I still remember the girl everyone picked on in my 3rd grade class. I don’t remember anything I learned in that class. I barely remember the teacher’s name. I don’t remember who my best friend was or who I spent time with or much of what I did at all.
But I remember her.
She was tall. She looked older than everyone else. I realize now she probably was. Her clothes didn’t fit right and the other kids said her hair was cut like an old lady’s. They said she smelled too. I didn’t think she did but that didn’t matter because everyone said she did. She was quiet and didn’t participate much in anything. No one knew her family or where she came from before 3rd grade. But she didn’t seem very good at school. When she was called on to read aloud, she struggled and stuttered and sounded things out.
The other kids called her dumb.
I remember it 30 years later. The earth has traveled 17 and a half billion miles since then and that memory has traveled them with me—the tall girl with the old lady hair whose clothes didn’t fit right that everyone said was smelly and dumb.
One day she wasn’t in school any more. She was gone.
A few years later, I think I was 12, I saw her again. I was at a friend’s house. He didn’t go to my school in third grade and didn’t know the girl as I knew her; as my third-grade classmate. He knew her as the girlfriend of the man who lived in the house next to him.
I saw her bringing in groceries.
She looked much older than us by then. Maybe she was by a year or two. Maybe she was fourteen. Maybe 13. And she was with him; a grown man with kids of his own that she was also caring for. She recognized me. I could tell. But she never said a word to me. I didn’t say anything about her to anyone either. I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe it was something in the way she looked at me. She was scared of me, not him.
I didn’t want to ruin it for her.
Somewhere after being bullied in school she disappeared from the life of a child and ended up doing the shopping and cooking and all the other things one imagines that the woman of the house does. All that was unimaginable about that was her own.
No one else’s.
I remember the bully from my school too. He didn’t discriminate. He bullied everyone. He was big and angry. He cried when he got mad. Mostly he was just plain cruel though. That thing they tell you about punching the bully back and he’ll leave you alone didn’t work with him. He just punched back harder.
None of the other kids knew where he lived. Or who his family was. We just knew him. And then one year he was gone too. And no one thought we’d ever see him again.
We did though.
His end was was very public. Eventually, he’d taken to beating up elderly women for their purses. Eventually he murdered one in the parking lot of a restaurant. At his trial, his mother begged the court for mercy. She said he was a good man, just caught up in drugs addiction. I knew better. Whatever made him the way he was, it wasn’t new.
He was mean as a snake his whole life.
There’s a saying. Hurt people hurt people. It’s true. And it’s a valuable thing to remember, especially when dealing with kids. But there’s something incomplete about it. It implies some symmetry about the world that’s simply not there. Hurt people don’t hurt people.
For the most part, hurt men hurt people.
The wounds we inflict on each other, the ones that time alone won’t heal, are almost all dealt at the hands of men.
93% of all murders, rapes and non-prostitution sex related offenses are perpetrated by men. 97% of mass shootings are carried out by men. 93% of federal prison inmates are men.
77% of the time we men kill each other. The overwhelming majority of women that are assaulted raped or murdered are done so by men as well though. Of all the humans in the world who could kill a woman, half the time, it’s her intimate partner—husband, boyfriend, ex—that does it. Usually they’re shot.
The contrast in the stories I shared above is intentional. I don’t know what was happening in the background of the lives of that little girl and that little boy when no one was around and no one was looking. What I know is where they ended up. One of the hardest realities to swallow, as a man, is the asymmetrical nature of the poor outcomes of troubled childhoods. This is one place where it’s obvious that the outcomes, at least, for men and women are very different. Hurt women may hurt people. But they don’t often hurt people the way that men do. Their tragedies are their own. As for us men, we take far too many others with us.
I’m the father of three boys; three boys that one day will be men. And the only perspective that I’m interested in, relative to the discussion of men and violence or toxic masculinity, is my responsibility to the world for who they become. And what becomes of them. And the fates of the people whose lives they touch.
Contrary to Johnny Cash songs, my job isn’t to teach my sons the hard lessons of life. Life will take care of that for me. There’s enough pain and loss and heartbreak coming to them; a lifetime’s worth to teach them about the truly hard things that I will never be able to.
As a father, my job is something different.
My place in this world, the one no one else can fill, is to teach my boys that they are loved. And that they have worth. And that the world is full of people worthy of the same love and value that I show them. My job is to teach them to see themselves in the suffering of others. To teach them strength through service, not dominance, bravado or violence.
I do need to teach them accountability, of course. But that’s best taught by example; by watching me go to work every day, come home and treat their mother and those around me with respect and to honor my responsibilities and to admit when I’m wrong and apologize.
The world will hammer them for their mistakes. My job is to show them the right way.
The stakes are high for the fathers of boys. It’s worth taking a moment from time to time, to say it out loud.