Compassion for the Cruel

There’s a student, “Alex”, in my Makerspace. He’s socially facile, funny, and highly intelligent. He’s creative, and, while he sometimes feels vulnerable about tools and techniques he’s unskilled with, he loves learning.

He’s uncomfortable about his body and about his developing sexuality, in part because his dad, who lives far away, has given him a hard time about both of them.

He is a bully.

Our cultural conversation about bullying grinds back and forth like a saw. Sometimes the problem is that kids are too sensitive. Sometimes it’s that bullies need to get a dose of their own medicine and face the ostracization that they cause. But saws don’t cut the direction you pull or push. They cut perpendicularly, cutting away other things while you’re pulling and pushing.

Ethical questions that the asker reduces to a single dimension are ethical questions that the asker is hiding away into a question of self-serving blame, rather than solution. Because solving ethical questions requires compassion, and compassion is painful.

Alex knows that he’s a “problem”. He characterizes it as the school director “hating” him, but such notional hatred goes in the same bin as his other anxieties: he’s afraid of being kicked out of school. He knows that, despite his engineering talents, his math and design skills are weak, and when he tries to improve them, he feels stupid. And he sees his social position as precarious, that the valuable, close relationships that he’s developed are prone to catastrophic failure because of his own behavior.

Twice (that I’m aware of) Alex has pursued victims who have, themselves, had to leave school. In both cases, the students who had to leave weren’t disciplinary problems. They were kids who needed kinds of support Lighthouse can’t provide. But in both cases, they had come to Lighthouse in search of the kind of support that’s hard to find anywhere.

One kid, “Berto”, had Tourette’s Syndrome, causing him to shout out offensive things — precisely the things one knows not to say in company, because that’s the cruel way that Tourette’s works. It’s a social disability, and teenagers, all of whom are on shaky social ground in one way or another, are wary of a peer clinging to them just as they’re learning to swim. Berto would shout racial epithets, and tell people “You suck!”, all while acting like a really sweet kid who is small for his age, but knows how to dress stylishly, gets jokes, and loves fishing with his friends. And he looked up to Alex like a big brother. That was not a responsibility Alex was able to take on.

Because Alex, too, loves to say outrageous, offensive things for the attention, either because it’s funny or because it arouses anger. In the past, he has refused to acknowledge that what he does hurts people. 

After Berto’s parents moved him to a situation that could better help him, Berto was heartbroken. Over the course of several weeks, I’d seen him increasingly desperate for social intimacy, lamenting, “It’s happening again! People are ignoring me just like at my last school.” Alex called him on the phone after he left, just to taunt him.

The other kid, “Carlito”, was a student I had only sporadic contact with. He was very nervous, but compensated by being gregarious to a fault, though he also had violated other students’ safety. I don’t know what went on exactly, but I know that, after his parents moved him to a better situation, Alex made an Instagram account in Carlito’s name just to make fun of him.

Alex and Carlito share some physical similarities, but most of all, they both deeply need their peers to respect them. Like Berto, Alex saw himself in Carlito, and he doesn’t like seeing himself.

I personally feel that there’s restorative justice to be done for Alex’s targets, but it’s a process already in the hands of several non-me competent adults who have a better handle on what’s going on for the targets of Alex’s abuse.

The codirectors and I met with Alex and his mom a few weeks before school ended for the year. I’m hoping to be teaching a makercamp for several weeks this summer, and he emphatically wants to participate. My condition was that, to participate, he had to start learning how to stop hating himself.

That’s a no-gloves-on, math-equations-floating-by, brain stumper for a kid. He has to take an unblinking look at himself, recognize when he blinks, and then go back to unblinking.

After the meeting, for the last couple of weeks of school, I gave him a firehose of my most hardcore Dharma: Recognize that your suffering is the equivalent to others’ suffering. Recognize that compassion — compassion he genuinely feels for his friends — is necessarily the same compassion he feels for himself.

In the final days of school, he invited me to sit with him and look over some texts, in which he was negotiating the tenuous process of developing his first romantic relationship. It’s very sweet. He wanted advice that, ultimately, had to do with him being afraid of the vulnerability he was already experiencing. And then acknowledging it. It made me really proud.

He has to learn to recognize that the people who love him (and many people do) love him not because he’s willing to use the n-word in ways that make teachers deeply uncomfortable. It’s because he actually can recognize why it hurts people. It’s not because he’s good at video games. It’s because he’s a good sport. It’s not even because he’s smart, but because they admire his creativity.

Part of the project this summer, if we get to work together, is to get him more comfortable exploring things that he’s not innately talented at. The text might be about learning geometry, 3D design, and physics, but the subtext is about respecting yourself and your need to experience disappointments and setbacks as necessary parts of learning; that almost all experimentation, in fields of human relationships or creative pursuit, yields a negative result, and that that’s where the learning happens. The successes are only the confirmation that you’ve learned something, not the learning itself.

Learning that is a route to compassion.

And compassion counts for everyone.