Boys Being Boys

More children are dead, and again, it's a boy who killed them.

The place was a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. The killer's primary weapon was not, this time, an assault rifle--most likely, I think, because his parents didn't own one. Instead, he took their sawed-off shotgun into the school, and by the time his killing spree was over, ten people were dead, more wounded.

That was two Fridays ago. Monday morning, as I was trying to get a rowdy fourth grade class to quiet down long enough for me to introduce the group improvisation activity that would be their lesson, one boy shouted across the room to another, "I'm going to kill you." I sent him straight to the office. He insisted he was joking, but as I explained to the class after he'd left, murder is never a joking matter, particularly in a school where, as happens in schools across the country, we hold lockdown drills to practice what to do if an active shooter ever enters the building. We don't just drill: several months ago, we were in lockout (a step down from lockdown) because there had been a hit and run accident in the neighborhood, and the suspect had fled the scene. It was later determined that a bicycle had been stolen from the school racks--though that could be unrelated. The point is that, like many suburban schools, ours is an open campus, with ready access to the playground, running track, and ball fields outside of school hours. That means we have to have a procedure in place in case, someday, a person walks into the building with a gun.

Being a teacher has become a much scarier thing than it used to be. Lockdown drills have been around for decades (I remember having them in Banks, and ushering kids out of my many-windowed music room to the dark stairway that connected it to the stage), but there really has been an increase of school shootings in recent years. Typically, the shooter is a teenaged boy who has taken his parents' weapons and, sometimes after first killing his parents, gone off to settle old grudges with bullets. Often it ends with him taking his own life. The National Rifle Association would like us to blame anyone and anything but the easy access to guns they have fought so hard to create, but as many a commentator has rationally pointed out, if it were not for the lethality of assault weapons, most of these mass shootings would have far fewer victims.

Many, but not all. As the Santa Fe shooter demonstrated, a shotgun can take plenty of lives.

I've expressed many times in this space that I believe guns should, in fact, be far more tightly regulated in this country, and I'd be very happy if we repealed the Second Amendment and did exactly what the NRA is constantly warning its membership of: confiscated all their murder tools. I've done it frequently and passionately enough, in fact, that today my theme is not the stupidity of making these weapons available in the first place, but rather, the nature of the murderers who keep turning them on their classmates.

Today, I'm writing about boys.

The boy I sent to the office was not being exceptionally aggressive. There's plenty of aggression going around the school these days. There was a noticeable uptick of children behaving aggressively  at my school in the wake of the 2016 election, and rather than ebb, it has waxed, to the point that I'm having to write notes to parents and, in some cases, referrals almost every day. It would be easy to blame Trumpism for this (and there are some children who delight in saying the words, "Donald Trump," just to see their classmates freak out--just as these same children will stick out their middle fingers or mouth an obscenity just to get a rise from another child), but in fact, it's really a phenomenon as old as gender itself. Every age group, at every school, has boys who get over-stimulated. If it's not Donald Trump triggering the giggles and shoves, it's Fortnite (the latest gaming craze), pro wrestling, action movies, and on and on.

It's not just a few boys, either. I've got a gentle soul. The thought of harming anyone is anathema to me. I've always been this way. And yet, when I was no older than four, my two-year-old brother and I turned our first set of Legos into guns and chased each other around the house, making laser noises and throwing Lego bricks at each other as the bullets our Lego guns were shooting. Mind you, our parents were strict about not permitting any violent toys until I was probably nine years old, but they did let us watch "Lost in Space" and "F Troop," so we'd probably seen TV characters shooting at each other.

There is something in the wiring of boys that leads them to behave aggressively. I see this in my nephews. I saw it some in my son and the step-brother he had during my second marriage. I see it in some boys in every class that comes through the music room, and I expect the rest of them engage in it on the playground. Speaking just from my experience, boys enjoy competition, elimination games, proving who's superior at a task, want tokens of their accomplishments, and push each other around far more than girls. With my primaries, I'm working on teaching them to be safe, to think before they flail their arms or fling their bodies; with the intermediates, I'm working on respect, as now they've got the language skills to be verbally, as well as physically, aggressive. I'm relieved I don't have to deal with them as adolescents, because that's where masculinity can become especially toxic, particularly when it comes to sexuality. I do have a few male students who don't seem to understand boundaries, and who invade the space of other students frequently, but they're a small fraction of the children at my school.

