This is my second stab at this post.
When I was 17, I had never lived outside of Iowa. I had no real idea that the job I have now existed. I spoke only English, couldn’t type for shit, I’d never been, nor could I have predicted at the time that I would someday be lost in Paris, destitute in Istanbul or heartbroken in Bangkok.
When my son is 17, it will be 2027, everyone will have hoverphones and robot dinosaurs for secretaries, and there’ll be Vulcans and Klingons all up in our junk. Morgan Freeman will no doubt be President.
When Trayvon Martin was 17 he was shot and killed for being a black kid in a hoodie.
I’ve thought a lot about what to write this week. Whether I should write anything about the Martin/Zimmerman “trial” that wrapped up last Saturday. There’s not much I can say here about the justice system, or the law, or the grotesque delusion that race had no part in this. The outrage, the embarrassment – that’s all being covered by people more qualified to speak on this than I.
I’m just a dad.
Parents are guilt factories. Every prick of outrageous fortune that befalls your child is, one way or another, your fault. This is a subjective fact. Unless your child is less than 2, in which case it is an objective fact.
I look at this tragedy and think, if this was my child what could I have done? Is there something I could have said to keep Trayvon home that night? To cause him to act in that situation differently, in a way that wouldn’t have resulted in his death? What about Zimmerman? What could I have done as his father to keep him from growing into a small-minded, fearful man? That could have kept him from following and murdering a boy out of his own sense of inadequacy?
For Trayvon, I can’t even begin to think of advice I might give. I’m white, after all. Painfully white. Iowan Irish White. I’ll never understand the forces that daily shaped him into who he was. This article gave me some limited insight, and inspired me to write the post.
For Zimmerman? Who knows?
The only thing that comes to mind is a method for moving through a world of potential confrontations that I’ve discovered and try to practice myself. I wish I could remember where I heard this originally, but I associate it with martial arts training.
The method is simply this: “Stick to the mission.”
Your mission, every time you leave your home, is to return home safely. That’s it. Just get back home.
It may seem simple. It may seem stupid. That’s because it is. But if you, like me, are bound up in the rules of masculinity, if you’ve watched enough Chuck Norris movies, and have trained in some sort of fighting style, this can be a very hard rule to follow in the moment.
When it’s late, when you’re alone, when you can’t tell if the guy is a harmless drunk or if his cursing at you will escalate. When you’ve got two guys bearing down on you over a disagreement at an intersection. In the moment you’re checking out how they wear their weight, if they favor a side, gauging their reach, your heart’s pounding, you know how fast you are with this kind of adrenaline. You know that whatever the guy’s on, once he shows you how he punches it becomes a question of joint breaks and temple strikes.
I’ve written a little bit about masculinity. It traps you, in instances like this. Everything you’ve been taught about manhood from John Wayne to Jon Hamm demands violence in this situation, and since you’re the one filming it in your own head, you are destined to be the glorious victor. And then the credits roll and you get the girl. Not necessarily in that order.
The thing the Karate Kid never taught you is that there are consequences to victory. Is your opponent really alone? Do they have any information on you that would let them sue you? Press charges? Do they know where you work, where you live?
And violence escalates. Maybe Zimmerman’s head was filled with the hoodie-d villain surrendering. Maybe he “just wanted to scare him” or “teach him a lesson.” The flaw in this mindset is your adversary doesn’t know how far you’re going to go. And they would be foolish to not assume the worst. An argument turns into a fist fight, somebody pulls a knife, somebody pulls a gun, somebody has a crew with them and it becomes a riot over some stupid barroom slight. Over nothing.
People are killed over nothing.
My son, my precious only son. My sweet, caring, wonderful unique child, they will kill you for nothing. They will kill you for nothing.
Stick to the mission.