Monday, May 17, 2010

Moral Obligation

One of the greatest satisfactions of being a school principal is found in that rare moment when you feel you’ve made a difference. Principals are suckers for that. Give us the tiniest inkling that we’ve somehow helped, and we’re in it for another year.

Such a moment presented itself recently after a particularly disheartening event at my school.

We had a fight.

Not all that unusual on a high school campus since the invention of high school campuses. Kids get mad at each other. The anger builds up. They don’t always have the skills or finesse to deal with their anger more subtly. So, they hit.

Maybe ten years ago, that would have been that. Now, it’s not just that any more. Fights seem worse these days, even if they’re just the same old fights among teenagers we had back when our dads were punching each other behind the gym. Because the whole world seems to be racing toward the brink, we cannot feel confident that this fight might be the ordinary old kind of fight. This fight might be the fight that leads to the next one and the next one…the never-ending retaliatory kind of cyclical fight that defies logic and common sense. It could be that kind of fight. Or it could be worse.

Because we want to avoid all fights, we keep our collective ears to the ground and respond to the smallest murmur of discontent between individuals on campus. We counsel and advise young people in how to deal with peers they don’t like. We offer a wide range of options so that student A can resist the urge to smack student B.

We’re actually pretty good at it. But we’re not 100%. And so, this week, at lunch, A smacked B. B smacked back. And because they were equally matched, we had a frenetic fight with a big audience.

Such things are so very discouraging for so many reasons. Word goes home from the audience, and the community adds that piece of data to their view of our schools. And because of human nature, those bits of data get repeated more frequently than say, the data that we had 82 Scholar athletes from our Fall Sports teams. That’s 82 athletes with GPA’s of 3.0 or higher. We have another 63 from Winter Sports.  Spring Sports are likely to be impressive too.  Graduating seniors going to Stanford and Berkeley.  Another Gates Millenium Scholarship winner this year.

But aside from that, such events create a stir on campus that may take days to subside. So, I went on the PA and talked to the kids. I said they each had the moral obligation to keep us informed if they knew a conflict was escalating.

They usually do know. They see the hard looks, and hear the insults, sometimes days before the players face off. We do get tips. We always act on them. And, we are quite successful at averting combat when we have the information in advance.

I told the kids all this and appealed to their moral sensibilities. Help us stop the fights before they begin. Help us stop the violence.

Now, in the lunchroom are Mike and Jacob, two seniors, pals, horsing around. They’re “play fighting,” making a show for their own amusement and for that of their friends, other big healthy strapping boys who smile and watch. It’s slow motion, as though these two are rehearsing for the next take on a movie set. They grab each other and pretend struggle.

I see this from across the room and begin to move toward them to fulfill my role of killjoy. But Danny sees them too. Danny is small and developmentally delayed, and Danny has heard my speech.

Before I reach Mike and Jacob, Danny gets there. He pushes himself between them facing Mike with outstretched arms to protect Jacob. Danny looks up at Mike’s fake snarl and says, “Stop! Stop the violence!”

By now I’m on the scene and Mike turns to me with a questioning smile. “We were playing, Mrs. Plath.”

“I know, Mike, but he doesn’t.”

Danny has turned to Jacob. “Aw you all wight?”

Jacob, too, smiles a questioning smile, but turns to Danny and clapping him on the shoulder says, “Thanks, man.”

I thanked Danny too. He helped me know there is hope. Someone is listening.