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Mentorship and Murder

February 18, 2014

(I need to preface this post by saying that the outrageous racism in the actions of Michael Dunn has to be acknowledged, but is not the primary focus of my thoughts in this essay, although mentorship can address racism as well.)

Here’s a thing you probably haven’t thought about in the justifiable outrage over Michael Dunn’s slaying of Jordan Davis in the benighted state of Florida.

In this tragic, violent story, is a tangential, but significant, opportunity to think about mentorship.  When I read that Jordan’s loud music was what triggered Dunn’s rage, I realized something important in those few moments and the words that passed between Davis and Dunn in the parking lot of the convenience store that night.

Coherent cultures understand that the passage from childhood to adulthood is a developmental transition that requires guidance and is fraught with opportunity for trouble.  When a system is transitioning it is turbulent and chaotic, and small perturbances can have large, and unintended, outcomes.  So any actively functioning culture, (which we do not have) knows to tend people in those times carefully.  To our own discredit and risk, we mostly leave adolescents seeking a way into adulthood largely to their own devices.   Youth is a life moment suffused with an unstable blend of power and uncertainty.  Young people in late adolescence are coming into the peak of their physical strength, buffeted by alternating waves of bravado, fear and desire and have no good map for how those energies will fit into the world.  As Malidoma Some’ observes: “If we don’t teach young people what to do with their fire, they may burn the village down.” It’s telling that various kinds of gangs often offer young people more compelling developmental holding environments than their families or communities.

Older people are right to be frightened of young people, in a sense. They are more powerful than older people, less emotionally regulated, more likely to be intoxicated, and more likely to be violent. What is a tenuous situation to begin with is exacerbated by the fact that increasingly, we leave their socialization in the hands of the market, the internet and each other.  As Roebert Bly says, the responsibility for the problems with young men, lies at the feet of the old men.

All over the planet, from time immemorial, the traditional cultural technique is to bend that energy back into the service of the culture and away from self-absorption, via a Rite of Passage.  These ceremonies can be incredibly demanding and rigorous, sometimes lasting years.   In some cases, a certain marginal rate of mortality is deemed acceptable- demonstrating the significant “investment” placed in the proper pattern of growth and development.  The authenticity and intensity of the experience- mediated by the community- is a recognition and honoring of the intensity of the power and potential of the human experience, and the intense need for connection, obligation, and social responsibility.  Vestiges of these experiences, often diluted or even perverted, can be found in the military, fraternity or gang hazing, Boy Scouts, church groups, etc.

Back to the music.  When you become part of a community or culture that understands this responsibility to each other, you gain the capacity to see the overt expression of youthful intensity for what it is: provocation.  Remember that “to provoke” means “to call forth.” The root is in “vocal”- to speak.  Their loud music, awful fashion, weird gaits, aggressive postures, etc., are all at the root, requests to be heard and spoken with.  If those requests are not honored, their attempts to gain recognition will grow increasingly louder and more insistent.

When you are part of mentoring tradition, which some communities are reclaiming, you are likely to see teenagers, and their provocations in a different way.  Can you look past the surface of the music or the aggressive body language, and maybe with some due wariness, catch a young person’s eye, and offer a nod of the head, or a slight smile, remembering what it was like for you not to know who you were, or where you fit, or how it might all work out.  Is there a moment of recognition, which is in the smallest kinds of ways, an honoring, a knowing? If you are fortunate enough to have an appropriate community context, you might have a chance to take a Jordan Davis under your wing and offer some guidance, challenge and support. Or you might have a chance to take a Michael Dunn under your wing, before he learns to fear, hate and ultimately, kill a young person.

  1. I question “In some cases, a certain marginal rate of mortality is deemed acceptable- demonstrating the significant “investment” placed in the proper pattern of growth and development.” That disturbs and terrifies me, and doesn’t strike me as acceptable in any way. What do you mean?


    • Yeah, I didn’t write that lightly. It says that in a culture with little “reserve”- there’s no Wal Mart or cheap energy, etc, etc,etc as a buffer…that people must be capable. So the culture puts a great deal of effort into making sure that they are. The test is significant, and not everybody gets an “A.” Some people might fail or get caught in a blizzard, or wake up the enemy camp when stealing their best horses. (It may also be that our ancestors’ spiritual beliefs were such that the value of an individual life was different. For example, in some mesoamerican cultures, the captain of the WINNING team was sacrificed after the big game!) I put that out there as a template or example by extremity of what people’s vision of the transition into full adulthood entailed, and I’m certainly not advocating for it in a modern context. However, even us gentle nature-based educators know, that there can be little growth in certain domains of development, without authentic risk, and when we take those risks for and with our students – of bee sting, snake bite, lightning, drowning, falling out of a tree – we are operating in a different place, but on the same continuum.


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