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DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #74: Ten Angry Boys

Publication Date: 2011-06-01

This extraordinary narrative is written in response to a mother who feels helpless, May 26, 2011. "Sugar" invites others with problems to write: sugar@therumpus.net

Reader Comment: I have an actual, physical ache in my chest from trying not to cry at work reading this. You. Are. Awesome.

Dear Helpless Mom,

I donât think youâre helpless. I think youâre a good mom who has on occasion been brought to the edge of her capacities for tolerance and patience and kindness and who needs to learn how to manage her anger and her stress. Youâre entirely capable of doing that, sweet pea. The part of your letter in which you state that you believe you may ânever be able to changeâ concerns me more than the part of your letter in which you describe flinging your child onto the lawn in a rage. Given your situation as the primary caregiver of two very young children with little practical support from a partner, it comes as no surprise that youâve lost it with your beloved kids from time to time. I have, for short stretches, parented my own two young children in circumstances very much like those you describe and it is without question the most exhausting and maddening work Iâve ever done.

Iâve also behaved in ways toward my children that I regret. Find me a mother who hasnât.

I donât say this to let you off the hook, but ratherâ"paradoxicallyâ"to place responsibility for change squarely on your shoulders. Parenting is serious business. It brings out the best and the worst in us. It demands that we confront our brightest and darkest selves. Your dear daughters have given you the opportunity to see yourself in full: you are the woman who has the ability to love more deeply than she ever thought possible and also the woman who has intermittent âscreaming adult tantrumsâ directed at two people under the age of 5.

The best thing you can do for your girls is to forgive yourself for what has passed, accept that your rages helped you to understand you have work to do in order to be the mother your children deserve, and then draw on every resource you canâ"both internal and externalâ"to become her.

Your husbandâs job is demanding, but surely heâs around often enough that he can give you regular breaks from the family fray. Does he? Do you take them? I know how hard it can be to pull yourself away, especially when youâre hungry for the rare weâre-all-together-for-once! family time, but I encourage you to find space for yourself too, even if you have to struggle to carve it out. Itâs amazing what an hour alone can restore, what rages a walk can quell. There are also other venues of support. A babysitting/playdate exchange with other parents; sending your children to a preschool a few mornings or afternoons a week, even if you donât have a âjobâ that demands you do so; a membership at a gym that provides childcare while you work out or sit in the sauna paging through a magazineâ"these are all things that helped me through the thick of it, when very my days were vast seas of young children with no grown humans around to help.

The harder work is of course what you must do on the inside, the healing that needs to happen in regard to your own parents. Iâm glad youâre seeking counseling. I hope youâll enter into that process with a sense of strength rather than despair, because it is your strength and love that shines through your letter to me most of all. You have already come so far, sweet pea. That you have parented your daughters differently than the damaged way you were parented is perhaps the most meaningful achievement of your life, but there is more beyond the land of I did better than them. I have every belief that youâll find it; that youâll learn how to let your anger be only what it is and nothing moreâ"a storm that passes harmlessly through you and peters out into the softest rain before it fades to sun.

I once gave my heart to ten angry boys. I thought of them so much as I pondered your letter, because even though they seemingly have nothing to do with you or me or any of the basically good moms you and I know, my experience with them has informed my life in so many ways, and specifically my understanding of my obligations as a parent.

I worked with the angry boys during the same time that I worked with the girls that I wrote about in my column âHow You Get Unstuck.â My real work wasnât with these boysâ"I was officially employed to serve the girlsâ"but because I had an office in the middle school and because I had the job title of youth advocate and because any program whose mission is to serve children living in poverty is invariably forced to scrounge for whatever it can get for free, I was enlisted to participate in an experiment of sorts.

The experiment was this: convince the parents of these boysâ"whoâd all done something bad enough that theyâd been pulled out of regular classes and put into a special anger management classâ"to come to the school to have dinner with their children as a family every Tuesday evening for ten weeks. The program would provide the food and the angry boys would serve it up. Each family would sit at its own table, separate from the others, in order to encourage family unity. After dinner, each angry boy would draw a card from a bowl and read what it said out loud to his familyâ"it might be my happiest memory or my dreams for the futureâ"and the families were meant to discuss this thing for fifteen minutes. After the discussions, the families would split up. The parents of the angry boys would go into a room where theyâd meet with a team of social workers, group-therapy style, to discuss parenting challenges and joys; the youngest siblings of the angry boys would go into another room with a couple of interns, who were assigned to babysit; and the angry boys and their older and often even more angry siblings would go into a room with me. The youth advocate.


