They Fightin’!!

27 Sep

Back when I taught in the secure facilities, there was an ancient and eccentric old lady who taught Career and Life skills named Ms J. Ms J was a bit of an oddity on the staff, old school, a shrill disciplinarian, and though perhaps the students never made the connection, she always saw herself as a wise grandmother figure to them. She was also, I must mention, crazy. The woman would do things like writing skits for the students to perform at assemblies (she wrote them, not the kids) in which the young men grew up to be successful lawyers, doctors and businessmen, returning years on to buy her a Jaguar and a Mansion in Long Island. The kids would grudgingly read the lines at assembly, other students snickering, while she cackled and slapped her knees with delight. Some days I would pass her room and the students would be doing word-searches, only to hear her proudly telling a rookie teacher about her lesson-planning and classroom management skills. Then, like clockwork, she would be spotted the next period running out of her classroom screaming: “They fightin’!!” at the top of her lungs, hair frazzled, bangles chiming as she tossed up her hands and just screamed it over and over while at least two boys were, indeed, fighting in her room. Everyone who worked with me those years, and everyone who has ever worked with Ms J (I feel confident assuming) has a “They Fightin’!” story. Whether it was the time she literally crumpled in a heap outside her room while wailing it, or the time she disrupted the entire floor with one of these fits, only to find out she had actually just seen two students “play fighting” in another classroom. Some of her fits were epic, each unique from the others.

There are people in education who will tell you every fight can be avoided. That given better instruction and more effective intervention on the part of the teacher, no fight would ever break out, even in a school designed for court-involved kids. Even in a school in jail. Those people are wrong, and have never worked full-time in that environment, and never lived in the neighborhoods that perpetuate the populations that fill those environments. They are idealists, and there is nothing wrong with idealism, unless of course it blinds you to reality.

Schools like mine, and like the much less functional schools I have worked in previously, exist within a culture that, unfortunately, has redefined the meaning of the word “Respect”. I don’t just say that in a bourgeois, pseudo-intellectual way. I literally mean it. When I asks my students how they define respect it is entirely different from the definition I think most people my age have. In its meaning in their lives, “Respect” has no sense of being a mutually given and received sense of reverence, but rather it is an earned item that has the value of having proven that I am your superior. Elijah Anderson describes this much more thoroughly in his interesting book Code of the Street.

Anderson provides a much more in-depth (and more clearly articulated) description of this theory, and its ramifications in that book.  But the short and long of it is this: respect has been redefined as something that is not to be bestowed upon others who deserve it.  Rather it is a force to be waged on someone, often with physical force.  It is no longer about “Respect those who came before you,” but “You gonna learn to respect me!”  Furthermore, because of the value and status it carries in geographic areas otherwise depleted of monetary wealth, it becomes a false economy.  This is a dangerous proposition for two reasons:

  • First, if, indeed, respect is a force that is leveled upon others, and is also a commodity of great value, it stands to reason that we are going to practice force to establish it, and do so over and over and over.  This means violence is We are, after all, a greedy species.
  • Secondly, as a false economy, and given our tendency to celebrate “success,” it stands to reason that one thing is inevitable: when people “fight” to establish respect, its going to become a spectator sport.  If we watch bad girls clubs to watch them pull one another’s hair out, why shouldn’t we enjoy it as much when our classmate’s pull one another’s hair out.

I wish I had audio of the moments leading up to every fight.  The fighters all say the same thing: “You gonna learn to respect me.” “Fuck that, she gonna find out I’m not pussy.” “I don’t respect you, anyway.” It’s the same lines over and over.  It’s like the pre-fight version of a TV laugh track.  It sounds exactly the same no matter who says it, because the truth is all fights are about the same thing.  You DISrespected me, and I DISrespected you, now one of us is going to make the other (and everyone else watching) RESPECT my shit.

So what does this mean for teachers who choose to teach in an environment where this false economy and false celebrity are firmly established; with students whose lives have been altered by it–schooling devalued, credits lost, freedom arrested (literally) for periods of time that interrupt their education and social maturity?  Well it means two things largely: first, it means that in a classroom with 25 students, more than 15 of them have not been in a formal classroom in a year or more.  Therefore even the best instruction and classwork may not keep their attention and address their needs, regardless of whether a fight is brewing.  Second, it means you had better be prepared to see a fight.  Simply walking through the doors of a school-building is not going to undo a behavior–or lifestyle–that has been borne years prior, and reinforced daily, for all those years.  A teacher can plan the best unit in the world, piece together a fabulous lesson plan, and practice every strategy and intervention in the world.  But when you are in the middle of group work, and a girl you don’t know charges in your room barking about “respect” and throws a crate full of notebooks at a girl in your class, before flipping over a desk and grabbing her by her hair–well, it’s your 5-minute mini-lesson about an ancient text (the most ancient text we have, ironically enough, which happens to be about violence and vengeance, itself) vs. a world and a lifetime of learning.

So what do you do next?  If you are Ms. J?  You run down the hallways and scream and kick walls: “They fightin'”.  If you are me, you wonder if perhaps the walls of school are just too thin a barrier from the heavy push of the world outside.  Then you hope you’re just having a bad day.  And post a blog, I guess…

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