Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blood on the Bathroom Wall

There's an arc of blood on the bathroom wall leading down to a trail of crimson drip marks stretching across the floor. The far sink is full of towels stained red from the cleanup after the fight.

This is one of the things I hate about working in a school full of rural or poor-neighborhood kids. They are 21st-century kids but they still live by a code of conduct from the paleolithic era. No insult can be ignored. Sticking up for yourself means being willing to throw a punch, even if it's just because the other guy called you a name or bumped into you in the hallway. The fathers even teach their sons to be this way. A kid can be punished at home for doing the right thing at school and walking away. We can't let ourselves raise cowards. It's better that we raise animals instead.

Each fight makes me angry. Fighting is stupid. Fighting is what a person does because they're too dumb to think of something more effective. Fighting is what animals do. It's what my dog does when a weaker dog tries to sneak a bite of his food. Humans don't have to work this way. In fact, what makes this attitude so horrible is that the real world, at least the real world we have in wealthy countries, doesn't work this way. You get in a fight at work, and you're fired. You get in a fight on the street as an adult and you're as likely to go to jail or be sued as you are to gain any respect. Fighting doesn't work.

Except that so many of these kids don't live in that real world. At home they have to deal with their own bullies. No one else has their back. My mom once taught a kid who went to sleep every night with a baseball bat so he could protect his mom from his step-dad when the old man came home drunk. I've taught students who were attacked by groups of other kids on the street for a perceived slight. They live with animals who sense weakness and attack when they do, so they have to be animals to survive.

It's a shame they don't realize that school is the one place they don't have to be that way. I teach in what is really a very safe school. There are adults here who really will have your back if you need it, but it's hard not to transfer the lessons you learn for 16 hours a day to the 8 hours a day when you don't need those lessons.

I understand why so many of these kids think this is just the way of life, but it's still really hard for me to feel it in my heart. I never needed to know how to fight. In nearly 30 years, I've never once had a reason to defend myself physically. There has only been one time in my entire life when I even threw a punch, and even then I saw that act as a personal failure. My dad and grandfather were proud of me. It proved to them that I was willing to stand up for myself, that I wasn't weak. To me, and to my mom, I think, it proved that I actually was weak, that I was not able to control my anger and deal with my problems in a more mature way.

I was in the eighth grade when I learned that the color of anger isn't red, but white. If my friends tell you the story of that day, I punched a guy in the face over a french fry, but that's not really the truth. The truth is that the guy had recently been a friend, but was a little too much of a bully. I had no reason to fear for my safety, but the guy was basically a jerk and I was getting tired of it. One day at lunch, he came over, sat next to me and stole a fry off of my tray. I didn't actually punch him for that. Instead, I told him to never do something like that again. He didn't take being told what to do very well, so he poked me in the chest and told me not to tell him what to do. The only thing is that he missed. Instead of the chest, he poked me in the throat, and I swung. I don't remember if I connected and I only remember swinging once. From the second I cocked my arm back, I only saw a wall of white and when my vision finally returned, I was already halfway to the office with a fat teacher yelling "Go to the office!" at my back. She must not have realized that I was already on my way to turn myself in. After spending the next three days in ISS, the other kids told me that I actually landed a few more fists on the guy's face before I stood up and slowly walked away. The other kid didn't throw a punch. I honestly think he was so shocked I did anything that he was paralyzed.

One could argue that because I was never really picked on by anyone after that "fight" that fighting was successful in my case, but that ignores the fact I was never really picked on before then, either. I was always one of the biggest guys in my class and bullies don't look for victims a head taller than they are. I was in the process of just breaking ties with this kid as it was. It had worked for the last kid who'd been a lousy friend and it would have worked for this kid as well. Eventually.

Besides, the kids who get into fights in this school are always the same few idiots. Their fighting hasn't kept anyone from doing anything to them. They just leave more blood on the bathroom wall than the rest of us.


Julie said...

I have never gotten in a fight but it's not really expected of girls (though they're usually more vicious).

I also think that unnecessary violence is stupid. I watch it in movies but they're movies. I can't think of a situation where the best thing to do is hit someone in real life. Ex-boyfriend hit a wall once when he was frustrated and all he got was a hole in the wall and a sore hand. That kinda sums up violence for me.

Chris said...

It's a tough subject. I think it is wise to know how to defend yourself (which is not to say that I do), because unfortunately there are people in this world who behave like animals. But as you say, someone should defend himself against the threat of physical injury -- not against insults or being picked on.

All in all, you've got it spot-on: those kids' dads are thick-headed idiots for raising them to think this way.

A Free Man said...

I'm with you. I hate fighting. Hate violence of all kinds. Even in TV and movies - especially in TV and movies. For some reason I was thinking about that this morning. Like how to I deal with my boys when they get to that stupid age where boys feel like the only solution is sometimes fights. I just don't know.

courtney said...

I disagree with Julie that girls are more vicious. It's just a different kind of vicious. Like A Free Man, I hate violence in all forms.

I'm sure that's a hard lesson to teach as a parent -- how to teach your kid to stand up for himself without stooping to the level of a bully. But everyone should know that throwing the first punch is never the right solution.