The Last Midnight
Posted by Mark
No, of course what really matters
Is the blame.
Somebody to blame.
Fine, if that’s the thing you enjoy,
Placing the blame,
If that’s the aim,
Give me the blame.
— Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on that post I wrote about having my fingers broken in the second grade. The vast majority of it is the kind of feedback I expected, although it seems to have been more meaningful to people than I could have anticipated. Whenever people say that something I wrote gave them a chill or brought them to tears, my first reaction (which I generally manage to keep quiet) is to wonder if perhaps they followed the wrong link and read someone else’s blog post!
I also had a couple of very touching blasts from the past, from folks who I barely knew, but remembered that day. One of them, a woman who was in my class, said that my description of the other boy’s smell made her remember it, too. We both wondered how it could be that there was never any visible help given to him. Was the role of the Department of Family Services so different nearly three decades ago?
Another former schoolmate, a couple of years older than me, remembered being in the office on the day I was hurt. Something about it had stuck in her memory, and she felt like reading my post, finally seeing the whole story, made her understand why something about the memory had always seemed wrong.
I heard from an acquaintance who had attended that school for a few years, though not at the same time as me, and who taught there briefly as an adult. Upsettingly, she doesn’t feel like very much has changed there, and that it wouldn’t surprise her to hear that a similarly blind eye is turned to children today.
There was another kind of feedback, though, and my first instinct was to dismiss it. But I heard it enough times that I think it needs to be addressed. I didn’t really consider it until I got a phone call from my best friend.
“Do people really think you should be holding a seven-year-old accountable for what happened?” she asked. “Because more than one person has said that to me!”
And she was right. Via twitter, in Huffington Post comments, on Facebook, and in some private communications, I got feedback that can best be summarized as:
“You say you don’t blame him, but you should. He and his parents are responsible for what happened that day.”
Aside from the fact that I’m not particularly interested in placing blame for something that happened a lifetime ago, I find the idea that I should place any blame at all on a seven-year-old boy appalling. It makes me think of my own son. At six, he’s gotten into … perhaps more than his fair share of trouble at school. He has hit his classmates. Once, he hit his teacher. Another time, he threw rocks at his teacher.
Now, if you’ve read my blog, you know that his behavioral challenges are a pretty big deal in my house. We work with a therapist, we work with the special education department at his school, we’ve taken him to a neuropsychologist, we’re waiting for an appointment with a developmental pediatrician … you get the idea. From all accounts, we’re doing what we ought to be doing, and are working to give him the tools he needs to make it through the day without doing these things. But none of it is his fault.
And none of it was Isaiah’s fault, either. He was a little boy whose most basic needs were clearly not being met. How was he supposed to learn who to be?
The suggestion that his parents are responsible for what happened is a little more reasonable, maybe, but ultimately I think it is also misguided. First, his parents weren’t there when he closed a door on my hand. And second, they probably never heard about it afterwards, either.
That’s not what people mean when they say I should blame his parents, though. What they mean is that if his parents had raised him properly, and met his needs, it wouldn’t have happened. And maybe that’s true, but I think it ignores reality.
It would be easy to blame my sons’ mother for neglecting them. But if I look at her history, I see my sons’ history. Years in foster care. The difference is that eventually my sons were adopted. Their mother aged out of foster care. Who taught her how to live as an adult? Who taught her how to have healthy relationships, how to hold down a job, how to take care of young children? And how was she supposed to take care of my sons while her boyfriend was assaulting her in their home? He spent years in foster care, too, of course. That’s why it’s called a vicious cycle.
Now, I know nothing about Isaiah’s family, but it isn’t very much of a stretch for me to think that their story is probably similar to my sons’ family, at least in the ways that matter. Dysfunction creates dysfunction, and we don’t really create many pathways for people to find their way out without tremendous luck.
Among the folks who are interested in assigning blame, there’s a target that hasn’t been mentioned. It surprises me, because when I think about it, it’s the only place where I can see blame making any sense, or having any possible useful outcome. That target is, of course, the school.
It’s very hard for me to imagine that the teachers were not aware that I was being harassed. Did they really never see him push me, or hear him taunt me? Did they never see him pin me to the wall, or spit in my face? That’s hard for me to believe.
Maybe I’m more interested in placing a little blame than I thought I was.