Be a Man: A story in six chapters [transcript + audio]
"That’s when you need somebody."
Fourteen-year-old Mario lives … somewhere in Grand Rapids. He doesn’t want to be identified on the air.
He sits, dressed in a plain white t-shirt, khaki colored pants and white, low-top Chuck Taylor All-Stars. We’re in a sunny hallway at the downtown Grand Rapids campus of Grand Valley State University. Mario is here, attending a summer program from the Hispanic Center of West Michigan – a program meant to help keep kids on track academically while school is out.
Next year, Mario will be in the eighth grade, at a middle school in Grand Rapids.
I ask him if it's a pretty good school. "Kind of," he says. I ask him what isn't good about it. "There's too much gangs, stuff like that."
Mario stares at the floor, bouncing his knees nervously.
He tells me about his friend, who used to be a good kid, a nice kid. A few years ago, that friend joined a gang.
I ask if people ever ask him to join up. "Yeah," he says. "They say, come on, get in, it's good. And then I say, 'No.'"
Do they make money?, I ask.
"Yeah, when they sell drugs, stuff like that."
Mario says he knows he’s not going to join a gang. He’s seen what it did to his friend. And he’s got an older brother who helps steer him away from bad influences.
But still. He says at his school, the boys like him – the boys not in any gang – to him, it seems like they’re the minority.
I ask what it's like for the kid who's not in the gang. "It’s random. It feels random, awkward. Because it makes you want to feel like you want to be part of it, but you don’t. Like, when you get in fights, people beat you up and you have no backup. So when you have backup, that’s when you need somebody."
Being in a gang seems safer. Even for a good kid like Mario. And there’s constant pressure to join up.
This pressure Mario feels has a lot to do with his neighborhood and the kids in his school. But there’s one other big risk factor that we have to consider.
Mario is a boy.
Let’s hear from someone else who goes to the same middle school.
Lydia Lopez backs up what Mario told me. A lot of kids at her school are in gangs.
I ask if any of these kids are girls.
"No, not that I know of," she says. "I only know boys, a lot of them."
This is not to say that girls don’t get into trouble, of course. Lydia has been in as many fights as Mario. And girls do join gangs. But it’s rare enough that Lydia can’t think of any examples at her school.
I ask why girls don't join the gangs. She says, "Like for me, my opinion is … it’s not worth it. I really don’t see girls in gangs. I mostly see boys in it."
This hour, we are going to try to figure out what is going on with boys.
Why are they more likely to join gangs? Why are they much more likely to get involved in all kinds of trouble as men? Why are men so much more violent?
According to FBI crime statistics, 80 percent of all arrests for violent crime in America involve men – that includes almost 90 percent of all murder and manslaughter arrests, and nearly 99 percent of all arrests for rape.
The thing that’s maybe most crazy to me about all this is just how unsurprising it is. We already know and expect that men will commit violent crimes at far higher rates than women. That’s just the way it is.
But, I mean, that’s crazy right? That one group making up 50 percent of the population would be responsible for 90 percent of the murders? How can we see that and just accept it?
And, it turns out, it’s not just the extreme cases where men are more likely to go off track. In the past few decades, men and boys have started falling behind on all kinds of measures, particularly in schools.
There is a connection between these things. Low-academic achievement, high rates of crime.
This is what it means to be a man.
"Just because it's common ... doesn't mean it's normal."
River Rouge High School. June.
Teacher Jeanine Van Auken is leading me down a narrow hallway that’s lined with maroon lockers and jam-packed with lumbering teenagers. This hallway is always busy – between classes, during classes. Van Auken is trying to nudge them along. "This is an issue all year long. Well, at the end of the year, it’s a little bit more serious because kids are, you know, they’ve kind of shut down a little bit at the end of the year. So we’re just trying to get them to move back into class."
Shortly after the start of second hour, Van Auken turns a corner to see a big crowd of students, spilling out of their classrooms. All focused on a scene farther down the hall. “Is something happening, are we rubbernecking ladies?”
Down the hall, the school security guard is trying to separate two girls.
In the everyday life of a school, it can be hard to think about things like gender. Every student is an individual. Girls fight. Boys fight. Girls ace tests. Boys ace tests.
