Lonely Boys

Teacher Suzanne Rosenwasser tries to get her male students to stop calling each other names—and start acknowledging that words hurt.

Loneliness is a hard barrier to break when it’s been built into a boy’s life for 14 years. This is deep-seated loneliness, the kind bred of broken trusts, bereft hearts, and bottled dreams by a world full of people who you see, but who don’t see you.

After reading a number of books concerning the five W’s of saving at-risk boys, the principal of my high school and I decide to teach acknowledgement and caring first. Step one. Look each boy in the eye and offer him a hand. We enlist a male counselor to join our team and develop a routine of meeting the boys at breakfast in the cafeteria every morning.

Some come in begrudgingly, mumbling an acknowledgement of sorts; one or two just slouch in front of us, holding their elbows and asking with passive venom: “Ok, now what am I supposed to do?” Others sit with us until we have to coax them to move on before the bell rings, and a few don’t come by at all.

We address the no-shows when we meet formally in class, saying right up front that “I forgot” is not an acceptable answer. We arrange the boys in a circle, and we all sit on top of the desks. “Whatta you mean we can’t say I forgot,” Anel interrupts. “I forgot. There just no more to it.”

Anel is 14, tall (6-foot-4), and from a rough neighborhood. He was born to a 13-year-old mother and was mostly raised by his grandmother. He’s ungainly and ungraceful in a laconic way. Because of his size and his race, people assume he’s a basketball player. But he throws a ball like a baby, trips over his own huge feet, and is easily driven to tears when boys call him names, as one does now:

“You told me you weren’t going to show up, Anal-hole,” Fernando says with all the derision an adolescent can muster. Anel jumps from his desktop in an obligatory threat but loses his balance and falls into the counselor who saw the move coming, and played defense. Guffawing laughter follows. It is clearly directed at Anel.


These are the moments when I feel that isolation well up, the loneliness exuding from boys who’ve learned the way to be men is to belittle, berate, and beat their way to adulthood. I see it every day. Boys seek stature by making direct, derisive remarks.

“Man you smell like ass” is a comment spat into the face of an overweight, freckled red-head who has worn the same black T-shirt, jeans, and god-knows-how-old sneakers since day one. “I am not sittin’ next to smelly-boy,” another boys says. “That is stank. I’m tellin’ you. Stank!”

The boys have turned the topic to name-calling. We make a choice to deal with the no-shows later. The principal asks Anel about being called “Anal-hole.”

“I don’t care what they call me. It don’t bother me,” Anel says. “I just wanted to hit him ‘cause he’s Mexican.” Anel laughs, as meanly as they laughed at him.

“You cared, Anel,” I say with my eyes focused on his. Then to the group: “No mean names. No matter what, ok? Not from anyone.”

“Well, what about when it’s true, Miss?” Fernando asks. “That guy does stink like ass,” and he points to Jonathan. “Why do you stink so bad? You stank in middle school, too.”

Jonathan pulls his tee shirt away from his bulging stomach in that nervous way that he does. He rubs his nose and snorts mucuous into his skull while pushing up his glasses and swinging his huge legs into an arc that shakes the desktop seats of the whole circle and fans his “stank” around the room. We ask him to sit still and answer the question, which has been repeated with diplomacy by the counselor:

“You’ve had trouble before with kids saying you don’t smell good, haven’t you Jonathan?”

“Yes, but it’s not my fault,” Jonathan tells the group. His mom never does the laundry, he says, because she just had a baby that he has to take care of because his mom drinks and goes to bed every day when he gets home from school. Sometimes his aunt comes to take the baby, but most nights the baby cries and screams.

Jonathan knows he has our rapt attention. “That’s why I’m fat, too. I eat all the time and my mom only buys crap.”


By the time class is over we’ve arranged for Jonathan to shower; the social worker has gathered some fresh clothes for him, and he’ll soon be on his way to get his hair cut in the school’s cosmetology lab. While we shine Jonathan up like a team from Oz, the social worker reviews his files. She tells me that they are in regular touch with the family.

Jonathan’s mother is a practicing attorney on maternity leave whose drinking problem plagues the household but doesn’t appear to impede her job. A stepfather who travels extensively lives with them, although he and Jonathan don’t communicate with each other. Basic human needs are available to Jonathan, but as the file notes, his mother has said repeatedly: She can’t make him change his clothes.

