In Which it Gets Personal

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, my internet start page is the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s website. I switched from CNN back in 2006. That was, if one will recall, when that network willingly showed, and re-showed, and then showed some more, the Al Qaeda films of American soldiers being shot by snipers in Iraq and elsewhere. They’d announced they’d made and released the films in the hope of influencing the outcome of the 2006 mid-term elections. And CNN enlisted in their goals (successfully, too). I also wanted to use the newspaper to keep my German skills from atrophying to the vanishing point.

Among the many things I find interesting about reading the articles on that site (unfortunately I seldom have time to read more than one or two in a day) is that from time to time they’ll have an article on some theme or issue that’s also current here in America. Only it will not be examined from the reference point of anything having to do with America. Principally this means that their treatment of these issues is pretty much free from distracting baggage like the racial implications of Issue X or Solution Y. There’s no such thing as a surviving aboriginal population in Central Europe to raise all the issues that ours does. While there are immigration issues over there (and boy howdy! are there ever), they’re by and large not illegal immigration issues, and so you don’t have this enormous group of people who, by their very residence, constitute a criminal class (by “class” I mean “a group discernible by its commonly shared attribute X which is not shared by people not of that group”). 

I recall once reading about a study – and it’s been so long now I can’t recall whether it was just within Germany or Europe-wide; I seem to recall the latter – that was done to ask and answer the question of what varying measurable inputs correlated positively with measurable results in the school classroom. It was fascinating. They found that most of the nostrums advanced by the “education” establishment, like smaller class size, higher pay for teachers, more teachers per student, overall spending per student, longer school years, longer school days, spending on gee-gaws in the classroom, and so forth, had nearly no identifiably positive effect on measurable student achievement. Wow. I mean, just wow. Unless you accept that European children are biologically wired to learn differently than Americans, what does that say about the incessant demands to pour ever-greater sums down the public “education” rat hole here at home? 

Reading that site also serves the glumly-encouraging purpose of reminding one that we do not blunder alone, nor are we necessarily the inventors of every crazy notion that boils to the surface. 

At any rate, I also recall reading, within the past year or so, an article about the feminization of the school systems. By which is meant a systematic hostility to males and male behavior, and the effect that this shift in outlook has had on its targets. My antennae went up when I saw that article for two reasons. The first is that there is increasing attention being paid to the growing observable tendency of the structural and normative environments of the American school to treat as quasi-criminal common behaviors that I grew up in the 1970s recognizing to be ordinary male juvenile behavior. The Blogfather regularly links to articles, interviews, and books treating of this problem.  Let’s be clear that it is a major problem.  The more hostile the school environment becomes to boys, the worse they do and the further they fall behind.  The further behind, the less they’re able to achieve later in life and the lower their chances – given the female behavioral fact of not just assortative but hypergamous mating – of forming stable families to raise the next generation, the males of whom then not only have to grow up being told they’re psychotic violent sexual predators because they made the mistake of standing in the Penis Line, but also will so grow up without positive male role models, and so forth. 

The other reason I read that article carefully is because I have three boys. Right now they’re eleven and a half, just over ten, and seven and a half. They’re all in the same private, Roman Catholic school, at least for the time being. As a Catholic school this one is pretty laid back. Nominally we’re Protestant, and there are Jewish and Hindu children there as well. I’d suppose a majority of the children are in fact R.C., but I’d be surprised if it were a large majority. At any rate, from an instructional standpoint we’ve been absolutely thrilled to bits with the place. Our oldest especially presents some challenges to traditional lock-step instruction, and being free from the strictures of government regulation the school has done a splendid job accommodating him. We are both profoundly grateful for the chance they were willing to give him, when no one else would.  I mean that.  No matter how the story I’m about to share plays out, I will always recognize that school for what it was willing to do for my family

