Emerging from a Boyhood of Violence

Dear Julian,

At last year's Educational Change Workshop you asked me to write an article about the violence in my younger life, including my school life. It's been hard getting started, but this is my third draft. I hope it's helpful. I cried pretty hard while writing the final draft, including right now. The brutality I experienced at elementary school was an extension of the violence in my home, where my father regularly beat us. In the middle of my kindergarten year I was slapped hard in the face by my teacher, I think because I said the word "penis," which was okay to say around my family. I remember being hurt, but not outraged. I went into a six-year period of confusion and being "out of it," which still can stifle me around authority when righteous anger would be a more appropriate response.

I had repeated fist fights in grade school, including one in third grade when a boy was saying nasty things about my sister, whom I was protective of. I broke my hand on his head and had to go to the doctor for a splint. I felt victorious returning to the classroom with my "badge of courage." I don't remember the adult supervisors on the playground being involved in any of our games or intervening when necessary.

Bullying by older children was a simple fact of playground and cafeteria life. One older, larger boy insisted I clean up the mess he left after eating lunch. When I refused, he threatened me until the attendant made him leave, but not before he made a pact to get me. I ate lunch in the library for a week to give him time to find a new victim. Another time, while playing a yard game called "kill the kid with the ball" I accidentally tackled one of my teammates who drew a switchblade knife on me and chased me around the yard. Numerous times I had my bicycle ripped out from under me on the way to or from school. I became very vigilant and harbored detailed fantasies of revenge. I had so much pent-up anger!

Sports became an outlet. We played tackle football during recess and after school. I was big for my age. In retrospect, I remember enjoying the violence, the impact, and hurting others so they'd be afraid of me. I played football all through junior high and high school, revering my coaches, hanging onto every biting criticism or shred of praise that came my way. I can remember great details of the relationships I had with various coaches and how I would do anything for them, including hurting players on the other team. I'm crying while I write this. I'll never forget the head coach gleefully welcoming me back to the bench after I viciously blind-sided the other team's quarterback (he had to leave the game), forcing a fumble.

I would do anything for the coaches, including ignoring pain in order to prove my worthiness (earning the right to a position in the field). During practices and games they insisted that we "give up our bodies" and "suck up the pain." This was consistent with the sports-based novels I read, from boxing to basketball to football-the winners were those who could ignore pain and keep on going. This has been both helpful and disastrous. As an adult I've backpacked in beautiful places, ridden my bicycle great distances, and done other difficult tasks because of my being in good physical condition and being able to not stop as soon as there was a minor ache. On the other hand, I now suffer from chronic low back pain as a result of not being able to let an injury heal-I keep re-injuring my low back by trying to "prove" my worth as a man and my ability to contribute. I decided not to play football as a high school senior, which was a difficult but important decision. (I still have dreams about begging the coaches to take me back in the middle of the season.) I had made some new friends whose lives revolved around music instead of sports, so the transition wasn't too tough, although I was teased and threatened by my ex-teammates.

This all coincided with escalating violence at home-my father beating us and my mother. When I was fifteen they separated for the last time and got divorced. I don't remember much of that whole period. My way of dealing with all the irrationality was to leave, mentally and physically. Not surprisingly, closeness between my family members is not an easy thing. Significant for me is a long-standing silence between me and my father, which is an exact replica of his relationship with his father. I still use counseling sessions to figure out next steps, although at some point soon I'm going to have to either pursue him or completely let go of him.

Back to school: I now teach half-time kindergarten in a public school. One of the benefits of teaching young children is that the violent social conditioning of boys, especially on the playground, hasn't occurred. Except for the effects of television and domestic violence, my kindergartners show each other great respect. Not surprisingly, I've become "comfortable" with this age group. When I previously taught children in grades two to five, I found nothing more challenging to my rational mind than the boys beating and bullying each other, especially boys younger than themselves. My other half-time job is with home-schoolers. I must tell you that I see very little violence, threats, and competition between these children. I wonder if not having playground time has anything to do with it.

I want to end with some questions on the topic:

  • What will parents and teachers need to discharge in order to see this violent training for what it is?
  • What can we do to quickly and thoroughly interrupt the violent training of young boys?
  • How can we be prepared to handle the anger of adults whose violence we interrupt?
  • How can we stop boys from hurting and intimidating each other?
  • How can we distinguish between healthy rigor and harmful competition that creates winners and losers?
  • How can we train adults to play with children on the playground, so they can really be in there, seeing what's really going on?
  • How do we do all this in family settings? How do we do it in a supportive way that has immediate benefits to the parent?
  • How do we respond to men who say, "Why should I stop hitting my son? I was hit a lot and turned out just fine."?

Ben Lev
Sebastopol, California, USA


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00