Of all the options in the gallery of minor slights – pinching, biting, kicking, scratching, punching, hair yanking, and slapping- the slap stands out. The slap, as it turns out, may have a purer heart than its cranky sisters in this rogue bunch.
I came to this conclusion last Friday after fifth grader Elena Fuller cranked her left arm back to deliver a roundhouse slap to the right side of Dwayne Thompson’s laughing face. Not a golden moment by any means, but the efficiency of the exchange made an impression: Dwayne stopped laughing and even stopped speaking. Whatever the perceived injustice, the crisp crack of this slap on his soft cheek brought sudden silence to a once rambunctious mouth.
I told Elena to turn around, take five steps – and no looking back. Dwayne got the same instructions. They stood back to back for four minutes. I then took them to a quieter spot. While the three of us sat there in our little in-between, I called Earl, a kindly, former principal and a mentor to me. To my surprise, he answered. I told him the story and also shared how big part of me wanted to give Elena a high five.
Ah, said he. Happy Friday. Principals never have anyone to talk to, do we? Do you really want to talk about this? Yes Earl. I called you if you’ll remember. Please, help me fill in some blanks.
Look, Earl said. You have a little girl in front of you right now who slapped this boy because she didn’t know what else to do. Ask yourself why she slapped him. What’s her story? When did she get her first slap? At some point, she learned to get the message across this way and I bet her story begins with a hand print across her own chops. The boy, for his part, is just as helpless. They can’t go back, so you’ve got to help both these kids move forward.
I said to Earl – I don’t want these kids to get the wrong message – that smacking one another is OK.
Earl cut me off – Some people prefer to bunch things together. These folks will tell you that hitting is always hitting. Wrong is always wrong. Everything comes in one color or the other. Don’t waste your time they’ll tell you, thinking about this stuff. . . But I am telling you that thinking is never a waste of time.
First of all, actions and choices come one by one, not in stacks, piles, or bunches. I don’t believe that your little girl should have hit anyone – but when I used to dive into these situations, I always needed more to work with than either and or.
Second, remember that a slap happens with an open hand. Slaps wake you up. They get your attention. Punching, kicking, biting on the other hand – All of these are meant to hurt. That’s their sole purpose. If you want to hurt someone, you choose something other than slapping. I’ll let you take it from here.
Gee, thanks Earl. . .
I took the kids to my office, knowing that next steps had to include the usual reprimands and consequences, but I wanted something more than the same stale bread. I decided to wait the way my father used to, hands stuffed in his empty pockets, eyes angled skyward. He could wait a long time –all day if need be – for a little voice to drop down and whisper a hint or two about what comes next.
That day ended and it is now Sunday. Plenty of time for the angels to sing before school starts tomorrow.