His stink is his form of rebellion, and despite the new sneakers we send him home with, he appears in his old shoes the next day, handing me the others. Blisters, he says.

I try to respond with acknowledgement and caring: “Ok, Jonathan. First, let’s get you some Band-aids. Then, we’re going to figure out how to walk in a new pair of shoes.”

About Suzanne Rosenwasser

Suzanne McLain Rosenwasser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times. She has taught high school for 23 years and works with at-risk ninth grade boys. Suzanne's fiction can be found on the iApp etherbooks, where a few of her short stories are among its top 25 best sellers.


  1. Anonymous Male says:

    I am all for trying to get kids to be respectful of each other, certainly clamping down on overt disrespect.

    This article came across to me as a little totalitarian. What I heard is that a student is not allowed to say “I forgot,” even when that is the truth. Of course you should enforce requirements so that forgetting is no excuse, but that’s not the same thing as requiring them to lie. If forgetting is no excuse, then tell them forgetting is no excuse. And then when a student says something doesn’t bother him, you override him and tell him what he really feels? No wonder those boys get sullen and defensive. They express a feeling and then they’re told they’re lying. Calling him out on his odor in front of a bunch of other boys seems like another form of bullying to me. I’d be afraid to go to those cafeteria sessions, too. I suspect that many of these boys are hearing a lesson that to be successful you must conform to what powerful people say you should behave like, even when it makes no sense to you. And that telling the truth is unacceptable if you don’t use the proper words for it. And to get along in social situations you have to lie.

    I’m probably a little sensitive to this as a long-time introvert who likes his privacy. I hated it when teachers tried to impose their version of sociability on us, forcing us all to act as one collective, trying to instill what they considered “normal” social behavior but what I considered groupthink. I didn’t bully people or call people names. I preferred to be left alone. Schools have every right and every duty to reduce name-calling and bullying. That also has to be balanced by respect for individuality and privacy.

    • Anonymous Male: I completely respect your response to this. Thanks for sharing it. I would like to say that all the boys agreed to these personal conversations about normally private, issues from the start. As for forgetting – since it was a common mishap, we strove to correct it – recognizing the need to forget to enforce it when appropriate. :0)

  2. Dr. Shawn: Thank you for your comment. I agree with you about Anel’s situation. In a perfect world the action you describe would have taken place swiftly. I assure you, there was an active intervention taking place between the school and the home, and I am happy to report we noted some success. However, within a month of the incident in the story, the family moved to another state. I heard from Anel afterwards and he said he liked his new school much better. Hopefully, he (and his family) had a fresh start. I feel confident that we believedAnel while he was with us and that will carry some weight in his future.

  3. Firstly, bravo to you teacher bravo. I am appalled for one that any father would even suggest in 2010 that we allow name calling, disrespect, abuse or bullying to be permitted under any circumstance. Come on fella if we haven’t learned by now what that leads to them open up some case files of suicide, bullying, Columbine. It is our job as parents to sculpt those minds into the hope of our future not the mistakes of our past.

    I want to take that mom to task. I would call her on the carpet so fast it would humiliate her to no end. She is an Attorney? Yet, she can manage to be a functioning alcoholic that comes home daily get trashed, falls asleep leaving her smallest child in the hands of her son, a child himself. She can’t convince her son to shower or wear clean clothes and yet we are to expect that she can handle a jury? Fat chance! I would work directly with CPS and the school and I would shape this woman up real fast with a few appointments to her workplace, a few appointments to her home and I would schedule constant check ups to see that SHE…THE MOTHER…is doing her job.

    Eventually, she will shape up or she will lose them and frankly, losing them would not fair well with her employer. This Mother and Step Dad need a swift kick of HERE IT IS FOLKS and this is what is going to happen. Respect, love and trust is a two-way street..If a child feels love and respect a child feels safe. If a child feels safe they are happy. If a child feels safe and is happy they don’t find negative ways of acting out. Our children deserve our attention and our respect. They may be smaller, but they do have minds and feelings. It’s our job to sculpt them. OUR JOB as PARENTS.

