“Nick, did you finish writing your spelling words?”
I knew the answer before I even asked. Studying was his least favorite activity, but our deal had been that he would knock his words out before he played with his friends, which is why we were parked across this street from one of his favorite afterschool hangouts – the neighborhood park.
After an exasperated sigh and much bumping and shuffling in the backseat – followed, of course, by more loud sighing – he wrote the 20 words on a sheet of paper, saying each letter as he wrote.
Across the street I spotted his buddy, Mason, running after an older boy on a bike. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but from Mason’s facial contortions and the other boy’s frequent looks over his shoulder, the conversation was not going well.
“Hey, Nick, are you almost finished?“
Before the end of the block, Mason grabbed the handlebar, wrenching the bike away and the boys fell into a tangle of gawky arms and limbs as they scrabbled to stand up again. Unbeknownst to me, Nick had also been watching the melee and had flung the door open, dashing across the street before I could even finish saying, “look both ways!”
Nick wedged himself between the boys, shielding Mason’s splayed body as he looked up at the other, the boy’s arm raised in a mighty fist. Instinctively, he covered his face with his forearms – no doubt remembering my edict – always protect your teeth and glasses – his body braced for inevitable impact.
I sprang from the car, calculating the fist’s trajectory. My first thought – I’m not going to get there fast enough – followed quickly by my second – Don’t turn the other cheek! Defend yourself. Ugh! Why did we send you to Catholic school?!?!
In the time it took me to yell, ‘STOP” and sprint across the street, I was stunned to see the steady stream of train commuters part around the overturned bike, then reconverge just past the Nick and Mason. They were an agile lot – some high stepping it to avoid poo patties on the parkway, others doing parkour variations to balance themselves between the sidewalk and the wrought iron fence at its edge.
Not one stopped to intervene.
“Stop.” I said again when I finally reached them, my tone soft, but still firm as I placed one hand lightly on the older boy’s shoulder, the other cupping his fist. I saw the struggle in the boy’s face – how satisfying would it be to land this punch on Nick…or maybe redirect towards me. So long teeth and glasses!
“Let’s take a deep breath together – you and me. OK?”
No eye contact, but the tension slowly melted from his body.
Eyes cast down, he dropped one hand to his side.
He stepped back, dropping both hands and finally looked at me.
“There we go. Thank you. OK, so do you want to tell me what happened?”
Mason grabbed his bike from the ground, spitting his words. “Yeah! I’ll tell you. He wouldn’t get off the bike when I told him to!”
“But his brother said I would ride the bike to the corner!”
“But it’s MY BIKE!!!!”
“Mason, I understand that you feel angry and – “ Mason stormed off on his bike, letting out a string of expletives that I’m sure would earn his mouth a good soap scrubbing if his parents had been present.
“Mason, wait!” Nick trailed after him.
“It’s not fair! His brother said I could ride it! Man, this just sucks!”
The two of us were still parting the Red Sea of Commuters, some of whom glanced up from their phones, most of whom walked past with nary a look.
“I understand that this is a little confusing, but it’s not his brother’s bike. It’s his bike. And I know you heard him telling you to get off.” He broke eye contact, shrugging as he idly kicked dirt onto the sidewalk. I debated with myself – do I give him a crash course in first-year property law? Nah…this isn’t that type of teaching moment.
Instead, I looked up into his eyes – because yes, this boy had at least an inch on me – what are they feeding kids these days?! “I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself. I’m Nadine.” I stretched my hand out.
“Taylor,” he supplied, shaking my hand.
“Is Mason one of your buddies at the park? Do you guys play together?”
“Yeah, I guess. Sometimes,” he said grudgingly.
“So, since you’re buds, you’re gonna have disagreements but then get along again, right?”
“I dunno,” he mumbled, looking over his shoulder at a group of tween girls down the block.
“Do you want to come back to the park?”
He looked over his shoulder again. One of the girls waved. “Nah, I’m gonna hang with them for a little.”
Twenty minutes later, the three boys were together again at the park playing touch football. Mason was high-fiving Taylor. Nick was yelling “good catch” across the field.
Apparently all was right in Testosteronia.
Boys will be boys. I get that. Maybe if I hadn’t intervened, they would have worked it out themselves.
But as an adult, I cannot stand idly by and watch two kids pummel each other. I cannot let that be my message to them.
It’s OK to solve conflict with more conflict.
It’s OK to stand by as it escalates.
We are the village.
We are its teachers.
Every child is our child.
And they are counting on us.
How can we let them down?