to listen. Or at least, in my old-time movie world they did. I can’t help but think it would be a better approach than the penny-wise and pound-foolish system we have now. More cops who know their beats vs. all those prisons?
We don’t fix every kid in ACE. We have to do the tough-love thing to some degree, and plenty of kids don’t make it through the program. Law and order, I’m a big fan. I just don’t think we should ever forget the love. Fixing the problem should be more important than fixing the blame.