Growing up, the only time I ever heard that my friends and I were different was when someone was trying to start a problem. I’m short, my friend Kevin is African-American and my friend David is half-Jewish and half-Catholic. Growing up, we were a delectable trio for some school age malcontent. By the time I entered the fourth grade I had learned that life wasn’t fair and although ‘I was not interested in conflict, conflict was interested in me,’ to paraphrase Leon Trotsky.
No one gave us a break. In fact, each of us was sought out by an angry or frustrated party looking to improve their social standing at one point or another. Sometimes they even tried to drive us apart with rumors, but we learned to stick together. We recognized that this was the normal course of growing up, and we weren’t always 100% innocent.
There was one important exception when we were growing up: we, as a group of peers, often settled our own grievances. No one had taken that away from us. Being the smaller of the three, I mastered the art of gathering people to my cause quickly. Over time, disagreements were settled and all parties shared the same circle of friends by our own doing, not because someone made us.
Shortly after I finished grade school, modern society became obsessed with micromanaging these important life lessons and tried to replace them with a saccharin version of reality. And what did kids do in response? They became more creative and more secretive. Conflicts that could be seen on the playground and in the classroom went dark and viral with cyberbullying and to a greater and more deadly effect.
Micromanaging social interactions left society so busy placing a fence around every tree, that it has forsaken the forest of humanity. Taking away a child’s control of his own immediate physical safety renders them defenseless and can even ingrain learned helplessness. What’s more, not educating children about how to control their own space puts undue pressure on educators who then need to micromanage each dispute. The more rules, the more enforcement is needed. The more enforcement needed, the less time there is for education.
Childhood events are messy, but through positive peer pressure and cool, subjective analysis by good teachers and parents, children can and do learn to handle the social rigors of growing up. Better to learn early on, when the stakes are lower, that some days you are the predator and others the prey. Some days the hero and others asleep at the wheel--that’s called being human.
Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” With heat and pressure character is forged and lessons learned: prepare, by staying ever vigilant; prevent, by confirming intent and avoiding conflict at all costs; protect, by taking appropriate action. A child must do these things, regardless of the outcome. A child cannot learn the lesson if it is co-opted by an adult or authority figure.
While studying philosophy at Drew University I read some of the Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. He states:
NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that...when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he....the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.
This is the reality we contend with whether we acknowledge it or not. If an attacker moves in he will not ask if his victim is ready or not, handicapped or whole, weak or strong, rich or poor. In fact, the weaker, smaller, or less attentive someone is, the less work it is for the attacker. Hobbes is right, we are equal, just not in the neat and tidy way society would like us to be.
My objective is to teach students that conflict is not about equality. Through the study of conflict, my students will master their strengths and weaknesses. This is the true equalizer. I tell my students, “I teach you all the same way: differently.” Every student has a ‘handicap’ and an ‘unfair advantage’, it just depends on who is standing across from them.
In the end, the flames of conflict are fueled when we distinguish and distance ourselves from one another. Minding this gap and finding common ground is the best way I’ve found to reduce conflict and amass ‘confederates’.