The world has always been as we know it now: violent, cruel, inequitable, and ceaselessly pressing upon us. Has there ever been a moment of Garden of Edenesque tranquility, except in individuals at moments of supreme joy? Why is there always a battle for supremacy—in everything—rather than a field of wildflowers stretching beyond the horizon? It’s stultifying to acknowledge that this is how the world is meant to be; it’s also stultifying to think that this is how it will be past time imagined.
Is the reason for this pre-evolutionary way of being to be found in a simple explanation, or at least a logical explanation albeit with an, as yet, unknown way of resolving it?
Every year since I started teaching about ten years ago, there has always been one problematic student. That student has always been a boy. This is the student who would not take directions from me; not only would he not listen to me, but he seemed determined to undermine my authority and take it for himself. That student was often of African or African-American descent or Muslim, though not always, last year’s bad boy was white. I am a 51-year-old white Jewish woman. In the past I have commented, part jokingly, that those students had a hard time accepting a woman’s authority—dominance—over them. I’m not joking any more.
When the student would disrupt class, I would send him out to the hall for a one-on-one talk with me, and then, after the next time and the next time, I’d have his counselor speak to him, and his assistant principal, and I’d meet with the parents (though more often than not it was only with the mother). But rarely was there lasting change.
At the beginning of the school year I have my ninth grade students write an essay about someone they know well. In my second year of teaching, one student, as many do, wrote his essay about his mother. Generally, these essays exalt, with a tiny critique, the mother. Not this boy. His perception of his mother, as it came out in his essay, was very condescending. That perception of his mother seemed to carry over to how he treated me.
Two years ago the mother of the student I couldn’t manage or teach asked why I was failing her son (as in putting in the grade book the Fs he earned). This was during a conference with him, his mother, his assistant principal, his guidance counselor, and me. Everything that I said to her in explanation of adhering to my grading policy (which is based on school policy) was irrelevant to her, since she only saw me as undermining her son. Never mind, apparently, that her son didn’t do his work and what he did do was of poor quality, and that he came late to class, and cursed me in class. Never mind, she implied, for surely I was trying to deny his essence with my insistence that he adhere to my rules, which did not accommodate him.
Last year’s problem son suffered, apparently, from me being too hard on him. You know, expecting him to be quiet in class and not talk back.
I haven’t yet figured out or been told what this year’s problem son’s issue is. Perhaps it relates to his coming to class without a pencil and not paying attention. It was when I was speaking to his mother recently that I realized that herein lies the problem of mankind—yes, mankind: the mothers of these problem boys are always defensive of them. The boys are never at fault: it’s always either the teacher, or the system, or a diagnosis.
This light bulbish moment came to me less than a month after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. There was so much talk about how the murderer’s mother had tried to do her best for her son. She looked for the right schools and the right programs and, it seems—from so far outside of their truth—that she ended up helping him create his own cocoon.
Are these mothers who protect their sons against the impositions of the world helping them or hurting them, and, consequently, hurting all of us by setting upon the world men who are boys—boys who think they are above reproach. Once among us, instead of being sheltered by their mothers, they are the storms from which we need protection. They have been sheltered for so long that their interactions and reactions are off-kilter, but only if you aren’t looking at the world from the prism of their own eyes.
I wonder if the mothers who create this barrier around their sons do so from love or need. It seems odd that, at least according to my perception, these fierce momma lions come out with sons and not with daughters. (Disclosure: I am the mother of two daughters.) Could it be that women are lacking something from the men in their lives and the only way to get it is through their sons?
When I talk to my mother, and if I happen to casually bring up the fact that my brother does not visit her or do enough for her, she will generally brush it off with excuses for him and the myriad constraints upon his time. Yesterday, tired of me and my barely-veiled accusations against him, she simply put a wall between my criticisms and my brother by saying, “Stop turning the screw.” Once again, the mother took the fall for the son.
The question to be asked, I realize, is not why he doesn’t visit her, but what happened in his childhood that made him think that he didn’t owe her anything? Friends have noted this about their brothers or husbands (ex or present): they are often disengaged from their parents. Many have said (and I said it myself) that the vast majority of these grown boys would never call or visit their parents without their wife’s prodding. These mothers devoted their lives to wiping their son’s noses, and yet demands are placed on their daughters, to whom they passed the box of tissues, and not the sons.
Obviously this is too big of a theory to figure out neatly in a short essay, but the reality of so many sons mistreating (or not treating properly) their mothers, has led to our world, a world in which men oppress women—in country after country, and generation after generation—and in which there is always so much imposed suffering. I have to wonder if the source of this anger and pain and struggle is to be found somewhere in mother-son relationships.