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?