Wednesday, March 20, 2013

This Is Too Much For Me

I first became aware of the now infamous Steubenville rape case last December. Maybe it's because my own daughter is the age of the victim, that she goes to parties with her friends, that I no longer always know exactly what she is doing at any given moment, but I found myself, off and on, obsessively reading anything I could about the case: crying, raging, then reading some more.

If you're one of the few people who haven't by now heard about it, here is one of the better written pieces I've come across. Before you click on it, please be aware that it will boil your blood, make you cry if you have an ounce of decency, and, as they say, potentially trigger some nasty stuff if you've ever been a victim in your life, and there are far too many who have. Hell, I'm fighting back tears as I write.

And damn it, I don't want to write about this. I've been fighting the imperative for four months, and particularly the past several days since the verdict, which found two teenaged boys guilty of the crime of carrying a drunk (possibly drugged) girl from party to party like a trophy, raping her in public, letting their friends take pictures, humiliating her, treating her like . . . No, that's not what I'm going to write about. Others have already done it far more powerfully than I could ever hope to. Again, if you click, please be careful. It's awful.

I just finished watching a long, unedited interview with a man whose home was where some of the teenage boy witnesses retired to apparently revel in what they had seen their friends do to this poor girl. There is a video shot in his basement of one boy in particular who seems to be in utter joy about it all, hardly able to contain himself as he details what he saw. It's so horrible that I will not provide a link. I wish I'd never seen it. I will forever be cursed with a memory of that kid's tomato red face as he mocks this girl in the most vile terms imaginable.

I was a teenaged boy. I was, like these boys, a high school athlete in a small town. We sometimes drank too much and I was there as both girls and boys reached a blackout state of inebriation. When that happened, we always, always, always either found someone sober to drive them home, or put them to bed, on their sides so they didn't choke on their vomit. This was a small town. Everyone knew each other. That meant everyone took care of each other. And being an athlete meant you had to be extra careful not to get into trouble. We were all always aware that the bar was set higher for us. One of my friends was kicked off the team for intentionally breaking a bottle in a parking lot. He told me later that he felt he deserved it.

Apparently, the Steubenville High School football coach actually tried to help his players cover up their crime. Apparently, in this small town, there was, and still is, little an athlete can do to bring shame on themselves or their team, with the exception, I suppose, of losing or getting caught. From many of the things I've read, from the reactions of students and residents, it seems that many still see the greatest crime as being that they were stupid enough to post the evidence on the internet.

People are writing that all of this is evidence of a "rape culture," and while there was a time not long ago that I'd have felt that description to be an exaggeration, I now think I understand what it means. It means that there are still far too many people who believe that girls and women somehow invite rape, that they deserve it for their mistakes of drinking too much, or showing too much skin, or for simply flirting. Frankly, I've been shocked at the number of people who have blamed the victim in this case. I thought we as a society were far beyond this. Two 16-year-old girls, presumedly her classmates, were arrested earlier this week for making death threats against her. According to the girl's mother, her friends have left her. Indeed, two girls described as "former best friends" testified against her in court. She is being blamed for ruining the lives of these "promising" young men.

This is all too much for me, really, too much for me to bear as a parent, yes, but also as a human being. This is obviously a failure of the adults in Steubenville, not just of those, like the football coaches and others in the community who actively aided and abetted these local heroes, but also the ones who looked the other way. It was these adults who taught their children to stand by, to say nothing, as they witnessed "Jane Doe" being abused before their very eyes, to think all was normal, nothing was wrong,  to lack the ability to empathize or the courage to step in. I'm not talking about the kids who joined in by taunting and shaming the girl: these kids may already be beyond hope. I'm talking about the majority of the kids who saw what was happening and did nothing. I'm talking about the boy who testified (and many refused to testify) that he saw it all and didn't do anything because he didn't even know it was rape. I can't get my mind around this sort of mass sociopathy -- and that's what it has to be. How could there not have been one kid that night able to step forward to help this girl no matter what her reputation, no matter what side of the tracks she was from, no matter who was committing the crime, no matter how drunk she was or how she was dressed? 

It's too much for me. The story of Steubenville is apparently one that's far more common than I knew. I've often admitted to living in a bubble, one in which we bend over backwards to teach empathy, to teach fairness and equality, to place social and emotional needs above the rest. People in our school get frustrated sometimes that our meetings can get bogged down in discussions of how people "feel," but man, look at the alternative.

I fear that this is the story of modern America: a small town in which the factory has closed, unemployment is high, families are struggling, a place in which the only thing left holding things together is the high school football team, a collection of young men in whom a community desperately places its hopes for a better future. That's much of the narrative, at least. I hope it's wrong. I hope that these are the people living in a bubble.

To assert that this is a failure of the adults in these children's lives is an observation so obvious, I think, that it's barely worth asserting. I don't know what to do for them. But it is equally obvious that the school has failed the children. I can't help but save my most intense outrage for the football coaches, administrators and teachers, many of whom seemed to know, even condone, the behavior of these boys, to even celebrate them. If this were my call, the sports teams would be shut down for a generation, and all of those resources would be put into a curriculum of social and emotional education, with the idea of replacing a state championship football team with world champion human beings.