But if you step back, and look at statistical outcomes, it’s clear that something is going wrong with boys. In Michigan last year, the dropout rate for boys was nearly 50 percent higher than for girls. One in eight male students dropped out of high school within 4 years.
Girls outperform boys at nearly every school in the state.
But here at River Rouge, the numbers are particularly bad. According to state data, last year 76 percent of girls graduated on time at River Rouge, compared to only 50 percent of boys.
After the fight clears, I head into Ramon Hernandez’ classroom. Neither he nor Van Auken have a class this hour, so they sit down to try to decompress.
Hernandez and Van Auken both grew up in River Rouge. They say the city has always had a rough side.
It’s a small town, just across from Detroit’s southwest border. It’s surrounded on three sides by heavy industry. An oil refinery to the west. A coal-fired power plant to the east. A steel mill to the south.
And River Rouge High School is a troubled school. On the official statewide ranking, River Rouge is listed in the first percentile, meaning its worse than 99 percent of all schools in Michigan.
I ask Hernandez how his math students did this year. He sighs and says, "Not as well as I’d hoped. It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge when you have factors such as poverty, malnutrition. And … our students don’t have coping skills. They don’t know how to deal well with adversity."
And that has an impact on how the students deal with each other, and how they handle conflict."If somebody says something that they don’t like, it automatically, it turns, aggressive. And it escalates to violence eventually.”
Hernandez says this is true for both boys and girls at the school.
But when I sat down with Corey Parker, the school’s dean of students, he told me he sees differences in how boys and girls at River Rouge handle conflicts. "Yes, yes. With girls, usually it’s a girl on girl conflict and it’s going to possibly end there. However the guys are a lot different. The guys are - It’s not going to be a one on one deal. It’s going to be me and my friends versus you and your friends. So the severity does change.”
And that’s partially because boys face a different expectation than girls. Parker says if a boy is from a certain area, or a certain block, there’s an assumption that they will fall in with other guys from that same place.
"And that particular group of guys may not be good guys at all. But it’s just assumed. So yeah, they do have some influence to become a part of something that they may not have any interest in. But because of that peer pressure, that ‘You grew up with us, you live around the block from us, you hang with us’ type deal, then some of those guys get pushed and squeezed into that particular relationship with those other guys. We don’t see that with the girls at all."
Administrators at River Rouge recognize these gender differences in behavior, and it plays a role in how they try to reach troubled students. One way they do that is through the 180 program.
For one hour out of the day, the most at risk students at River Rouge are pulled out of their normal classrooms to take part in the 180 Program.
Students in the 180 program are separated by gender, so it’s girls one hour, boys the next. I sat in on the boys class.
Instructor Maresha Graham says the idea of the program is to give these students a safe place to talk about what’s going on in their lives and to help them work through it. "We try to deal with the 16 hours outside of school. So when they come here, we give them a space to talk about personal, social domestic issues, as well as dealing with some of their academic challenges.”
And the program works a little like group therapy.
Graham and her co-instructor Michael Fenton, prod the reluctant teenagers to talk about their lives. It’s one of the ground rules that what’s said in this room doesn’t get shared outside of it. So we won’t be playing any of the students’ voices here.
But over the course of the hour, it was clear that all these young men are dealing with serious issues. Only a few of them have fathers in their lives. Only a few even want their fathers in their lives. When Graham asks how many of them have seen their mother hit by a man, half the hands in the room go up.
For these kids, violence is a part of everyday life. Ultimately, the problem is that too many young boys end up modeling what they see in the world. "And I have to tell them, just because it’s common, because it’s what you see every day, it doesn’t make it normal. And that’s the biggest challenge. They feel like it’s normal to see young men on the block all day. Nope, in normal, functional societies, people are generally at work, or being educated. But to them, it’s like, ‘No, they’re not. Not in my neighborhood.’”
Graham says the girls she sees have an easier time imagining a life outside of what they see. The boys have to be shown the way.
"The terrain is shifting."
It’s a rare case in sociology. Usually, a group of people that lags behind on certain measures of success, a group sociologists might call a disadvantaged group – they don’t usually turn the tables and suddenly become the advantaged group.
