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Mary Ann Saurino

© 2000

After Columbine

Two days after Columbine, my ten-year-old son was assaulted in the hall of his public elementary school. Jonah was standing in line, waiting to go into class at the beginning of the school day, sharing with a friend a story he’d written. As he related the mysterious tale of “Humphrey the Camel,” another boy—a late-year transfer to my son’s inner-city magnet school—careened down the hall, blood covering his own hand, and smacked Jonah in the face.

Stunned, in tears and spattered with another child’s blood, Jonah turned to his teachers. One dispatched the aggressor to the office and then sent Jonah, unaccompanied, to the boys’ room.

“Clean yourself up, calm down and get to class.”

The principal dismissed the assailant for the day, and later required Jonah to write a narrative incident report. For school staff, this was the end of the episode. For Jonah and for me, the story starts here.

I learned of the day’s events largely by accident. Jonah’s teacher reported them to me late that afternoon because I happened to be at the school doing my monthly volunteer work. I turned immediately to school staff in order to understand what had happened.

Is Jonah physically ok?

Does he have bruises or scratches?

Where has he been exposed to another person’s blood—in his eyes, nose or mucus membranes?
The only exposure was on intact skin.

Should I take him to the doctor, call the health department to inquire about blood-borne diseases, have him inoculated in some way?
No, no, and only if he hasn’t been vaccinated against hepatitis yet.

These hasty and imperfect assurances offered little real consolation. Later, I took some comfort from my son’s face, scarred by confusion and resentment, but not contusions.

In the principal’s office, my anger surged. Icy polite, I asked why I had not been informed of the incident immediately. The answer I received illustrates not only a profound bias against boys but also the nearly insurmountable obstacles parents—mothers especially—face as they try to build lasting relationships with their sons.

“We knew you’d be upset, and decided that Jonah didn’t need to be any more emotional.”

I still taste bile when I imagine my child, ashamed and hurt, alone in the boys’ room, washing his face and swallowing his feelings. Had he been a girl, I know that the school’s response would have been much more kind. A girl would have had a woman in the bathroom with her, to help and calm her, to reassure that she was physically safe, and to tell her that her feelings under the circumstances were natural. I also believe that the parents of a girl would have been included as soon as possible in these rituals of healing.

Later that evening at home, Jonah and I talked at length about what had happened. His vehemence, even hours after the event, stunned me. He poured out the story again and again, raging against the student who had hurt him.

“I’ve never cried at school before,” he finally confessed, turning his still-glistening eyes away from me.

For Jonah, these tears were the worst of his injuries. His response shows a nearly perfect mastery of what William Pollack, author of Real Boys, calls the “boy code.” These unwritten cultural rules set an absolute and unyielding boundary between boys and feelings. Those who cross this line suffer, branded “sissies,” “weaklings” or worse.

I tried that night to move the focus of our discussion away from Jonah’s anger and hurt to his decision not to hit back at his attacker. I praised this as the right—indeed the only—decision my son could make with integrity. But my approval fell on nearly deaf ears. Although he never said, “I wish I’d hit him when I had the chance,” I sensed that this was what Jonah felt.

In the end, Jonah did find a way to fight back using the only weapon I allow him.

“I’m going to write him up for everything and get him expelled,” Jonah declared, a look beyond disgust souring his face.

I myself made one unforgivable mistake and told one dreadful lie in the course of this experience. The mistake was this: I tried to make my son understand that what happened was the result of another boy’s pain and frustration. In fact, I still believe this to be true. But Jonah’s response to this conciliatory logic brought me up short.

“Why is everyone always excusing that kid’s bad behavior?” he stormed.

I paused. Why, indeed? Why was it more important to me that Jonah understood someone else’s feelings than that he expressed his own?

I told my dreadful lie the next morning. That day, I offered to drive Jonah to school, and to accompany him to class. He declined, genuinely wanting to ride the bus with his friends. We both knew that his assailant would be back in school that day, and as we were getting ready to walk out the door my son asked a heart-stopping question.

“Mom, do you think he’ll bring a gun to school?”

On the breakfast table, headlines roared. A rip tide of blood surged from Columbine into the air between us, hot and metallic.

I hesitated, terrified. And I lied.

“No, honey. That will never happen. The grown-ups at your school will keep you safe.”

We started our day.

* * *

I tell and retell this story, not just to make sense of what happened, but also to try to find its moral. More than a year later, I’m still searching. Sometimes, the lesson is as simple as pointing out that schools are violent places and parents must speak out against this. Other times, my message is that, starting with schools, our society must include boys in caring, nurturing communities if we expecting them to act compassionately toward themselves and others.

Deep down, though, I know that this story’s most important meanings are at once more intimate and more public. The painful personal lesson I’m learning is this: I teach the “boy code.” I say I abhor this message, yet I can’t stop myself from proclaiming it. So, I tell this tale to try to make amends for this wrong.

I also have come to understand, in the last year, that this private, family experience also is part of the larger chronicle of this country’s violence by and against its youth. That Jonah’s and my story was concurrent with Columbine is no coincidence. While these two episodes differ dramatically in scale and outcome, they are in other respects eerily alike. Alienated boys, their connections with peers and adults superficial or hurtful, destroy one another as they try to establish meaningful relationships. Even after Columbine, I watched many adults stand aside, looking everywhere except at our sons’—our children’s—struggles. So now, I bear this witness in an effort to step into the fray, to show that I’m willing to try to make the world after Columbine a different place.

Mary Ann Saurino was a 2000 Selective fellow. She is a Title VII Coordinator for St. Paul Public Schools. She has expertise in ESL, and she is very interested in the book arts: binding, paper making, book sculpting.