The Thousand Cuts of Boyhood

Photo by  Sebastian Stam

The first time I remember someone getting stabbed was in the film Pay It Forward, when seventh-grader Trevor stood up for another boy and was killed in a Las Vegas middle school. I was 12 years old. I was so upset by the scene that I started shaking. I missed the end of the movie.

The most recent time was an early morning two weeks ago, when I read the news that a 14-year-old named Devan Bracci-Selvey had been stabbed and killed outside a school in Hamilton. The following night, I did a presentation for the grade nine boys in a high school near his. I spoke about Devan briefly. The boys knew his name.

Between these two moments is a culture of violence that weaves through every boy’s adolescence just like it wove through mine. There are times when it’s as tangible as my 12-year-old heart pounding in the dark: The death of Devan Bracci-Selvey. Jack Meldrum. Jesse Clarke.

Other times, it’s just a thread connecting one day to the next.

“Boyhood immerses boys in violence. Whether overt in the form of fighting and bullying or more implicit and in the background, threat and force are always present. […] Against the steady drone of male violence and intimidation, acts of open hostility, aggression and hurtfulness represent flare-ups—the boiling over from a constant simmer. But underlying the eruption of more extreme acts of violence are the thousand cuts each boy endures in boyhood.” — Michael Reichert

Yesterday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation published a series of articles representing an in-depth investigation into school violence in Canada. The headline ‘I thought he was dead’ accompanied by shaky cellphone footage of an almost-fatal assault brought an ache that I couldn’t ignore.

I’ve seen videos like this in the hands of boys that I know. I’ve seen bruises and split lips and watched them carry stories of fights like trophies that were heavier than they expected. I thought of Devan Bracci-Selvey, but I was remembering the preadolescent voice of a boy telling me that holding his own in a fight was his best chance in high school. Seeing him sucker punch a teenager twice his size. Trying to figure out what to say to keep him safe.

I clicked to an article about Saunders Secondary School. Mission. Fraser Heights. My heart pressed against bones that have never been broken.

I’ve read the statistics. In a study by Alfred University, 59% of high school students said they knew about hazing going on, but 92% of them said they wouldn’t report it. In the Mission Research survey cited by the CBC, 40% of boys reported being physically assaulted at school. In a report published by The Men’s Project last year, 34% of boys had experienced physical bullying in the past month.

The statistics tell a clear story, but nothing tells the story more clearly than boys themselves. As I wrote in an article about hazing last year, boys largely aren’t talking about their experiences with mentors and educators who can help them end ongoing cycles of violence—and it’s time we changed that.

“When we talk about the rules of being a real man, those rules aren’t just handed to us on a sheet of paper. They’re pounded into us daily.” — Mark Greene

There are countless reasons why boys keep experiences of violence between themselves, but the reason I’ve heard most often when speaking openly with them is fear. Boys are afraid of being further victimized by perpetrators, or of facing repercussions for their involvement from the authorities; so they choose silence. They take self-defence classes and trade intimidation like it’s the legal tender of school parking lots. Meanwhile administrators proclaim zero tolerance and educators try to figure out what to say to the preadolescent boy who sucker punched a teenager twice his size.

Part of the problem is that while there are often policies relating to instances of physical violence on school grounds, policies are only really as effective as the people upholding them. In one of the articles published yesterday, Taza DeLuna recounted an attack in grade nine and the subsequent response from his school. “The vice principal just told me to wash the blood off of my head,” he said, “which was probably one of the least-comforting things that you could say to somebody who’s bleeding, concussed and really scared.”

Boys give up on administrators and educators who fail to adequately recognize the immersive danger of boyhood violence. That’s when they fall silent, and that’s when school interventions reach their limit. That’s when boys get hurt.

“Most bullying policies and interventions are not designed to get at the more persistent and insidious forms of harassment that occur in schools. Policies tend to ignore the cultural and societal factors that lead to violence in schools.” — Amy Fredman

Photo by  Sebastian Stam

This is a gendered issue. We know that boys face higher rates of physical violence than girls, and that boys are more likely than girls to translate that exposure into violence perpetration. We know that boys who participate in gender-based bullying against other boys in middle school are more likely to perpetuate sexual harassment later in adolescence. Perhaps most importantly, research has shown that there is significant potential in leveraging boys groups as sites of transformation.

According to Amy Fredman, combating gender harassment most effectively should not be focused on persuading individual youth to change their behaviour. Instead, we should be empowering educators to change what they are doing in order to acknowledge the widespread consequences of harassment and create microcosms of anti-violence within their schools.

“Violence is the final link in the chain that begins with disconnection.” — William Pollack

Based on my experience, I believe that this must happen on a relational level. The lasting positive impacts that I have seen firsthand have happened through committed and authentic relationships—practices of relating to boys that transcend education curriculum or administrative policies. When we look at boys with capacity and depth, we get a deeper understanding of the thread of violence in their lives and in boyhood itself. We gain the ability to see fear for what it is.

“An essentially frightened creature becomes a frightening one in order to offset his vulnerabilities. He sets up a front that frightens others off and protects himself. The look of one who has been frightened long-term is characteristic of the classic impassive look of boyhood and its implacable mask of frozen emotion. Behind the mask, however, is a boy searching for reassurance and respite from vigilance against possible harm. To read the persona of impassiveness as an expression of anger is a serious mistake. We must be able to see past the mask to who is looking at us.” — Miles Groth

This might seem idealistic and indefinite, but it’s actually one of the most powerful lenses rising out of pro-feminist masculinity studies. One of the things The Men’s Project focused on in their report last year was the behavioural differences between boys who most tightly adhered to the Man Box rules of ‘traditional’ or ‘toxic’ masculinity and those who most strongly rejected the Man Box. In doing so, they offered a way of quantifying the impact of helping boys expand beyond a normative culture of violence.

When we help boys see themselves with capacity and depth, acts of physical violence become ten times less likely.

Data from  The Man Box  report by The Men’s Project

Data from The Man Box report by The Men’s Project

This kind of culture shift doesn’t happen through investigative journalism or school board policies. It happens with committed mentors connecting with boys, and refusing to disconnect when boys choose silence. It happens with educators co-creating a culture of masculinity that boys want to be part of. It happens every time we look behind their masks and see something real instead.

This matters for the simple fact that I was crying too hard to see the end of Pay It Forward when I was 12. It matters because there are more articles about slain 14-year-olds than I can bear to click through, and more stories than those covered in the media. Boys want more than unspoken intimidation and fading bruises. They want to be understood, they want to be safe, and they want to follow a different thread than the one they’ve been given.

Written by Next Gen Men Program Manager Jonathon Reed as part of Breaking the Boy Code. Also published on Medium.

Breaking the Boy Code is a feminism-aligned publication on masculinity on Medium, and a podcast on the inner lives of boys on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify. Follow @boypodcast on Twitter and Facebook for podcast-related updates and masculinity-related news.