Over the years, trying to be fair in the utmost, seeing things from many different perspectives, and, not the least, not wanting to spoil my son or make him feel the center of the universe, I have been very held-back in saying good things about Jack. Now, I’m going to indulge in that a little.
I have great confidence in Jack. He is not just smart – I think an unsmart child either doesn’t exist or is an extreme rarity. He is observant and insightful. He is capable of behaving with a kind of maturity that you would never expect from someone his age or goofily rambunctious disposition. He is talented in a number of things and I think he’s going to do some interesting and perhaps even impressive things as an adult. I’m not worried about that.
What I want to write here is why as I look back over the past five years that he’s been in school I am so proud of him. From grade one to five, Jack has basically been tormented every day in school. As a classmate of his put it to me last year, “Jack suddenly showed up in first grade [the rest of the kids had been there since kindergarten] and expected to be our friend.” Geez. And when this particular girl complained to me of this unreasonable expectation of Jack’s, they were in fourth grade. Continue on to fifth grade and the picture emerges that the kids never accepted Jack. I thought it was a question of maturity and that over time the kids would forget that Jack was a new-comer in first grade. I was wrong. But it’s not my intention to analyze what’s wrong with a certain kind of kid culture. What I want to give you an idea of is the context of Jack’s everyday school life: his constant effort to fit in and the group’s constant rejection of him.
Here’s another crude aspect of Jack’s place in the group: He was one of the youngest and one of the biggest. He was bigger than all the boys, except for one major bully who was a year and half older. Of the girl bullies two were older and bigger than him. I always wondered if there was a size competition between the boys. The boys did not wrestle or play-fight with girls but among themselves there was always talk about who can take who “down.” I imagine Jack had ample opportunity to demonstrate that he was stronger than most.
But – and this is my point one – even though he was taunted and tormented and even though he was not a “wimp” by bully standards, he never initiated aggression. And point two is perhaps even more important: Even though he was rejected from the group and even though many joined the group by making alliances with the bullies by turning against him, he never joined the tormenting of other kids in order to be on the bullies’ good side. In other words, Jack never became a gang member. He never stooped to being the lackey or side-kick of a bully.
If anything, Jack stood up to the bullies. He took them on. We can say this is wrong all we want, but it is a fact of life – and has been as long as there is recorded human history – that there is a certain male tendency to fight. And there has certainly always been a certain social and cultural tendency to expect that males should fight – they certainly should fight back. Now, older and wiser as we are we counsel our kids that they should avoid confrontation. “Walk away,” we counsel them, “Make others friends.” This is so much easier said than done.
My most favorite piece on this website is the contributions of Tyler, whose article “How I Became This” I have been posting the past couple of weeks. Tyler is 19 and a very intelligent and articulate guy. And as a lot of people have been commenting, he is also right. But of course he could not express himself as well he does now when he was a little kid. And as I read his pieces I realize how I’ve failed Jack in the past years. He could not explain to me what he faced every day and I could not imagine the cruelty and stupidity of the school environment. I don’t say the “cruelty and stupidity of children” not because I don’t think kids can’t be cruel and stupid. They certainly can. The reason I don’t like to blame the children is because I really from the bottom of my heart believe that children merely reflect the cruelty and stupidity of their environment. And ultimately, just like adults, kids act in stupid and cruel ways when they know they can get away with it. They are not blind, they see that those in higher authority are all too often guilty of it and get away with it.
This is the dynamic that Jack did not join. He fought back in his childish ways. I am confident that he will learn to be more clever and effective in the way he fights this as he grows older. Heck, he might even learn that avoiding pointless confrontation is not a bad strategy at all. But I am proud of him for not giving in to the temptation to join stupidity and cruelty in order to belong. I’m not really worried about him seeking out power struggles, or turning into a Don Quixote for that matter, but there is one thing I do worry about. I worry that he has gotten the wrong message about friendship. I think he needs to relearn the meaning of “friend.”
I will write about friendship in my next blog.