Beautiful Boys

Lake ChelanToday at the college, a freshman hunched over the form I handed him, checking off boxes. Male. Under 25. Native language Mongolian.

He shouldn’t have had to fill it out again.

The writing center where I work had misplaced his file, and the young man was understandably frustrated.

But this wasn’t your average freshman sulk.

Rage lifted from this guy’s pores like steam. It evaporated into the atmosphere around us. And when he finished the form, he threw himself back in his chair. Dog tags clicked against his chest.

I’ve worked with a lot of vets in my 13 years at the community college.

I’ve also worked with survivors of human trafficking, civil war, and genocide. And all survivors of violence carry certain hallmarks of trauma.

But there is no experience, as an American, remotely as moving and difficult and ultimately transcendent as sitting beside a vet for 35 minutes.

For a start, they are so young it can break your heart: 18, 19, today 21. The oldest I’ve encountered in the last couple years was 26.

They use words like “brothers” and “integrity” and “equality”.

And you know they mean it.

That cracks my heart open. Because a 21-year-old can only mean these things—really mean them—when they’ve been through hell and come back. Brotherhood, to these young men, is not an ideal. It’s a necessity. It’s the thing that saves your ass under fire.

And this is the other side. Along with the enlightenment and the honor of working with a vet, there is always an edge of terror in the beginning.

Because many of those I work with have been diagnosed with PTSD. And only this thin veneer of composure stands between you and the ancient rage of the wounded warrior, so brittle it cracks if you bump against it.

Oh god, I’m so sorry.

Because I’ve learned.

I’ve learned that you have to take the weight of these young men and, in one graceful sweep of your arms, return it to them.

Otherwise, you come home bruised every day.

Not physically—their restraint is trained and dogged and beautiful.

But emotionally.

Because that is how these boys come back.

So eager to hurt, anywhere but their own insides.

So you take the weight—for a second or two, you take their rage before you hand it back to them—and you look into their eyes, and you find a way to tell them that you are willing to walk away, to give them time and space, to get them a different tutor. But you are not going to get angry back. You are not here for a fight.

Only then do they realize you are there to listen.

And these boys, they are desperate to be listened to.

They are hungry to be listened to.

They are fairly dying to be listened to.

And what I always end up with, after the first couple tutoring sessions, is someone I can’t recognize as the angry kid I sat down next to. You give these guys a little silence, and they fill it with words.

And as the words come out, so does another person. Less brittle. More open. “I want to say this,” they tell me. “But what I really feel is this.” And they turn their eyes on you, and finally—god, finally—there is the young man. Beyond all the rage. Still there.

I will never understand what they’ve been through, no matter how many of their stories I hear.

But I understand how to get them talking.

You just sit back, and you tell them, “But I’m here to find out what you think.”

And then you listen.

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