Our middle child has a pretty pronounced case of Middle Child. He feels very close to his older brother (they’re just barely seventeen months apart), sometimes we suspect to the point of near-idolization. That’s not to say they don’t get good and pissed off at each other, from both directions, every so often. But when No. 2 is deprived of No. 1’s company he really feels it keenly. No. 2 is also close to No. 3, even though there are almost exactly 30 months between them. All three brothers play with their Legos and other toys together, they engage together in sundry imaginative play (and narration, too; they can go on and on and on about these perfectly imaginary and incredibly detailed worlds; the ancient bards who could recite hours of Greek poetry from memory don’t have much on my boys), and . . . they rough-house. All three of them get into it from time to time, but the most frequent dyad is what we can call the 2-3 split. It’s hard to tell sometimes who the instigator is. Sometimes No. 2 just seems to get bored and figure it’s time to come off the turn-buckles onto No. 3. But a great deal of the time No. 3 will go out of his way to stir up his next older brother. It’s not at all unusual for me to be awakened on a weekend morning by the concussion of our house’s frame as someone’s body slams onto the floor. No. 3 will usually end up howling to the heavens about whatever. To listen to him you’d think he was being torn limb from limb. And then you look at his face and he’s smiling through it all. Go figure. But from time to time they get undeniably out of hand, someone passes a serious lick, and when they do it’s time to squash things. Mommy tends to negotiate a peace process with them; daddy goes for the Carthaginian Peace approach to matters. Twenty minutes later they’re sitting side-by-side in the same armchair, collaboratively playing MineCraft. 

By any measure it’s fair to say that No. 2 is very physical in his expression of “What’s Going on in My Head.” He’s affectionate, and it does a father’s heart great joy to see him roll around on the floor with his grandparents’ dachshund getting his face polished. As with all our family’s dachshunds, she’s extremely affectionate herself (we’ve only had one who ever met a stranger), but even by that standard it’s obvious that No. 2 is Her Special Boy. And he just laps that stuff up. Unfortunately, he’s also very physical in expressing “I’m upset,” or “I’m bored,” or “I’ve enjoyed about enough of your presence.” He also has a pronounced speech impediment. We’ve ruled out any structural difficulty; he’s just got a lisp and problems with his “r.” I grew up with other children and I know what has to go on when the adults aren’t there to stop it. No. 2 also has been diagnosed with dysgraphia, which is a difficulty in expressing oneself coherently in words. It’s not dyslexia, although the two almost invariably are found together; in a way it’s the opposite. Dyslexia results in the printed word making a jumbled impression on the mind’s receptors; dysgraphia results in the words you want to say coming out a jumbled mess. So let’s add some serious frustration issues to his speech impediment, and filter all that through a physical kid who just happens to be a Middle Child. 

After several “incidents” at school involving other children (I’ll observe that most of them seemed to be mostly-manufactured “incidents,” in which the seriousness of, you know, what actually happened was more a function of adult hyperventilation than any serious conflict issues between the children involved), last year we put him on Concerta. I was opposed at the time, largely because God only knows what the long-term effects of this drug are on a child’s developing brain. For the time being, however, it seems to have the desired effect of making him much less apt physically to express what’s eating at him.

At least, it did until one day a couple of weeks ago. The boys were in after care (their mother picks them up after she gets off work; I work 35 miles away and it’s just not a realistic option for me to make a habit of it), and the boys had been there by that time for getting on for two hours. No. 2 got a little bored and decided it was time to mix it up with No. 3. So he goes and seeks out his brother and they end up where little boys on playgrounds have ended up since time immemorial: on the ground. No. 2 has No. 3 on the ground, and at some point got his hands about his neck. No. 3’s hollering that he “can’t breathe,” which one knows to have been untrue because he was able to say it. That evaluative process is beyond your typical first-grader, however, and on this occasion it was beyond the first-grader who is No. 3’s buddy and who was witnessing this scuffle. So – and you’ve got to hand it to him; his motivation was simon-pure and his guts beyond reproach; it was his judgment that let him down – this kid decides he’s got to rescue his friend. And so he passes a lick on No. 2. 

Now, let’s freeze-frame this vignette for a moment and examine it from No. 2’s perspective. There he and his brother are, disporting themselves as is their wont. No. 3 is howling to the world and possibly even half-laughing while doing it. “Oh! I’m dying! You’re killing me! I can’t breathe!!” You get the picture. And then suddenly along comes some stranger and jumps No. 2. What is the normal reaction? Why yes, one defends oneself. He put a scratch on this kid’s face, which I actually find the most alarming part about the whole story. No. 2 is old enough to know how to make a fist and use it as designed; scratching is for girls. 

I will here observe that there is a legally-recognized term of art for this little kid who thought he was doing a good turn: officious intermeddler. Two of the first rules of survival on playgrounds are (i) if it’s not your fight, stay out of it; and (ii) never get between two family members. If you really must get yourself mixed up in it, do so in the context of Going to Get Adult Assistance. 

