The boys' middle school locker room is one of the scariest places in America, a mine field of adolescence, where danger lurks behind every shower stall and plastic soap dispenser: Atomic Wedgies and staph infections and Wet Willies and athlete's foot and Red Bellies and Rear Admirals and ... behind you.
It is a place where lessons are learned and rank is established, where armpit hair is more valuable than gold. There is urination and defecation and embarrassing nudity on this unsupervised island. There are fistfights and ambushes and God help you if your mother writes your name on your underpants. Or if your name rhymes with a sex organ.
The locker room is also a place where teen tomfoolery advances to hazing and bullying and animalistic brutality. This was the case at Walker Middle School, prosecutors have said, when four teens repeatedly raped another boy with a broom handle and hockey stick. The news was met with shock and horror and the usual questions: How could this happen?
What's not surprising is where it happened.
Author's locker room story No. 1: A substitute for the gym teacher at a junior high school runs into a locker room after hearing shouts of "Fight! Fight!" Upon entering, a boy flips off the lights. In darkness, the teens spit on the substitute teacher. Lights go back on. Boys act as if nothing happened.
• • •
"There's this nationwide attitude: What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room."
That's Hank Nuwer, author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, and several other books on hazing. He tracks reported incidents across the country. One identifiable trend is location. Locker room tops the list.
Among the recent stories: A Wisconsin teen is arrested after waving a knife at kids who were calling him gay.
A 14-year-old Pennsylvania boy holds down a 13-year-old classmate while a third student urinates on him. Six Texas middle schoolers are charged with felonies after attempting to anally penetrate three younger students with athletic cones. A 12-year-old Alabama boy is burned when another student ignites an aerosol stream of Axe deodorant and sprays him.
All in the locker room.
These are reported incidents. "The tip of the iceberg," says Nuwer.
• • •
Author's locker room story No. 2: Boy secretly greases pull-up bar with lotion. Challenges weaker boy to stand on that bench, then jump and try to grab pull-up bar. Weaker boy does, slips, crashes to the ground.
• • •
Why didn't the Walker Middle School victim say something sooner? we asked.
We can't know what he was thinking. But every locker room has a set of unwritten rules. You don't talk about what happens in the locker room because tomorrow you're going to be back in the same locker room.
The dynamics of the middle school locker room make it a noogie away from chaos.
You have sexually charged, immature and undersupervised teens, in various stages of emotional and physical development, jockeying for position inside the adolescent hierarchy. There also exists an immediate audience made up of boys most concerned with self preservation (who cares if he's getting picked on; at least it's not me), which can lead to a sort of acne-faced mob mentality.
And, says Nuwer, "You're nude in that room. You're taking a shower. You're very vulnerable."
"It may even be part of nature," says Dr. Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and author of Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment, and Humiliation. "It may be the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest and a battle to see who is strongest."
Like Lord of the Flies, with athletic tape, golf balls and broomsticks aplenty.
Fifty percent of the reported cases, Lipkins says, involve sexual assault. That's because anal penetration is the ultimate form of humiliation.
What frustrates Lipkins is that the bullying programs don't work. Telling a kid to stop bullying, no matter the method of delivery, has not been successful.
"The whole culture will have to change," she says.
• • •
Author's locker room story No. 3: Boy is tossing money at the feet of mentally challenged student, making him dance. Others are laughing. Student with armpit hair steps in front of him. Chastises other boys. Tells them to stop. They do.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.