The idea was that Iâd lead the kids in games that would help them learn how to work cooperatively with each other without anyone trying to throttle anyone else. The first week was a disaster. One of the angry boys threatened someoneâs brother with a chair. Another punched someone very hard in the head when we played âduck, duck, gray duck.â Bingo evolved into a melee. The hour felt like four.

I was actually trembling by the time we rejoined the parents and younger siblings in the school cafeteria, the rest of the building eerily dark and hushed around us. Once assembled, we stood in a wide circleâ"the ten angry boys and their families, four social workers, two interns, and me. It was time for our closing ritual, one of the social workers explained in a booming voice. Weâd do this every week for the next nine, she said. First, weâd sing a song. Next, weâd do a thing called ârain.â

I didnât know what ârainâ was, but I didnât have time to inquire. I only followed along like the rest of the group, singing the song it seemed the social workers had made-up themselves for this very occasion, catching the reluctant eyes of the parents of the angry boys as we all pushed our way haltingly through the inanely cheerful words. There were a few men in the roomâ"one real dad and a smattering of boyfriendsâ"but most of the parents were women about my ageâ"late twentiesâ"though they didnât look like me or dress like me or seem like me in any way. They seemed entirely like the moms of the angry boys. Like they lived on the extremes. Either plainly haggard or overly dolled up. Either very fat or very thin. Either recently coked up or soon to be nodding off.

I felt like a fraud among them. How was I going to convince their sons not to threaten one another with chairs?

When at last it was time to do ârain,â the social worker lead us through it and I followed along again as the whole group of us collectively reenacted a storm with our bodies. We began by standing silently with our arms rounded into suns above us, then we rubbed our hands together to create the softest hiss, then we snapped our fingers to simulate the pitter pat of raindrops, then we clapped our hands, first against each other, and next against our thighs in loud watery smacks. At the height of the storm, we were stomping our feet on the floor in a thunderous roar, until slowly, slowly we worked our way back up again in reverse orderâ"through the smacking and clapping and rubbing ever more softlyâ"until we were standing once more like suns.

âThat was really cool,â said one of the angry boys in the silence. âCan we please do it again?â he asked and everyone laughed.

He was the one whoâd cracked the kid over the head too hard when we were playing âduck, duck, gray duck.â I was a bit afraid of him that first night, and not just because he was a big intimidating brute of an eighth grade boy. Iâd kept him particularly in my sights because I knew his storyâ"the social workers had briefed me about each of the boysâ"and his had stood out to me as sadder than most.

Two years before, when heâd been in sixth grade, heâd gone home from school one afternoon and found he was locked out. After he banged on the door and got no answer, he peered through the window and saw his father dead on the living room floor, overdosed on heroin. He believed he couldnât call the cops. The cops were not his friends. So he waited on the porch for his mother to come home, but she didnât come. She was a drug addict too, and a prostitute. The boy was her only child. He spent the night sleeping on the porch, huddled into his coat. In the morning, he walked back to school and told a teacher that his dad was dead.

Heâd been an angry boy ever since.

Iâm going to call him Brandon. After that first ârainâ I stopped being afraid of him. He began stopping by my office in the quiet times when most of the other kids were in class. Heâd worked out a deal with the teacher of his anger management classroom that whenever he felt like he was going to act in an angry way, he could leave the room and walk up and down the school hallway taking deep breathes instead. It was a practice heâd been taught at school and it worked for him. Up and down he went, past my open office door, past my open office door, past myâ¦until finally heâd backup and ask, âWhat you doing?â in a voice cloaked in such false nonchalance that it made my heart hurt.

âNothing much,â Iâd say. âCome on in.â And heâd sit down in the horrible story chair near my desk, where all the girls sat narrating their horrible stories, and heâd tell me his own stories, not all of which were horrible. His life was getting better, he told me. He was so happy his mother had agreed to participate in the Tuesday evening experiment. She was doing great, he said. She was getting clean and so was her boyfriend. When summer came they were going to get a dog.