As boys become older, their aggressiveness can become violent: almost all the bullying I endured as an adolescent came from boys. When girls victimized me, it was always by playing on my emotions. Boys would injure me, snapping me with metal clips when the teacher was out of the room, following me home and spitting on me, grabbing my glasses and making me chase them to get them back. This all happened in middle school; the one high school bully I experienced wasn't even at my school, but was a member of my DeMolay chapter. Other kids are not so lucky, and find themselves tormented in locker rooms and hallways.

And some boys take weapons into a school building and kill children and teachers.

It's become a stereotype that these killers are themselves victims of bullies, and have come back to get revenge on classmates and teachers who they believed were treating them badly. I can think of some boys at my school who already harbor resentment about the treatment their more aggressive classmates have doled out. I certainly did when I was just a few years older than they are.

But I chose differently. Somehow, my upbringing and my personality combined to keep me off the vengeance track. There were a few editorials I wrote when I was on the school newspaper that probably crossed the line into intellectual bullying (yes, I could wield a poison pen when I chose to), but I never acted out physically. It just wasn't who I was.

I've gone on for awhile here about the aggressiveness of boys. I don't have a solution to offer. I do see that the masculinity at my school, even with the Trump uptick, is far less lethal than what I experienced in my previous position in a high poverty school. But I don't think the aggression at my school is limited to economically disadvantaged boys. It's just part of who they are at this time in their lives--as has always been true of some, if not all, boys. In some cultures, boys are separated from girls for education and initiation purposes, but I don't think that's a workable solution for America. We have enough trouble with misogyny without turning girls into even more of a mystery to boys than they already are.

Probably the best solution I can offer my students was revealed to me this evening by the son I only recently learned I have. When I met him nine years ago, he was a nine-year-old girl named Sarah. While Sarah was a unique child, she did not seem exceptionally un-girlish to me. As time passed, though, it became clear she was not going to grow up in the same way her peers would. The last time she wore address was for her bat mitzvah. A few months after that, when her classmates were dressing up as princes and princesses for a school renaissance fair, she chose the character of a male troubadour, penciling a mustache on her lip. Some months after that, she announced to us that she was a lesbian. A few years later, she told her mother and me that she thought she might actually be transgender, our lack of enthusiasm led her to put it back in the box. Two months ago, with several years of LGBTQ activism under her belt, and experience on the debate team making speeches about coming out, Sarah came out again as transgender. This time we have accepted it: his name is now Simon. We stumble over the name and the pronouns, but we're trying our best to honor this identity that was, we can see looking back, always there.

I took Simon to see a superhero movie this afternoon. On the drive home, I told him I was thinking about writing a blog post about toxic masculinity. He liked that a lot, and told me I should include his story in it. He told me that my example, as well as that of his brother, had helped him to realize that there are ways of being masculine that are not toxic; that men can be gentle, loving, and emotional, without being weak; and that this is the kind of man he wants to be.

Writing those words, I'm feeling those emotions right now. After a week of dealing with increasingly aggressive boys who seem not to be learning anything from my example, it's a wonderful feeling to know that this boy was paying attention the whole time, and found in me the power he needed to tell the world who he really is.


  1. Thank you for this.

    I got taken to task on FB today for posting a video about "raising boys" vs. "raising girls" that gets into the things you mention. One of my friends, who has only raised girls (3 of them), said girls are just as "messy" and boys. I have not responded, because I have never raised girls, and cannot comment on comparing them. But I felt that she was missing something, too.

    Before my son was born, I wanted with all my might to believe that this higher level of -- what is it, aggression? -- you and I both notice in boys was not intrinsic but learned, social behavior taught by parents who told boys to behave one way and girls another. But no matter how gentle I try to get my son to be, he is not. And as boy-like as I always was (and still am in many ways), there are just some lines I never would have crossed, and he seems to leap over them, oblivious.

    There is a difference.

    Perhaps there is some male and female in all of us -- and some of us are more one than the other, and sometimes that matches the various physical signs, and sometimes it doesn't, such as in your son Simon. I've never felt particularly female, but I'm also sure I'm not male. I know that gender is way more complicated that we like to admit.

    And that sometimes it's less so. Sometimes, boys will be boys. And sometimes that's okay, too. Except when it's not.

    Like you, I have no answers. But I am glad to read your take on things, as always.

    BTW, Fred Rogers is also a great example of masculinity that is not toxic.

    Blessings to you and your family.


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