Getting Punched in the Face: On Masculinity, Recess, and the Tragic Irony of Boys being Boys
It is me then David then Brandon sitting on the bench outside, but there is nothing happening on the yard. Recess ended 10 minutes ago. There is dead silence in the middle of the open spaces of the school except for David hollering in grief. He is crying so hard that he is unable to catch his breath. His back heaves up and down as his body convulses with his emotional outburst. His head is also bobbing side to side as if he is fishing and is in a battle to pull in a catch, except there is no fishing rod, there are no fish. He is actually in contention with his own body. He will slow down for a few seconds and then it will start all over again. His shirt is drenched in tears. His hands stay on his knees almost to stabilize himself, as if he raised them, he would just keel over from his emotional catharsis. This has been going on for the past 7 minutes, a long time for crying episodes. Brandon is sitting next to him stone silent and staring forward with a stunned look on his face, mouth slightly open and his nose is twitching as if it is its own autonomous appendage He is in his own world, almost like a trance. His hair is matted from sweat to his freckled forehead and he is having no reaction whatsoever to David’s hysterics. We are waiting. We are waiting together. We are waiting for David to calm down. We are waiting for David’s parents to arrive and we are waiting for just the right moment.
David has just punched Brandon in the face. It was not an errant elbow during a football game, or even an open handed push that lost its mark. It was a fully closed five fingers, arm cocked back into a tight rubber band effect that went hurling sharp, fast and quick into Brandon’s eye.
If you have ever been punched in the face, it is an experience like no other. I have been punched in the face three times in my life, all before the age of 12. I remember every single detail of every time it happened. Where I was. WHY I got punched in the face. Where in my face the punch landed. From what direction the fist came and of course the reaction which was always the same, stunned and unable to speak. Dazed and confused, but not in a good peaceful feeling sort of way. The physical pain is the least of it; although, there is an important reason why getting punched in the face has such high currency. And rarely happens. David and Brandon are 10 and 9 respectively. I have seen full grown teenagers in the middle of a school hallway in a fight. A seasoned educator knows when students are rough housing and when there is true aggressive tension hovering over a gathering of kids. But sometimes, you are 30 seconds late to the main event. When it ended in a punch to the face, the victim lay on the ground, crumpled up. The results can be deadly.
They (boys) need to learn how to talk and then talk again. As if what they said about their thoughts and feelings and emotions actually mattered. Which it does. Because, otherwise, what they tend to end up doing is punching someone in the face.
Also, one of the first subjects you learn about in cognitive neuroscience is human beings' relationship to their own senses. For any species, the senses are a critical way in which we interpret and react to the world around us. We take in information and need to sort all of it out, taking the bits and pieces that we need and discarding or ignoring the rest because otherwise we would be dysfunctional and crazy. Taking in every sight and smell and noise would render us incapacitated. Our brain needs to find a coherent system to sort through the millions of data points to make decisions and function coherently and safely.* (*SOURCE: See Below) For humans, the eyes are a critical piece of sensory equipment. When early neuroscientists gave us a physical representation of the human senses and their relevance to human functionality, it often depicted a human head with huge, exaggerated eyes bulging out. Of the five senses, sight represents approximately 70% of our needed functionality to survive. It is not an equal distribution of work or importance. That is why getting punched in the face is so frightening and creates such terror of vulnerability. We need to protect our precious senses at all cost, and when they are exposed by physical assault, we are in particular jeopardy. A shiner or black eye is actually no Hollywood punch line, it is no joke.
The fight took place because Brandon is annoying. It is not his fault that he was punched in the face. He was, unfortunately, skipped a grade in kindergarten, but his social skills did not skip with him. He is constantly trying to make friends, constantly picking the wrong friends, and constantly imagining that some day, the way in which he tries to interact is going to make him friends. Sitting on the bench that day is actually one of the first times I have seen Brandon with his mouth shut, not talking. He not only follows other boys around all day long but that is not the worst of it. He is always talking and talking right next to them, giving them no physical space, and right into their ears. He just rambles. I can be next to him at any given point during the day and he is pontificating on something like some 1920’s radio talk show host. I have still yet to figure out what he is actually talking about all day long. He does this in class (when I visit his classroom, there is always the low level hum of Brandon which everyone has learned to ignore), he does it at lunch, he does it at line up and dismissal, and he does it at recess.
Recess for boys is the sanctum sanctorum; it is holy ground and is to be respected as such. For most boys, it is physical lunacy. They wait for it all morning. They talk about it at home the night before. They dream about it in their sleep and of all the profound victories they will experience. And, all of that male physical expression in games and sports and competitiveness is a big fat mask for wanting to connect. The recess yard just happens to be on their terms. We give them few words, we let them grow up being admired and praised from afar and all they really want is a good friend, or a good group of friends. And, for many of them, this is just too much to express, too many words, so they get out there and feast on kick ball, shoot hoops until exhaustion, or plan elaborate football leagues and games in order to relate and feel connected.
