Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Blood on the Doorsteps

Yesterday, after my classes, I went into town to get a sandwich for lunch. After filling up, I returned to school to check on a few things we've been working on.

I was met at the front door of the school by two students who made it a point to show me some blood on the doorsteps. There had been a fight, "a very good fight," they told me, between two of the other students.

Details as to exactly what happened remain sketchy, but this much is known. The fight involved two boys, an 11th grader and a 12th grader. They had gotten into a small fight on their way home the preceding Friday. They didn't get out of their systems whatever they needed to get out on Friday and brought their hostilities with them to school on Monday. The boy whose blood was on the doorsteps was injured pretty badly, and he was in, and might still be in, the hospital because of some serious damage to one of his eyes.

It wasn't my responsibility to monitor the hall or the front of the school, but I couldn't help but thinking, "Would this have happened had I been around? And, what, if anything, would I have done had I been there?"

Teenage boys get in fights. I got in a couple fights as a teenager, and, even though I've diffused more than a few fights among students, I'm always tempted to just let the kids duke it out, particularly when one of them needs nothing more than a good ass whipping. But, as a teacher, one of our roles is clear – to do our best to provide our students with a learning environment in which they feel safe – and I always end up throwing myself in the middle of whatever scrap might be about to erupt into something more serious.

In such situations, there is no moral dilemma. I know I'm doing the right thing. I don't feel good or bad about it. It's just something I do instinctively without emotion or feeling.

I had a very different feeling a few months ago when I dealt with a slightly different issue. I was teaching after school English to a couple elementary school kids. One of the kids, a boy, asked if he could go to the bathroom. I let him go, but he came back crying. When I asked him what was wrong, he initially refused to answer. After calming him down and telling him everything was going to be fine, he told me that one of our students, a 9th grader who was playing ping pong in the hall in front of the bathroom, had pushed, hit, and bullied him.

This infuriated me, and I went out and confronted the 9th grader. When I first approached, he knew why I was coming and just started laughing. This infuriated me even more, and I grabbed him and asked him what he had done. At first he denied doing anything and said he and the other boy were friends. After yelling at him until he had no doubts I didn't find anything remotely amusing about what he'd done, I dragged him into the room where we were studying English and demanded that he apologize to the other kid. He did so, and genuinely, but I was still seething.

Later that afternoon, I encountered the 9th grader on my walk home. At first when I saw him I felt nothing but anger. But as I got closer I saw in him the same fear I had seen in the younger boy earlier. At that moment, I realized I had bullied and intimidated the 9th grader in exactly the same way he had bullied and intimidated the young boy. And I felt like shit.

In an attempt to salvage the situation, I met with the 9th grader and the school counselor the following day. I explained to him why I was so upset and why his behavior was unacceptable. He listened calmly and understood completely. But sadly, his behavior hasn't changed. My actions in "authority posturing" or whatever else you want to call it only reinforced the idea in his mind that you get your way by pushing around those who are in a position of comparative weakness.

No question. Teachers have a duty to protect their students, especially the younger and weaker ones. But students must be protected not only by the teachers but from them.

I'd like to believe that international politics is somehow more complicated than this, but it's really not:
  • Emotion in decision making must be minimized. At best, emotion clouds reason. At worst, it eliminates reason altogether.
  • The old saying, "Do as I say, not as I do," just doesn't fly.
  • When your conscience tells you you've done or are doing something wrong, you should listen to it and change your behavior. This goes for individuals as well as countries.
  • Might isn't right, and the time for "bullying" to end has long since passed.

1 comment:

  1. Brian, what a great reflection. Thanks for sharing.

    Tom Van Arsdel