The news of the sad death of a young school girl after a fight off school grounds this week made me thing of how fights between kids have changed since I began teaching. Fighting was uncommon 40 years ago but in truth fights have always occurred on the playground. Most often however in my career neither participant really wanted to fight and so words were the most common weapons used. The cause of fights has changed from, ” you took my marble, you cheated” or “you can ‘t tell me what to do” forty years ago to the modern, ” My Uncle said your sister’s nephew called my 3rd cousin a name or saints preserve us, as referenced above, two elementary school girls getting in a fight over a boy that leads to one of them dying. Fighting, like so many things currently attributed to schools, is something they were not taught in school, nor is it something just like bullying that the schools can totally stop. Schools try to control fighting both off and on school grounds with mixed results and at times with asinine zero tolerance policy claptrap that is quick and dirty but also much of the time patently unfair to one of the students. In effect, indicating that being attacked is often the same as attacking the innocent. In our modern world fights can be a much more serious thing than they were 40 years ago but I will have to admit that as a playground supervisor 40 years ago, how fast you got to the scene of the fight sometimes depended entirely on who appeared to be winning.
Forty years ago fighting was generally either wrestling or boxing. If a fight actually started and someone actually got hurt, most times, the fight was over. Issues were settled and everyone went away. Now the fights are more serious than the playground tussles of yore. Kids have learned, I believe from TV, video games, and Movies that just knocking someone down isn’t enough anymore, They need to be stomped, kicked or knocked senseless before a fight is over. There is no honor in fighting anymore, winning means not only winning but humiliating and degrading your opponent (reference pro football/basketball). It used to be that hitting someone from behind, hitting someone when they were down, or an uneven fight (two or more on one) reflected a serious weakness of character and I am not talking about only physical fights verbal fights used to follow the same rules. Somewhere we have lost that hidden but important pillar of good character called “honor” and I can’t tell exactly when it went away or where it went other than children learn best by example and in a modern world of often absent parents the only examples they have are on TV, in video games or R rated movies. It used to be that broken up fights ended with a discussion and a handshake now they end with forms, calls, detentions, suspensions and recriminations. Too often now the fights are taken home to erupt in the neighborhood or to be reinforced by parents only to return to school the next day even more virulent and damaging than they were the first time around. Until you have heard a parent say in all honesty tinged with pride, ‘my kids has been taught that if they are hit they have to hit back, harder than they were hit” you don’t understand the problem. Unfortunately the hitting now, often takes place in electronic form and it is much harder to control in the virtual world than it is in the real world.
Girl fights are always the worst to handle because in my experience they tend to be nastier and more hurtful and often bloodier (I know probably a sexist comment) but in at least one case I found that a school-house door can be your best friend if you can get one raging she-beast on one side and the other one on the opposite side. In this case the fight broke out near the door shortly after recess (yes 8th graders had recess back in the stone ages and I believe they could still use it today) I managed to get the girls separated with one behind me inside the building and the other one outside. They continued to jaw at each other while attempting to get through the door, using language that was scandalous then but would be pretty unremarkable today as everyday middle school hallway fair. The bell had rung and I needed to open the door and let the students in when Dianne decided to shift the focus of her invective from the girl on the other side of the door to a closer target, me. She was really letting me have it and after a minute or so of taking her invective relatively calmly I told her that if she kept it up, I would turn her over my knee and paddle her right there in front of everyone she looked at me in that calculating and disdainful but observant way that has been perfected by teenage girls and apparently decided that I might actually do it and disappeared into the building (yes girls, very rarely but occasionally got to meet Mr. Oak). Luckily for me she didn’t call my bluff as I am not sure I could have or would have won that battle. Perhaps Dianne knew from being in my class that I very rarely said things I didn’t mean. I don’t know for sure why she left but it was a crisis averted as I am not sure if I remember personally ever paddling a girl and am not sure that I could do it anyway. I have always felt that when it came to discipline that female teachers were harder on girls and male teachers were harder on boys because they knew what was really going on in the girl’s or boy’s head having experienced it themselves.
Later in my teaching career, about 30 years, I had a little she-hellion in my 6th grade class. I discovered at conferences that Dianne was her mother, It all seemed so obvious after the introduction but who would have ever guessed. I should note that although certainly still “plain-spoken” Dianne made a resonable success of her life and so another education lesson is learned. 8th grade may not be a good predictor of the future behavior, but genetics and environment may be.