But that’s just what’s happened between boys and girls in schools over the past four decades. .
Claudia Buchmann has spent the last 10 years tracking the trend. She’s a professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
She’s worked side by side with another researcher, Thomas DiPrete. Their work hasn’t always been taken seriously. “When we first started doing this research, we applied for grant money, and we, you know, tried to publish some of our findings. And the pushback was always, well, who cares about this because there’s a gender wage gap. It doesn’t matter how much education women get, they’re still getting paid less than men," she says.
But those education differences are striking. Women are more likely to get a four year degree. Women now get 60 percent of all masters degrees, according to Buchmann. Women get the majority of law degrees and medical degrees. And just in 2004, only nine years ago, women for the first time started getting the majority of PhDs in this country.
Women haven’t yet achieved equality in the workplace. But the writing is on the wall.
“The terrain is shifting in so many ways, and we’re in a time where I don’t think we can forecast what the world’s going to look like in terms of those gender wage gaps for example,” says Buchmann.
At least if you look at the trends in education, it seems likely that women will continue to make progress. This, on its own, is probably not cause for alarm for many people.
But the problem isn’t just that girls are outperforming boys. The problem is that many boys aren’t even trying.
Buchmann and DiPrete have seen the evidence in large scale, national surveys - surveys that ask students questions about how they feel about school.
"We find that there are large gender differences in all of those kinds of questions. So boys report that they’re – on average – boys are less likely to feel close to their teachers, they’re less likely to report that they are engaged in school, that they enjoy going to school then girls do. They spend less time on homework …"
And there’s another wrinkle here that’s even more troubling. It’s something that sociologists like Buchmann are just beginning to understand. The gender differences in school achievement get worse when you look at kids from low income families.
"The evidence is building that boys seem particularly vulnerable to resource deficits," says Buchmann.
So things like poverty, unstable homes, unstable neighborhoods, low-quality schools – these things seem to affect boys differently than girls. Being a boy is like a multiplier for other risk factors.
So Buchmann says, if you want to understand why there’s a growing achievement gap based on income, or why the racial achievement gap persists in schools, you have to look at gender too.
"Now, by no means, do I mean to imply then that, again, this has to be a zero sum game where we put all our efforts and neglect girls and focus on boys – that’s not what I’m advocating here. But I think the more research can pinpoint precisely which groups are you know contributing, say, to that overall achievement gap and then, from there, go to the question of, ‘Well, why is that happening?’ That’s going to make our policy responses much more appropriate. "
"Coach would take care of it."
Let’s go back to this phrase, “resource deficits.”
Doug Belisle grew up with more than a few resource deficits. "I remember having to scrounge for food all throughout most of my life. It’s like the fridge was always empty, the cupboards were always empty. So whatever little food we did have, I tried to prepare for me and my brothers," he says.
A box of macaroni. Whatever spices he could find in the cupboards. It usually wasn’t enough.
"I mean my brother got up during the middle of the night and would get into food. So that would take away from everybody else. But he was just, he was little, he didn’t know better. So I tried to explain it to him as best I could."
All of this created stress, as it would for any kid. Belisle says his grades weren’t so great. But he actually loved school. "I mean, we got free lunch at school, so I made the most of my lunches at school, just so I knew I had something good to eat. So I looked forward to going to school to get out of the house because the house was a mess. To get away from my parents because … I didn’t want to be at home at all."
School was the one place he felt comfortable. At least, until the incident.
In Belisle’s freshman year of high school, he was assigned a science project on electronics. Belisle brought in an old Playstation for the class to tear apart and study.
"And it wasn’t me taking it apart. It was some other people taking it apart. And they took it apart, and just a bunch of roaches just flew out of it," he said, recounting the incident that followed him for years. "You know it was all about the roaches, because that’s what they knew of. So then there they made the assumption that my house was extremely dirty. And it was, I’m not going to lie about it. I went to school to get away from my home life. And then my home life came to school with me."
This is the point in the story where things could have started going really badly for Belisle. He was a freshman in high school, troubled at home, outcast at school – a particularly bad recipe for boys.
