Fighting, Just Because

Broken glass
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There were two fights in my little wing of our school today.

Neither fight had to happen. Neither fight should have happened.

Inner-city middle school students fight as play sometimes, but these were not play fights.

Students fight because their parents tell them that if they don’t fight back when someone says or does something to them, they’re wimps.

Some students fight because their self-image is so fragile that even the slightest negative comment about them is a challenge to their existence.

These students, and those whose parents are not abetting their violent ways, fight because they don’t have other strategies for dealing with problems.

My fellow teachers and I do our best to teach problem-solving strategies.

We tell the students that when someone talks about their mother it is not actually their mother, that the other students doesn’t know their mother and is making comments about some pretend mother that they all share.

I also tell my students that I am completely non-violent and that non-violence is stronger than violence.

Mahatma Gandhi

Image by dbking via Flickr

I teach them about Gandhi, how we share a birth date, and how he defeated what was then the strongest nation on earth with words and peaceful actions.

We all teach them about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and how he fought racism with words and non-violent actions even when confronted with violence.

And I tell them the story of the only time I got punched and how I won the fight without doing anything more than taking the punch.

I was in middle school when it happened, probably about 11 or 12 years old.

I was a big, athletic kid, but I was just a kid.

One day I was the first student to come down the stairs and out into the schoolyard for recess.

As I came through the doors into the schoolyard I got hit hard, very hard, squarely on the right side of my chin.

My jaw seemed to go out a mile and snap back, but I did not crumple or go down.

I just stood there looking at the youngish man who had attacked me for absolutely no reason.

I just continued looking at the man as my mind raced to figure out what had just happened and why.

Then the man ran away.

I continued to stand there.

It finally occurred to me that the man had run away because I had just taken his best punch, absolutely cold and just stood there.

There was nothing more he could do to hurt me.

It was in that moment I decided that I would never practice violence.

And I never have.

My students always listen raptly to the story and seem impressed.

Some ask me what I would do if they hit me.

I tell them to try it, but I don’t think they believe me when I tell them I will not fight back.

I want them to realize that turning one’s back and walking away is a far stronger statement, far more honorable, than fighting to defend one’s honor.

I always hope that this story will come to mind the next time they think they need to fight.

It never does.

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11 Responses to Fighting, Just Because

  1. Deven,
    Once again you tell a compelling story that many of us can relate to and that is quite unfortunate. I wonder, though, if your last sentence is accurate; the jury is still out about whether sharing your experience prevents a student from continuing the violence. I have a sense that your story is more powerful than you realize and might take years to sink in. Thanks for sharing.

  2. bethfriese says:

    Yesterday, my son’s best friend was hit in the face by a classmate. The teacher was out of the room and my son walked over and punched the person who did it in the arm. Then it was over.

    After two days of suspension and a lot of talking, I hope he has learned his lesson. What I hope he never forgets was how he came home that afternoon, sat across from us and sobbed for a long time, because he was so sorry. He hurt someone, and could not take it back.

    I never, ever want him to get used to that feeling.

  3. Matt Guthrie says:

    Having lived and worked in the inner for five years, I know too well the problems that occur because parents have instructed their children to fight. One of the values we would try to teach was “honor your parents” but how do you handle that one? Our compromise was fight long enough to get away if you are in danger, but take the stance you describe so well above. Unfortunately, they rarely (ever?) learned that nonviolence could actually win the battle and the war.

    • Deven Black says:

      Matt, How can we expect children to learn that non-violence can win the battle and the war when nations can’t learn it; and how can we expect nations to learn it when their children can’t?

  4. Perhaps there is more to fighting than you realize.

    I used to fight a lot in school. I’m glad that I did. It’s an important part of who I am as an adult. Fighting is an important part of my culture. I’m an intellectual, and I’m a fighter.

    As an adult, I’ve never been in a physical fight. But neither do I feel any fear of violence. I’m ready to protect myself and my family. I will intervene when I see adults hurting each other on the street, for instance. I act to stop crime instead of slinking away. I believe that’s partly because I fought in schoolyards and hallways.

    I fought in a relatively safe way and in safe places. It was a little dangerous, but through fighting I learned about struggle and striving and politics. I came to believe that I cannot be bullied, and that bullies must be stopped. I also crossed the line into bullying, at times, and learned what that felt like and why I didn’t want to do that.

    I remember one day in seventh grade I teased a kid who just seemed to snap. He went crazy. He was smaller than I was and not skilled in wrestling. I’d knock him down, but he kept getting up. I pinned him, but he wouldn’t stop struggling. I didn’t want to hurt him (hurting an opponent in a schoolyard fight brings terrible consequences) but I couldn’t figure out how not to do that. Finally I ran away, but he chased me into a locker room. He swung wildly at me, shouting incoherently and crying. His fists slammed into metal lockers. This had never happened to me before. I began to worry about this kid. What started out as comical began to feel tragic.

    We (there were several of us boys he was attacking, now) switched strategies to calming him, and slowly that began to work. He’d proven himself. He fought the bullies. He’d won the fight. I apologized to him. I had witnessed heroism. I didn’t tease a smaller kid after that.

