In the autumn of 1974, early in my career as school principal, a kind and gentle fifth grader named Davion was having trouble with some of the other boys in the class. In particular, a boy named Jeremy was becoming increasingly intimidating. The teachers intervened anytime they saw an incident. Jeremy had already been sent to my office once, and the teachers were beginning to talk to me about him. We felt that bullying was going on, but saw very few punishable offenses. One day, Davion’s mother—a kind, thoughtful, single parent —came to my office to complain about Jeremy. I assured her that we had a policy of no tolerance for bullying or harassment. Any kind of physical or verbal violence was unacceptable. She said, “I can understand people saying mean things to each other, but I have told Davion never, ever to be physically violent.” I told her that we had the same attitude, but reiterated that I took an equally strong stand against verbal violence. “No physical violence,” she repeated. “It’s an absolute.” I decided not to press the point, so I said that I wanted Davion to come and talk to me, and she replied that he was afraid to talk to me. When I asked her to encourage him to do it anyway, she bristled. “He shouldn’t have to.” I said, “I know what you mean. But it is important for him to learn that he can find resources beyond you to help when he has a problem.” “Look, I am not the only one who is upset. Many parents are talking about this problem.” We talked about this for some time, her protesting and me insisting. Finally, she left my office unconvinced that her son would be safe, despite my efforts to reassure her. When I walked home from school that day, I went over and over the conversation, and came up with no clear idea of how I was going to solve this problem. Because I was highly motivated for many obvious reasons, I kept pondering, but my thinking produced no satisfying plan. Driven by anxiety I simply chewed on the problem. In my first few years as principal I was always waking up before dawn with butterflies in my stomach. I am not sure this would have been the case if I had only one or two things on my mind, but every day I had dozens—after all, in a school with about 200 students I had over 600 incipient relationship problems. I don’t think that I solved any problems this way. I hated it, but I couldn’t help it and feared that all this worry was sapping my energy. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to do something. Later that week Davion did come to my office and complained about Jeremy, telling me about his intimidating behavior and threatening language, emphasizing, “It’s not just me. He does it to everybody.” He talked for a while, and I listened intently. When he was finished, I said slowly and thoughtfully, pondering the situation, “I think I understand. Tell me about the last time it happened.” “It just happened today,” he said, as if he were still trying to convince me that there was a problem. “What happened? Give me the blow-by-blow so I can see it like a movie in my head.” “Well, we were playing soccer on the playground, see, and the ball went out, and we both chased it, but I got there first and picked it up, but he tried to take it out of my hands and when I wouldn’t let go and twisted away, he pushed me and said, ‘Gimme the ball’ and came at me like he was going to hit me.” I nodded knowingly. (Don’t we ALL know this situation?) “So what did you do?” I asked. “So I gave him the ball.” “Hmmmm.” I said, nodding. There was silence for a while. “What would happen,” I asked, “if you had faced him, holding the ball like this,” and I pretended to hold the ball with both arms across my chest, “looked him straight in the eye and said: ‘Stop that’?” “He would hit me.” “Really? Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Then what would happen if you hit him back?” “I’d get kicked out.” “Really?” I asked. “Well, I would get in trouble.” “Well, maybe. But you would both get in trouble, right?” “Yes, I guess so.” “You might both be sent to my office, right?” “Yes, I guess so.” We looked into each other’s eyes for a few seconds. I felt a click of understanding. He left the office. Neither Jeremy nor Davion ever got into trouble again. As far as I know, there were no more incidents the teachers couldn’t handle. I talked to the homeroom teacher to inquire a week or so later, and she confirmed that Jeremy was no longer bothering Davion. The epidemic of intimidation stopped. Four years later, they both graduated from eighth grade in good standing. I never had to speak to Jeremy the perpetrator, again, either. It sounds like I had a magic wand, and it felt like I had actually waved one. But what did I do right? That question rattled around my brain for some time. Did I make a mistake? What would you have done? What do you think? One thing I did learn after getting that “It’s not just me…” thing year after year is to start saying: “Let’s make it just you.” _______ For over 40 years Rick Ackerly has worked with students, teachers, and parents as a principal, father, and education consultant.
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