Trey's Days No. 8
In sleepy suburbs, moneyed mansions, bullet pocked projects and raw row houses, hardening of the heart happens. It happens in children. Their eyes go from open oceans of wonder to cat eyes cocked for danger. Hands go from open palms waiting for sweets to fists clinched for smashing. But how? How do hearts get hardened?
Flannery O'Connor tells the story of a little boy called “Sucker.” He was adopted and felt adopted. He shared a bedroom with his older step brother. He idolized him and would do anything he said. Once Sucker jumped off the roof because his older brother told him if he held an umbrella it would act like a parachute. Sucker got pretty banged up earning his nickname.
The time came that Sucker's step brother was feeling better about himself, having a girlfriend, and started treating Sucker better. They were friends for a brief period and Sucker got the love he craved from his older brother.
“His face seemed different now. He used to look timid and sort of like he was afraid of a whack over the head. That expression was gone. His face, with those wide-open eyes and his ears sticking out and his mouth never quite shut, had the look of a person who is surprised and expecting something swell.”
Then the girlfriend left. The older brother felt bad and started taking it out on Sucker. After that Sucker changed. He hardened when that love was taken away: “Afterward I could remember the change in Sucker's face. Slowly that blank look went away and he closed his mouth. His eyes got narrow and his fists shut. There had never been such a look on him before. It was like every second he was getting older. There was a hard look to his eyes you don't see usually in a kid. A drop of sweat rolled down his chin and he didn't notice. He just sat there with those eyes on me and he didn't speak and his face was hard and didn't move.....All of that was two or three months ago. Since then Sucker has grown faster than any boy I ever saw. He's almost as tall as I am and his bones have gotten heavier and bigger....He's gotten up this gang of kids and they have a club...On the door there is some foolishness written in Mercurochrome saying 'Woe to the Outsider Who Enters' and signed with crossed bones and their secret initials.”
Flannery's tale of the hardening of a heart got me thinking about how it happens. Every time I see a news story about a kid being charged with a felony I wonder about their childhood. How do we make a child who can commit horrible crimes, who appears to have no conscience? I think Flannery's Sucker gives us a clue.
I had a cushy childhood. We had everything we needed and most of what we wanted, and yet I felt poor. It seemed there was always somebody who had more, or better, or different. My cousins came to visit us from Connecticut in their little Piper Cub. They'd take us up for a spin over Memphis and spend the day before they flew off for the coast. Suddenly, lucky to be invited, I felt less than. We went to a church where a lot of the people had Cadillacs and BMW's. We had a Ford--less than. My parents and grandparents loved us very much and provided well. But I was gay--less than. My dad loved me too but in an effort to make a man of me he could be pretty abusive--less than. I was never comfortable in my own skin. Now all this sounds like whining, and I am grateful for the blessings I had, but there was enough abusive ridiculing for me to identify with kids who had it worse. Hardening of the heart also happens in middle class homes where there's plenty. Thinking back I remember how the hardening of the heart can happen. Children can be very cruel, and my parents advice was to ignore them. I learned how to harden my heart and do what it took to get through school.
“What are you looking at?” a voice boomed across the locker room. I was horrified. As I heard the voice I realized I had allowed my eyes to come to rest on the bulging red briefs of a cocky little athlete. We were in the ninth grade and he seemed to be one of the more blessed among us. And considering he was parading around the locker room in red bikini briefs one might be forgiven for thinking he wanted us to notice. When I heard his accusing voice I knew immediately the “ignore them and they'll go away” strategy needed to be kicked into over drive. Turning away I ignored him, and sure enough it worked. Each time the “ignore them” strategy worked like an invisibility cloak, my heart hardened a little
I was not the boy my Dad wanted. I didn't want to play baseball. I didn't like places that he liked. I remember a time he took me back into the cypress swamp in north Florida. It was dark and the dripping moss and swarming bugs made my skin itch and I didn't trust him. I was afraid and I cried and begged him to take me out. He was mad. He drove the boat back to the house as fast as it would go. He didn't speak. Knowing I had disappointed him I was ashamed. My heart hardened a little. I knew I was a disappointment but I also knew I had to stand my ground. Like Sucker, I had to harden. I had to be a survivor in the face of a father who wanted a different son.
Once I felt warm spit soak through my hair. I reached up and touched it. I smelled it. I gagged. Darrel, the tough kid who lived around the corner sneered and laughed. Instead of hating him, somehow it made me admire him in a strange way. Knowing I had not been the son my Dad wanted, of course someone so self-assured, so masculine would loath me, would spit on my head just for fun. It seemed natural after a time to be reviled by boys more like ones my Dad would have wanted. My heart hardened to the reality that the ones I wanted did not want me. They would use me, taunt and abuse me, and I would learn to act like I liked it. After acting “as if” long enough that becomes reality. The twisted truth was I learned to hate myself and in that self loathing sought out ones like Daddy, ones who had disdain for fairies. A hardened heart can take it.
National Public Radio recently ran a story on crime among the youth of Chicago. During a time in which over all crime in Chicago is down, youth crime, particularly killings are rising at an alarming rate. In a years time 700 children were hit by gunfire and 66 died. Students are being exposed to risk walking to school. In 2009 we saw the viral cell phone video of Derrion Albert being beat to death. How can it be that while crime over all is down children are becoming more violent?
I heard a stranger tell his story the other day. He shot up cocaine, got shot up in gun fights, learned how to harden to the hard reality of living in a whore house. He didn't know his mother was a whore until one day he was ogling a “tall pretty white lady”, and she said “It'll take twenty-five dollars.” Twenty-five dollars? “What's she talkin' 'bout?” Then it dawned on him. All the partying, the men in suits, the pretty women, the drinks, the music; it was all for hire. “My mammy run a whore house!”
A hardened heart is well equipped to run a hustle, some game or other to get hooch, blow, whatever is required to make it go away, that screaming pain. A roll of bills and some stuff stands between a hardened heart and annihilation. Sucker's clinched fist and his little gang stands between a hardened heart and annihilation. Even in my own protected childhood I too learned it, how a heart can harden. We all learn it. And that's how we know what it means to be a child who winds up standing before a jury, charged as an adult, in a world where hardening of the heart happens to children. Each of us, if we think back, can remember the times when our once open wondering heart hardened to some hard reality. That's the remembering that brings up the compassion in us that can't be killed. Underneath lies still the open wonder of a child, soft, warm flowing feeling before the hardening of the heart. Can you remember?