Boys acting out their given roles

March 19, 2000|By Rachel Eisler

WHEN YOU READ about a school shooting, it's safe to assume the perpetrator was a boy. And that may be the most tragic given of all.

That all of the school shootings have been perpetrated by boys isn't surprising. But what is surprising is our society's deadly double assumption that both boys' aggression and guns are somehow inevitabilities of American culture.

We actively neglect boys by assuming that their aggressive behavior is a "natural" male prerogative because in so doing, we give ourselves permission to be passive adults in the face of their actions.

The boy who wields the gun is also a victim of American society's cumulative accepting of ambivalence about aggression, of our inability to provide and value alternative models of behavior.

Plaintively, people argue that, since license, registration and driving tests are required for car ownership, so shouldn't we require the same for guns? Yet even in this analogy, we are grasping retroactively at a reasonableness that seems almost surreal in its sanity.

No Dan'l Boone dream

We have been asleep and are only now waking up from a coonskin-hatted Daniel Boone dream of boys stalking deer in some nostalgic wilderness of the Second Amendment.

It seems no coincidence that, as instances of gun violence in suburban, predominantly white schools have escalated, more books have been written about the need to raise responsible, responsive boys and at the same time, how boys' needs are not being met.

Yet more often than not, what galvanizes people (white people) to indignation, including this writer, is the demographic of white boys shooting guns in the "secure" havens of schools, not the gang violence of urban turf wars. It comes to be the final measure of something spun awry in this sick mix of boys and guns, that as a white woman, I don't question black male violence with the same degree of outrage and loss. My race-based fatalism is, in its own way, part of the larger problem I am describing.

How do you change something that seems so intractable and connected? One way is to aggressively challenge that very assumption of "naturalness" and inevitability for urban black boys and suburban white boys alike.

When Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed and demanded an egalitarian America, he could do so only by actively imagining an alternative, insisting that it must be realized because the cost of denying it would be too great. When Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, she rejected the daily personal humiliations of the segregated status quo and demanded an alternative reality. Both of these are models of radical action that we as parents, teachers and citizens need to emulate to combat gun violence.

Robbed of strength?

But however much we may talk in the wake of these shootings about wanting to sensitize boys, of their hidden, volatile fragility, our other lurking all-too-American fear is that, if we did sensitize them, we would somehow deprive them of some essential strength by requiring them to abide by the same standards of civility and sensitivity that we expect of girls.

Perhaps in some warped way, we secretly imagine that cultivating boys is a zero-sum game -- that if we add to the "snips and snails and puppy dog tails" something essential would be lost -- as if enlarging our expectations of them would necessarily diminish or deprive them. Until we accept that these shootings are and will continue to be a direct measure of the cost of perpetuating a deadly, divisive double standard for girls and boys, for boys of every class and color, nothing will change.

Unless we reject the status quo that deprives boys of an essential part of their humanity, and supplies them with the only weapons they think they need, these shootings will continue.

Rachel Eisler is chair of the English department at Bryn Mawr School.

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