“Mateo, let him go!” My voice boomed out across the blacktop. A laughing semi-circle of classmates fled as I got close. Then Mateo, seeing me, let his cousin go, leaving him to dangle by one arm on the chain link.
I barked at Mateo to sit where he stood, and I lifted the younger boy down. He took a full minute to collect himself, chewing on and crying into his t-shirt. He spat out the word “hate” as he cut a sideways glance toward his older cousin. Brown eyes burned hot from beneath long black bangs. Then he unfurled his red flag of rage, “I hate him. I hate him. He’s always mean to me.” He repeated the word “hate” six or seven times.
I do not back away from these moments, or walk away from them with a “there, there,” or a feigned, “say you’re sorry.” A closed heart can’t be left to do its own bidding. I told the boys to stand up.
“This fighting ends today,” I said, “Time for a Face Off!”
They moaned, but I wasn’t playing. “Up on your feet. Let’s go!”
One of my Playworks coaches taught me about facing off years back. He used this tactic whenever he wanted enemies to make peace. “Principal,” he told me, “two kids can’t stay enemies when they face off. Put one to the left, and the other to the right. Make them look at each other. Tell them to be quiet. No words. Not a peep. Then wait. That’s how it works. They start to see the other guy’s face and then the hardness cracks.”
This coach’s transmission is etched in me. I remember him turning to face me as he gave me this nugget: “Hate is a lie, principal. And lies don’t last, sir. Something my father taught me. Respectfully offered. Only the truth can hold.”
All we might need to heal ourselves lays itself upon the blacktop; a magician’s table with precise and powerful tools: giving instead of taking, seeing rather than watching, opening up rather than shutting out. Empathy begins between two rivals where an opportunity can hover, saying, take me! I’m yours! Even by facing the person that we knew we hated, we open to shifts that rise from reservoirs deeper than any spite.
I have faith that this much is true.
As of today, we have had 24 hours of peace between the two boys. That’s 24 more than I could have reported yesterday. I can’t tell you how this story will unfold. All of us have to live it as we play it, one round at a time.