But Belisle still had one thing going for him. He was on the wrestling team at school. "Once I got to the wrestling room, everything was fine, because nobody made fun of anybody, cause we were all family in the wrestling room. Nobody said anything bad and if they did, coach would take care of it.”
The team was Belisle’s family. This isn’t some high school sports cliché. For many boys, sports teams are the only real families they have.
It’s what saved Belisle. Belisle eventually moved out of his parents’ house, and finished high school. "My grades improved because I wasn’t as stressed out. And my wrestling coach had a tutoring class after school for his wrestlers. So we’d always keep our grades up so we could wrestle," he said.
Belisle’s experience is not rare. When I was visiting River Rouge High School, I asked teachers what characteristics separated the boys who did well in class and the boys who didn’t. They told me the boys who do well are all in sports.
Corey Parker, River Rouge’s dean of students who we heard from earlier, is also the head football coach. He told me most of his players don’t have dads at home. They don’t even have dads who show up on Friday night.
“I am the dad.," Parker says. "Those kids will run through brick walls for me because of the love that I have to show them outside of football. So a lot of the things we do have a very small percentage with actually x’s and o’s and player development. It’s a lot to do with just showing them what they might not have received from a man before. That encouragement, that leadership, that love."
"We're going to pray for our fathers."
Grand Rapids. In the hallway of Korean Grace Christian Reformed Church.
"Who all got fathers in they life right now? Who see they real dad every day?" asks the man.
"Well, not every day, every once in a week or month," says one boy. Most of the rest just stay silent.
The man, Rodrick Daniels, is taking prayer requests.
"Ok, so that’s gonna be one of our main prayers is that we’re going to pray for our fathers, man. Because just because your dad ain’t around that don’t mean he might not be going through something too."
Daniels knows what it’s like to be a father in need of a prayer.
But right now he’s focused on these kids – a group of teenage boys from a rough neighborhood on the Southeast side of Grand Rapids.
Daniels asked about fathers because he knows a lot of these boys don’t have much of a father in their lives. Fathers are disappearing all around. In the United States, 35 percent of all children live with a single mom.
In this neighborhood, in this one square mile census tract, 63 percent of kids live with a single mom.
"A’right, well my prayer request is that, wherever our fathers is at – cause I’m grown now, but – wherever you guys’ fathers are at, man, we just pray that God send his angels to protect them. Because, as a father, I know that you all dad love you all. He love you. And he hurtin because he’s not in you guys life like he should, for those that aren’t. So don’t ever think your pops is out there just wandering the street not thinking about you. He might be going through something too. So that’s why we gotta pray for them. So let’s pray …"
I first met Rodrick Daniels in the winter. I drove out to his house on a Wednesday night, when the yard was still covered in snow. It’s a quiet place with a red barn out back. But inside was a flurry of activity. Rodrick’s wife Nicole introduced me to the five kids who live at home, Jary-Nicole, Rain, Nicholas, James and Solomon, all of them in the kitchen at the same time. They were just getting in from a basketball game.
Behind them on the wall was a white board, which they’d made into a calendar. A very packed calendar. Basketball games, baseball games, track meets, church: this is what life is like now for the Daniels family.
But it is not what life has always been like.
After the kids get their food, and settle down with a movie, Rodrick and Nicole tell me about the life before all this.
Nicole starts, "Actually, one time, Rod, before he went to prison, he was so gone off the drugs that he did a robbery with the children in the car. He pulled up at the gas station, went inside the gas station, robbed the clerk and got back in the car and drove off. And the children came home and they said, ‘Mom, we was just in a robbery.’"
"They didn't know they was in no robbery," Rodrick insists.
"You told them babe. How would you know when you was high? You was high, so …"
"That’s horrible. I’m saved now, I just want to say God is totally in my life. I’m filled with the Holy Spirit. So, my life is totally changed. So that’s why I don’t have no problem being transparent. I did my time, I’m paying my restitution. So they take money out of my check. So, God is good. I take total responsibility, but yeah, almost all my kids been on robberies."
How Rodrick got to that point, strung out on drugs, holding up gas stations with his kids in the car – it all started when he was growing up in Southern California.
