Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Fightclub: The Extracurricular

Growing up, I attended public schools. But public schools in Colorado's best districts, I've learned, are completely different animals than public schools in New Orleans, where I've spent the last three years. Here in some of our nation's most underserved schools, the daily educational process is like being transported to an entirely transformed world than the one I lived in when I attended K-12. There are substantial differences. 

For instance, when was in school, there were exactly two fights that I can remember, one in middle school and one in high school. Both were ill-formed, half-assed, and badly executed. They were over almost instantly and can probably be classified more appropriately as brief slap-fests than actual fights. And we were all, appropriately, mortified. 

When I was a kid, the only "fights" I experienced first-hand were the scuffles my brother and I instigated against each other every day of the week and twice on Sundays. One or the other of us might escape with a bruise or a bit mark, but almost always in good humor, and whenever more serious injuries occurred, they were accidental. 

The first real fight I ever witnessed was in my classroom, between two of my students, on my first day as a solo instructional leader. I was the only adult in the room, and I had no idea what was going on. I had zero classroom management skills, no administrative backup, no instincts or abilities to read the kids' energy levels and intentions, no mental space to keep track of their attitudes. I was drowning, and I didn't even know it. 


But at the end of the day, the kids were standing around at dismissal (my first mistake – why on earth would I let them just idle in the room without purpose?). Then, so quickly I didn't even notice it happening, two girls had seized text books and were beating each other viciously with them. One broke the other's glasses with a blow to the face; the other's nose was already bleeding. I had had no training or preparation for this. I had never actually seen such malicious violence in person, for which, on a deep and foundational level, I am very grateful. I tried to grab one, but let me tell you, teenage girls fight with vengeance, and they are impossible to hold on to. Eventually I managed to shove my way between them and the veteran teacher from next door came and wrenched them apart. I won a cracked rib, a sore shoulder, and a complete mental blank for my efforts. 


I quickly got better at handling fights when they broke out, and, happily, at managing a classroom in such a way that prevented fights entirely. I'm proud to say that there has not been a single fight in my classroom this school year, because I have no time for that nonsense. My students unanimously believe that Ms. Manly is too crazy to fight in front of, and that's an image I have worked hard to cultivate. But, man, in the beginning, there were some doozies. 


At the first school where I taught, which was a failing charter, the procedure for a fight was: Don't get involved. Get other students out of the way. Pull the chord on the wall (which may or may not work) for help.



I found this to be basely intolerable. Don't get involved? I thought. How can I just let kids fight without trying to stop them?



At this charter, there were two guys who doubled as security in addition to their normal duties. Whenever a fight broke out, we were supposed to pull the cord and wait for them to show. But sometimes the cord didn't work, and we were sort of on our own. Occasionally, for a bad fight, I had to send another student to find help and just hope they were nearby. I remember one fight in particular, when one of my favorite students, a really nice young man who always asked how my day was going and was always polite and kind, finally snapped. I learned that if I inserted myself between the combatants, the fight would (usually) quickly deescalate, because they were far less likely to be willing to hit me than each other. So when I got between them, I just put my elbow in the chest of the student, and walked slowly toward the wall. I'm proud to say I kept right on teaching, gently leaning on this kid with my to help him keep still and calm down, until the security guard arrived and promptly started laughing at how ridiculous the scene way. 

Let me stress again that I had no formal training about how to deescalate physical conflicts. I had to learn on the fly how to (A) keep uninvolved proximal students safe, (B) disengage the combatants promptly and safely, and (C) keep me safe. I read up on some strategies, and it seemed like best practices was to restrain the instigator by gently holding their wrists, crossed at their shoulders – it derails their forward momentum. But it's super hard to grab a hold of some slippery kid's wrists when they're flailing and yelling about one another's mothers. I got good at it, though, which is both a positive and a negative – positive in that any fights I encounter don't last long, and negative in that I've had so much practice. At least I've learned how to preserve the peace in my classroom so that fights are never a possibility in the small space that I can control. 


Last semester, there was a terrible fight in the hallway on my floor as the kids were coming back from lunch. The hardest part about breaking up a fight isn't the combatants themselves – it's the crowd of students who gather to watch. Getting through that wall of kiddos can be difficult, and this was not a fight I could deescalate by shoving myself between them. This was a vicious all-out brawl. Over a girl. In a middle school



I finally reached the kids, and was trying to disband the crowd so other teachers could get close enough to help, when one of my former students, a really sweet young man who grew approximately two feet over the summer, bellowed for the crowd to part. He came charging down the hallway like a linebacker, head down, shoulder forward, and ran straight into the middle of the fight – and then kept running. He had managed to pick up one of the fighters in a running fireman's carry and lugged him bodily all the way to the other end of the hall. It was the speediest and most dramatic deescalation I'd ever seen. I tracked down my former student later, where he was bent over, panting, and covered in sweat, and patted him on the back, saying, "You know, that may not have been the smartest thing to do, but I'm sure glad you did it." 


But to date, the most ridiculous fight I have ever seen was at that charter where I taught when I was new to New Orleans and new to the classroom – and it wasn't between students. That spring, I was returning to campus from having chaperoned a field trip. I was tired and sweaty and gross and wanted nothing more than to return to my quiet, childless house for a night of peace. But as I entered the front door of the school, a grown woman with half a weave on her head and a strapless Maxi dress ran out and clotheslined me onto the school steps. She was screaming, "Run, son, run!" 

She didn't wait to see if her son had followed. She picked up the hem of her dress and booked it across the parking lot. Toddling after her came a boy of no more than four, from our pre-K program, and he looked super sad about it, and not at all rushed. As I picked myself up and dusted myself off, gaining my breath back and contemplating what would be the bruise across my collarbone, the school's cop, a big ex-Navy Seal, came barreling out after her, taser in hand, bellowing for her to stop. She was half a block away now, by the parking lot entrance, and when the other school cop appeared by the cafeteria doors, she redirected across the parking lot,  trying to avoid him. Then two of our custodians popped out of the school's side door, and she was surrounded. These guys were not small, and the cops were experienced and trained. But she fought like a tiger. The felled two of them before the cops finally had her on the ground, flailing and screeching like a trapped animal. She was cuffed and hauled away in the back of a police van, and our school cop had a black eye for the next three days. 

Turns out she didn't have custody of the little one and had tried to take him with her before his grandmother, his guardian, could pick him up. But he went home with his grandma and was safe and his mother, who was clearly either the Hulk or on PCP, was booked. And behind me on the stairs, my supervisor, an instructional coach, quietly started singing the school's spirit song. 



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Author's note: Fights in schools are super sad things and are unfortunately all too common, but one of the tools we teachers use to not feel defeated by what happens in aspects of our jobs that we cannot control is humor. Don't judge me too meanly for occasionally laughing about it; I'm all too well aware of the often harsh reality of my kids' lives, and work every day to make them better. 
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