Yesterday between classes, I looked up from my Kindle to see one of my students repeatedly hitting another boy on the back of the head. He was clearly angry and exclaiming something in Korean I couldn’t understand. I immediately sat up and started yelling. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” The hitting stopped. “BOTH OF YOU OUTSIDE NOW!”
Which is when the hitter covered his face with his hands and started to cry.
He wouldn’t move for a moment, planted in the middle of the aisle with his hands over his face, but I nudged him gently on the shoulder and finally managed to usher all of us outside.
I’ve been teaching this particular class for a few years now, so these boys know each other pretty well. There is generally a comfortable atmosphere in the room in which a lot of teasing and joking happens. Usually it’s warm-hearted, but it can sometimes get out of hand. There are certainly the occasional emotional crises.
In this case, I asked the boy who had hit (Jack) to explain. He said the other boy (Shane) had touched his mouth with something dirty, so he had gotten upset. Shane said it had been an accident. Jack said it definitely had not been an accident. So we were at an impasse.
Having known me for years, these boys are familiar with my general methods of conflict resolution: Talking out the problem, apologizing, shaking hands, sometimes forced verbal affirmation of each other, usually some kind of pep talk from me about appropriate behavior.
This time, I just threw up my hands. “Okay, so what should we do?”
They looked at me blankly.
Getting to the Root
Often in these situations, one of the students is not being completely honest. They are ashamed of what they did, so they pretend it was an accident when really it was intentional. If I question them pointedly, they often admit it. Which is important, because it allows them to own up to their behavior, apologize to the other kid, and learn that mistakes don’t have to be catastrophic or shameful, they can simply be made right.
This time, however, I couldn’t tell if Shane was being dishonest. (He tends to smile and laugh in tense situations, which wasn’t helping me read him…) And Jack happens to be a particularly emotional kid who had already been showing signs of explosion earlier. So I wasn’t sure if his version of events could be trusted either.
What was the TRUTH? Who was at FAULT? We would probably never know. But then it hit me. Maybe the truth wasn’t what was important in this particular situation.
Talking It Out
Inspiration hit me. “Jack,” I said. “can you please explain to Shane why you are upset?”
He began, falteringly, looking at me.
“No, not to me,” I said, “to Shane.”
So he gave a passionate explanation in Korean, waving his arms emphatically.
Then I turned to Shane. “Okay, what’s your response?”
He started to respond in broken English, but Jack stopped him and asked for Korean. So he gave a detailed response in Korean.
I nodded as if I had understood everything perfectly, knowing it didn’t really matter what I had understood. “Okay, are we good now?” I asked. They nodded. “Great.”
I probably should have realized it earlier. Sometimes what we want is justice. At least we think that’s what we want. We feel trampled on, overlooked––wronged. Someone should pay! But deep down, what we really need is simply acknowledgement of our experience. Whether intentionally or not, someone hurt us. And what brings healing is having them acknowledge how their actions affected us.
Shane couldn’t change what happened. And he couldn’t convince Jack that the wrong had been accidental. But what Jack needed was simply acknowledgement and understanding. They might never agree on what had happened. But they could at least connect on an emotional level by explaining to each other how the experience had affected them.
That was my hunch anyway, and it panned out beautifully. (Today they were buddy-buddy as ever, nudging, teasing, and laughing at each other endlessly.)
I was glad to help them move past this bump in the road, and was reminded of how resilient friendships can be. Sure, things happen. People are inconsiderate. Or really big mistakes are made. We get stressed or fearful and withdraw. But there is always a way back to each other. I believe there always is.