Yesterday, something happened on the bus. Or, more specifically, something happened off the bus.
Students in my program ride the yellow special ed bus to school from their homes all over our city, because there aren’t a lot of schools that offer what my school does. They share the ride, often, with kids from another program at my school–a special day class for students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders.
Previously, I’d worked out a procedure with the bus drivers: they’d drop my students off first, near the cafeteria, and the kids would walk to the main building unaccompanied. Fundamentally, I figured that if my students can’t navigate the seventy feet between the bus and the hallway, they probably have no business being in a program which prides itself on maximizing opportunities for independence. The bus then pulled away, drove down the street, and waited outside the day treatment portable, where staff would meet the students in that program and walk them to class.
Yesterday, though, there was a substitute bus driver; two of the kids from the day treatment program took advantage of this opportunity to hop off early and, well, jump Saleem. The smaller boy watched as his 5th grade classmate hit him, quickly, again and again. As he’d seen kids doing in gang initiations. As he’d watched on t.v. As he may well have experienced, on the receiving side, himself. The 5th grader beat Saleem, and they both took off running.
My para found Saleem, stumbling and muddy and out of breath, outside the cafeteria. Learned what happened, let me know. Knee deep in another issue, I passed it on to the principal: she did her due diligence, and came to me with the plan.
“Imani’s gonna be suspended, because he’s the one who hit Saleem. But I’d like to do a conflict resolution with Saleem and Dante, because Dante was a bystander, and I want him to realize that he has some responsibility, also. I’d like you to be there, in case I need help.”
After lunch, we brought both boys into the principal’s office–a bright, cheerful place, decorated with pictures from her own children by birth and her children from school. My principal is an amazing human being–a calm, steady woman with soft eyes and red hair, a privileged white lady who is able, without patronizing, to see the world through the eyes of a poor black boy. The four of us sat around her conference table.
Conflict resolution, at Greene Elementary, follows a specific series of steps. Each student takes a turn stating what happened, with the facilitator paraphrasing each time, drawing connections to how each party felt. Once we arrive at a mutually understood definition of the problem, we get to the solution point–what each child needs in order to feel better, what they need to do to meet the other child’s needs. After that, if appropriate, other consequences are applied–if a conflict happened in class and disrupted the learning environment, for example, the students might need to deliver a whole-class apology.
But before we get started, the agreements: we’re all here to solve the problem, no put-downs, take turns talking, tell the truth. Once both parties have committed to each of these, the facilitator asks, “Who goes first?” Almost inevitably, this is the point at which the conflict actually diffuses, not escalates–because both of them insist that they want to go first, and the only way to solve this is rock/paper/scissors, and as soon as you start playing rock/paper/scissors, you’re automatically a child again, playing a game.
Saleem throws paper, and I need an hour and at least five more blog posts to fully process why the hell it is that paper beats rock. But back in the principal’s office, around our conference table, it’s 1:25 and Saleem goes first.
“I rode the bus, see, like I do every day. And I sat in the seat facing the….” Dante disengages with a bored look on his face as Saleem attempts to answer “What happened” with everything that happened–which row he was sitting in, how many people were on the bus, probably what radio station the driver had the radio on. The biggest challenge he has–extracting what matters from a universe of detail. My principal and I exchange glances. I kick in a quick summary, using the paraphrase script. “It sounds like you rode on the bus. And then when the bus got to school, did you get off the bus?” Yes.
And then what happened?
“Imani socked me. But he didn’t sock me once. He socked me like ten times. Or twenty times. I don’t know how many times. I’ll have to count them, when he socks me again.” It is honestly all that Saleem knows he can do differently next time–figure out how exactly many times someone hits him. It’s the assumption he’s making–that a next time will come.
Dante listens, dispassionately.
How did that make you feel?
“Sad. And angry. And my stomach hurt where he socked me.”
Of course. It’s upsetting, when people put their hands on you. It hurts your body and it makes you upset. Saleem, did anyone else put their hands on you?
“No. Well, Ms. Heidi helped me clean my shoe, afterwards. With this cloth, see, like…”
So, no one else hit you. But was anyone else there?
“He was.” Dante looks up as Saleem points to him, waving his finger into Dante’s space. I cringe a bit: Saleem doesn’t realize that this could be annoying. Saleem’s gonna ride the bus with Dante again.
My principal thanks Saleem, reminds him now that it’s Dante’s turn to talk.