  4. This is the second in a long series – I hope – about these lost boys. We need not look overseas to see poverty and neglect in our midst. Poverty is an accident of birth, no doubt. What is endlessly fascinating is how some of us can be so fortunate (perhaps lucky is a better word) while others suffer a life of unnecessary humiliation. Yet we all have an image of truly broken homes and useless fathers that yes, some of your boys fit. But how can a practicing attorney, assumedly making the grade for her clients, turn a blind eye to her son’s silent, and smelly, screams for attention? Why is the school system responsible for setting this right? And what has unravelled in our society so drastically that shoes, soap, water, and food are missing from some American’s lives? Write on, madame teacher, and continue to shine a light on these precious and sadly neglected boys. I hope one day they will have the luxury of knowing how fortunate they were to have met you.

  5. Jenifer J. Corwin says:

    Thanks for this article–I found it moving and provocative. I am convinced that young Americans males as a group are at risk and, within that population, young Caucasian males are possibly the MOST disenfranchised. Home and school are the usual suspects, and dysfunction within them has to be addressed, but never before has society as a WHOLE provided such a toxic culture of disconnection in which that dysfunction can thrive–a disconnection the wages of which you are so bravely attempting to deal with and heal, boy-by-boy, in your school. I’m glad you’re taking action–in the “trenches” and on-line–yours is a voice that needs to be heard.

  6. This article is powerful. It speaks to one of many stories of our neglected humanity, thank you Suzanne. I too have had a brush too with children, primarily boys, lost boys. These are boys right under our noses everywhere that haven’t wandered across Africa to a safer place, but wander daily through the streets and nreighborhoods in these United States unloved and without direction. One of my students at 7 years old was enetering into his 15th foster home situation. I yhink we need to continue to print these syories, share with young people,SEE them, listen to them. Thank you for your words, nannette

  7. Are the boys allowed to compete anywhere else? Boys like to compete and in many schools recess is no more and even when there is recess boys aren’t allowed to play dodge ball, football, baseball etc because of law suits.

    Failing this you may try doping them up on some sort of drugs like Ritalin.

  8. Marilyn Coffey says:

    Two wonderful articles. How desperately sad it is for the children born into families that are impoverished and so dysfunctional. How sad for a young person to be born into a situation where he/she has little to hope for, little or no chance but for more of the same. Those of us from more fortunate circumstances have much to be grateful for and so few of us ever really give anything back.

    You and your principal have certainly taken on a real difficult task. You are to be commended for your efforts and the genuine good you are trying to accomplish. I am sure that as their lives progress, one or two of these children will lift themselves to a higher, more civilized plane and bury their understandable loneliness and anger, and it will have been teachers like you that have made much of the difference.

  9. Roger Durham says:

    Thanks for a great article. I see what you are doing in that classroom as noble and important. Just because “boys will be boys” does not mean that the world needs to abdicate to their bad behavior. Bullying is not just “something that happens everywhere”. It is something that happens to devastating affect on some. And to expect it, or tolerate it, or defer to it. is not acceptable. One of the failures of parenthood in this most recent generation is the willingness to define clear boudaries of acceptable interaction. If we don’t help kids create for themselves a new sense of “normal” then we defer to their worst inclinations. I find that to be both lazy and inexcusable.

    I applaud your work in that classroom. You offer something of real value to those kids.

  10. suzanne says:

    Yes, Lisa, the boys are from a wide range of culture and socio-economic positions, and yes, they live in an atmosphere of name-calling that most parents who spend the day in high school comment upon. Today, however, the names reverberate through cyber-space long after school lets out and well before it begins. Having been privy to some of the things that transpire in texts and online, I have witnessed the cruelty to which some kids are subjected. At least in the confines of a class room, we can work to provide a more positive atmosphere, as you do in your home.

    Thanks for your encouragement, Randy. I love teenagers and I’ve been fortunate to have good relationships with their parents over the years, but my own children have met the teacher you described from your son’s 2nd grade. They laugh about it now, but we all felt the pain then. You were there for him, and that was the lesson her behavior taught ~ which he will always remember.

    Daddy Files: The goal with the boys and the adults in the room is for all of us to learn how to respect and care for each other in a program designed to take us through their high school years together. Since we share the high school community outside of class we witness ~albeit slowly ~ the effect of caring reinforcement. The Power of One, if you will.

  11. I feel for these kids, I do. But if your goal is to eradicate name-calling from the adolescent experience then save yourself the trouble and just retire now.

