Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Shiver Me Timbers Peacemaking

Peacemaking is rooted in relationships, and it happens in some of the most unexpected places, at some of the most inconvenient times, and in some of the most peculiar ways.

Three years ago, working as the Peace Games Coordinator at an elementary school, I walk by the Nurse’s office early one morning to find Ms. Gomez, the building substitute, with a first grader. Maurice, who usually wears thick metal-frame glasses, is wearing an eye patch. He is inconsolable about it. Apparently, Ms. Gomez explains to me, one eye is noticeably stronger than the other one, so the eye doctor prescribed an eye patch to try to even them out. Maurice needs to wear it for a week. When he stops crying long enough to speak, he assures us that the rest of his class is going to make fun of him. Knowing his class, I think that he's probably right, but neither of us say this. We appear to be at an impasse, especially when the principal comes in to tell Ms. Gomez that she needs to cover a class – in fact, to cover Maurice’s class. Ms. Gomez asks Maurice if he'd be willing to come back to the class with her, where they can explain to the class together why he's wearing the eye patch. Almost in a panic at the prospect, he steadfastly refuses.

Clearly, though, he cannot stay in the Nurse’s Office all day. We all stand quietly and think about it for a moment, with Maurice content to wait in the protective isolation of the Nurse's office. The principal takes a shot in the dark and suggests that we make hundreds of eye-patches - enough for the whole school! - and make eye patches so appealing that everyone will want one. His goofy grin tells us we are, incredibly, onto something. And because I do not have a class to cover or a school to run, I take Maurice to find some black paper and ask the secretary for a bag of rubber bands. We take our supplies and sat in the conference room to make a prototype, which I try on. When I ask him how it looks, he smiles and nods. Like he must when he got on the bus this morning, I feel a little self-conscious, but his enthusiasm makes me feel better and I realize that my enthusiasm is making him feel better, too. In fact, I am invigorated by how this kind of thing seems contagious. And this is precisely the point, I think. We make eye patches for the principal and for the secretary, for the building substitute and Maurice's teacher, for every student in his class, and for everyone in his family. We have a lot of eye-patches.

Soon, it's lunchtime, but he does not want to eat in the cafeteria. Instead, we take our eye-patch-making supplies down to his classroom to make some extras. On the stairs, we encounter some fourth grade girls who stop and ask why we are both wearing eye-patches. I ask Maurice if he wants to tell them, but he nervously shakes his head. I explain that Maurice is wearing the patch to help his eyes grow stronger and that I liked it so much that I made one for myself and that we decided to make some for his entire class. Incredibly, and precisely according to the plan, Jordan asks, “Can we have one?” I look at Maurice, who nods eagerly, and I tell her that she can. As long as we have enough.

In the classroom, we spread out our supplies and make a few extra patches, while Maurice eats his lunch. He is starting to feel so confident now that he wants to go out for recess, but I tell him that we have a very important job to do and that I cannot do it by myself. I am trying to sustain a delicate balance between personal empowerment and personal responsibility. He acquiesces and takes another bite of his sandwich. He is so excited now to show off his eye patch that he cannot wait for his class to come back from recess - a prospect that was unfathomable just two hours earlier.

When they do come strolling back into the classroom, they immediately notice that we are both wearing eye-patches, but instead of laughing they ask why. Maurice and I have practiced what we are going to say, but we tell them that we will explain it when everyone is seated. Many of them - the boys especially - ask if they can have an eye-patch, and I can tell that Maurice loves the attention. Of all the eye patches, he clearly has the designer model. Noticing this and no longer worried about him, I suddenly notice that my eyes hurt. A lot. I realize that I am also getting a severe headache from wearing a rubber band around my head for the last hour.

Eventually, his classmates take their seats and calm down. With Maurice’s permission, I start to explain why we are wearing eye patches, but he interrupts me to finish explaining it himself. Some students ask questions, but most just want a chance to wear their own, so we pass them out and help students try them on. It is like recess has not ended. It does not take long for students to be envious of Maurice’s flashier and far sturdier eye-patch when rubber bands break or tape does not hold. Many of the boys starting pretending they are pirates, including Maurice.

Meanwhile, my headache is getting worse, so I tell Maurice that I have to go. He is reluctant to let me leave, asking me if he can come with me, but I do not want him to take off his patch and it is absolutely imperative that I take the rubber band off my head immediately. I try to explain to him as gently but firmly as possible that he needs to work hard for the rest of the day - after all, he's missed half the day - but I promise that I will check in on him tomorrow. Gradually, he concedes. I close the classroom door behind me and tear off the patch as soon as I get down the hall.

Despite the headache, the image of over 100 people walking through the building wearing eye-patches and acting as if nothing is even remotely strange lingers. It is straight out of a sitcom, but it also feels like genuine peacemaking. Besides which, it was fun. Real peacemaking is hard work, but it should also be memorable enough to be contagious. And a boy who had been consumed with anxiety and fear was transformed into an eager and enthusiastic leader in a matter of two hours.

The next morning when I see Maurice, he is not wearing an eye patch anymore, but he marches right through the crowd, comes up to me, and gives me a firm handshake.

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