Cue the Concerned Adults. Mommy gets called at work to come pick up No. 2, which she does. But from here it gets worse. The other child’s mother goes stooging into the principal and assistant principal, demanding that Something Be Done about this Horribly Dangerous Child. Yes. This mother truly believes No. 2 presents an imminent danger of severe physical harm to his fellow students. So the powers that be call in my wife and they have a Great Big Meeting about what to do about No. 2. The obvious step of kicking him out of after-care for the balance of the year is already done. They want a Formal Written Plan.  What else is expected, short of kicking him all the way out of the school? That is, of course, what Intermeddler’s Mommy is effectively demanding. The assistant principal, who used to be principal of a parochial high school up north, told the wife that while he’s familiar with the roughness of boys, he’s never seen a child so “persistently violent” as No. 2. If he was able to hang around a high school of boys and not see it, then either he was teaching a bunch of nancy-boys, or he was singularly unobservant, or he’s looking back with rose-colored glasses. By high school most boys of average or better intelligence have sense enough to settle matters out of view of the authorities.  And do so.

A few days later this mother and the wife had a prolonged telephone conversation, which is why I know so much about the position this woman is taking and why. I heard my wife ask her whether her boys (very awkwardly, her older boy happens to be No. 1’s only real friend in school) ever fight. No. Well. Ain’t that just sweeter than all get-out? This mother expressed the opinion that her children “ought to be able to go to school without having to be exposed to what her child saw” going on between No. 2 and No. 3 that day. She allowed that this school “is not a special-needs school.” Huh? Two brothers getting straight on the playground makes one of them a “special needs” child? What color is the sun on this woman’s planet? By the way, she’s a doctor and very successful at it, so she can’t even claim stupidity as explanation for her over-reaction. She already several months ago put the ka-bosh on her older boy coming to stay the night with No. 1, on the stated reason (No. 1 got this out of his friend) that she was afraid that her precious little chickabiddy might be harmed by No. 2. She also told the wife that she’s been “documenting” these things about No. 2.

Really. You can’t make this up. This woman who’s got a family to raise and a medical practice to attend to can’t find anything better to do with her time than play NKVD with my child. Assemble a dossier on him. Maybe I should get on and order her their largest size Dick Tracy Sooper Sleuth kit. Let her prowl about our back yard with an oversized magnifying glass and note pad.  Jesus Christ and General Jackson!  This gal’s got issues

I started school in September, 1971 at a tiny Catholic school near here (there were six children in my third-grade class, and two grades per room). Most of my classmates were pretty rough-and-tumble. The overwhelming majority of them lived on farms, had been up for several hours before school doing chores, and the boys not infrequently came to school still smelling a bit like cow shit and diesel fuel. By the fourth grade most of the boys had been given at least one shotgun for Christmas (most frequently a .410, although the .22-cal. was also a favorite). Back then recess was a big chunk of the middle of the day, unless it was actually coming a tornado outside. Fighting was a big part of what went on. Some of it more in earnest than others, but you know what? We learned to take a lick and pay it back, with interest where appropriate. I still remember one of my most glorious shots, ever. This group of little peckerwoods, most of them a grade behind me, had been all over me all day long. This one was actually standing behind me and must have been confused when I started my wind-up from a full back-turned-to-the-target position, because he took no evasive action at all. I caught him right under the eye socket and literally lifted him off the ground. Not bad for a fourth-grader.  That wrapped up proceedings for that day. And you know what? I went on to graduate from an Ivy League law school and he’s got a Ph.D. in microbiology. One of the other little boogers that day has been a state park ranger for decades and adores it. 

I know a family of four brothers. They’d get into fights that lasted all afternoon long. Fights that involved people’s heads going through sheet-rock. The oldest went on to serve two tours in Delta Force, was a ranking officer in the 5th Special Operations Group when they took down the Taliban in 2001, and retired as a Lt. Colonel. His next younger brother is a full-bird Air Force flight surgeon and was recently personal physician to the Air Force chief of staff. The third brother is a surgeon in Indiana. The youngest brother, after a very rough spell, settled down and is now a lawyer. 

