During my 40-plus years as a teacher, coach and community organizer, I have spent a good portion of my time dealing with angry, wounded young men, often on a one-to-one basis. When I was coaching, I always took the boys that no one else could handle; people having difficulty with their sons sometimes send them to spend a day with me at Fordham; and faculty and administrators occasionally ask me to mentor students, mostly men, who are having difficulty adjusting to the school.
I work well with such young people because I was once one of them. Although I was judged academically gifted, I grew up angry and violent. My parents hit me on a regular basis because they thought it was their only way of controlling me. From elementary school through high school, I got in fights on a regular basis in school and out, so much so that I was forced to transfer from one high school to another out of my district.
In college, I physically threatened roommates. When I got involved in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), in my graduate school years, I fought and was given responsibility for beating up right wing students trying to stop our protests and being on the front lines in conflicts with police.
As I settled into adulthood, I was exposed to, and had my actions critiqued by radical feminists, and got involved in love relationships with strong women, I began to come to grips with my anger and learned to prevent it from poisoning the lives of those around me.
I learned to anticipate and contain my rage, but I also learned something about its sources, one of which was an absence of kindness and compassion on the part of my parents, who felt relentless pressure was the best way to spur achievement and hard discipline the best way to stem rebellion.
As I got involved in teaching, and began coaching, I started applying what I had learned to young men who reminded me of myself.
Some of what eased the way to building a connection was my body language and affect which allowed them to recognize a kindred spirit, but some of it was something I would tell them, which was that no matter how outrageous they got, I would not give up on them.
They could come and hang out with me — no questions asked, any time — get something to eat, listen to music, watch television (if they were in my neighborhood) and not say a word if they weren’t ready to. If they were ready to open up, we could talk about anything they wanted to.
The other thing was physical contact, which could go from high fives, to elaborate soul handshakes, to hugs, to me putting my arm around them when they were angry. I wanted to give them the sense that when they were with me, they were protected, they were cared for, they were safe, and even, though we never used the words, loved.
It’s not that I didn’t think these troubled young men needed discipline. As a coach, or a teacher in the classroom, I exposed them to plenty of that. It’s that on a one-on-one basis, what they most needed was kindness and a space to be themselves without worrying that they would be discarded if they acted out. They were allowed to make mistakes without worrying about me running away. And guess what? That very knowledge calmed them down.
I am not saying that I was a miracle worker or master psychologist. I was a caring adult, lucky enough to pursue a career as a teacher who never forgot the wounded child inside him and reached out to other wounded children to give them confidence that they could eventually overcome their pain.
So here’s my thought: We need to have more people do this kind of thing to the wounded children who surround us, inside and outside of our schools. If we discard them, punish them, drug them, and put them behind walls, both real and invisible, their rage will return to haunt us. If we embrace them, care for them, and give them space to grow and make mistakes, some of them will find their space to happiness and security.
I am not saying that doing this with Adam Lanza would have stopped him from committing the terrible crime he did. I am suggesting that taking this approach will reduce the number of Adam Lanza’s who will haunt us in the future.
With A Brooklyn Accent
Sunday, 17 December 2012
Image of young man in hoodie courtesy Bigstock Photo