Much has been written about the need for new approaches to shaping and defining healthy masculinity in the 21st Century. The current issue of the Atlantic Magazine touches on this topic. It’s called, “The Miseducation of the American Boy.” As a life-long educator, I believe many of the issues raised are relevant to my own experience over decades and are worthwhile for discussion.
Years ago, as a young principal at Boswell Junior High School in Topeka, Kansas, I had a ninth-grade male student whose family lived directly across the street from our school. Kevin (not his real name) was the only multi-racial child in a family headed by a single mother. His older brother, Mark (not his real name) was in his early twenties, lived at home and was unemployed. His mother told me Mark was a troubled young man and did not attend school.
By contrast, Kevin was a bright and engaged student who actively participated in class and always got his homework in on time. But there were clearly signs of trouble at home. Sometimes he would fall asleep in class and most days he appeared to be exhausted.
His older brother Mark would sometimes invite students to join him on his front porch. The local police asked me to monitor this. Over the course of the school year, there were frequent disruptions at the home, and police sirens were a common distraction outside the school. On several occasions, the police took Mark, and occasionally even Kevin, down to the local station.
Because of concerns about these family dynamics, I recommended that Kevin attend school at the local Capital City High School, a special day school for students with behavioral and emotional challenges. While still living in the same town, Kevin would reside on a campus, away from his family.
One day in the school office, my secretary answered the phone. She came to my door, her face telegraphing her anxiety.
“It’s Mark,” she said. “He wants to talk with you. Will you take the call?”
“Of course,” I replied, “transfer his call to me.”
I answered Mark’s call. He began to stutter.
“Dr. Manning, can I come over to your office? Would you give me some books to read?
I want to learn. Could you help me learn to read?”
My mind began racing. Mark was a grown man in his twenties with a history of mental illness. As the school’s principal, I had the responsibility of ensuring the safety of all the children and staff in the building. I told Mark that I’d be happy to meet him in my office, but that a local police officer assigned to our school would need to be present.
Mark arrived and quickly began explaining his mission, which was to bring his younger brother home. My heart sank, as Mark talked about the upcoming court hearing to determine whether Kevin would stay at the residential school or come home. Mark was clearly very distressed at the prospect of his brother continuing to live away from the family.
On the day of the court hearing, the police called me at school to let me know that the judge had ruled that Kevin be officially transferred to his new residential school. They warned that Mark had stormed out of the courtroom angry and that he’d made angry statements blaming me for the decision. “We’re on our way.”
My heart raced. I carefully stepped outside my office where two of my secretaries sat at their desks, blissfully unaware of any potential threat of danger. My senses went on hyper-alert. I observed the regular cadence of a typical school day progressing around me almost like a movie in slow motion. Kids were in the office buying lunch passes, dropping off parent and doctor slips excusing them for being absent for illness the day before, scores of chattering students swept past me, like water flowing inexorably down a river toward some unknown estuary.
Concerned that Mark might arrive at the school before the police got there, I walked briskly out into the hallway to make sure nobody in the office would face a confrontation. For a minute, I froze, unsure of exactly how to respond or who to turn to for help. It occurred to me as I watched so many children, teachers, and visitors in the hallways, that we might all be vulnerable.
I headed outside the front doors of the school and stood to wait on the sidewalk wondering if my appointment with doom had arrived, or if the police would arrive before Mark.
Suddenly, I saw him. He pushed through the front door of his house across the street. Grasped in his hands was a long stick that appeared to be a baseball bat. He walked purposefully toward me and the school. Just as he stepped off the curb in front of his house, a police car screeched around the corner and pulled up in front of the school.
Mark was immediately taken into custody and later released. I never encountered him again. In reflecting on the incident, I concluded that Mark somehow had come to feel that as the male head of his household, it was his job to maintain his family intact, even though he was incapable of fully understanding or functioning in a world that appeared to have no place for him. Years later, I learned that Mark had killed himself.
These days, as I read all-too-frequent headlines about “active shooter” situations involving young disaffected men, I think back to that day and wonder how many other young people, especially young men are in a similar place: fearful of appearing to be weak, bereft of relationships or coping mechanisms and unable to find a path forward. Somehow, they seem to have lost their way and are unable to find it. I will never forget Mark, and I often wonder how I could have done more to help him, and others like him.
© 2020 Tyra Manning