Monday, March 12, 2007

A Fragile Evolution

Shaun, a fifth grader, stops me in the hall one morning and tells that he almost got in a fight.

"Almost?" I ask.

Shaun has a younger sister, Ashley, who is in third grade. He explains that Tamika, a fourth grader who more than makes up for her small stature with a larger-than-life temper, started taunting Ashely about being poor on the playground that morning. Not surprisingly, pushes were exchanged. Tamika's younger brother, Mark, is in second grade and leapt to her defense and Shaun to Ashley's. Defending family, no matter how much they bother you some days, is a no-brainer. Mark is no ordinary second grader, either. He was kept back last year, and he is already bigger than most boys three or four years older than him. He began cussing at Shaun, determined to fight, but Shaun refused. He tells me that the lunch monitor told him he did the right thing by not fighting, and I tell him I agree. He seems to want the affirmation.

That Shaun did not fight could by turns seem like an easy decision or a courageous one. After all, his sister - and by extension, his whole family - had been insulted. On the other hand, it seems like it would be easier to walk away from an instigator who is smaller than you, even if just barely. The more I think about it, the more complex a decision it is and the more impressed I am that he made it so effortlessly.

A few minutes later, I pass Tamika and Ashley outside the office, waiting to be reprimanded, when I overhear Tamika. "You just made me so mad," she says to Ashley. "I didn't mean to start a fight."

Without knowing the full story - and accepting that everyone involved probably felt both hurt and vindicated - I am astonished by her words. Two years ago, her temper and defensiveness would just absorb her to the point of paralysis. It alienated friends and in fact made her a lot of enemies. I acknowledge that she still made some bad choices this morning, but hearing her now it is apparent that she wants so much to do the right thing, to be accepted for trying and encouraged for each baby step she makes. I remind myself to tell her so.

The whole episode is a reminder that conflict is not just something that happens between people - using words or fists - but something that happens inside people, too. We need allies to tell us that we're making the right choices - or that they are proud of us for trying, even when we struggle.

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