I recently met with an 11 year-old who received an in-school suspension for shoving another boy to the ground. The reason? The other boy cut in front of him while waiting to go to a social studies class. The irony was impossible to ignore. I asked him, “Sam, what gives? You’re waiting in line to get to social studies… to learn about why its important that civilized people group together, understand themselves better, and then you slam your classmate onto the ground…?”
Sam laughed, and so did I. His parents might have been horrified that we had conspired, just us two guys, to celebrate the way of boys, or worse, how he treated a fellow student.
“He deserved it. You don’t cut!” Sam announced, like it was a law of the jungle.
He’s got a point. The other boy was taking a huge risk in stealing Sam’s place in line, breaking the social order of things, and challenging Sam’s status. Maybe Sam could have done something more measured, thoughtful, asked politely for the student to give him back his rightful spot, or better yet, ask a teacher to intervene. But in a boy’s world, telling a teacher, and not relying on oneself to fight off another guy’s intimidation, is tantamount to wearing a pink tutu in gym.
We may not like hearing that. We would like to believe that boys can learn to navigate the rules of society better, seek out an authority figure to help manage disagreements, and in time they do, but for years to come, this is the way guys like Sam, and his alpha-leaning foes think. We’d like to believe we adults are above many of these primitive ways. Turns out, we aren’t that far removed from the same childhood impulses and uncivilized tendencies that these boys struggle with. We’re just better at suppressing them.
Case in point. While I no longer have to wait in line before social studies class, I do find myself in similar situations to that of Sam. Yesterday at Starbucks, I wanted to yell at the woman standing in line ahead of me. She retrieved her change purse slowly, only after the amount rang up, and counted out coins like they were rare museum relics. She was no rookie. This wasn’t her first time buying coffee. I know, because I get often stuck behind her when I go for my afternoon coffee break. She’s slow and methodical. That’s just the way she is.
All day long we encounter situations like this, but we don’t push or shove. Instead, we hit our personal pause buttons. We wait, delay our needs or gratification, and let others have equal share of resources. We’d prefer it was different, that we could always maximize our pleasure and avoid pain, but we’ve come to understand that that can’t be the default setting. It’s taken us a lifetime to push back these natural instincts and we’re always working at it. We can’t be lone wolfs or behave like alpha dogs when it suits us. It’s harder for boys to suppress these urges. They are naturally grabby, in your face, powerful, and physically active.
I told Sam that I understood his anger. I point to my Starbucks cup and share my story of frustration, of having to wait my turn and having to tolerate others. I explain that the law of the jungle can’t be every man for himself. Rather, its act civil, hold off, wait your turn, share, or you’ll be pushed out of the group and left alone. Sam asks why. Why be nice if someone is driving you crazy, other than to avoid getting into trouble. Why is it so important to be in a group?
I explain that being alone isn’t just boring and sad, its downright life threatening when we need to pool resources and survive in a constantly changing world. Its how people survived and adapted through thousands of years. Sam’s question forces me to think more deeply about my experience in line and the value of others. Maybe that methodical woman who slowly counts her change at Starbucks has talents and skills that could save someone’s life. Maybe she’s a meticulous surgeon who won’t be rushed, or a fair-minded judge that carefully weighs all the evidence. Maybe she’s a great teacher who doesn’t rush through lesson plans but finds the lesson in all things and takes the time to explore.
I tell Sam I’ll make an effort to think of all this the next time I’m frustrated waiting in line, at the DMV, at the movies, when boarding an airplane, or tomorrow, when waiting for that lady to count her change. He makes a promise to try and do the same at school, and not shove someone the next time they cut in line and won’t wait their turn.