Jeff Perera reflects on the Newtown tragedy by sharing how violence factored into three middle & elementary schools talks, a week after a shooting in Toronto.
The words ‘Hold’ and ‘Secure’ should be words of warmth that wrap around you, not words of fear that wrap around your ribcage so you can’t breath…
It’s 1:25 pm and I find myself standing on the outside of a locked classroom door.
Last summer I had been called to speak at a middle school in a neighbourhood stifled with poverty and violence. A young man who had attended the school many years prior had recently opened fire inside the food court of the Eaton Centre, Toronto’s largest shopping mall, killing two people on a busy Saturday afternoon.
I stood waiting for the Grade 7 male students to arrive. I watched two young boys pass by, imagining the now infamous former student walking this very same hallway years ago, walking toward a certain fate. I looked at essays written by the students I was to speak to, stare blankly back at me displayed on the wall. One pagers with titles like ‘The Fatal Mistake’, ‘The Victim in the Hood’…’The Demolition to a New Hope’
My talk was about how we create suffocating ideas of being a man and the cycles of violence they were surrounded by. I played our video ‘How To Fight’ exploring how young men speak in a language of violence. I asked why are some guys are ready to lay their blood on the floor over something like a pair of shoes. A short 13 year old young boy, identified by classmates as a friend of the ‘shooter’ from days prior, stood up to respond. “It’s all about respect.” he stated as a matter of fact.
I said the world we live in is the world we shape, then asked ‘who believes we can change our communities?’ The same 13 yr old young man said. “There is no hope.”
A U.S. company had an overwhelming response to their ‘Man Card’ promotion. To become a card-carrying man, visitors had to prove they are men by answering a series of manhood questions. They were then issued a “temporary Man Card to “proudly display to friends and family”.A press release explained that “Visitors can also call into question or even revoke the Man Card of friends they feel have betrayed their manhood. The man in question will then have to defend himself, and their Man Card.”
…and if you owned their product, well
Bushmaster created the lightweight, semi-automatic military-style weapon a 20 year old male used in killing 27 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A section on their website called ‘The Anatomy of a Bushmaster‘ reads “…you know what happens externally when you pull the trigger…but do you know what happens inside the rifle?“
My question is ‘when are we going to discuss what is happening inside the mind of those men who pull the trigger while targeting innocent people?’
We raise young men and boys from Day One to be:
Can Take It.
Do not need help.
Can handle any problem
This leads to men everywhere suppressing problems, emotions, depression…suppressing the pressing need to reach out for help.
Young men and men who cannot achieve this level of manhood struggle and strain for anyway to find balance and level the playing field. Young men and boys are taught that Power is the great equalizer, the quick go-to formula for men to be somebody, someone others will look at and respect.
“Not having power only heightens masculine insecurities. If manhood is about power and control, not being powerful means you are not a man. Again, violence becomes a means to prove otherwise to yourself and others”
-Michael Kaufman, White Ribbon co-founder
Shortly after my talk at that middle school, I went to an elementary school to speak with a class of Grade 5 students. Our session was held in the library as I faced windows looking out to the front of the school. A view of younger children playing outside was the backdrop for my conversation with these ‘older’ students as talked about what they want to be and how gender might impact that. Halfway through the session, the principal’s voice came over the PA system. Her voice trembling yet reassuring, as she instructed teachers and staff…
“…we are…in a Hold And Secure.”
As the teachers in the library closed the curtains, i caught a glimpse of teachers outside frantically race to grab the kids and bring them in. I kept going on with the discussion as if nothing was happening. Our executive director at White Ribbon, Todd Minerson, texted me updates from local newscasts reporting that an armed man was loose in the neighborhood. When the lockdown was lifted our session had ended. Parents were gathered outside, anxious to bring their kids home.
A few days later I made a return visit to another middle school in a troubled neighborhood to speak with Grade 6 students a friend of mine taught, an East Indian woman who reflected the mostly racialized student population. They were a brilliant, engaged and articulate group. We discussed their worries about leaving their school to start Grade 7 at a new school that was dealing with local gang violence issues. We talked about what girls didn’t like about being girls, and things boys were literally ‘dying’ to be. We also watched the ‘How To Fight’ video. The students spoke of how “Carlos is talking about something bigger than us” as we discussed how can some people be violent towards others. “They are taking human characteristics away!” one student said.
Reflecting on the video, a young boy talked about “how we can kill animals to eat them, ’cause we de-humanize them!” My friend then talked to her class about the Holocaust and how people were de-humanized. Searing images of people in concentration camps projected in my mind as she talked about shaved heads and barcodes. After the session with the class, my friend started to walk me out of the school as we passed a group of adorable, chatty Grade 2 students. Just then…the principal’s voice broke through on the school’s PA system.
“This a Hold and Secure drill. Teachers please guide students to positions. This is a Hold and Secure drill.”
A door swung open and a teacher emerged, waving the Grade 2 students, my friend and I inside. It was a music room that was full of instruments and, normally joyous sounds. The room was now, engulfed in a suffocating silence as the little children all quietly gathered under a large table. A group that was just moments ago energetic and vibrant, now all sat cross-legged in heartbreaking remarkable silence. We sat there in the dark, in silence.
I looked at those little faces as they stared down or all around, practising what we do… in case of the unspeakable. The group barely shifted or made a peep during what was the longest ten minutes of my life. The silence was then broken by a sound I will never forget. The sound of the classroom’s door handle being jiggled from the outside.
With us on the inside of the locked classroom door, the principal or vice-principal were outside, walked the halls mimicking what a person intending on committing horror would likely do, checking to see if the door was locked. I couldn’t help but imagine if this wasn’t an exercise. I stared at those precious, little children, did they really understand what kind of drill we were performing?
This was the world they lived in. This is the world we live in.
“Peace isn’t the absence of violence, peace is the absence of the need for violence” ~ A mother from Regent Park at the Vigil for a Gun-Free Toronto.
I didn’t envision a woman with armed weapons outside that door, I envisioned a man.
I also envision a day where the vast majority of men, speak up and stand up to say we must end the language of violence we are far too fluent in. Nothing changes if we change nothing, the crisis of masculinity with our young men and boys is a factor that is missing from the conversation.
The circle of violence is indeed smaller than we realize, and we are all inside it. A young woman who narrowly escaped that Eaton Centre shooting, ending up being murdered over a month later in the horrific Colorado movie theatre shooting.
In response to our piece ‘Lost Boys’ a reader shared this arresting comment which says it all…
Another wake up call for us, don’t let the conversation fall back into silence.
Rest in peace to the lives silenced in Newtown, Connecticut and everyday to violence.