25 October 2014
Peace Talk: Ending the Violent & Silent Masculinity Narrative
This week, during discussion of the dangerous intruder protocol to prepare for drills, I asked a question: Have you ever been held at gunpoint? The surprising answer from two of my girls was yes. In both situations, they were very young children, in the presence of their mothers, when a husband or lover came to their door with a gun. One was too young to remember it, but she has heard the story multiple times in the family. The other was eight years old. To protect her mother, she stood in front of the gun her father was pointing. My point in asking was to remind students to take the training seriously because I assumed they did not have prior experience. I was wrong. This lesson could not be more sobering.
Today, I am thankful: that my students are safe and that our dangerous intruder drills on Thursday were just drills. I am thankful that, unlike first-year teacher Megan Silberberger, I have never had to run toward bullets in the course of my teaching day. I am thankful to be alive.
I am also troubled. Troubled by my students' lack of seriousness during drills. Troubled by the story of the young shooter, Jaylen Fryberg, and his victims. Troubled by the words "I'm fine." There are many other words and images on this young man's Twitter account likely to cause a stir, particularly the sexual content, as well as the volatile mood swings. We still don't know the whole story, and we may never make sense of it, but these are the words that are festering.
Now, I'm not a counselor, and I don't pretend to be one, but I AM a caring adult. I've watched a lot of students, male and female, swallow their pain over the years. Often, I know more about a student's emotional state than the parents do. Sometimes, I know more about a student's emotional state than they know themselves. Behavior choices, body language, and tone of voice are signals to which all good teachers are attuned. But some are such masters at hiding, they fool us--and themselves.
A few years back, I had two senior students, we'll call them Jeff and Jane, in my creative writing class who had been dating for two years. They were both attractive and smart, popular and witty. In the middle of the semester, I heard rumors about their breakup, nothing dramatic--a mutual decision, but I wondered how it would affect the class dynamic in a tight learning community of just eighteen students. For the first couple of days, class went smoothly, and everything seemed "fine." But I noticed that males and females both were very solicitous of Jane's feelings and openly discussed how she was coping with this major change. No one, not even his closest friends, talked to Jeff in this manner. Jeff would occasionally linger for a private word or two with me before going to lunch, so I asked him to stay a minute on the third day. I pulled up a chair next to his and asked, "You seem like you're doing okay, but how are you really holding up?"
The tears welled up in his eyes immediately, and he dropped his head in his hands. "You're the first person to ask, Mrs. Paulsen." Three days! I was SO ashamed for not asking on the first day. For the next fifteen minutes, I listened to his isolation from his parents and longing for connection to them, to his fears about the future, to his confusion about Jane, to his increasing feelings of separation from his peers. I wonder how many of my students are hiding heavy burdens. How many are "fine"? I wonder how many of my students go three days without anyone asking them how they're feeling, and how many of them would give an authentic response. I missed an opportunity to teach the whole class a valuable lesson about gendered communication. And for two days, I missed the cues that Jeff was feeling awfully alone. But on that day, for Jeff, it was enough that I asked and listened.
Maya Angelou said, "The loss of young first love is so painful, it borders on the ludicrous." When I think about my student standing between her parents and a gun, I think how many adults are not equipped with the emotional intelligence to face the pain, grieve a loss, and move on when it comes to love. I think about my two seniors who struggled to grieve their loss, without malice, but still groping their way in the dark unknowns of the human heart. Today I am thinking of a troubled young man who loved (at least in his mind) and lost in ninth grade, who chose the all-too-common murder-suicide ending to the love triangle in which he appeared to be tangled. And I am thinking of his alleged former love, dead on the cafeteria floor, their senseless and preventable deaths lingering in my consciousness. Could this happen at my school? Odds are: Yes.
What messages are teens hearing about love, sex, violence, and gender to counter the media's narrative of violent and silent masculinity? If we don't speak up to influence the teens around us with a counter-narrative, the list of shootings will continue. And in the words of Prince Escalus at the end of Romeo & Juliet, "All are punished."