Four young girls got into a scrape on the yard. One nudged another in passing. The other took the nudge as a shove. Then came two right jabs, one left hook, a trail of tears, parent meetings, and a juicy black eye.
I had just these bits and pieces – half-sketched details that hinted at a much bigger story – a day later when I sat with twenty second graders. I wanted to bring home a point – to see the ‘big picture’ about connections among cause, effect, and personal responsibility.
“When you shove your friend, what happens next?” My first question. I also asked “When someone shoves you, what might have happened before that shove?” For these seven year-olds, the question about “before” stumped them.
I asked for their undivided attention. “Why do people fight?”
We sat on the playground in the big circle, “working the beads” as one of my grade school teachers used to say. “One thing leads to the next. To see how pieces fit together, you have to stretch your brain. That’s the big picture.”
I asked the kids to turn to the child next to them. “Find an example of your own.” I muttered to myself, “You are making no sense at all right now. Second graders will not have a clue about things like cause and effect, witness or spectator.
However, the squiggling circle of young faces ached with sincerity. “Patience, principal. Patience.”
One boy, Jeremy, sat by himself. With watery blue eyes, school shirt buttoned up the neck, and gelled brown hair spiked to a skyward point, he fixed his gaze on me as I worked my way around. I looked back at him, and crossed to where he sat.
I studied him for a few seconds. He appeared to be thinking so hard that it hurt.
“Principal.” He spoke to me with a high reedy voice. “You said you wanted me to see the big picture. Well, I am. I’m seeing the big picture and I can’t turn it off.” His eyes became huge and he reached up toward me for help. While I had never seen a student’s head explode, Jeremy appeared close to becoming the first example. What had I done?
“What’s happening, Jeremy?” was my question. He struggled with words but here was his answer: “I can see a big picture. Really really big! A fight starts in “before” and it never ends.”
“Whoa.” I said, swallowing hard. A curious little second grader was now uttering zen koans? “Let’s shrink it down, young man, like this!” and I spread my arms, telling the boy to take the big picture by the edges and squish it into a smaller size. He copied me and soon, we had both shrunk the picture to a size that didn’t hurt. “Better?” I asked. He nodded and became quiet.
How perilous the abstraction that becomes real, almost cracking open this young boy’s brain. Child wanders, getting lost. And a pearl returns. Bottom line: that which we stir up will carry on. We may appear to make many choices. But in fighting, falling, climbing or calling, we are often carried along. Small flecks in a flow much bigger than we. Might we have both choice and no choice at all?
The words to explain. Just beyond my lips.