"Next time, knock his teeth out!" This is what a parent told her son to do the next time a kid hits him. At first I thought that she and her three friends were talking about the kids on the lacrosse field, where our sons were playing. But I soon found out this story was more complicated than that. It is a story that reminds us of how out of control things feel nowadays, how angry people are, and how something we cherish can get away from us. It is about the condition of our society and our lives. There were four parents in all, each one more frustrated and agitated than the next. They were standing so close to me that it was impossible not to hear what they were saying. They started out talking about how they had told their sons that the next time they get hit to make sure they hit back so hard that the other kid can't get up. That’s when one of the parents said, "I told my son, if you're going to get hit, make sure you knock his front teeth out. Make sure he doesn't have any teeth left." Her rage and vehemence was palpable.
My initial reaction was to take a step closer to them to say something: that we shouldn't be instilling such rage into our kids; that I don’t want my son knocking some other kid's front teeth out; that sports should be about more than cleaning someone's clock. But it became clear that there was more to their story. Their kids had been repeatedly bullied at school by a kid who evidently had been known for misbehaving and charged for burglary and other misdeeds. When their kids had fought back, school officials punished them by tossing them off the school's cross-country team.
The parents were trading stories of how they furiously called the school to talk to administrators, they sent emails, and they even worked the local news media angle. No response, which produced even more anger. Standing there at the lacrosse game, they recounted how the school essentially had become a fortress, with people inside being unwilling to answer questions and engage in any way. All these parents knew was that their kids had been forced from the cross-country team, and the bully remained in school, untouched, seemingly protected by the system.
What's clear is that I don't have the facts, just hearsay. But I recognized the raw frustration and anger in these parents' voices. It was rooted in their experience with yet another public system letting them down, ignoring their voices and concerns. In response, these parents decided to create their own rules to regain some semblance of control, retribution, revenge, even satisfaction. My own travels across the country tell me that this scene is not uncommon; instead of a bully, other antagonists and unresponsive systems are at work in people's daily lives.
I understand these parent's anger, but I must say that I was repulsed standing there and listening to them spew such rage, even hatred. I don't want any parent, however angry, saying to their kid that "Next time, knock their teeth out!" I don't want parents assuming that they can make up the rules of society and produce a sense of mayhem simply because they're pissed off. I didn't read this in some parenting book or magazine; I just know it in my gut.
That said, we must recognize that people are out of sorts, they do not feel they are being heard, they are feeling squeezed. This is not simply a middle class dilemma; it exists all across the spectrum. Calls for "hope" without acknowledging people's anger and frustration will not do; nor will simply tapping into people's anger, egging them on, even telling lies, to win the day. Rather, we have a lot of work to do to create a sense of being heard and belonging -- and mutual responsibility -- if we are to regain our footing.
This is a challenge we face at every level of society. Each and all of us must know this; we must address it. We must see it as "our" concern.
Meantime, I keep wondering what I might say to those parents when I see them again, perhaps this weekend.