But I'm not in charge of anything but myself. So I talk to my daughter about this and redouble my efforts to teach children to play nicely with one another and hope that our bubble is bigger than their bubble.

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Tamara said...

No comments yet? But this was fantastic!

Erin said...

Well said! I stumbled upon a tame article about this and read some of the comments - one man insisted that "boys will be boys" and I was taken aback. I have 3 boys and never will I let my kids "act like boys" if that means that they can rape a drunk girl and it be considered normal. It's too much for me too.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

This is just so hard to read. Those boys are 8 years ollder than my son. That girl is 10 years older than my daughter. I read this post while nursing my baby girl (my third daughter), and wept at the thought of anyone hurting her in this way, no matter how she's dressed or how much she's had to drink. I think a big part of rape culture is that teenagers have such easy access to pornography, where (in general) women are treated as objects and sex is something that is done TO someone rather than WITH someone. We parents and teachers are in the trenches, working away day by day to teach our children compassion, empathy, and courage. I love your idea of putting the funding into social/emotional education, and saddened by the thought that such a thing is needed. Your words made me cry, but I'm so thankful you had the courage to write them because it is all, indeed, so very hard and awful.

Julie S said...

I am heart-broken reading this. I have a daughter who is a sophomore in high school. I also have two younger sons. I must be in a bubble too- I hadn't heard about Steubenville. The most horrific part of this for me is that nobody stepped up to help her. I'm sitting here shaking my head. How could that happen? Really? Of all the people who witnessed what those monsters subjected her to NOBODY thought to get her out of there? That's really scary. I think your solution is an excellent idea. These people need serious help.

Rebecca said...

Thanks for this. You (and readers) might like this, one of many excellent feminist responses to Steubenville:

And to the commenter above, you are absolutely correct that porn culture is a huge part of this. You might be interested to check out (full disclosure, I am a founder and board member!)

Lauren McCusker said...

This is the first time I've ever posted here, even though I've been reading your blog for a long time. You have posted many things that I agree with wholeheartedly, and some things which I disagree with. But this is the first time you have made my eyes tear up. You absolutely hit the nail on the head with this one. I am so thankful you are doing what you are doing and helping shape decent, empathetic, caring human beings. It's something the world desperately needs more of. I hope your bubble is bigger than their bubble remind me that there is good in the world. Thank you.

Jaci said...

Thank you, Tom. YOUR words felt they were expressing my outrage and disbelief.

tricia said...

this is poignant and wonderful. Thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

Andrea Gibson, poet of Blue Blanket: "She's not asking what you're gonna tell your daughter, she's asking what you're gonna teach your son." RE: Rape Culture

Anonymous said...

It also bothers me that rape has become a weapon of choice. Maybe because we are more globally aware, but the idea that certain "wars" employ rape as a weapon and a means to break apart groups of people. I wonder what the impact of learning about this is on our young people. Rape is rape is rape.....

Heavy Hearted said...

Thanks again, Tom.

Ruth Elder said...

Thank you for writing and finding words for what I have been feeling and have yet been unable to say.

Katja said...

Teacher Tom, thank you.

Rach said...

Very very sad and wrong. Your suggestion about what to do about it is great.

Anonymous said...

Well said and well written.

Anonymous said...

Part Two
Part Two:
Many adults in positions of power and influence, as you point out, have let them down by looking the other way and valuing their status as sportsmen over their potential to grow into compassionate human beings. This isn’t the fault of the children, but rather the failure of the adults to provide the conditions for these children to experience the full spectrum of their vulnerable feelings (the ability to say’ I care, I miss, I’m sorry, I’m embarrassed’). When humans sense that it is too vulnerable to share these feelings we become defended against them. When we are mocked, belittled, and shamed as youngsters for saying these things, when we are told that sharing these admissions make us appear weak, it hurts us and we need to avoid that kind of hurt because having those we look up to look down on us, is too much to bear. Too much emphasis on being the tough sportsman, and feeling valued for being this, will shut down the vulnerable feelings of any child. These are not bad kids, these are defended kids who rather than feel badly, have numbed out, tuned out, and have stopped being able to care and because of this, have lost their judgement on what is right and wrong. These are children defended against caring because the adults in their lives appear to have failed to provide them with the safe environment in which it is acceptable and encouraged to feel their vulnerable feelings. These children have defended and now say “whatever” to anything and everything that should make them feel something.
Teacher Tom, you also say ‘I don’t know what to do for them.’ Not many people do and this breaks my heart, just as it probably does yours. There is no quick fix, there is no program they can sign up for. No amount of us trying to teach them will undo the state they are in because they are so defended, nothing too vulnerable is able to get through to them. Teaching them to care isn’t an option. You can’t make a defended heart care. Social Emotional Learning Programs, although well intentioned, work on those who need them least and don’t with those who need it most. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, what is needed are caring, nurturing relationships with responsible adults, it is the only way through. Whilst this might not be the way through for this particular group of children, if those reading this come to understand that it is the way through for the children in our lives, we stand a chance at bringing back the caring hearts that our society so sorely needs .
It’s time to get back to basics and give children what they need, right relationships and soft hearts, because that’s what I believe will bring us closer to raising many more world champion human beings. Now that is something we could certainly do with

Anonymous said...

