I’m not so scared for my boy anymore. Not like I used to be. Not compared to, say, his final year of preschool, when I anxiously devoured Dave Cullen’s excellent book Columbine in a mad and desperate search for clues and validation, all because he’d been knocking over the same kid’s blocks at preschool every day. Knocking over another 4-year-old’s blocks…mass shooting…turns out I was missing a few key pieces in there, but honestly the way our (entirely white) preschool community was responding to The Boy’s raging glimmers of as-yet-undiagnosed ASD, I can’t really fault myself for the fears.
later, as a middle school special ed teacher, I realize now exactly how
predictably common that response is to students with disabilities like ASD,
ADHD, and PTSD. It’s chilling how often I’ve heard the term “sociopath” tossed
around lightly and wildly inaccurately by teachers and even a speech therapist
once (not at my current school, thankfully). And every year there’s at least
one anxious mom or grandma or dad of a kid who’s basically fine who comes to meet with me before the school year begins, shell-shocked
and sometimes tearful and a little bit broken from having been made to believe
that their child was fundamentally Bad. Sometimes the students show up
believing it about themselves, too.
to be sure, my students can get up to some shenanigans. I don’t excuse these
behaviors and neither do their families. We hold these students to high
expectations, and we teach and re-teach and coach and practice. We chart their
progress and celebrate their successes. We hold them accountable with love. Years
ago, one of my boys made me so angry, and I said, with such fierceness in my
voice “You are SMART and KIND!” Instantly he stopped fronting and slumped into
tears…maybe because he’d needed so badly to hear it. Maybe because he knew at
the root of it all, it was true.
the wake of yet another devastating school shooting, I’m seeing a lot of
conversations unfold out of our fears. It’s necessary and productive, of
course, and I hope some good will come of it. But there’s a new little thread
in the collective narrative that has me a feeling a bit uneasy – friendly admonitions
here and there in my social media feeds encouraging us to raise boys who, you
know, won’t grow up to be mass
shooters. Raise your sons to be sweet. Raise your sons to be gentle.
you know, on behalf of my fellow mothers of boys with ASD, ADHD, and PTSD, I’ll
just say thanks for that. It might
never have occurred to us to worry and fear and shame ourselves over our sons’ behaviors
if it weren’t for the steady voice of concerned townspeople waving their
pitchforks of good intentions. Remember when they used to blame autism on
“refrigerator mothers”? Honestly, why even bother trying to scientifically
disprove such bullshit at this point; our culture is so determined to
oversimplify and seek a cartoon villain to pin all the scary things in the
If you’ve never had to sit in a school administrator’s office wearing the Cone
of Shame with your sobbing child while they tell you all about some
unbelievably ridiculous thing he did or said that you absolutely DID NOT raise him
to do or say…well, have a gold star and a cookie and take a moment to be
grateful for your good fortune. I promise you, gentle readers, I never set out
to raise a boy who would knock over somebody else’s blocks any more than you
did. No one does. I don’t excuse it, and I have absolutely held us both
accountable for his transgressions over the years. But it’s a rocky road, two
steps forward and seven steps back always, constantly. The judgment and
speculation about our boys and the likelihood that they’ll go fabulously wrong?
It’s not helping.
have been supportive teachers in my son’s life who have seen and embraced his
strengths and used that as a starting point for their work with him. And there
have been teachers so preoccupied with vigilance for some imaginary evil that
they’ve mistakenly seen it in him. Guess which teachers helped him make the
whole business of “Holy moly, be careful you don’t accidentally raise a school
shooter” is a slippery slope, my friends. We are setting ourselves up to hurt
and to fail. Worst of all, we’re setting ourselves up to look at our young men
with suspicion and fear and maybe even self-fulfilling prophecies.
by all means, report incidents of concern to your school principals or even the
police. But once you’ve reported it, let the administrators and police officers
do their jobs and don’t pile on with fear and judgment. The young man you
reported hasn’t done anything yet. Maybe it’s not too late for him.
when it comes to the young man’s mother, please trust – you’re just going to
have to trust, because she might not give you the satisfaction of showing it
publicly – that this hypothetical young man’s hypothetical mother’s heart is
already broken into pieces upon pieces, because she was quite sure that she DID
raise him to be gentle and sweet. Consider the possibility that being gentle
and sweet and seeking a way out of one’s misery through horrific violence might
not be mutually exclusive.
is complicated. Human beings are complicated.
There’s no such thing as good guys and bad guys. We’re all of us just a pile of
wounded humanity swinging from branch to branch, trying like hell to survive
and save face.
I said to my student all those years ago: He – whoever “he” is – is smart and kind. If we’re going to be vigilant
about anything, let’s be vigilant for the goodness in our boys instead of the
evil. SEE the sweetness in them in the first place. Nurture it. Model it in
your response to them, even when their behaviors upset you. Isolating troubled
children and pushing them further and further away is probably the most
dangerous thing we can do. Let’s pull them in while we still can.