Saturday, February 24, 2018

Smart and Kind

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.

Years 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.  

And, 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.

In 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.



And, 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 world onto.

Look. 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.

There 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 most progress?

This 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.

Yes, 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. 

And 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.  

Life 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.

Like 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.  

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