Part One:
In a weird way, I feel the need to Thank You Teacher Tom for sharing this story with us. I didn’t think that I would ever thank anyone for such terrible news but I’m glad that you put it out here along with your thoughts because it is real and we need to acknowledge that it happened. Not knowing wouldn’t make it go away, it would just save us from having to think about it, and what good would that do?

I find myself in agreement with you, this is without any doubt, as you say, ‘a failure of the adults in these children’s lives’ but it is much deeper than only that. This is a tragedy rooted in the loss of these children being able to care. What has happened can in part be explained by taking a look at the relationship dynamics involved. These are children who look to their peers for their cues. When children rely on each other as their compass point they look to one another for direction because they lack responsible adult guidance, and as a result they are steered head first into trouble. The immature cannot parent the immature.

I don’t know any of the people involved or the specifics of this story but from what I can gather from the news reports, many of these boys (and girls) do not appear to have relationships with adults who have their best interests at heart. Yes, the parents, teachers and coaches all want these youngsters to shine and become winners, and they put that above all else, for their own reasons. Their children pay the ultimate price as it robs them of having the opportunity to reach their full potential as human beings, capable of truly growing up rather than only growing older, from experiencing deep relationships with caring adults who will nurture and protect them. Part Two to follow.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Tom for being one of few I've read who don't suggest that "any boy--even good boys" might do something so horrific as this. IT is true that adults let them down, and in a huge way, but there are many kids out there who also face lack of support who have not chosen to throw away their humanity, their compassion and their empathy for others.
I cannot and will not believe that people need to be specifically taught that to hurt someone else, particularly someone vulnerable, is flat out wrong. "Getting away with it" is shown in the media to be the benchmark for behaviour, but true compassion needs to come from within.
The jock mentality likely doesn't help either. Competition above all else is certainly not a healthy thing and likely contributes to the mentality that can allow such things to happen. Honour can be a part of athleticism, but that idea seems to have lost ground over the years.
Your blog post on March 21st about ownership & responsibility is a nice follow-up as it would appear that the kids in this community--particularly sheltered and revered athletes, have not had these experiences.
There are many factors at play here--the war culture, the alarming escalation of violence in the media, an increase in misogyny, the current political landscape, pressure on youth due to high-stakes testing & poor employment prospects, the rise of religious extremism--the list goes on.
And yet, the one thing that could help with all of that--empathy--is depicted by the media as a sign of weakness.
Thank you for being a strong role model. I often share your posts with my sons because hearing these things from a wide variety of caring men is important.

Anonymous said...

When my daughter was in second grade (she is now 17) a fifth grade teacher at her elementary was accused of molesting two girls in his class. Horrific and traumatizing. For everyone. The teacher was put on unpaid leave, pending investigation. The teacher was eventually acquitted of all charges.

Two days after the original accusation was made public, my 7-year-old daughter came home in tears. She had been sent to the principal's office along with three other little girls from their class. This is a child who was never in trouble. She was kind. She was conscientious. She was respectful and looked up to the adults around her. I couldn't imagine what had gone so wrong that she would end up in trouble with a teacher, much less the principal.

When I asked her why they had been sent to the principal's office, she burst into body racking sobs.

Once I got her to calm down, she told me:

"The principal said that we were flirting with the new custodian and that it was inappropriate. Mommy, I don't even know what that word MEANS!" And she burst into sobs again.

It turns out that there was a new custodian at the school and these four little second grade girls, doing what their parents and teachers had always taught them: They saw someone new in the school who they felt was in need of a friend and they approached him to make him feel welcome in his new community. He seemed shy to them, so they made a point of seeking him out in the cafeteria during lunch to say hello.

Now, I myself am an educator. And I almost always give fellow educators the benefit of doubt. I know we are fallible and we all make mistakes. And I consider that most educators' mistakes are not worthy of a visit to the school. In my 12 years sending my four children to public school, I can count on my one hand the number of times I have formally lodged a complaint. This was one of those times. Big time. I was livid.

I stormed the prinicipal's office and told her that in an effort to protect their students from harm (which is indeed their sworn ethical and human duty), they told FOUR SECOND GRADE GIRLS THAT THEY WERE INVITING MOLESTATION BY BEING FRIENDLY TO AN ADULT!

I told her that I did not think the girls were capable of flirting -- but even if they were, if the school system had an employee that could not withstand seven year old girls batting their eyelashes, then THEY had a REAL problem on their hands and that problem WAS NOT my daughter and her friends.

We most definitely live in a culture where the potential victims are coached on how to conduct themselves more then the potential criminals. What does that say about us? That we have a very long way to go yet. A very long way.

I am sorry that it takes terrible stories such as Steubenville to remind us of that.