There was an altercation in my classroom today–a disagreement sailed beyond the boundaries of what I and the assailants expected. Two girls allowed hurtful words to escalate beyond their “place of origin” in some meaningless aside, however deliberate. Too often, passions unleashed without restraint exceed the grasp of their intent, and violence ensues. Both young ladies possess fine minds and valuable insights; yet still I had to dismantle the vise grip they held on each other’s hair while the “b-word” floated all about. Still, the biggest problem with teenagers is that no one really knows what exactly precipitates an angry exchange..
Sometimes, it can be an overheard fragment in the cafeteria, or a rumored romance that frayed someone else’s “turf” two weeks before. Maybe a not-so-bad paper (at least in the eyes of the author) garnered a lower-than-expected grade, and somebody has to pay. Or maybe it is none of those things; maybe something or someone at home is simply not where it ought to be.
The trick in teaching is learning how to turn those tense moments into teachable ones. This transformation is especially needed when each class is viewed as a preordained assemblage and not just some bureaucratic happenstance. We all have something special to bring to this unique gathering space we share for almost a year. I need to work harder to remind the students of that.
After I separated the two offenders, and both were removed from the room, I turned to my remaining students and asked, “Now who was the peacemaker here? How might we have prevented the loss in our “family” here? What opportunity did we miss?”
“We didn’t know,” those closest to the scene protested. “They were just going back and forth when all of a sudden it got serious.”
His response reminded me that the world we inhabit, at times, seems overburdened by little things. The “wrong” look or the loaded word can launch harsh misunderstandings, not just between individuals, but also between and among political parties, or competing branches, or warring celebrities on some silly reality show. No matter where you stand, it seems, cooperation is a sissy word, and collaboration–without cheating–is a sin.
Little wonder that young people sometimes see arbitration and compromise as weakness. Too many contests appear to be “winner-take-all,” as if there were such a thing. Victories are always relative, and conflict changes every party involved. Each girl today saw themselves as victims, as mere defenders responding to slight. It matters little who threw the first word. They volleyed it back and forth until momentum took over and the only resolution became physical. Neither wanted to end up with her hair caught in the vise grip of the other, but it happened anyway.
It was over almost as soon as it started, but the tension lingered. We had all been laughing together only minutes before. The students had begun completing their annotations for the segment we devoted to the 1966 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where four little girls died. The day before, the students lent their voices and enthusiasm to a rounding reading of Dr. King’s eulogy for the real victims delivered on September 18th of that same year. We analyzed the rhetorical challenges confronting Dr. King that day, identified the many different audiences listening, dissected the multiple purposes he needed to serve, and uncovered the subtle blends of ethos, pathos, and logos lending his words their impact.
We talked about peace and nonviolence, words two of my students forgot only one day later. What can we learn for this? “When you first hear anger or hurt enter an exchange, come and alert me if I am not aware,” I instructed. “Just whisper and I will hear you. Don’t wait until it is too late to act.”
“What other changes can we make?”
“We can learn to care about each other,” my philosopher student volunteered. “We need to be in this together. Everybody just goes for themselves.”
“What we need to remember,” I added, “is that words affect people. That’s the source of your power. Don’t just give it away, or toss it lightly. Respect your words. Right now, your story has already begun. This chapter is being written whether you like it or not. Might as well seize the pen and compose something worth reading. Remember, anyone can fight. Sometimes, it takes a special soul not to.”
We discussed so many other things until the bell rang. On the way home, I thought of one more tenet I meant to share but forgot. I should have taught them one of those hard things I learned along the way: the best way to avoid being stung–is not to sting.
I will write that on the board come Thursday.