I’m in the seventh grade; a shy kid with a stutter, and short for my age, sitting by the front of my school long after the final bells have rung. It’s mostly empty, so I notice when that this kid, even smaller than I am, is stumbling through the parking lot, towards the front of the school. He’s carrying this black, big-ass tuba case, and I laugh–he can hardly walk–before I realize he’s crying. A nose running, chest heaving, proud-hurt-boy cry, blood running down the side of his left leg, soaking his white shin-high socks. I stop laughing. I start running.
As I reach him, I realize the left side of his body is all torn up–not only his face, arm, and shoulder, but also some of his clothes. “What Happened?!” I shout, almost, and as he strains against the weight of the case, he stammers an explanation: A group of kids started taunting him when he got out of practice. “One of them was re-re-re-really tall,” he says, wiping the snot from his nose with the back of his hand. He tried to fight back–he insists–when they grabbed his tuba, but there were six of them. He was outnumbered. Tall kid picked him up while the others laughed, and threw him onto some of the exposed coral rock..
As a kid who’d been picked on my whole life—for stuttering, having a lesbian mother, wearing thrift store clothes, etcetera etcetera—I was furious. I knew how lonely and terrifying that was, how helpless, so I had a decision to make; either I stood up and did something about this, or I stayed quiet, “pussied out.” So I ask him, and with his snot covered hand, and he points to where they were. No one had ever protected me at school, but I was going to protect him.
Sprinting, I can see them just at the end of the parking lot, moving together like groups of men do; slowly, confidently. Ten feet short of the pack I stop; teeth bared, white knuckled, screaming every insult I could conjure. More surprised than anything, they stopped, and slowly tall-kid separates from the pack, walking toward me. I hold my breath. He’s huge. Definitely in high school. Definitely about to crush my face into the parking lot.
Fuck it. I was already about to get my face beaten in, what did I have to lose? So I just got louder– insult, slur, pejorative–and I’m not stuttering now. He’s steady though, almost like he doesn’t hear me, and gets up face to face with me—well, face to chest is more like it. I keep my feet and shoulders squared, chin out, almost holding my breath, ready for a fist, but for a moment, feeling the heat coming off of his body, the heat coming from the pavement, I thought he was going to kiss me.
Instead, he smiles and starts to turn away, his boys sniggering, like they’ve seen this before. Huh? And Just as I exhale I see it, a fist flashing through a too-blue sky, then black.
Somehow, I’m still on my feet when I come to, and there is this tall, beautiful boy with smooth skin, a fresh fade, and the first signs of a goatee staring at me; a gold-grilled-open-mouthed, eyebrows up stare. And with my sight my memory is rushing back–that crying kid, his bloodied sock, my anger. My fists are clenched before I have my peripheral vision back, and then I race at him, screaming like I must have learned from a movie.
And guess what. He runs. Faster with his longer-than-mine legs, he runs. Jumps over a fence, racing away from the school. And so do his boys.
Over the next few weeks the story echoes throughout my middle school, but each time it’s told it gets louder, and I became a kung fu mystic of sorts; I let him hit me five times and just laughed; it was an aluminum bat he was hitting me with; there were six of them against me, and they were all put into the hospital–it was the kind of thing middle school legends were made of.
For a long time, it felt good to tell that story. And to be honest, in some ways, it still does. But alongside those preteen heroics there are some painful absences in the ways I was able to feel, think, and respond in those moments.
That “if you care, you’ll fight” logic was so self-evident, so natural, that I hadn’t recognized the other ways that I could have acted, the other ways that I could have cared. Because it’s not like I was just needing some affirmation of my preteen masculinity, some stage to “be a man” on. Even if there was a stage, I did care. My impulse towards violence was wrought with empathy, concern, with my own experiences of being hurt, my own fears, and maybe even love. But those feelings were channeled through anger, and not necessarily legible to anyone, least of all that too-small boy I left in the parking lot, his too-large tuba in hand, while I got myself into a fight.
Whatever happened to him anyway? Why hadn’t I helped him carry that ridiculous black case to wherever he was going? Why hadn’t I asked him what he needed from me? Why didn’t I take him to the bathroom to help clean off his cuts? Why did I rush headfirst into a dangerous situation?
We need to be talking about masculinity here, about how I was socialized to “be a [cis, hetero, able bodied, neurotypical, financially independent] man;” about how those profoundly hierarchized values encourage competition and domination, not participation and mutuality; about how those values structured not only my behaviors and access to certain social and institutional privileges, but also the ways that I feel, and the language I have to explain my own experiences and emotions.
But we also have to talk about the relationships between those masculine social practices and care, compassion, empathy, and love. We have to consider how, when we think of justice, so often we think of fighting before we think of healing, caring, if we think of them at all. And it’s clear to me now, over ten years later, that those same emotional, social, and imaginative constraints that bound me within that “if you care, you’ll fight” logic are not restricted to fistfights in middle school parking lots.
Just as I could not imagine caring for that boy in other ways–devaluing care through its omission, its impossibility–so too are economies of care the least valued within contemporary society. Public school teachers, people who care for the young, the old, the disabled, the rich, the sick, and the poor, nurses–all forms of reproductive labor that are socially and economically undervalued, even stigmatized, yet comprise those daily necessities that this country could not endure a day without.
And these same values–ignoring the centrality of care to our daily lives–are equally at play in our criminal “justice” system; we do not hope to transform the cultural and structural conditions that give rise to violence. We do not hope to heal individuals that have experienced violence–much less communities. We do hope to recognize the ways that legacies of state violence and inequality pattern personal behavior. Justice, within the United States, is envisioned almost solely in terms of retribution. Not unlike the young man I was, racing through a parking lot in the midday sun.
If I were to see that kid with the tuba, today, limping through the parking lot, the first thing I would do would be to ask if I could help him. I’d carry his tuba, check to make sure it wasn’t too banged up, and walk with him to the bathroom so he could get the dirt out of his wounds. I’d ask him what is name is and tell him mine. Not because we don’t sometimes need men to leverage their privilege and fight for what we know is right. Not because we don’t need to confront those of us that are causing harm within our communities, and stop them. Not because we don’t need men to tell other stories, to inhabit other masculinities, and to play those roles we have for so long relegated to others. But because I know that back when it was me, before I learned to want retribution, I just wanted someone to rub my back, give me a glass of water, and tell me it’s okay.
Tyler Bonnen is a senior at Columbia University studying chemistry and comparative literature. His academic work, informed by feminist and disability studies, centers on the neuroendocrinology of trauma. He regularly facilitates discussions about gender and sexual violence with masculine identified people in fraternities and other student groups.