Brandon could not get out of David’s ear. David told him to go away but he would not. David was playing handball and Brandon kept positioning himself an inch away from his head and finally David had had it. One boy could not stop talking, the other one could barely talk at all. “Go away!!” is not really communicating.
What I learned when David’s mom came to pick him up is that the parents have been fighting and fighting and fighting for the past six months. David has been listening and listening and listening with no avenue to express his feelings and no one there to wonder what he is feeling. He has kept a good poker face. His explosion on the bench after he punched Brandon was because hurting someone is scary; he thinks he is in terrible trouble, he thinks he is terrible, and everything else is emotionally vomiting out of him in one unsolicited moment. When I ask him quietly if anything is wrong, he shakes his head in defiance as if to say, “you’re not getting a single word out of me. That’s not what boys do!”
There is, ad nauseam, study after study suggesting that physicality is just the ways boys are. They tussle and wrestle, unlike their female counterparts. What is also clear from looking at these studies is this behavior and reaction is a tendency. It is not a preordained reality to which all of us, parents and schools, need to surrender. These declarations of tendencies often read like some elaborate excuse why we can’t seem to teach and encourage boys to express a whole range of emotions that pull and tangle them up inside until they explode. Myriam Miedzian, in her comprehensive work on the sources of male aggression and violence, Boys will be Boys, puts it best, “It is the universal fact of human existence that what we know best, that which forms part of our everyday landscape, is that which we most take for granted, and question the least. And, to some of our strongest jolts to our awareness, the deepest reorientations in our thought, often come from being confronted with the obvious.” (**Source: See Below p. 3) Acting out in class, not seeming to have the tools of self regulation (some of it is just pure downright entitlement), not skilled at following directions and ultimately the physical expression of rage, would certainly be aided by having more conversations with our boys and then having some more. Not letting them off the hook. They need to learn how to talk and then talk again. As if what they said about their thoughts and feelings and emotions actually mattered. Which it does. Because, otherwise, what they tend to end up doing is punching someone in the face.
Male rage and aggression is in some ways more simple and more complicated than what we tackle with their female counterparts. While girls use their language to express their feelings and emotions, the purposes and directions and outcomes are skewed by what they imagine people want to see from them. The indirect damage they cause is, at least, generated through a use of language. Therefore, there is a more direct avenue to course correction. Eventually, we hope to support girls in using a critical human tool in an appropriate manner. The damage that they can cause is very real, but its potential solution is found inside the very system that supports it.
The issue with boys, who then become men, is that they do not even have the toolbox. We have not helped them develop a method to express their rage. We know what the issue is. It’s just so clear. But the work can be a real slog if not addressed early. And the ramifications are catastrophic. Just under 90% of the violent crime in the United States is perpetuated by men, largely toward other men. A woman is beaten every 9 seconds in this country. More women are injured by physical and sexual assault than by any other source. A reported rape takes place in this country every 6.2 seconds. (SOURCE: Center for Disease Control) Add in all of the ones that go unreported and you are, conservatively, at a rape every 3 seconds. Rape and sexual assault is a crime of violence. It is about physically brutalizing someone else, controlling them, and ultimately denigrating them in the worst possible way. It is rage at its most exposed. It is entitled male aggression which, until very recently and still in parts of the world, are culturally sanctioned.
And this patterning happens early and gets established as part of the schooling process. We spend an inordinate, almost criminal, amount of time contending with boys’ behavioral issues at schools. The entire gamut of what teachers deal with throughout the school year and in their classrooms is some form of missed opportunity at real communication played out in everything from clowning around to bothering other students to getting into fights. The amount of time that these students lose that they could be using to learn and thrive inside of classrooms is unnerving and frustrating. No wonder that, as mentioned previously, boys are forever finding themselves on the tail end of the bell curve of literacy and communication skills. We are are not doing the work of fostering these skills as relevant and important for them to have, even on the critical and basic playground of human interactions. We may want to teach our boys and young men how to read, write and speak so they can find success in life; however, what better reason to teach them these skills so they can express their deepest joys, frustrations, sorrows and, yes, anger instead of physically hurting someone else.
*McDermott, J.J. The Writings of William James. (1977) The University of Chicago Press. p.194-214.
*Changeux, J.P. Neuronal Man: THe Biology of Mind. (1995). Princeton University Press. p. 126-169.
**Miedzian, M. Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence. (2002) Lantern Books.