When my daughter was in middle school, in 8th grade, a picture of her and her best friend dressed in their Halloween costumes found its way into the hands of some of the 8th grade boys. The boys wrote inappropriate words and comments on the pictures, disgusting words and comments, and passed the picture from one to another to another until the principal got wind of the happenings and demanded to see and confiscate the picture.
My daughter came home and told me, and I waited for the call from the principal. The call that would say this happened and those boys were punished appropriately. The call never came. So instead, I made the call to the principal. Tell me about the picture, I asked. Tell me what happened. Tell me how you handled it.
I don’t remember every word. But what I do remember is hearing, “Mrs. Szatkowski, boys will be boys.”
Nothing has been done? I asked incredulously. They can pass a picture of my daughter around the school and write awful things and nothing has been done?
If I punish the boys he said, the ramifications against the girls will be worse. You know how middle school is. The boys will make it worse for the girls if the boys are punished.
Something has to be done I said back to him. This is not right.
Let me talk to the girls, he answered me.
He talked to the girls. He sat the two of them down and he said to them, “I will leave it up to you to tell me if I should punish the boys. If you say I should, I will. If not, I won’t. I will leave it in your hands.”
The girls were afraid to ask for the boys’ punishment. They did not want this on their shoulders. They were afraid that the principal would tell the boys that the girls asked for punishment and then be excluded, shunned, not invited anywhere the cool kids went. They said no. Don’t punish.
The principal called me back and told me that he asked the girls if they wanted the boys punished. And the girls said no. So he wasn’t going to punish.
You asked the girls? You asked them what you as principal should do? You left this up to them, in their hands?
The matter was dropped. I didn’t pursue it, my daughter begged me not to, although now, today, I wish I had. What kind of punishment was I looking for? Maybe a stay after school. Maybe a missed football practice. Maybe something to send the message that what these boys did was wrong.
Two years later, my son was the subject of bullying by a middle school boy, a year older. The other boy and his posse were out to get him, going so far and being so stupid as to send a threatening and degrading voice mail to my son. The boy sent the message on school grounds, after school, but at school soccer practice. The boy came from a very privileged background. One that I’m sure impressed the principal.
My son was threatened and told in the voicemail not to go to the next dance, because he would be taken down, beaten up. I called the school. I called the principal. I had the voicemail. It was after school, I was told. It was at soccer practice, I replied. I will send you the voicemail, I said. Please, just listen to it and you’ll have the proof you need. No, he said to me. He did offer to call the boy’s father and mention the altercation and have the boy’s father call me. The boy’s father did call me to tell me his son would never. I asked him if I could send him the voicemail. I did. After listening to the voicemail, thankfully to me, the boy’s father called the principal and said, I want my son punished. No more dances for this year. Only then did the principal lay out an appropriate punishment for the boy, after permission from the rich boy’s father.
Two incidences. Just in my family. Just in our middle school. One, where boys would be boys and the other where privilege mattered over bullying.
I saw it again in our high school where the male athletes, especially the football players, had their own brand of privilege. I saw punishments doled out differently for the same infractions, depending on male and female and which sports were played. My National Honor Society, 95+ average daughter received a 3 day in-school suspension because she ran out to her car for her forgotten lunch bag, sneaking out the side door and back in just as quickly, without permission. Yes, she needed reprimanding, but 3 days, in school suspension? The next week, one of the football team had Dominoes delivered to the parking lot, and ran out to get it. No punishment. Grins. A slap on the wrist. Don’t do that again.
Boys. Money. Sports. All three, shields of privilege that build up and up from a young age, protecting so many of our boys from consequence for their behaviors, teaching them that they are above the rules that they are above their female counterparts, creating a climate of fear and danger for our women.
Look what they were wearing in the picture, the principal had said to me. What does it matter, I had answered. Their clothes were tight, the typical costumes for teenage girls, but not revealing. But what if they were? What did it matter? I was appalled merely at words written on a paper, degrading my daughter. I’m not sure how I would have handled worse, then or now.
How many professional athletes are accused of rape? How many times is it swept under the rug? Boys will be boys. These men are professional athletes, making more money in a year than most of us will see in a lifetime, probably having their pick of dates lined up at the door. What has society done to allow such men to think breaking the law, hurting a physically weaker human, exerting the most degrading form of control is perfectly fine? What has society done that these incidences can be just swept away?
A few weeks ago, before the Stanford rape case and letters from the victim, the father, and others made headlines, before the gorilla, the news was all about protecting women in bathrooms. Protecting them from men. Protecting them from the men society has created. The men who as boys were told boys will be boys. The society where the girls will feel the ramifications if the boys are punished.
It is not up to women to dress differently, to drink less, to cast our eyes elsewhere. It is not up to women to avoid certain places, certain parties, certain venues. It is up to all of us to raise boys to know respect, to know consequence, to take responsibility. It is up to us as parents, as principals, as society to stop overlooking actions at a young age by dismissing it with boys will be boys. It is up to parents to teach boys from a young age; it is up to our schools to have a zero tolerance policy. It is up to society to stop looking away and stop blaming women for the actions of men.
Boys will always be boys. Just as girls will always be girls. But it is up to all of us to make them better boys. And then turn them into men who respect women, who respect the law, who respect themselves.