Jeff Perera reflects on the Newtown tragedy by sharing how violence factored into three middle and elementary schools talks, a week after a public 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 grade school in a neighbourhood stifled with poverty and violence. A young man, who had attended the school many years prior, 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 in the hallway waiting for the Grade 7 male students to arrive. I watched two young boys pass by and imagined the now infamous former student walk this very same hallway years ago, walking toward a certain fate. I looked at essays written by students displayed on the wall, stare blankly back at me. Titles like ‘The Fatal Mistake’, ‘The Victim in the Hood’ and ‘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 navigating. I played our Higher Unlearning video ‘How To Fight’ exploring how young men speak in a language of violence. I asked the group 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. “It’s all about respect.”
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.”
Time and time again we hear on our national news about the seemingly kind, quiet young male whose violent underpinnings are suddenly revealed. Boys are encouraged by patriarchal thinking to claim rage as the easiest path to manliness. It should come to no surprise, then, that beneath the surface there is a seething anger in boys, a rage waiting for moments to be heard.
– bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.
A U.S. company had an overwhelming response to their promotion. A press release invited men to utilize an app on their website to “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.”
To re-earn their ‘man card’, these men would then have to prove their manhood by answering a series of questions. They were then issued a “temporary Man Card to “proudly display to friends and family”.
…and if you owned their product, well then
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.
I am not blaming this campaign for the violence, but it is part of a universal mantra that says to men ‘If you have a problem, you need to Man Up and solve that problem’. The proposed solution is violence. It is not just about the tools of violent expression however, as we need to be pro-actively address why men who are hurting, go on to hurt others.
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 and need to reach out for help. Young men and men who cannot achieve oasis of stoic 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.
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 out front was the backdrop for my conversation with these ‘older’ students as we 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.”
I caught a glimpse of teachers outside frantically race to grab the kids as the teachers in the library quickly closed the curtains. I kept going on with the discussion as if nothing was happening. Someone texted me updates from the local news reporting that an armed man was loose in the neighborhood. When the lockdown was lifted, our session had also ended. I walked out of the school past anxious parents gathered outside, longing to hug and bring their kids home.
A few days later I made a return visit to another middle school in another troubled neighborhood to speak with Grade 6 students that a friend of mine taught: a passionate educator who was an East Indian woman, reflecting 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 struggling 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” in the video, 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!” This stirred 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 came to walk me out of the school. We passed a group of adorable, chatty Grade 2 students in the hallway when suddenly, 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 full of joyous sounds. The room was now engulfed in darkness and a suffocating silence, as the little children all quietly gathered under a large table. A group that was just moments ago chatty, energetic and vibrant, now all sat cross-legged in a heartbreakingly remarkable silence.
We sat there in the dark, in silence.
I looked at those little faces as they stared down or all around, practicing 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 locked 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, walking 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 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 address the way we hardwire men to solve issues in violence. 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.
Jackson Katz said after the 1999 Columbine shootings that “accessibility of guns, the lack of parental supervision, the culture of peer-group exclusion, or the prevalence of media violence, all of these factors are of course relevant, but if they were the primary answers, then why are girls, who live in the same environment, not responding in the same way?”
The longer we dance around this conversation, the more tragedies we will have to endure. This issue is too urgent, too overwhelming to ignore. The question we urgently need to ask ourselves is: for our young men & boys today, is growing up an ascent or decent into Manhood? The costs of toxic masculinity leave some Men stranded on islands of isolation, as suppressed emotion erupts in a destructive internal or external anger.
“This world rejects me/This world threw me away/This world never gave me a chance/This world’s gonna have to pay/Something inside of me has opened up its eyes/Why did you put it there did you not realize/This thing inside of me it screams the loudest sound/Sometimes I think I could/I’m gonna burn this whole world down.”
– Burn, Nine Inch Nails
In response to our piece ‘Lost Boys’ a reader shared this arresting comment which says it all…
Another mass shooting is yet another wake up call for us, don’t let the conversation fall back into silence Rest in peace to the lives silenced everyday to violence.