In addition to freelancing, I work half-time as a teacher at an after-school program for middle school students. Yesterday, I overheard a cluster of the boys talk about how "cool" it was to throw rocks at birds, and how funny it was to watch one stumble and fan out its wing when you've hit your mark. I grimaced but didn't say anything at the moment.
They moved on to talk about guns, and one boy said it was more fun to shoot a bird with a gun than a rock on a sling-shot. I still sat still, listening. I wanted to know more about their inner-lives.
The talk stopped and I watched a flirtatious play (this was all outside) between these same boys and some girls like some dance they didn't quite know the moves to, but were trying all the same. One of the girls came up to me conspiratorially and let me know which girl had a crush on which boy, and I watched, with some whimsical nostalgia, as she tried to become endearing to him, even tossing the football at his request.
The girls then scattered away and the boys went over to the playground section. A few minutes later, I overheard their conversation again, referring to these same girls (mind you, only about 13) as "bitches" and "sluts."
I called them over without any attempt to conceal my anger. They shuffled to me with their eyes on their shoes the whole time.
"Did you just say what I thought I heard you saying?" I asked, my voice low with contained rage.
They stammered sheepish, "yes's" followed immediately by "sorry's."
"Sorry is not enough!" I replied. "I will not tolerate those words against girls, do you understand me?"
They again apologized. I went on to say that as a woman, I take personal offense to such terms and that using them is a sheer form of sexism.
"And while we're at it," I added, "I also have no tolerance for animal abuse. You think it's cool to talk about throwing rocks at birds? It's not. It's pathetic. And I don't like talk of guns, either."
At this point, one boy became defiant.
"Well," he began, while jutting out his chin and glaring at me brazenly, "I am a shooting champion. I've won awards. I should be able to be proud of my accomplishments."
"Okay, that's fine. You shoot birds for medals?" I asked. He looked away and shrugged.
"How about rock throwing? Is there a medal for throwing rocks at birds?"
There was silence for a few seconds, before he muttered a "no." I finished up by reminding them I never want to here those words about girls or birds again, and they better not think of commiting actions to go with those words.
After that, I recommended them for further punishment and a talk with their parents by my supervisor, but who knows if that will happen? And who knows if the parents will even take any recourse if they are informed?
I wish I could say this was my first experience of its kind when dealing with adolescents, but it's not.
About two years ago, as a graduate student in Burlington, Vermont, I and a friend of mine were watching and admiring a flock of visiting waxwings at the fountain in the town center square.
Suddenly, some rocks and twigs flew by us and made the birds scatter. I thought maybe it was a mistake. But it happened a few times more, and at one point a small pebble grazed the outstretched wing of a bird.
It was a group of pimply and slouchy high school boys about 30 feet away, branding their rocks like small weapons against the world. I stalked over and stood there and said simply, "Stop it."
Again, they all avoided eye contact. But one of the more brazen boys dared to glance at me a couple of quick times, before protesting that it was a fun thing to do.
I changed tact, asking what towns and schools they are from. Funnily enough, the brazen boy said he was from Brooklyn.
"Oh yeah? Me too! What part?" He looked away and didn't answer.
"I am from Sunset Park," I continued looking toward the birds. "And I think you are lying. A boy like you would be beat up in my neighborhood, immediately. And boys from Brooklyn usually have better things to do than take swipes at birds."
He then lashed out with a diatribe about being bored in Vermont, and that I was right, there was nothing better to do than beat up on birds.
I don't remember my exact reply, but it was along the lines of only boring people are bored, and that he must be one spoiled rotten kid without any appreciation for life if this was how he gets his kicks in a town as beautiful and safe as Burlington. He got angry, and said I was the only one in the square with a problem with what he was doing, and for me to go away. When I wouldn't, HE THREATENED TO PUNCH ME IN THE FACE.
This was when something interesting happened: the boys he was with, who up to this time, snickered at everything he said, got stiff. Several of the started saying, "Shut the fuck up, Jeremy."