    This illustrates a few points, but one of them is that people who don’t fight tend to overdo it when they decide to gird for battle. I see this a lot as an adult in arguments. The mild-mannered people seem to become the most abusive whenever they finally come into a debate, as if they see debate as inherently abusive and don’t know about “fighting fair.”

    Through fighting I learned about weakness and strength. I learned how to pick my battles. In fighting, I overcame fear and humiliation. Some kids I fought with became my best friends.

    I think lots of people don’t understand violence, these days. They don’t know that there is healthy violence and sick violence. This has feminized our culture and because of this, I believe, many young men are far more dangerous then they otherwise would be. They don’t know how to control their power because as children they didn’t use their power. Throughout the long history of humanity, people have fought each other. How strange that people think we can stop fighting as easily as we have stopped walking around naked. Where in history do we see evidence of successful non-violent living on a large scale?

    I appreciate the way of non-violence, but not if it interrupts the natural and vital process of young men learning, by experimentation in relatively restricted situations, about their own power. I don’t see how there can be a solution to violence generally except through vivid personal understanding of its dynamics.

    This is not a politically correct sentiment. But remember… I’m a fighter.

    • Deven Black says:

      I, too, am a fighter and it is just as much a part of my culture as yours. I, too, learned about weakness and strength. I fight many of the same battles you do, against injustice, against crime, against cruelty and against those who would restrict intellectual and political freedom, but I do it all without violence and without being victimized.

      Do you contend that young men need to be a bully, as you were, or victimized by a bully, to learn to stand up for what is right and how to go about doing so?

      Young men do not need violence to learn to be men. There are many other ways to go about those lessons, in sports for example. I was a fierce competitor in soccer and baseball, but I was able to play without violence. Even a sport that in America and Canada seems to require fisticuffs, ice hockey, is played at a high level without fighting in the rest of the world.

      No, my friend, masculinity does not require battle and scars to establish itself any more than femininity requires crinolines and cuteness. Power comes in many forms, perhaps least in the form of a fist. I have power and my control of it did not need physical conflict to develop.

      Could you also please explain how your justification of masculine violence pertains to girls who fight.

      • I don’t understand how you believe you can tell me what young men need. I was a young man, like you. Like you, I’ve become an educated, thinking adult. I’m a philosopher. I’m telling you what I felt that I needed to do as a child, and how I feel it has benefited me.

        I’m noticing that there is a lot of violence in our society, and words about non-violence, though they have been around a long long time, apparently haven’t curbed it much. I’m worried that telling young men not to fight simply cuts you off from them. You can tell them not to have sex with their girlfriends, too. Look at how abstinence education doesn’t seem to work, either.

        That you behaved and thought differently as a child doesn’t invalidate the way I behaved and thought. Your different experience of fighting and violence as a kid simply suggests that you didn’t want to fight. Fine. Not every young man has to fight. My own brothers didn’t fight in school. Heck, some boys play with dolls. But some of us do fight. As an educator, you ought to try to understand why and how, instead of denying a culture that you don’t share.

        Your point about sports is a good one. So, why don’t you consider school fighting a sport? It’s a self-organized sport. It’s a rough form of play. Are you just using the label “sports” to identify the kind of things you think are acceptable? If you don’t like a sport, you say it’s not really a sport?

        I’m offering you a data point: I was raised by a non-violent mother in a non-violent way. She wouldn’t let me play hockey or join the Boy Scouts because the former was too violent and the latter was too militaristic. She lectured me on why I shouldn’t fight. I felt a strong intuition that she was wrong, and I acted on that intuition. I don’t believe anyone could have convinced me that I was wrong, and today I don’t believe I was wrong, either. This is a reality you should want to deal with. What are you doing instead? You are telling me what YOU THINK masculinity does not require. This doesn’t solve the problem, man. This dispute between us (or between you and boys who fight) doesn’t get resolved by you denying the feelings that I, as a young man, actually experienced, and in fact experience to this day.

        I have no opinion about girls who fight. I suspect it’s for different reasons. The times I fought girls as a kid always seemed to end badly for them, and I hope they learned not to do it anymore.

  5. Hi Deven:

    A couple of years ago, my son was hit by another student with a shoe. He didn’t hit the other student back and the supervisor came by. She asked the other students what happened and the boy who hit my son told her that my son, J, hit him first. The other kids almost yelled in J’s defense. The boy who hit my son got punished.

    I know he did the right thing by not hitting back but as a parent, I felt so protective. He is a good kid. I asked him later, why didn’t you hit back? He said “Well, that would have just kept the fight going”.

  6. ijean says:

    Hey,Deven. Just catching up with your blog. Love ’em as usual!
    In tough neighborhoods, tough family situations, and in tough school situations, fighting can be part of a young man’s identity, how they define themselves, I think. Kids or teens who fight do not necessarily view themselves as violent – as violence to them can often mean premeditation. It is a part of who they are, who they see themselves to be. The key is to help them connect to something else in order to develop a different “identity”; something more productive and positive that they can relate to and build esteem from.
    It is a topic worthy of much more thought and conversation. Let’s talk about it more in the fall! Hope you are enjoying your summer;)

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