Another student of mine came back from suspension today.
“Hey Zeke,” I asked. “Tell me, why’d you get suspended?”
Zeke is an A student in 1rst period, a good kid. Sure, he dressed like every other kid in California. Wore a hoodie sweatshirt, clothes with some giant brand names on them, baggy pants and an occasional baseball cap. But underneath the clothes (and who among us should ever be judged by our clothes?) was a solid student who wrote well, read all the books I’d assigned, possessed a good work ethic and had a nice, soft-spoken demeanor. Thus my next question.
“You got into a fight?”
“Right out in the hall at lunch.”
“Dude, you couldn’t just walk away? You’re smarter than that,” I said.
“Naw, Mr. Alan,” he answered. “See a dude was messin’ with me. Him and his friends. And the dude challenged me to go one-on-one right there.”
“Like I said, just walk away,” I repeated.
“Naw, that ain’t how it is, Mr. Alan. See his boyz said that if I didn’t go one-on-one right there then they’d all jump me.”
“Jump you? When?”
“Whenever they could catch me. In the halls. At lunch. After school. I didn’t have a choice.”
I paused. In a way, it’s true. He didn’t have a choice. I mean coming to an adult to “snitch” on a kid for threatening to beat you up isn’t how problems get solved in the real world for students in America’s schools today. Doing that just seems to make matters worse for kids, not better. Of course, I wish it wasn’t that way, but if Zeke had come to me, could I really protect him? Could security? Could the community? Nope. He knew it and I knew and we all know it. Zeke was a boy faced with a man’s decision: either stand up for yourself in the face of tyranny or live in fear with much worse consequences to be meted out later if ever you get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Is it squashed?” I asked wondering if the one-on-one fight put an end to it.
“Yep,” he answered. “We went one-on-one, got busted by security, I got suspended, and now it’s over.”
Zeke was back in class working towards keeping up his grades. The other boys, I have no idea. And what did it all start over. I didn’t even ask because really, what did it matter. Some boys just like to fight and pick on the weak.
“All right, just try to keep safe, okay dude,” I said to Zeke.
And then he looked at me and we made eye contact. His face had a simple resolution to it, a resigned, matter of fact, this-is-the-way-it-is for kids like me look. And though he didn’t say it, I knew he was thinking it.
“What else could I have done?”
And when he walked back to his desk, I asked myself, “And what would you do, Mr. Alan, if the tables were turned?” Does a kid like Zeke really have a choice but to fight?
Just another day at the office, right?