Friday, December 2, 2011

Fighting Fires In the School


Yesterday, one of the buses dropped off kids ten minutes early. This is unusual. We tend to have kids wait on the bus. That the driver let them off was one indication something going on. That one of our female students was screaming obscenities and threats at three of our male students, well, that was an even better indication.

Our hall monitor and social worker head to the front door. The rest of us wait. The young woman comes in first and our social worker gets her and takes her toward the office. The hall monitor is with the three guys, talking with them at the door, delaying their entry without them really noticing it.

The young woman is screaming as she walks up the hall and as I'm leaning against the wall near the office where she is being led to, my first thought is, "would you please stop swearing?" I'm glad that I didn't say it out loud. The social worker takes her in the office and shuts the door.

By now the three guys are in the building. The hall monitor offers breakfast and suggests they head for class. As fate would have it, they each have a different class (there are only four classes in our tiny school) and go into those rooms. But before I get into my room, my guy heads to the Social Studies room. Another, who ought to stay in Science, also goes into Social Studies. I walk down there and they are talking about it, laughing as students will after getting someone to blow up. It's the post-game wrap-up.

I say, "hey, fellas, how about we leave what happened on the bus?" They protest that it wasn't any of their fault. I tell them that I'm not looking for blame. "I'm just saying let's leave it be." Then I say it's time for class. The Social Studies teacher is there with one, the Science teacher corrals hers, and I take mine.

In class, I talk with him about it. He tells me the story. Each time he starts to go in a bad direction--bragging, talking behind the young woman's back, etc.--I catch him and redirect. Another student comes in and we are still talking. That's when I show them how we can talk behind someone's back without talking badly about them.

It goes pretty well and soon enough we get class underway. I feel like we got most of our learning done in those first five minutes, but we might as well do some English too.

That covers what happened and what I tried to get them to learn, but I learned something too: a person on fire is going to scream.

The young woman came into our building almost literally on fire. She looked like someone who has forgotten to stop, drop, and roll. She was wildly out of control and in the grips of something beyond her. There were places along the way where she could have gained control, but those were long gone. When she came up the hallway screaming, there was no way she could stop swearing at the top of her lungs. She was on fire.

When I wished she was quiet, I wasn't thinking about her, the other kids, or the school. I was thinking about myself. It's not the worst thing in the world in a pressure situation. It's self-preservation. But I'm glad that I didn't say anything because it was exactly the wrong thing to say. By luck or learned practice, I took a breath and formed a compassionate thought: "this must suck for her." On that thought, the entire situation turned for me.

Later, when she came to my class, I had written her a note about the person-on-fire thing. In it I told her what I had learned and how it was important in that moment for us to think about her, then think about the guys, and then think about the whole school. I told her that in doing so, I never had to think much about myself because everything was just fine for me. I told her that I was glad that our social worker was able to put out her fire and that she didn't seem to be burned much by it. I told her that we had talked about it when she wasn't around and I told her what we had said. She read the note, looked up at me, and smiled.

"Thank you," she said.

"Thank you," I told her.

Write on.