I know two other families of brothers who lived right next door to each other. They’d get in BB-gun fights, both in teams and every-man-for-himself. Ditto with roman candles.  They’d play chicken with darts (the object being not to dodge until the last split second; occasionally someone took a dart in the pectoral . . . and so it goes). Yes dear, I know all that was stupid, and not something as a parent you’d permit if you caught wind of it. But my point is not that it wasn’t dangerous; my point is that having done so was neither evidence of, nor did it accurately predict, a violent, warped personality in any of them. One is now a Baptist minister. One is an elder in his church (granted, he went through a spell when he was rougher than a cob; I once drove his car home for him after he’d been stopped for his ninth D.U.I; he much later married his high school sweetheart and she jerked a knot in that ass for him). One is a senior manager with the IRS. One is very a successful commercial and industrial insurance agent, the chairman of our local water and wastewater utility, and a very successful (and highly inspirational) coach of youth basketball teams. In fact his teams of half-pint little redneck boys used to go up the road and routinely kick the shit out of teams of snotty little rich kids like this doctor woman’s. A twenty point margin was a close game. 

Another couple of brothers I knew were wild as bucks growing up, as they say. One was such a frequent customer with the city court that the local force didn’t even have to ask for his license number when they’d pull him over. The younger brother was truly off the reservation. He’d disappear into the woods (this is while he was still in junior high, by the way) in the middle of the night with a bow-and-arrow and a bottle of whiskey. They too would get into epic battles with each other. The older is now a principal in one of the largest health insurance agencies in the state; the younger has not had the occupational success of his brother, but he’s a more-or-less law-abiding guy and is precisely the kind of person you’d want by your side in a foxhole. 

We grew up playing Army. As in bang-bang; you’re dead. I’m going to sneak around the flank and wipe you out. This stick is my flame-thrower and you’re toast, son. And so forth. Interestingly enough, we never played Vietnam, even though it was on the news every night. It was always World War II, and we had to take turns being the Germans because no one wanted to be them. When the city ran public sewer service through our area of town in the early 70s, the whole place was trenched up, with enormous piles of stinking red clay to match. So we had dirt clod wars. 

In the winter (this was before Geo. W. Bush, so we got to have winters back then, dontcha know), when school would be out for weeks on end, with all the streets coated in several inches of hard-packed ice and the entire state out of salt, we’d go sledding down the enormous hills that are a feature of our part of the world. And we’d have sled fights. Loser ends up in the ditch, and everyone goes for hot soup afterwards. When it wasn’t snow and ice we played football. Sometimes touch but not infrequently tackle. In the fall when the ditches were full of mountains of leaves we used to play a game where one kid would have the football, and the other two or three would try to keep him from getting from one end of the ditch to the other. 

This woman, with her irrational hang-ups, is determined to destroy my son’s life. Get kicked out of this private school and he’ll never get into another. Put him in public school and, with his educational needs and speech impediment, he’s going to sink. There’s no way a public school system can be set up to address his needs. She’s determined to do this not because of anything he’s done (so she says) but because of what she’s afraid he might do. Might. As in, might not. I wonder what’s going to happen to her own children when they’re out beyond the playground and they’ve got to “be exposed to” a great deal of things much more significant and profoundly disturbing than watching a couple of brothers adjust affairs between themselves. 

I really want to write a letter to the principal (they call him a headmaster, if memory serves), outline my recollections of growing up wearing a penis, and point out to him that, using males raised doing things my way (and my sons’), we (i) won our independence; (ii) fought and won a civil war to end chattel slavery; (iii) fought and won two world wars and a cold war; (iv) built the world’s premier transportation system; (v) broke to the plow a virgin continent; and, (vi) put men on the moon. When they can point to similar achievements by several generations of constructive eunuchs who’ve been raised to think and act like fourth-grade girls, then I’ll accept that their standards of behavior for my sons might have some validity.  Until then, I vote for my way. 

Of course, if I were to write that letter the result would only be all three of my boys get uninvited back for next year, and as badly out of water as No. 2 would be in a public school, No. 1 would be destroyed by the experience.  By a small irony, it would be No. 3 who would grin and go on.  He’s a born politician.  When he was in pre-K at this school, it seemed like almost everyone in school, all the way up to the 8th graders, knew him by name, and he them.  He’s just a happy-go-lucky kid, and his wild mop of hair and flair for whimsical language (he nicknamed chicken marsala, which my boys love, “chicken marsupial,” as a four-year-old) perfectly capture his personality.

What kind of men are we teaching our boys to be?

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