He just kind of slipped into it. "You just start hanging out. You gotta make friends when you’re a kid. Then you eventually start going over to their house, and you get attracted to the bling of the streets. You know, people riding around in cars, getting money. For us it was the crack era, so we was selling dope. So it was just usually about keeping up with the rap music and the whole culture, man. That’s what we did."
Around the same time, thousands of miles away, Nicole was growing up in Grand Rapids. And she was always a good kid. But she was living in a bad neighborhood too. She was seeing the people around her get into drugs and crime. So after high school, she decided she wanted to try being bad.
"It seemed like the other people was having fun, so that’s why I said, ‘Well, let me try this. Let me try to sell me some drugs. And let me try to smoke me some cigarettes and weed,’ and so I end up getting deep into that lifestyle," she says.
After Rodrick moved to Grand Rapids, they were in it together, side by side.
"Since I been with Nicole, I been shot five times. I got shot twice in the head. She done seen a lot. She done seen me do a lot. Been to prison on her twice," says Rodrick.
Nicole describes one incident, "I’ve seen him walk up to this guy, and the guy pulled out a gun. And they were really close to each other, maybe not even a foot away from each other. And the guy pulled out the gun and just began to shoot him, shoot him in his chest area. All I could see was the gun jerking back in the guy hand. And then the guy just took off running. And Rod got in the car, in his truck and drove, reverse, all the way down the street because it was a long street, and drove himself to the hospital."
"Me and a guy had a beef. A small little beef, and he pulled out a gun and started shooting. So. Man, I didn’t know you remembered them details like that. I don’t even remember all that. Backing up and all that."
"Yeah, I remember, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe it. I was standing right there."
"Yeah, that was the second time I got shot. There were really three incidents. The third time is when I got shot in the head. Crazy. "
And still, being shot five times on three separate occasions wasn’t enough to convince Rodrick or Nicole to leave their life of crime. Neither was the heroin addiction that eventually got to them both.
What did it was going to prison for the second time. Rodrick was convicted for the gas station robbery where all the kids were in the car.
It forced him to get off heroin. It forced him to look at himself, finally. "I was sitting in a cell, in Jackson, with bars behind me and bars in front of me. A cell where a full sized bed couldn’t even fit in there, with a sink, an old sink, an old porcelain sink because that prison was built in the 1800s. And, just birds flying in and out, because birds get up in there. And just looking out those bars, man. And just feeling really lost, feeling real small."
Rodrick had been in prison before. But this time was different.
"That whole, ‘I love my family,’ all that stuff didn’t matter. It’s not that it didn’t matter, but that wasn’t going to work no more. ‘I love my wife, I love my kids, I gotta get out of here and do what I got to do, you know.’ Been there did that. Too many times, in and out, in and out. So it was like, I was just sick and tired of all of it. Sick and tired of everything. Sick and tired of playing prison. Sick and tired of talking to people in prison. Sick and tired of, you know, just trying to work the system and trying to be good in prison and get out and get my parole. That was the transition. It was a moment, but then, it was a moment that said, ‘This is going to take some work. It’s not going to happen – ‘. Jesus didn’t come in my cell, sit down and talk to me, nuthin like that. It wasn’t no WAAA. It wasn’t a moment like that. It was like a shift. And God told me, ‘Okay, son now we gotta put some work in. It’s going to take some work, because your mind is messed up. "
He served five years in prison. And in that five years, Nicole got clean too. They didn’t coordinate it or work together. They just both had the same shift at nearly the same time. For both of them, this is evidence of God working in their lives.
And when Rodrick got out of prison, it was time to be a dad. Within a few days of getting out, he was called up for a meeting with his son’s principal. Nicholas had been caught stealing.
"I come up to the school, they already know I been to prison. Here I was big, I had been working out and all this stuff. I don’t know if they had some type of stereotype. I’m sure they did," he says. "And I just balled my eyes out, man, crying. And he was crying, and Nicole was crying and the principal was crying. And I was just looking at him and I said, ‘Dude, I refuse to let the system just get you like that. Man, I refuse for you to be a thief. You not going to be no thief. You not going to go to prison like I did. You not going to go to juvenile. And, it meant a lot to him, man, it was like that was a shift for him."
