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.”