By Patrick McMahon
Recently I was startled to find on the door of the classroom down the hall from me a poster of the American flag, with the slogan, "We Support Our Troops in the Middle East" I thought of the bumper slicker on my car, "Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home." The juxtaposition brings home to me the saying, "The first casualty of war is truth." For neither of these slogans is truthful. I don't actually support the troops, I just want them out of harm's way. And "We Support Our Troops in the Middle East" is a euphemism for "We Support the War." There's fanaticism and narrowness underneath the apparent neutrality of both expressions. I and my colleague down the hall could easily get caught in a war of viewpoints. I don't want that to happen. Neither can I remain silent. I'm compelled to risk the demanding route of compassionate dialogue. I owe it, at the very least, to my students, who are swimming (sinking, I'm afraid) in a sea of half-truths about the war. I'm terrified, I must confess, by the enterprise. I'm fairly skilled al avoiding conflict, not so skilled on the field of opposition. But the avoidance is a fake pacifism, as I learned anew several months ago.
The last day of school before the winter break, Santa visits our school with his big bag of candy canes. My fifth graders go wild. In the midst of his rounds, we have recess, and at the end of recess I spot one of the other teachers—the one with the poster—in a shouting match with one of my students. She motions me over. "Your Rodney here needs a little talking to!" The tone and pitch of her voice, the flashing eyes and clenched fists, put me in the position of an errant boy myself. Perhaps I was in line for a talking to!
"What's the problem?" I come back as levelly as I can, my heart pounding with adrenalin, my breath fast and constricted.
"There were a bunch of kids hanging around Santa at the end of recess, trying to get some more candy canes. The bell rang, and I told them to get back to their classrooms. Rodney was the only one who didn't listen to me."
I know Rodney well: he simply doesn't hear when excited. I've learned through many painful incidents that coming down hard on him at these times does not work. When I repeat myself, make eye contact, put my hand gently on his shoulder, he nearly always comes around for me.
"So then what?" I ask my colleague. Neither of us, by the way, has consulted Rodney for his story, though I'm acutely aware of the sense of violation in his overflowing eyes.
"What happened?!"—my colleague is beside herself with the memory. "Why I grabbed him by the shoulder, and he used some language on me that I wouldn't want to repeat."
The picture clarifies: Rodney's dignity had been assaulted, bodily. I can feel it in myself, this recoil from an adult force, physically superior and fired with authoritarian righteousness. I make an effort to extract myself from this whirlpool of helplessness. I am, after all, an adult, moreover a teacher. Caught between warring forces, all I want is a quick peace. My thinking is that if we throw a bone to the aggressor she will return to her territory and we to ours, where I can come to a separate understanding with Rodney. "O.K. Rodney," I say, my voice stem for the benefit of my fellow teacher, "You know what the rules are. Never talk back to a teacher, and certainly no profanity. I want you to write that a hundred times and have it ready for Ms. _____ by the end of the day."
He gives me a look of betrayal, "But wait a minute, Mr. McMahon - she grabbed me. I don't let anyone do that"
"Good for you," I say to myself. Out loud, I say, "You've still broken the rules. I want those sentences."
"I won't do them," he says flatly.
"Then I guess you'll need to talk about it with the principal." "Great I want her to hear about this."
Again, I have to admire his pluck, even though I know he is doomed. The principal is going to back up her teachers, just as I am expected to back up Ms. _____. I catch my colleague's eye: There's a small, acid, conspiratorial smile. I'm sick at heart.
An hour later Rodney is back with a note from the principal saying he's going home, suspended. It's all been so predictable, all so tragic. Suspended just before the Christmas party and the exchange of gifts and cards, all for a lousy piece of candy. Or rather because at the moment of crisis I panicked, took a position, sided with power, put loyalty to authority over loyalty to a child. I could - had I been more confident in my status in the school's hierarchy—have sided with Rodney, humiliating my colleague. How sweet it would have been, protecting a young male from a raging, devouring female energy! But that, too, would have been a misstep, off the mark of compassionate dialogue, and just as productive of further oppressive karma.
"If only I had . . ."—the tape plays over and over as I drive home that night. If only I could have contained it all, both positions and the moment, not been pressured into a quick peace by my own low threshold for tension. If I'd refrained from imposing punishment on the spot, stayed uncommitted, later I could have heard Rodney out; I could have shared with my colleague what I've learned over the course of the year of working with this volatile, in many ways admirable, boy.
Talking these regrets through later with a friend and fellow educator, he reminds me, "So much gets thrown at you every day, you just have to let some if it slide. Chalk it up as something learned for the next time."
Thich Nhat Hanh's words in the Third Precept of the Order of Interbeing return to me: "Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever to adopt our view. However through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness." I feel I've practiced this precept with my students, facilitating discussions on the war, having them write letters to the President, steering them toward background information on the Middle East, scrupulously avoiding judgment of any position. It's not so hard, I find, to keep my balance with children. But as I approach the issue of the poster, as I must, with a peer, my confidence wavers. I'll say this, and she'll say that, and I'll come back with such and such . . . and we'll never talk again: so goes the scenario. But the urgency of the times doesn't permit indulgence in these old habits. I can't teach peace to my kids, and turn around and engage in war with my peers. How then do I take issue with my colleague's forcing her view of the war on her students, without forcing my own view on her? The parallels with the war itself are unavoidable: Saddam Hussein forces himself on Kuwait; President Bush tries to force him out. Has Bush ever stopped to consider his opponent's point of view, indeed, any point of view other than that of Imperial America? There has not, I'm startled to reflect, been a moment of dialogue since August, much less compassionate dialogue. We can all learn from this stark demonstration of how not to settle disputes. The clue I take is to ask more questions, make fewer statements; to inquire into how my adversary came to think the way she does. Surely along the way I'll learn something about how I've come to think the way I do. But even opening up dialogue on the issue is premature; the conditions for dialogue themselves need to be cultivated.
After resolving over the last few days to speak with my colleague, I knock on her door. Her face shows delighted surprise, and I realize I haven't been in her room for months. "A break from these damn report cards," she says, as she motions me to a chair. I can sec from all the papers fanned out on her desk how ensconced she is. I notice the spelling words on the blackboard, the "My Best Work" display, the profiles of Washington and Lincoln, those timeless February figures - all the evidence of a teacher doing the best she can, by the light she has. I look in her face, weary at this time of day, but pert: clearly a person using her talents to the limit, who wouldn't be doing anything else. A veteran.
"We never seem to get around to chatting anymore," I say.
"Yeah, well, we're both so busy. So how have you been?"
It might be weeks before we get around to talking about the war. I have a feeling we'll be talking about Rodney along the way, as well as many other things. The poster may well disappear before we can get around to it. Already it seems quite incidental.
Patrick McMahon is a schoolteacher in northern California.