Old Calendar Festivus

Some of you may know about Festivus. It’s a theoretical midwinter holiday from Seinfeld or something like that. You set up the aluminum pole in the corner, perform the annual airing of grievances, and then proceed to feats of strength.

What you may not have known is that by the Old Calendar, today was Festivus. No, I didn’t know it either. I was at a fencing match until 8:30, so I missed the pole and the Airing of Grievances. But I walked right into the feast, when a horde of dorm kids asked to use the microwave.

Then came the feats of strength. “here, hold up this 15-pound dumbbell while we time you.”. And so, 50 seconds with my left arm, 57 with my right. Most of them couldn’t do it for more than 20; they were duly impressed.

Then came the ninja style wrestling match. The lights went out. Suddenly there were five kids rolling around in the dark, working up the courage to attack me. I was about to get jumped.

I’ve made it sound more serious than it actually is. I honestly think they were not out to attack me, only to test themselves. My friend Amanda once said I was eminently attackable, though, and every dorm I’ve ever run here at school tries it eventually. Maybe my weariness tonight invited it, or maybe it’s been building for a while. There’s something about 15-year-old boys in the winter term, though, with wrestling season underway and not wanting to go to bed at lights out. So I got attacked.

It is important as the teacher in this situation to win. It is important to win in a way that is painful, but not injurious, to the student. It has to convey the real risks of starting a real fight in a place not governed by the rules of sanctioned fighting, like a dojo or a boxing club. And it has to end quickly, because when you face four there’s always the risk of something getting out of hand. I mean, really more out of hand than one teacher getting jumped by four students. When they come at you in the dark, in a small common room lined with hard-angled wooden benches, the variables for everyone become very difficult and health-threatening.

You, as the adult, must know and bear these things in mind, because the teenagers’ brains reckon on immortality. Nevertheless there’s a certain inevitability to it all. These things have to happen, because as Norman McLean points out in a river runs through it, some boyhood questions have to be settled before too much time passes.

One of those questions is, “should I physically gang up with my friends on older adults?” and it must be answered decisively NO.

There may have been pretty-boy hair pulled. A young teen inordinately proud of his manhood may have had his legs crossed in a manner uncomfortable to his private bits. A very good wrestler on the small side may have been sat on, to demonstrate the differential of a 180-pound weight disadvantage. An arm or two may have been bent at an unpleasant angle of repose. A kicking foot may have been seized and the toes squeezed while the kicker swayed unnerved on one awkward ball of the foot.

It is important to fight dirty.  Not to the point of damage, but damaging to self-esteem. Sometimes they pretend to be cowboys. Sometimes boxers. Sometimes ninjas, like tonight. There is always a vague sense of a code of honor in them – a code which gives them permission to come after you. Don’t obey their code. Obey yours. It is important for children to understand that adults don’t fight cleanly, they fight meanly — and they are not to be attacked because of that.

And then they’re all in a pile on the floor. One is groaning.  My hand flips on the light switch to find four boys inexplicably on the floor in a tumbled pile. In a voice more bear than human, I say, “Bed time. Now.”

And curiously enough, it is. No argument, no desire to prolong the “fun” here. But no one is threatening legal action or to call their parents or bleeding. And I haven’t had my thumb wrenched, like in ’99 or my Achilles tendon pulled like in ’01, or my face scratched in ’04 or my gut punched like two years ago. I haven’t had my arm bent against a bench like last year.

With luck, this is the last fight they ever inititate again. As near as I can tell, I have an OK track record with this. When I’ve lost, I’ve given a Pyrrhic victory less valuable than it really appears; when I win correctly, there’s neither joy nor happiness for me in the victory, only a sense I’ve done my part for society.

But gods, I wish that I didn’t have to do it at all. How do you handle it? Have you ever been jumped by a group of students? What was the result?

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  1. When I student taught in public school in Maine, one of the first things I was told was to never get in between a physical altercation with two or more students. In fact, the only people who were allowed to restrain students were those staff members who had undergone a training class. Doug, the principal, told me in no uncertain terms: “If you ever encounter a fight, don’t get in the middle. Call me immediately. I can take them down; you cannot. If you do, you run the risk of being sued.”

    You did, of course, handle both situations beautifully, as you always do. However, I can’t help but note — and rather snarkily, for which I apologize — that the solution to your problem might be to work in a school in which students don’t, you know, attack their teachers.

    • Wow, Ben. Your Maine school had people trained in taking down students? Trained?? I’m speechless. I don’t know if I should be horrified that they need trained people, or horrified that we don’t have trained people, and (I assume) assume we don’t need it.

      It’s an awkward situation. I feel I must act in a certain way when it happens, because my prior experience here tells me I won’t be backed up if I just took the fall and then reported it — as you know. But maybe things around here are starting to change.

  2. I think that you used this (and the cafeteria incident) as a teaching moment. While we are certainly hired to teach science, math, history, etc., I truly believe that there are far more important lessons that we have the responsibility to teach our students before sending them off to college/work/adult life.

    As a teacher at an all-girls school, I am constantly asked “How is your class different because it is taught in an all-girls environment?” and I have struggled with answers to that. Certainly I know that I act differently, but I couldn’t put into words what was different. Your post has helped immensely in that regard. In particular, your words “Not to the point of damage, but damaging to self-esteem. ” speak volumes about the difference in methods we can use to convey lessons to boys that won’t work with girls. Boys can hear the message carried with the attack on their self esteem and learn from it.

    With girls, the type of interaction you described would lead to disaster. The message would be lost in the attack which defeats the whole purpose of using that method in the first place. We see this in our academics and athletics and it is confirmed by research that we have looked at here as well.

    Thanks for such a thought provoking (and entertaining!) post.

    • I agree with you about NEVER doing this to girls. When I coach girl fencers, half the battle is getting them to come forward on the attack, and not to cower from the attack. It’s incredibly difficult to get them to face a genuine opponent for the first year. The ones who start out unafraid are always MUCH better than the shrinking violets, at least for the first few seasons.

  3. I think this is really on point in so many ways. It reminds me a lot of the book Wild at Heart by John Eldridge. I think that boys do need this kind of education. It is part and parcel of the big picture. I think that the larger question they are unconsciously pursuing is “Am I good enough?” “Can I really compete?” I agree that one lesson they need to learn is fights aren’t a great way to solve issues and they can have disastrous unintended consequences. But I also think that a big part of it is them searching to see where they fit in the real world of grown ups. They need you to show them what adults are really like. From what I read of you, I think you do – both in this way and in the mentor sense. They don’t need people to coddle them and make it easy. They know that is fake, and it doesn’t help them.

    So though I’ve not been in your situation in a long while (back to my camp counselor days), I think you are handle it the way it should be handled.

    • I can’t tell you how relieving it feels that someone actually says that I’m in the right track on this.

      Every time this kind of event happens, I wonder if I’ve really handled it the right way; if I’m about to lose my job; if I’m really right for handling the attack in this way.

      A colleague of mine and an important administrator here saw the event in the dining hall the morning after this occurred, and I worked up the courage to approach him afterward, and ask if I’d handled that acceptably. He said, “If anyone asks me, I will say you responded with admirable restraint to considerable provocation.”

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