Rodrick Daniels and Tim Johnson are standing outside in the cold of winter, trying to figure out how to get the word out about Power House. The big, bright orange moving van with the words Power House plastered on the side seems like it can only help.
Power House is an outreach ministry, part of Resurrection Life Church. Res Life is where Daniels was saved, and where he and his wife Nicole centered their lives after giving up drugs and crime.
Power House is a way to reach kids in the rough neighborhood where they used to live. These are all kids Daniels knows. Kids he’s trying to reach. He says, "I want to be a part of them kids’ lives, man, til they get older and they come back and say, ‘I remember you Mister Rodrick, when you used to come, I’m doing real good.’ ‘Cause a lot of them don’t have fathers. If you could really hear some of their stories, they all typical stories. All of them know somebody locked up. All of them know somebody that’s been shot. So.”
This is the next phase of Daniels’ life. He survived gun shots and drug addiction and prison. He came home to be a father. Now he wants to be a mentor to the kids who don’t have a strong family .
You hear all the time about how many boys in single parent homes lack a positive male role model in their lives.
But volunteering to be that role model take a surprising amount of advertising. Daniels is always putting himself out there, trying to find new ways to reach kids.
Like when when Daniels heads next to the Boys and Girls Club up the street to pass out Power House flyers.
He knows the director here, a man named Mike Remo. "I’m gonna get a hold of you and see if you can come talk to the kids," Remo says to Daniels.
"I’ll come. Put me in coach. For real. Cause that’s my assignment man, that’s what God has me to do man, is just to be a conduit … you know where I been. So I want to let people know that it’s real. Change is real," says Daniels.
After meeting Rodrick Daniels and listening to him speak, I came away thinking that he has an incredibly valuable message.
I wondered, honestly, why people weren’t banging down his door to have him speak in front of kids.
And then I talked to Ivory Toldson. "When I was very young, I used to always say I was tired of people bringing people who came out of jail to talk to me, because jail wasn’t necessarily anything that I was aspiring to," Toldson tells me.
Toldson is a professor at Howard University and editor of the Journal of Negro Education. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, like Daniels. Like a lot of black kids. He saw a lot of his friends turn to the streets. They maybe could have used a mentor like Daniels.
But Toldson had other questions on his mind, about how to get to college, what career path he could take. "So I had all these questions when I was young, but it seemed like every time they brought somebody to talk to people like me, it was someone who served time in prison. And I kind of got tired of that."
Toldson says the problem is young black males are constantly being told about the crisis they are in. All those negative statistics you’ve probably already heard about black males – if you are a black male, you’ve heard them a thousand times more.
Some of them aren’t even true. Like, for example, have you ever heard someone say that there are more black men in prison than in college? It’s repeated all the time. Even President Obama has said it. But it’s totally not true. Toldson disproved it himself.
He says, ultimately, this barrage of negative messages about black males – it puts the focus on the wrong thing. The goal, and eventually the policy, becomes to just avoid a negative – prison – instead of promoting all of the many positive paths young black men can take.
"What they want to be more than anything else is to be able to make a good living in this society. And so they need to see people who are doing that. They need to understand: What was that path that you took to become a detective, or to become head of a radio station or any number of different things.”
And so, let’s go back to Rodrick Daniels for a minute. Because he actually gets this. His plan for mentorship isn’t just about prayers and public speaking.
He’s trying to start a new non-profit. He calls it Kingmakers. I met up with Daniels, this time finally in some warmer weather, while he was hard at work on a home remodel on a leafy street in Grand Rapids. He was blasting gospel music while he worked.
Daniels has been in the construction business for years. Even during the bad times, even when he was addicted to heroin, he tried to keep working. Now he does it as a second job, in addition to his work at his church. “I can only get over here in the afternoons, or on Thursday, Friday or Saturday. But I got my boy Monty over here.”
This is the kind of mentorship Daniels is trying to get started - mentorship through work and opportunity. "This is Kingmaker’s work. Yeah. Cause anytime I could give a guy a chance to make some money, you know? And Monty, he a good dude, he don’t know smoke weed, he don’t do nuthin."
