There had only been one fight at my school this year. We may be a public school in the hood made famous by Spike Lee and Chris Rock, but Striver High (to start using euphemisms) is so strict it’s parochial: students are suspended if they curse, and everyone is afraid of Mr. Tigerton (the principal), a force of nature in suspenders and a tie.
So color me shocked when, from across the room, I hear Monica and Yvonne hissing at each other like angry cats. They’ve sat peacefully at different tables since my class began in January; Monica, for one, usually doesn’t speak above a whisper. Yvonne has actually stopped me on the street to ask me about homework she’s missing. But they were so angry I couldn’t understand what they were saying: fountains of hate showering sparks over the classroom.
Appalled, I ran between them (they were still in their seats). “THERE. IS. NO. FIGHTING. IN. MY. CLASSROOM!!” I bellowed, crouching, my face red, like a crazy person. I figured if I could become enough of a distraction, I might diffuse the drama. “OUT. Get out. Go to the office,” I snarled to both of them.
Duh: Rule Number One of sending warring students to the office: Don’t send them AT THE SAME TIME. They will only resume their spat outside in the hallway. Which Monica and Yvonne did immediately.
But there really isn’t a lot of fighting at my school. And I adore these girls. I couldn’t take the possibility of them physically harming each other, so, against the advice of my union (and common sense), I stood between them, repeating my command to go to the office. I may as well have been a sheet of tissue paper.
Luckily, when Monica tried to punch Yvonne, she only grazed my chin, and Yvonne’s friends restrained her, so no one was hurt. I barely felt it. I continued my rant until both girls were in the office.
Girls are magnificent when they’re angry: all hand gestures and rotating necks and tonal fluctuation, like birds in a war dance. In the office, with Mr. T, they quickly devolved into burbling, crying messes. Puffy-eyed and shaky, Monica tried explaining her side, but escalated into a tirade: “You are NASTY, Yvonne, you are a NASTY, MEAN GIRL,” she said, with palpable hurt in her voice. Something about the culture of the school allowed them to let down their guard in that office: they were both so WOUNDED. Their pride puddled on the floor; their tears and honesty ran the show.
Later, I hugged them separately, saying, “I love each of you unconditionally.” I gave them the lecture about turning the other cheek: “There will always, always be people who don’t understand you. Do not engage them, because they aren’t rational. You won’t win. Don’t even go there. This is not your best self; this is the worst part of you. Show the world the you we know and love. You are brilliant and kind: own it.”
As a teacher, I say this kind of thing all the time. I stop kids I’m worried about in the hallway, or bend the ears of loiterers after school, giving impromptu lectures about honesty, kindness, responsibility, ambition, tolerance, all the stuff you imagine teachers breathe in and out instead of oxygen. I have no idea if it ever permeates the messy membrane between kids and adults; their identities, their moral compasses, are notoriously unstable. Sometimes they argue, but it is usually half-hearted and sloppy: “What if I don’t think it’s wrong to cheat, Ms. M?” “But I don’t care about getting a 100.” “When I say somehting’s gay, I just mean it’s stupid, I’m not saying anything about gay people.” I say it and say it, like an insistent, broken record.
For some reason, Monica and Yvonne seemed to take it in, nodding sincerely, looking me in the eye. Maybe they were just worn out. Maybe they were listening. I hope I was reminding them about something they already knew.