“We was riding the bus, and Imani said, let’s get Saleem, cuz he always be bothering us, so Imani said, let’s get him. So he got off the bus, and we got off the bus, and Imani beat him up and we ran.”
So, Imani hit Saleem. He beat Saleem up. And you didn’t do it. But you watched. You didn’t stop him. And…Dante, how did all that make you feel?
“A little bit upset, and a little bit, it was funny.” His gaze is deadpan: he’s telling the truth.
So, a part of you was okay with it.
But a part of you wasn’t.
The “yeah” that comes this time is quieter than the last.
That other part of you, the part that wasn’t okay with it…what does that part of you think should’ve happened?
“Have mercy.” He says it, again dispassionately, but in those little words, I get a torrent of feelings and images that I imagine circle around him, without this troubled boy able to consciously hold any of it. The grandmother who helps raise him, bringing him to church. The hymns they sing there. The father who’s not there; the reason he’s not there. The mother, doing her best to fight off her own demons. The neighborhood he busses from, what it’s like to live and die there. Lambs and shepherds and boarded up windows. Food pantries, street corners, crosses in the dirt. Mercy. Have mercy. What does that mean?
My principal says that last bit, aloud to Dante. What does that mean?
“It means, let him at least get up and fight back.”
Saleem, confronted with a logical impossibility, understandably forgets that it’s Dante’s Turn to Talk.
“But I couldn’t fight back, because we were at school, and I wanted to respect the school rules.” The two boys make glancing eye contact with each other–one whose disability means he will break the school rules even when they’re designed to ensure his personal safety, the other whose disability means he will follow the school rules even when it’s much safer to break them. Dante shrugs.
My principal steps in. Saleem has a point, Dante. At school, you’re not supposed to fight back, because at school, you’re not supposed to fight at all. School is meant to be a safe place, where people don’t beat up other people.
“At home you can fight.” Dante says it quietly. My principal agrees, with a sad look on her face. Home rules might be different. We make the rules for school.
Saleem takes a stab at summarizing.
“So, that means, that at home you can fight back, and away from school you can fight back, but not at school and not on the bus and not on the way from the bus to the school.” I see the information going into his brain, in multiple files. It is crucial for him to know which response goes where.
My principal takes us back to the matter at hand–to Dante watching one child beat up another child, to the choice he needs to make about which side he’s gonna stand on.
Have you seen stuff like that happen in your neighborhood?
“In my neighborhood, we fight back. And at school. And at home.”
Well, the rule at school is that you don’t fight back.
“But Imani knows where I live. I can fight him there. At home, there isn’t a rule about fighting.”
Home rules might be different. But at school, we can’t fight. And that’s because at school, we want you to learn different ways to solve your problems. With words.
“But at home we can fight.”
What happens in our city, though, when young men fight?
A solemn moment, then, for all of us, the connections each of us have to what happens when men fight.
I don’t think I fully imagine it, the tiny part of Dante that is more responsive than it had been, to the part of the conversation where we talk about next time.
Imani is suspended. He won’t ride the bus tomorrow. But Dante, you and Saleem will still ride the same bus. What needs to be different? Saleem, what do you want to have happen next time?
“I don’t want anyone to hit me next time. Or at least, not that much.”
Dante makes an observation that almost seems like an apology. “I told him, I told Imani, after awhile, ‘That’s enough.’ ”
Dante, it really sounds like that part of you that wasn’t okay with what was happening…it sounds like that’s a pretty big part. A pretty strong part. A part that’s good to listen to. You don’t always have to do things that other people think are good ideas.
That’s about as much as my principal can ask for, the biggest seed possible to plant inside this soil. It’s too much, really too much, to make Dante Saleem’s champion–it’s too naive to imagine that one conversation can change this child’s world. She moves on.
The bus driver is not going to be letting anyone off the bus again, unless there’s an adult there to meet you. And on the bus…
This is honestly the part where my principal and myself are most utterly defeated–we don’t pick the bus drivers. We don’t seat the children. There are already stacks upon stacks of bus issues and complaints, because the drivers can’t discipline and drive at the same time, and a part of putting students with emotional disturbance and students with autism on the same transit system will always remind me of tossing tiny fish at sharks.
They agree not to sit together. For now, it’s enough. For now, I hope it’ll be enough–that God Himself, perhaps, will sit on the bus for a couple hundred more times, so that both of these young boys can keep coming to school. That way, Dante’s teacher can keep working with Dante and I can keep working with Saleem, and my principal can keep making my school a place where we can do this.
While they’re young enough to still move in the directions they should go.