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Monday, April 4, 2016

He thanked me.

Have you been between two enormous teenagers wanting to fight and felt completely safe? I have. Actually, I have been in that situation several times, but the first and vivid is the one I want to write about today.

I was a second or third year teacher and I worked for a charter high school in St. Louis. The school was as young as I was.

It was a tough and rewarding place to teach. We had an extended school year. The extra month at the end of the year (June) was structured such that students took two three hour classes a day, mostly to recover credit in classes they failed during the year.

Not surprisingly, attendance was awful and behavior was worse. No one wants to go to school while the rest of the world as you know it has started summer vacation.

Anyway, my afternoon class was blessedly small, about 15 kids, I think, mostly boys.

One day, two boys got into an altercation. There wasn't anything special about that day and the boys didn't have any standing animosity. I had both boys in regular classes previously and knew them fairly well.

One, let's call him Phil, was about six feet tall, built like an athlete, with a full growth of stubble and a bushy ponytail.

He was mean. His wit was barbed and aimed at anyone who came too close, literally or figuratively.

I had a somewhat contentious relationship with Phil. He liked me and my class. I liked him. But I got too close on a regular basis and got burned...or saw Phil burn a classmate. Though I consistently challenged his behavior and put down humor, he changed very little during his tenure in my class.

The other, let's call him Andy, was almost as tall, with short cropped hair and a wiry build. He had a youthful, not quite filled out look so many adolescent boys share. Andy was all crusty exterior and soft heart.

I had a better relationship with Andy. I never denied him the right to act like he didn't care. I told him he could feel any way he wanted. In response, he mostly did what was required and opened up in his writing where only I would see what he really thought.

Both of them had difficult, complicated home lives. Both lived in dangerous neighborhoods with significant gang activity. Both got in trouble in and out of school. Both struggled to cope and to hope.

This particular day, Phil was especially thorny. He had aimed a couple of comments in Andy's direction that I didn't quite catch. Andy responded in kind. I asked them to stop. They didn't.

Then something Andy said hit a nerve. In a split second, we went from some quiet words while working to full blown war.

Phil responded to Andy's comeback by throwing a packing tape dispenser at Andy's head. His aim was off and it crashed into a bookcase behind Andy raining books everywhere.

Andy was on his feet in a flash. He ripped his shirt off in a single fluid motion that spoke of long practice.

Phil rose more slowly, and more menacingly.

I remember they were directly across the room from one another.

I stepped between them. Then I turned my back on Phil and took a step towards Andy.

Andy was fuming. Tension radiated off him in rough waves. But I didn't feel threatened. I knew neither boy had any real desire to hurt me, or even to fight for that matter.

I also knew that Phil had more self-control than Andy, but Andy had more heart.

So, I turned my back on Phil trusting he would not attack me to throw the first punch. It was a subtle, risky move and it might not have worked. It did, though, and before he could change his mind, the rest of the class had moved to protect me.

I put my hand flat on Andy's chest and looked up (and up and up and up) at his face. I could feel his heart hammering and his chest heaving. He didn't look at me. Instead, he continued to glare ice picks over my head at Phil.

I really wish I could remember exactly what I said to Andy. I know I didn't say much. I gave him the time and space and anchor I thought he needed to calm himself. Probably, I quietly told him he was better than this. Maybe I asked him if Phil was worth it. Possibly, I simply asked him not to fight in my classroom. Maybe I didn't say anything. I don't know.

What I know is that Andy gradually relaxed. His fists loosened. The tension in his chest and shoulders eased and his breathing slowed. I waited until his heart rate also decelerated.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably just a few minutes, Andy looked down at me.

And very quietly, he said "Thank you."

I was caught off guard and before I could respond, the security officer and principal arrived and escorted both boys away. He thanked me. For what, exactly? I didn't stop him. I'd like to think because I gave him what he needed to stop himself.

It was a good thing that a fist fight was avoided. But that isn't why I remember this incident.

I remember it because it was one of those times when I trusted my students and they proved me right.

I spend a lot of time thinking about implicit messages conveyed through body language, posture, tone of voice etc. I study my students, experiment on them, catalog what works.

This is what I think. Phil wouldn't have stopped for me. But being trusted confused his intentions. Andy needed someone to stop for. I made sure I was there without rushing or forcing him. And I got an bonus reward: actual acknowledgement from Andy that I made the right call.

We knew each other well enough to survive to learn another day. That is more that just good.

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