A few years ago, whenever we would read a book in which some kid was getting picked on, Clayton would stop the story to say proudly, “There are no bullies at my school.” Despite the “friend” who stomped on his beloved Calico Critters during an ill-advised playdate, Clayton’s elementary school experience has been remarkably conflict-free.
Last week, Clayton came in from playing outside in tears. A neighborhood kid— a first grader— had called him names and hit him with a stick, trying to provoke him into a fight. When Clayton tried to go inside, the kid began harassing our dogs through the fence.
“He made Socă growl,” Clayton told me through his tears.
I was shocked. Socă is part basenji, a barkless breed of dog, and has probably barked fewer than a dozen times in his twelve-year-old life. If this kid had made Socă growl, he must really have been messing with him.
Clayton, too, I had never seen so mad.
“I just wanted to hit him!” he said, sobbing. “Why was he being so mean?”
I had no idea. Why would a first grader be picking on Clayton? I went over to the neighbor’s house to find out. As his father and I talked to him, the kid said nothing. He just stood there, staring at me with enormous brown eyes.
“Did Clayton do something to you?” I asked him.
He shook his head wordlessly. I couldn’t believe that it was this cute little boy that had made Clayton cry.
“This is Clayton’s mom,” the dad said to him. “And next time she’s going to call the police and they’re going to take you to jail and I’m not going to get you out.”
Two days later, the kid struck again, this time on the bus. Now Clayton was a “cry-baby” for telling me what had happened. He hit Clayton repeatedly on the head, again trying to provoke him into a fight.
This time, I called the school. I talked with the school counselor, who sighed when I said the kid’s name. She said he was lucky he hadn’t picked on someone less gentle than Clayton. The kid got an assigned seat on the bus, and for a few days, there were no further incidents. Cautiously, Clayton went back to playing outside, but I noticed that he mostly stuck to the backyard, avoiding the street and the creek. When the kid was out on his bicycle, Clayton ducked behind a tree or came inside.
The peace was short-lived. Two days later, Clayton was playing outside when the bully approached and began to insult him.
The bully: “You have ugly shoes.”
Clayton: “You have an ugly face.”
The bully: “Why don’t you want to fight?”
Clayton: “Because it’s violent.” The bully: “What’s ‘violent’?”
Finally, the kid— unable to define violence but with a clear understanding of the concept— pushed Clayton. Clayton pushed him back, and the boy fell off his bike and onto the pavement. When Clayton went up the driveway, trying to get away from him, the kid picked up a loose piece of cement and threw it at him.
Recounting the fight, Clayton was beside himself with fury.
“Shouldn’t we call 911?” he asked desperately.
I shook my head, trying to hide a smile.
If not not the police, what about the school? Clayton longed for the involvement of some higher authority, someone who could mete out the retribution this kid deserved. He was guilty of trespassing, damaging property, assault. How could he just get away with it all?
But worse even then his rage was the awful self-hatred it opened up in him.
“I hate myself!” he kept saying all afternoon, breaking down in tears again and again.
“But why?” I asked, trying to console him. “You’re amazing.”
But Clayton had understood something about the kid, perhaps something about the very nature of violence.
“He wouldn’t do this to me if I was different,” he said. “He wouldn’t do it if I were more like Alex, or more like Jose.”
I couldn’t deny it, and yet it broke my heart. Not only had my gentle, kind-hearted son been singled out and picked on, but he had been made to despise the very things about himself that I loved so much. And no matter how much I affirmed to Clayton that he was the better person for having those qualities, it didn’t change the truth the way he saw it: that this kid had sensed in Clayton an easy target and nothing Clayton did or said would change that.
The only silver lining was that Clayton’s friends at school had rallied around him. Whoever fights with Clayton fights with us, they’d said. Clayton had told them how the kid had threatened him: “I’m going to hit you with this stick!”
“So then you say, “I’m going to hit you with this hand,” his friend had instructed. Clayton broke into a grin, remembering. “But it’s always easier to think of what to say afterwards.”
That evening, Don went over to the kids’ house to talk to his father again, the piece of cement the kid had thrown stuffed in his jacket pocket.
The father just shook his head in exasperation. “I don’t know what to do with him,” he said. He repeated the empty threat about the police, except now the police were already at our house, waiting to take the kid to jail.
“What he really needs,” the dad said to Don, “is to get punched in the face.”
That night, Don taught Clayton how to punch. How to make a fist. How to aim for his nose. How to use his body to put force behind the blow.
“The next time he says something to you,” he told Clayton, “you punch him in the face. That’s all it’s going to take.”
Clayton glanced at me, his eyes wide. Really? I understood his disbelief. It was hard to imagine him punching anyone— except for maybe his sister. And in the face?
“What about the stomach?” I suggested, imagining a broken nose and blood.
“The face,” Don insisted. “This needs to stop.” He drew the kid’s face on his palm, and Clayton practiced slugging it until his fists were sore.
The crazy thing is that so many people— men at least— seem to have a story like this. My brother does. So does my father and my husband. It’s as if, in the world of the street and the playground, all the axioms we’ve taught our kids since toddlerhood— use your words, don’t hit, control your body— go out the window. Instead of conflict resolution techniques, we’re practicing punches in the living room.
I watch as something seems to harden in Clayton. He goes to school the next morning pumped on adrenalin, ready for the fight that will— supposedly— end all fights. He seems suddenly older, less of a little boy.
Is this the making of manhood? The rites of passage that turn our sweet little boys into, if not men exactly, something much closer? My feelings about it are a jumble of contradictions. Is a punch to the face really the answer? I’d like to say no. I’d rather be scheduling a joint session with the school counselor, a visit to the “conflict corner.” But neither do I want my son cowed into hiding behind trees, too scared to defend himself. There is a fine line between non-violence and spinelessness.
It has rained all week, so no one is playing outside. Clayton is disappointed; he is ready to get it over with, and so am I. I am hesitant to leave Clayton alone at the house when I take Dee Dee to her guitar lesson, worried that I won’t be here when it all goes down.
“Don’t worry, Momma,” Clayton tells me. “I’ll be fine.”
“But you’ll probably be upset,” I say.
He nods, matter-of-fact. “Yeah. But I'll just wait to cry until I come inside.”