And then one of them said, "If you hit her, we'll all hit you," while the posse nodded in agreement. The boy who came to my defense then turned to me and apologized for what his friend said, saying he wouldn't let him hurt me. None of them would.
This seemed to disarm the leader, with his friends now against him, as he took his need to show violence and dominance just one step too far for their liking. At that point they started to leave, and I walked away.
You might think it's weird that such experiences struck me twice, but no, there was a third time.
My first experience with violence toward birds was on the ferry to Martha's Vineyard. Just as we reached the Island, I saw seagull fly by only a few feet above me. I watched it duck to miss a mid-flight rock clearly aimed at it. I then heard an audience of laughter. I turned around and saw a group of all boys, probably only about ten years-old. Behind them a group of adult men to which they clearly belonged, either as fathers or coaches. They also stood by, laughing.
"Who threw that rock?" I asked loudly.
The laughter of both the boys and their adult companions immediately died down.
"Me!" One small blond boy in a baseball cap smiled.
"Well, it's not funny. How would you like it if somebody bigger than you came along and chucked a rock at your head? Hmm, would you like that?"
"No..." he said and again, with the same stammering as the middle schoolers I scolded yesterday.
There are studies that show that many people who abuse their wives and children started at a young age on animals, and I cannot help but think of that and make the connection here when the I hear boys bragging about abusing birds and then branding women "bitches" in the same breath, or when I get threatened with a punch from a boy abusing birds I am attempting to defend. On a smaller scale, even if these boy don't grow up to be wife or child beaters, I still think they are going to be prone to a proclivity toward a need for dominance that will materialize in subtler yet still potent forms of sexism, racism, and speciesism.
I should also say we as a society who may have problems with this behavior in our boys need to start clearing our throats and speaking out. Why was I the only one in the square to speak up against those high school boys, all bigger than me? There I stood, at a towering 5'4 and a mere 105 lbs, against a group of boys in defense of birds in a crowded square full of adult men and women just as capable of voicing their annoyance.
Why did I have to snap at the ten year-old in front of fathers who should know better and have taught these children respect for other life? Why did they not only not scold this boy but laugh along with him? Even at my school, I wonder how often the other staff may have also heard such things from our students, and let it go altogether or with just a wrist slap.
The term, "boys will be boys," though not spoken verbatim out loud as often as it was 20 or 30 years ago, is a phrase that still embodies a mentality that pervades our society.
It is used to excuse everything from sexual harassment to abuse against animals. When I was an adolescent, I was often a victim of the same terms used above, though at that age, I had not even kissed a boy yet and dressed conservatively. I was even touched inappropriately a few times. The teachers let these taunts endure under the guise of "boys will be boys," until I took justice literally into my own hands by slapping and punching the boys in defense of my body and mind. Guess who got into trouble?
To be silent on these matters is to condone them. As I said, I am a small statured woman. What I lack in muscles, I make up for with words. I have a voice, and if I don't use it to right societal wrongs and protect others, what good is it?
From the responses I receive from these boys when I called them out for their wrong-doing--the lack of eye contact, the stammering--it is obvious they are uncomfortable with having themselves questioned. Even the adults on the ferry looked down in shame when I scolded the boy. This proves the worth of speaking out against injustice. When you shine a light on it, it shrivels down to a tiny size. The actors inflicting the damage feel small.
It's important to call out injustice at every opportunity, and especially when we see small prejudices sprouting limbs in our young. These young people are our future, and we can't cultivate narrow minds by saying nothing or chalking it up to their age or gender. Age and gender are not excuses. These boys are still young enough to feel shame when caught in an act of abuse or prejudice. And you know, I think even adults can be shamed too, when stripped of their mobs and stared at in the eye.
So, please, when you see injustice or hear words of prejudice, SPEAK UP!
Stand tall and say something! This is no small feat, and you may be saving lives (however small, or winged) in the process....
And now, I leave you with a few quotes to ponder:
"Your silence will not protect you." -Audre Lorde
"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."-Martin Luther King, Jr.