A recent fight in my classroom forced me to think about adolescence, society, and our fascination with violence.
I helped break up a fight in my classroom the other day.
It wasn’t even my class – it happened during a period when a colleague teaches in my room during my prep.
Class hadn’t started yet and students were filtering in, taking their seats, and chatting. I was packing my things to leave to go grade papers in the library. Suddenly, two girls started a back-and-forth verbal dispute – and it escalated quickly. Everyone in the room quieted as the focus turned toward the girls.
I’m not sure what the disagreement was about. Words were said about things written on Facebook and somebody “snitching” – things that adults shake their heads at as trivial, but carry serious weight with adolescents.
Then suddenly, one girl popped up out of her seat, flinging her hands out in a “come at me” motion. The other girl wasted no time in reciprocating the gesture. They flew at each other, arms flailing wildly.
The other teacher and I jumped in between the two girls. A third teacher in the room called security.
I was able to get one of the girls outside the room and stood in front of the door so no one could get in or out. Security and administrators came running. Everyone escaped without any serious physical injuries. The girls were promptly suspended.
The Thrill of the Fight
Fights are the hottest gossip among teens, and it’s not too different for teachers. Teachers glorify tales of breaking up fights – telling and retelling fight stories while other teachers listen in rapt attention. A certain amount of pride and bravado is detectable as they describe each vivid detail.
But I tell this story not for the vicarious thrill it may give, but because the incident disturbed me deeply. After the rush of emergency adrenaline left me, I was left with a profound depression that stayed with me throughout the day.
In My Youth
When I was in middle and high school, I witnessed some vicious fights. One time, a girl was repeatedly hitting another girl’s head so hard off of the cafeteria floor that ceiling panels from above started to shake and break off, raining down on them. Another time, I saw one boy’s head go through a glass pane in a door – the thick, wire-reinforced kind of glass that is supposed to be unbreakable. And another time, a young boy was left unconscious and laid there on the bloody concrete until an ambulance arrived and paramedics rushed him off.
I could go on, but I’d rather not relive these moments. Because I was just as disturbed by student fights back then as I am today.
And it’s not so much the fights themselves. I kind of get that – two kids are mad at each other over something that is important to them, they have strong emotions that need an outlet, and they lack the diplomatic skills (or passive aggressiveness) that the majority of adults use when they find themselves in disagreements.
Violence in Our Schools
I teach in a one-to-one, Chromebook-to-student school with unfiltered internet. I think this is a good thing – students need to learn to self-regulate their technology practices while teachers are there to guide them. However, not everything they use their Chromebooks for is academically related, of course. One of the things I most often see students doing on their Chromebooks during downtime is watching videos of adolescent street fights on YouTube.
Why are these grainy, brutal videos so appealing to students? What in our society perpetuates a desire for watching and participating in this kind of violence?
After reading an article in Vice about our growing awareness of the danger involved with intentional physical collisions in high school football, I’ve had multiple conversations with a colleague about the topic.
His view is that humans have an instinctive human desire to see violence as sport (think Roman gladiators murdering each other while thousands in the crowd cheer). And that side of humanity will always be there.
My view is that society has evolved – and should continue to. Boxing’s steady decline in popularity is due to the fact that “combat sports are seen by a large percentage of the population as barbaric.” And the recent concerns about CTE in contact sports seem to be hastening society’s wariness for contact sports.
But float the idea of high school football teams going to flag football, and you’re sure to get a few scoffs. We’re still a pretty violent society and most of the time – whether we realize it or not – we’re okay with that.
That doesn’t always turn out so well for our students. Recently, a girl in a nearby high school in Delaware was attacked in the bathroom. Dozens of others girls watched and two of them (of course) recorded it on their cell phones.
The girl who was attacked did not survive. Two of the attackers were just convicted and are awaiting sentencing.
Shepherds and Sheep
I recently finished reading J.D. Vance’s excellent memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. In it, he recounts talking to a teacher in his hometown who said that people “want [teachers] to be shepherds to these kids, but so many of them are raised by wolves.” The point he was trying to make was that teachers only have so much control over the influences in students’ lives. And that’s true, to some extent. But that doesn’t mean that we are helpless to stop violence in our schools.
After a spate of fights or a particularly violent fight in a school, many parents and administrators are quick to jump to the conclusion that law and order needs to be restored, and more security should be brought in to bring that about.
While that may be a temporary fix, it does little to address the root issues. What schools with violence issues need is a change in culture – they can’t suspend or expel the problem away.
We need to also take a look at ourselves. Do we try to help students who break rules or do we unthinkingly dispense punishments? Have we cultivated a positive culture at our school that includes all students? Do we foster strong student-adult relationships?
And most of all, are we tacitly endorsing violence? Whether it’s in a park after school or on the football field under the watchful eye of a coach, the violence that our kids participate in needs to be scrutinized. We’ve come a long way since the time of the Roman Empire – perhaps we should start acting like it.