A Teacher's Power to Stop Violence Is Rooted in Relationships

Apr 27, 2021 12:00:00 AM


During my 15 years of teaching, I have broken up many fights. I have been hit in the ear so hard that it rang me to sleep later that night; I have been smacked in the face and watched my glasses spin across the floor. I have held children I cared for in my arms, taking blows intended for them, trying to keep the fight from escalating; I have had a stranger use me as a human shield and cause my neck to ache in pain for weeks. 

There are weapons in our schools, despite our best efforts at mitigation—every teacher knows it. Once, one of my favorite students was sliced by a straight razor and bled up and down the halls while seeking medical attention. Though I was never involved in a fight that included more than hand-to-hand combat, the possibility of a weapon was always there. We all live with that knowledge. And yet, [pullquote position="right"]fight after fight, teachers don’t even blink—we just jump in to protect our students. It’s simply part of the job.[/pullquote]

Once I stepped out of the bathroom smack into an argument between two of my students. Both of these 17-year-olds were bigger than me. The boys stood toe-to-toe and screamed at each other, faces just inches apart. The crowd of onlookers grew, and their volume swelled, and I cut through, trying to get close enough to make peace.

When I hollered for the boys’ attention, neither so much as looked my way. So I stepped between them. Tyler whipped his shirt off.  The crowd exploded.

I turned to face Tyler, put my hands on his chest, tried in vain to push him back. Behind me, Kevin kept up his verbal assault. He was able to stay in Tyler’s head even as I kept their bodies apart. Behind Tyler, I could see students pouring up the stairs from lunch; what had started as a modest crowd was turning into a mob. There were easily a hundred teenagers surrounding us.

I kept pushing at Tyler, uselessly. I was screaming standard adult fare about the need to walk away; the crowd was roaring, drowning out my voice. Tyler’s kinetic frame leaned into me—able, I knew, to shove past me whenever he felt ready. Onlookers, vying for a sightline on the action, tightened the circle of bodies around us. Every spasm of the crowd increased the chance of violence.

I looked around frantically and realized I was the only adult in sight.

Like many high schools, mine had, and still has, police officers. For a long time, they were City of Atlanta officers; later the school police became a separate department of the Atlanta Public Schools. The presence of police officers in school buildings is contentious—some maintain that they need to be there to ensure safety, others argue that their presence increases the chance of a minor altercation escalating.

For my part, I can say that I found every officer I have worked with to be thoughtful and kind, bending over backward to maintain peace and keep the students in school. This might have been because the officers were always Black—our student body was greater than 95% Black—or maybe because of something peculiar to the environment of southwest Atlanta. 

I suppose the money spent on police officers could have hired three or four extra teachers, and, given that, there is a case to be made that we could have done without police. However, I have to speak up for the men and women I worked with—they cared about the students every bit as much as did our teachers. 

But, [pullquote]in that particular moment with Tyler and Kevin, in the hallway stopping a riot, our school police officers were nowhere in sight.[/pullquote] In what seemed a moment custom-built for police in schools, I was still alone.

Suddenly Tyler started walking forward on me, and I had no choice but to step back. Kevin kept pace with us, and we danced this bizarre tango down the hall.  

Until we hit a door. Now, we are at an impasse.

Though Kevin had been willing to back up rather than have me step into him, he now won’t go through the door. Going through the door would be tantamount to cowardice. Tyler is almost on top of me, my hands holding him back not through physical strength, but only by the tenuous thread of his respect for me.

Somehow, the crowd has swelled even more—fifty yards deep of the double-wide hallway filled entirely with students. The overpowering noise keeps me from hearing Tyler and Kevin’s words to each other. 

My voice is shot; my hands slick with Tyler’s sweat. I know it is only a matter of time until the crowd shoves him into Kevin, forcing a fight. However much Tyler might respect me, once contact is initiated there will be no turning back.

My glasses slip down my nose, and I don’t have a free hand to adjust their position. I find myself imagining them breaking when my face is struck. Over and over I scream Tyler’s name into his face. He ignores me.

My adrenaline is giving out, and Tyler’s is ramping up. I am starting to slip in my efforts to push him back. The crowd is insatiable—students are still coming up the stairs from lunch and no one has gone into a classroom. There are probably over three hundred bodies crushing forward to see what is happening. 

We are stuck in a bizarre triptych in the corner—not one of us can afford to back down and yet there seems no way out. 

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a colleague comes cutting through the crowd. He embraces Tyler from behind in a huge bear hug, finally freeing me to spin and grab Kevin. 

I push Kevin through a door and slam it shut, immediately turning back to help my colleague calm Tyler down, but he already has the situation firmly under control. 

He is whispering into Tyler’s ear, something almost incantatory in its soothing repetitions. Tyler—apoplectic just moments before—is collapsed in his arms, desperately holding on as a child would to a father. My colleague quickly moves him off the hall and into an office, whispering all the while. I am stunned. The boy appears to be crying.  

It remains one of the most inspiring moments I have ever witnessed firsthand: the power of relationship to break the bonds of violence.

I understand that police officers deal with situations far beyond my hallway altercations; I am not foolish enough to think that the words of this essay can be applied easily to their work. Remembering my colleague that day, though— picturing him holding Tyler and leading him away in complete surrender—leads me to believe that power does not always lie in the strongest weapon. There is also power in whispered words; in hope for a future; in love. 

This is what teachers do. Our power comes not from our bodies or weapons, but from our relationships. Maybe there is a lesson here for the police in our streets after all.

Jay Wamsted

Jay Wamsted has taught math at Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta for fourteen years. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines, including "Harvard Educational Review," "Mathematics Teacher" and "Sojourners." He can be found online at "The Southeast Review," "Under the Sun" and the "TEDx" YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.” He and his wife have four young children, and he rides his bicycle to and from work just about every day. You can contact him on Twitter @JayWamsted or by email, wamsted@gmail.com.    

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