My wife and I were walking this weekend, a leisurely loop around a local lake, when we heard a rattling bike approaching behind us. We slid to the side to let him pass when ahead of us on the path a man in his fifties, who was walking with his wife, did something totally unexpected. Holding his arms out to his sides, he moved to the middle of the path to put himself directly in the way of the bicycle. As the the young man who was riding skidded to a surprised stop, the older man grabbed him with both hands and shouted “You need to slow down!”
At first I thought perhaps they knew each other; the intimacy of the situation was uncomfortable.
The young man’s eyes widened. He slapped the older man’s hands off his own arms and pushed him back. “Get your hands off me!” He shouted with an expletive.
The older man persisted, grabbing the younger man’s shoulders and beginning to yell at him again. The young man swatted him away and shouted a string of profanity as he began peddling away.
The older man’s wife called to him by name, but he ignored her as he threatened the bicyclist’s receding back. Slowed by a set of posts on the path, the younger man turned to swear a bit more and the older man began walking toward him.
The young man outweighed him by fifty pounds. Adrenaline and testosterone fueled both.
Then, successfully through the posts, the young man pedaled away, turning only once to shout a final obscenity and raise his middle finger.
The older man took a few impotent steps after him, huffed, and turned around. He walked back, made wobby eye contact with me and my wife, and said, by way of an explanation: “He was going so fast he almost ran over a family back there.”
I was a high school assistant principal for seven years; I know when to say nothing and how to provide a look that says that the conversation is over.
My wife and I walked away and the older man caught up with his wife and walked off behind us. When they were out of earshot, my wife turned to me and asked: “What would you have done if they started hitting each other?”
It had nearly come to that.
In my time in education I’ve seen my share of tense situations go bad. As a teacher, I pulled students apart as they fought in the hallway outside my room. As an assistant principal, I dealt with students who had come to blows, and then with their parents, and sometimes police.
Almost always these instances could be described in the way my wife described what we’d seen on the path by the lake: “They were both wrong, weren’t they?”
Schools are microcosms of society, perhaps a little kinder overall and considerably less jaded, but populated with personalities much the same as the adults who make up the communities around them. Watching those two adults engage in behavior that was both immature and unsafe reminded me just how important it is for those of us who make education our vocation to keep a priority on helping individuals get along.
This means talking with students, developing supports for those in crisis, and helping to create a community that promotes kindness. It means working with students who are learning to respond to the stresses around them, providing direction, counsel, and perspective. I’ve seen programs like PALS (Peer Assistance Listeners) work well, meaningful connections by teachers and counselors make a difference, and amazing results from administrators who bring an attitude of optimism to their work with students.
It also means working with families. The rage I saw in the older man’s face, his indignation over the younger man’s alleged carelessness, had echoes of the attitude I’ve seen applied to teachers and coaches by some parents who believe their students have been wronged. Just as this man was convinced that his actions, unsafe though they were, were justified, I’ve seen aggression directed from adult to adult that is as hurtful as the perceived wrong that prompted it.
This isn’t to say that such wrongs don’t exist, but that line from Hamlet whispers in the back of my ear whenever I work with a parent or a teacher who is seeing red: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”
“You know it’s a bad situation,” I told my wife, “when the most mature action we saw was the guy choosing to ride away on his bike.”
“Flipping the other guy off.”
“Flipping the other guy off.”
Whether it’s an argument, a complaint, raised voices, or clenched fists, conflict happens -in schools and outside of them- and this conflict is best met with a level head, a strong heart, and that attitude mentioned in a different Shakespearean play, when the audience is reminded that “the quality of mercy is not strained.”
For me, that isn’t always true. Sometimes judgement is easy; mercy takes effort.
Returning to campus this week, I was happy to see our Associated Student Body class hosting a “No Place for Hate Week.” Students can send compliment-grams, inspirational messages are written in chalk on the ground, and our entire student body held hands to form a human chain that encircled the school. As one sophomore explained it to me, “We want every student to feel connected, to know they’re an important part of our school.”
I know I’ll think of those two men on the path around the lake as I watch students promote a world where such conflict doesn’t have a place.
Into all our lives come cautionary tales, reminders of why we do what we do, or why we should. I’m thankful no punches were thrown on the path by the lake, and I’m hopeful that the work we do in our school community might contribute to a world where fewer conflicts like that ever happen.
We can all be a little more patient and a little more kind. We can learn to take a step back when emotions run hot.
“Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”
It’s times like these that I’m thankful to work at a school where conflicts can be seen as speed bumps, not brick walls. With an attitude of optimism, even in a society that sees conflict between people who should know better, I see promise, mercy, and a reason for hope.