And actually, Maadi, who Rodrick keeps calling Monty, has an incredible story too.
Dramaad Cartman is his full name. People call him Maadi. He met Rodrick through his wife. The wife, Maadi, Rodrick, they all spent a lot of time in a bad part of Grand Rapids around Prospect Street.
Cartman grew up surrounded by bad influences. But those influences never got to him. To him, it was so simple.
"I just used my head. Like, man, they used to have gang fights on Prospect. I would try to break it up or just stand there and watch. They used to be like, ‘Oh, you’re part of our gang.’ I was like, ‘No I ain’t,’” Cartman said.
I said he made it sound so easy. He said, "I mean, it is. Well, for me it is, the way I was raised by my mom."
And that’s an incredible story because Cartman told me his mom was a single, working mom with eight kids. And they all stayed away from the bad influences. Two of my sisters just graduated from Michigan State. Another one of my brothers just graduated from Grand Valley. So, ain’t none of us like been in trouble.”
Cartman says he knew other kids who had good parents, even kids with both parents in the home, and they still got caught up in the bad things going on around Prospect Street.
But he says one other benefit he always had is that he was in competition with his brothers and sisters. They all wanted to be the best, they expected to be the best. And that set up each one of them to succeed.
"We can easily take advantage of this kid."
We know that boys are falling behind girls in school. We know that boys are more likely to get involved in violence or crime.
You will hear people say that men are just like that. Testosterone levels. Larger muscles. You know, that stuff. Men have been more violent for thousands and thousands of years. It worked out great for men in the caveman days.
But in 2013, in America, things are not looking good for the manly man.
"In many ways, the world is changing around us, and the notion that men need to be men, you know whatever that means, whether it means using your physical strength in a job, well those kinds of jobs are falling by the wayside," says Claudia Buchmann, the sociologist at Ohio State.
And after spending about a decade looking at how and why boys are falling behind in education, Buchmann says she believes it has a lot to do with the expectations that get put on males, especially on certain young males.
"Boys who grow up in working class households, where the father was or is a blue collar worker, are often given the perception because the father didn’t do well in school and academic achievement wasn’t a pathway to his middle class lifestyle, those sons may be getting the message that doing well in school doesn’t really matter,” says Buchmann.
What we’re really talking about here are expectations.
If you go back to what we heard a few minutes ago with Dramaad Cartman, a big part of how he was able to avoid bad influences is that he just grew up with the expectation that he would succeed in school.
The thing is, many boys grow up with a certain default expectation that’s not very helpful in school. The expectation to be a man.
"Some kid came up to me and he grabbed me by the shirt. He had picked on me before but I usually ignored him," Dan Hombeck, 20 years old, is telling a story that happened to him in fifth grade, "I had pushed him away and then he punched me in the face. And I ended up crying all the way to the bus and all the way home."
Crying, it turns out, was a bad idea. "And that’s when it just kind of escalated, because they know, ‘Okay, well this kid cries, we can easily take advantage of this kid. And it just went from there.”
Basically, for the next two years, Hornbeck’s life was hell.
"They would call me a faggot. They would call me a bitch or a pussy, or call me gay or something like that. It was just a lot of harsh words. I got a lot of physical abuse as well."
In the hallway, kids would knock books out of his hand. They’d slap him. One time, a group of boys slammed him on the ground and started beating his legs with sticks.
His parents tried to get the school to intervene. They tried to get the parents of the bullies to intervene. None of it helped. It just got worse.
All this time, Hornbeck says he wasn’t trying very hard with his school work. His parents told him he had to get at least C’s. So he got C’s. He didn’t do his homework. He didn’t try.
I asked him why not. He said, "Um, probably because when I got bullied, I was afraid that if I got super good grades I’d get bullied from another perspective, ‘Oh, you’re a geek, oh you’re a nerd, you study too much.’ You know, that kind of thing.”
It wasn’t worth the risk. Hornbeck was already near a breaking point with the constant bullying that had now been going on for two years.
So, finally, he tried something he hadn’t tried before.
