Near the playground’s south fence, a group of girls has come together like gathering clouds. Five in all. They are girls from “the Heights” who ride in to school on the same bus. They have fixed their gaze on a second group of three girls who live on South Hill.
A fight looms. I will get the job of intervening before it starts. I will also get to hear the choice comments that each of the sides makes about the other. Litanies of offenses, insults directed at family names, and the endless bluntly phrased expressions of how-dare-you. I will also get the task of sorting through the causes that led to this effect.
If you ask a child what she was thinking when she yanked the braids off of her classmate, or ask her how she could have ever wanted to hurt someone – someone who just the day before was her best friend – she might give you a blank look. She wasn’t thinking at all. She may not remember the details of the event at all. I listen to each child’s statement, lay each account on my desk, and engage an intuitive calculus to deduce what might have occurred. I never know how close I have gotten to the truth.
This stuff is what happens when kids take sides. I wish I could tell you that grown-ups get past these antics, but I can’t. Taking sides and the kind of wild-eyed, frothing-mouthed behavior that results vary only because of practice and the verbal and physical arsenal at the ready. It must be that part of the brain is wired to bypass volition and individuation. This paraphrase from Erich Fromm’s “Automaton Conformity” describes it this way:
The individual adopts the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. The discrepancy between “I” and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of aloneness and powerlessness. The person gives up his individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with other automatons around him, and need not feel alone and anxious any more.
What a challenge! The sheer weight of standing in one’s own power, of seeing past the deceptive comfort of taking sides means that even good people will not have the oomph to take it on. Our little who-am-I stories where we assure ourselves that we are logical, reasonable people could offer little more resistance than tape, string and cloth stretched between thin sticks in the face of strong winds. I know that an essential self survives, but how much like a small flame it is, cutting out when we need its light.
Tomorrow morning, (a Monday) sunrise will take no note of the particular day, the morning’s news, or anyone’s belief in one side versus another. Wherever light goes, I will get to see how it can bring a glow to young minds and reveal a horizon past storm clouds. I hope I’ll stop before I start, do a little check-in to remember that I’m strong enough to stand steady when the wind starts to howl. How vital to stay rooted to who I really am- and not just who I become when I get swept away!