    Kids are mean. Students will always pick on one another. Obviously parents and teachers have to work to keep it in check, but it’ll always happen. You can’t change the normal process of growing up. This is why I’m against legislating the bullying problem away. It’s a noble idea but the ability of educators, parents, police, etc to enforce it is nil. Sure it’ll lead to tougher punishments in the tragic cases of kids killing themselves because of bullying, but by then it’s too late.

    The bottom line is this is part of growing up. Some of it sucks and your heart breaks for them, but it happens to most kids and they will get over it.

  12. The idea of poverty being the cause of a hygiene problem is as suspect as saying that alcoholism and neglect are the curses of the poor.

    As far as name calling is concerned, competition is a natural part of growing up and I despise the new, kinder, gentler “participation awards” that are being handed out in lieu of recognition of performance. To me, every teacher who supports these should be handed a “lack of participation” award.

    As I understand from the article, the people at Social Services were aware of Mom’s alcoholism and Step-Dad’s lack of involvement in the family. Rather than give Johnny a new pair of shoes, Mommy needs a kick in the pampers.

    The name calling doesn’t start with kids. It begins with parents and teachers; and that is where it needs to end. The evaluation that teachers hand out during the marking period include comments such as “poor performer” and “lacking social skills” and yet our teachers are not held accountable.

    My son, in second grade, was very clingy and needy because his mother left, despite my efforts to be both mommy and daddy. I was called in several times to talk with the principal, guidance counselor and his teacher who complained constantly about my son. It became apparent, after speaking with several other parents of kids in the same class that boys received poor grades while the girls were treated like little angels. It finally ended when I and a group of other parents confronted the principal. When the teacher was called onto the carpet, she actually said, and I quote, “I don’t work well with boys.”

    Suzanne, I sincerely appreciate your efforts as a teacher. Good teachers are heroes, in my not so humble opinion. You do an admirable job in spite of a faulty system that requires you to perform miracles with the lack of tools to do so. I have a friend that spends a good portion of her salary on supplies and books and is never recompensed aside from being able to sleep at night knowing she did what she could.

    Our educational system and social programs need a complete overhaul. Let’s start with the education of our children and try to find a way to let the social programs catch up.

  13. Interesting ending to the story, as the mother of sons, as the aunt to nephews, as the sister to brothers, as a wife etc…. I am surrounded by men and boys, and name calling is a constant. Everyone knows how I feel about it, and everyone goes to great lengths to curtail the behavior in my hearing range, but the fact remains my little darlings call each other names. I also know that income has nothing to do with it. Name calling is not an isolated thing, all one has to do is walk the halls of a highschool, anyschool private or public to have their eyes opened.

  14. Leonardo Coello says:

    I believe that the name calling between boys in low income areas also has to do with self esteem and control. A boy appears to feed his self esteem if he is able to overpower another with his words. It’s a competition or a constant power struggle. Unlike children in wealthier neighborhoods who have many outlets to compete with others (Sports, arts, school) the low income kids rely on the competition of humiliation.

  15. Momofboys says:

    Interesting that Jonathon rebels in a way that not only affects his alcolholic, attorney mother, but throws him in a negative light with his peers, as well. Safer to have everyone’s negative attention than no attention at all?

  16. Interesting ending to the post. All the lonely boys are being asked to walk in new shoes not just Jonathan. His (shoes) are just tangible. And, choices they make are not random. They are borne out of how the boys have been dealt with in life by the living. So, regardless of how many new pairs opf shoes you place on the boys they will only learn to walk in them when the sum of their experiences shifts with the the aid of the five w’s.

  17. suzanne rosenwasser says:

    Interesting ending to the post. All the lonely boys are being asked to walk in new shoes not just Jonathan. His (shoes) are just tangible. And, choices they make are not random. They are borne out of how the boys have been dealt with in life by the living. So, regardless of how many new pairs opf shoes you place on the boys they will only learn to walk in them when the sum of their experiences shifts with the the aid of the five w’s.


  1. Sources…

    […]here are some links to sites that we link to because we think they are worth visiting[…]…

  2. […] second column in this series drew a comment from a reader who suggested the boys’ self-esteem suffered the effects of low […]

  3. […] part 1 of Believing in Boys, click here. Part 2, click here. Part 3, click here. Part 4, click […]

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