The weeks passed. The Tuesday evenings came and went. A couple of the families dropped out. Others added new members: pregnant older sisters; new boyfriends and step-kids. Every week we did the same thing: dinner, discussion, group, song, ârain.â Kids need structure is a phrase I heard a lot. Kids like to be able to predict whatâs going to come next.

More than anything they loved to do ârain.â The ritual of it made them giddy. Even the angriest boy would smack the shit out of his thighs to make a storm. Every week the silence in the wake of it rose off of us like a cure.

I never believed the boys were angry. I believed they were hurt and anger was the safest manifestation of their sorrow. It was the channel down which their impotent male rivers could rage.

Brandon was the angriest of them all, but he was also the sweetest. He took pride in calling himself my assistant. He didnât go home after school on Tuesdays and then return with his family for dinner like most of the angry boys. He came to my office and talked to me until it was time to help me set up the food in the cafeteria. He staked out the best table for him and his mom and her boyfriend, arranging the silverware just so, then waited for them to arrive.

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On the last Tuesday of the program, Brandon and I taped streamers along the tables, a festive touch to honor the occasion. We had graduation certificates to hand out, and donated goodie bags for the families with things like toothbrushes and board games and sets of glassware inside. We had a giant sheet cake that said, Congratulations Families! Weâre Stronger Together!

It wasnât until the cafeteria was buzzing with people that I realized Brandonâs mother and her boyfriend werenât there. He sat alone at his table. He went to stand at the schoolâs front door as the sky darkened and the other angry boys drew their discussion cards from the bowl. We split up into groups, but still Brandonâs mother wasnât there. A half hour later, there was a knock on my classroom door and one of the social workers asked me to step into the hall with Brandon. His mother had been arrested downtownâ"for prostitution or drugs or both, she didnât say. She wouldnât be released from jail until at least tomorrow, the social worker said in a steady voice. Her boyfriend would come as soon as he could. Heâd stay with Brandon until his mom got back.

Brandon only nodded at the news, but when I put my hand on his arm, he jerked so violently away from it I thought he might punch me. âBrandon,â I called as he stormed down the hall. âPlease come back,â I tried to say firmly, though my voice shook.

âYou canât leave,â the social worker added. âWeâre responsible for you.â

He kept going as if weâd said nothing. I had nine angry boys and their siblings waiting for me inside the classroom. I could feel them simmering to a boil on the other side of the door. âBrandon!â I called more sharply, fearful he was going to run from the school.

âIâm not doing anything wrong,â he yelled as he turned and walked back down the hallway toward me. And I realized he was right. He wasnât going anywhere and heâd never intended to. He was only doing what heâd learned to do, against all of his most visceral and reasonable impulses. He was taking deep breaths and walking. He was an angry boy controlling his rage.

Everything about that boy pacing the hallway tells me a story I need to know: that we do not have the right to feel helpless, Helpless Mom. That we must help ourselves. That after destiny has delivered what it delivers, we are responsible for our lives. We can choose to fling our kids into the grass or we can take deep breaths and walk up and down the hall. And everything about Brandonâs mother tells me a story too. We are so far from her, arenât we? In so many ways, you and I and all the basically good moms we know are not even on the same planet as that woman. She failed and she failed and she failed.

But so have I. And so have you.

What compelled her to not show up that night? What force drove her to do whatever it took to get arrested when she should have been eating lasagna and cake in a school cafeteria with her sweet boy? What was she incapable of forgiving herself for? What did she believe she was helpless to?

I donât know, but I do know one thing. When it comes to our children, we do not have the luxury of despair. If we rise, they will rise with us every time, no matter how many times weâve fallen before. I hope you will remember that the next time you fail. I hope I will too. Remembering that is the most important work as parents we can possibly do.

By the time youth group ended that last night of our Tuesday experiment, Brandon had stopped pacing. He alone accepted the graduation certificate and goodie bag on behalf of his family. He ate a piece of cake. He stood in the circle and sang the song the social workers made up and while we were singing, his motherâs boyfriend arrived.

That night when we did ârainâ it felt more significant than it ever had before. Our suns were rounder; our hands rubbed together with more verve. We snapped and we clapped and we stomped so loudly it was like the clouds were dumping out their very hearts. We worked our way back from the storm, but instead of quieting it overtook us once more, none of us wanting to stop. It was too much fun. We went on and on and on, from snap to clap and back again, raging and raging , until finally there was nothing to do but raise our arms in surrender and admit that the rain was gone.


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