Getting in other people’s business

Exploitation enfants Angleterre

Most of the stories I have written here happened years ago. This one was yesterday.

I was walking through one neighborhood where I teach when I heard the thump of blows. I paused, discerned sobbing. Peered around the window of the home it was coming from, but could see nothing. The blows continued. Someone was angry, and someone else was crying out in pain.

I had been visiting this community for four months, but this was one of the homes I didn’t know. Who was beating whom? Should I get involved?

A child saw my interest. He pointed me around to a side door and encouraged me to go in. “It’s in there.”

So against my better judgment, I did. I sauntered into the home, unannounced, to see a father standing over a terrified 13-year-old boy in a fetal position on the bed, a length of rubber tubing in the father’s hand.

They look at me, less surprised than I would have thought.

I accuse. “Do you think this is of any benefit?”

The father explains. “He went out. He was supposed to be studying, and he went out to play with his friends for hours. I have told him, over and over, and he went out without permission.”

“If one of your friends did something you didn’t like, would you beat them? Look at how you’re explaining this to me. You’re trying to help me understand, you’re not hitting me.”

“What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do? How will he learn? He has an exam on the 22nd!”

The “What am I supposed to do?” had the tone of a real question. So we talked. I told him that the kid was far too terrified to understand anything in the moment, that fear was shutting down his brain. I explained that if the boy didn’t get motivated to learn on his own, then he wouldn’t be able to learn effectively through beatings. The only meaningful learning comes when he develops his own motivation.

Unlike some similar interactions in the past, this father had the look of logic to him, and our interaction somehow deescalated. He asked again, with honesty in his voice, “What can I do then?”

I tried to formulate a response. I didn’t know their situation, the man or the boy. Briefly in my mind I ran over what it would sound like to introduce an entire model of child-rearing, but it seemed impractical. So I addressed the boy instead.

“Do you want to go to school?”

Given time, he squeezed out a soft yes.

“How long do you want to go to school?”

Words were hard coming. The beating had gone on long enough that the kid was broken, too emotional to think straight. We sort of worked out that he wanted to graduate from high school at least.

“Why do you want to go to school?”

That question was too hard. I gave him time to think, tried to reformulate the question another way, but we didn’t get anywhere.

“You see, he’s still so emotional,” I point out to the father.

“You want to get a good job, to be educated so you can work,” the father attempts to help. You can see real concern for his son in his voice and body language.

I accept that as the best we’ll get for the moment, hoping the question might mean something to the kid later if he remembers it. “You see, your father cares about you and wants the best for you. He’s really worried for you, worried for your education. You can see that concern, right? You want to do well in school too, so sometimes you have to study. You see, if you want to study for a test, you can’t cram it all in on the last day. You have to study a little bit at least, every day, and that’s how you’ll do your best.”

I’m talking to the kid, but I mostly want the father to hear me. I am moving towards softer expectations, presenting the idea of a bit of study each day instead of all-night studying every night. I’m also trying to model a back-and-forth conversation, asking questions, listening, getting down to the root of the needs. I’m not doing a great job, it’s simple, but I hope it’s something. After a few more minutes of that I mention that I have to get back to work, feeling that we’ve left in a better situation than we started.

When should you get into other people’s business?

Walking into a stranger’s home while they were beating their teenage son was weird. That felt wrong, a line I shouldn’t have crossed. Yet it happened, and it worked. I think.

Many years ago, late at night I was walking back to my place at Inglewood when I saw a woman trying to get to her car. A man, her significant other, was pulling on her wrist and refused to let her go. They straddled the sidewalk and the street, him holding her back by physical force and trying to get her back in the house. I stood in front of them. The man told me to leave. I said I wouldn’t as long as he was holding onto the woman. She, crying, asked me to leave too. I didn’t know what to do, but I didn’t leave. Was I interfering inappropriately in other people’s business? Finally, she agreed to go back inside with him, and he let go of her hand, and they walked back in. I could hear other people, a party going on, so I assumed she was safe and figured there was nothing more that could be done.

The oddest was probably at my old college campus, where I was visiting two friends. As we walked through campus on a party night, two large drunk guys got into a fist fight. I quickly got between them, told them to just walk away, that whatever was going on couldn’t be worth possible expulsion. The guy in front of me proceeded to latch a hand around my neck. I decided that non-threatening was the stance for this moment. “My hands are in my pockets, I’m not going to touch you. I’m just letting you know that campus security will be here any moment, and you should probably just walk away.” We stood like that, him squeezing my neck (but not too hard) for about 20-30 seconds, before they both took my advice and went their separate ways.

Why do I always get involved? Is it a “good thing”?

I dunno. I feel like I want to make things better, to keep a bad thing from happening. But I don’t have a very well-developed criteria dictating when I get into other people’s business. Sometimes I just do.

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