"This kid comes up to me, and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re such a fag. You’re so gay.’ And, you know, I turned around, and I was like, ‘You know, one of these days, someone’s going to deck you in the face.’ And then he goes, he goes, ‘What, you?’ And I turned around and I decked him."
It was a turning point – a kid who’d never been violent finally resorted to violence to protect himself.
There are probably a few ways to describe what happened in that moment. One way some people would describe it: Hornbeck finally learned to be a man.
"I ended up getting suspended that day. But when I came home, I kind of sat and I realized, I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect myself to do that.’ I would never expect to turn around and just deck somebody. It took me by surprise and then I thought, well, maybe now they kind of learned."
And they did. It worked. The bullying didn’t stop right away, but that was the turning point.
And it changed Hornbeck’s life. He joined the wrestling team. He started martial arts. He’s a martial arts instructor to this day. He spends a lot of his time at the gym.
"I’ve told my girlfriend this, too, I’ve told her, you know I was like, ‘I can’t quit because sometimes I feel like they’re going to come back and I’m going to get bullied, because now they know I don’t do this stuff and now I’m weak again. And it’s a crazy thought because I know it won’t ever happen, but then again the feeling I get is like I can’t stop this stuff, I’m going to become weak again, and I just don’t want that," Hornbeck says.
Hornbeck looks back, and he’s actually grateful for the bullies – for the motivation that they gave him. He channeled it in a positive way.
But never really got his grades together. He didn’t go to a four year college. He’s going to school now to get back on track.
In the fall, actually, he expects to become a father of a boy. I ask what he thinks about the expectations for the son he's expecting.
"Well, like I’ve told other people, I’ve told them, you know, the thing I wish the most is that I hope he never goes through what I went through. And I hope he finds something that he loves, and whatever it is, I’m going to support him either way," he says.
I ask if he'd be okay with the baby being soft.
"I will be okay with that, yep. Cause I know I can hopefully mold him into something that will make him tougher, but yeah, I would be alright with that."
"There are outliers that people see," Joan Silk, a researcher at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, says. She has studied gender extensively. But not in humans. In primates.
"I watched a group of Bonnet Macaques for a very long time, and I know a male who had never been high ranking," she says.
He was smaller than the other males, and less aggressive.
He lived at the Davis Primate Center in California, part of a community of bonnet macaques that were studied by researchers like Silk.
He didn’t have a name.
"He had a number, so in this population, the animals had been numbered, and his number was number 24."
And though he wasn’t high ranking among his primate peers, the humans were in love with him.
"He was such a sweetie, he had big brown eyes, he was really cute and he was very sweet."
Silk says that male Bonnet Macaques are already much friendlier and less aggressive than males of some other primates. Although it is common for males in most primate species to use violence as a way to achieve social dominance, it’s not the only model. And in some species, such as Bonobos, it’s the females that actually run the show and dole out physical punishment.
But even within species, there are those who rebel against gender expectations. Like number 24.
"He just loved little babies, and I mean, you know we thought he was sweet because he wasn’t aggressive and didn’t go around, you know, bossing other animals around, but that’s our very anthropomorphic value system that it’s sweeter to hug infants or juveniles than to chase them around.”
Ten thousand years ago, humans may not have been as sympathetic to number 24. It has not been common for most of human history for males to take an interest in child rearing. And if it is in our biology for males to be more aggressive, if it is a default setting for males to commit 80 percent of violent crime in a society, if it is a hardwired fact that boys will not sit in a classroom, patiently listen to a teacher and do their homework, at least not to the extent that girls will, then boys are in trouble in today’s economy.
But if there’s another factor at play, then there’s another path.
"I mean, the thing is, that here we are modern humans, and we know, even if we have strong biological predispositions, the question is, there are two things: One is how much do men and women overlap, so how much overlap is there in traits amongst males and females? And then, what role does culture have in shifting our expectations and ideas about appropriate behavior for each gender.”
The truth is, out culture has already shifted. Expectations of what it means to be a man have changed.
But they haven’t changed for everyone. And the boys who grow up under the old expectations are the boys most likely to trail the girls in school, most likely to become another crime statistic.