It was not easy being a young contrarian. I still remember clearly the day in the second grade when I broke the social rules and played with the girl who had “cooties” as it was my first experience with ostracization. If this was supposed to bring me into social compliance, it did not work. It was not long before punches were being thrown in my direction.
While fighting may get you in trouble in school, not returning a punch was not an option in my house. My dad had grown up on the rough streets of New York City and worked hard to move his family to the suburbs. The lessons that he had learned on those streets were important to him, especially the necessity of standing up for oneself. It was a value I saw him keep throughout his life. He also made sure to install it in his children.
My Dad also saw the importance of standing up for what was right even if doing so had negative consequences. One of my favorite childhood stories starts when I was jumped during lunch in Junior High School. After getting in the required retaliatory punch, I walked away only to be hounded by another classmate. This resulted in another fight which was broken up by a school security guard. After the dean heard all three stories, she decided that the first student had started the whole thing and gave him in-school suspension.
In most cases this would have been the end the story. However, in this case the suspended student’s father was a lawyer who decided that the punishment was unfair. As a result three sets of parents ended up in three separate offices as the Assistant Principal shuttled between them trying to figure out how to resolve the situation. Finally, he announced to my parents that he had wasted too much time and was just going to forget that the entire incident had happened.
In most cases this would have been the end of the story. However, in this case one of the parents was stubborn beyond belief and felt that this resolution did not provide justice. My dad, therefore, asked if it would resolve the school’s dilemma if he agreed to let his son get punished. The way my parents told the story the Vice Principal got a big smile on his face before he answered “yes.” The sounds that came from the other office was not as pleasant as the news was delivered to the lawyer-parent.
Looking back on this story I am a little surprised that I was not upset at my Dad for his actions on that day. I guess that partly resulted from the fact that I respected my parents more than the school’s punishment. More importantly, I think I understood that this was just an extension of the fighting back rule. Sitting in a detention room for a day was a worthwhile price to pay to make sure that not only the first student got the punishment he deserved but also that his dad was not able to bully the school administration with his lawyerly skills.
I have found in the last couple of weeks that this fight has been successfully imparted into my son. During our last cold snap I received a call from his school’s dean letting me know that he had been in an incident. To keep warm he had been wearing the hood from his sweatshirt and the dean had found this to be a violation of the school’s dress code. When she asked him to remove it he politely refused. He then practiced his civil disobedience skills and also refused to turn over his school ID or tell her his name until she explained how it was wrong for him to wear a hood to keep warm. In school disciplinary terminology, this is called “defiance” and she was calling to tell me that he had received detention.
After listening to the story I asked the dean if my son had been inside or outside during this incident. When she told me that he had been outside I pointed out to her that as we were talking I was walking to lunch and was also wearing a hood because it was cold outside. Her response was that she understood and did not necessarily agree with the rule but it had been made to make sure that students were not hiding earpieces for their electronic devices. I promised her I would talk with my son.
The resulting conversation was interesting. While I expected him to complain bitterly about the detention, he acknowledged from the outset that he had broken the rules and would make sure to serve the punishment that was given. However, he would also continue to fight against the rule and is adamant about getting his classmates to work together to get the rule changed. My dad lives on through his grandson.