NOTE: The following ‘miracle’ story happened over 40 years ago when I was a teacher in an inner city school that was over 95% Black. I believe the message from this story can help point the way to improving the existing confrontational and divisive world we are experiencing today.
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading” ― Gautama Buddha
This happened 44 years ago when I was teaching elementary school in Brooklyn. New York. That year I was working with a class of the most poorly behaved 5th grade students. The most difficult of all was James. He was 11 ½ years old, a gang leader, involved in a murder, had absolutely no respect or fear of authority, had previously been sent to a facility for violent troubled children, and rarely showed up to school. When he did show up, no teacher ever had any control over him, he was a real problem. He was assigned to my class in September and never came to class until a very cold day in February.
When he walked into my room I was surprised to see him. I knew his reputation, even though I had never met him, and he knew mine. I was the teacher everyone wanted to have. I had a great reputation among the students who liked and respected me, and they knew I was in control – I could get a school yard of 350 children quiet with a “SSSSH”, while other teachers had to blow whistles and often shout to get them quiet.
I put James in a seat near my desk so I could keep a close watch over him. Near lunch time he got out of his seat and walked over to someone he knew and started to fool around with him. I said very calmly and nicely, “James please sit down, you could spend time with your friend in five minutes at lunch.” His response was “F_ _K you Percy you’re not my father you can’t tell me what to do.” Now the whole class was watching, it was James against Mr. Percy (every one knew James’ reputation).
I looked at James and said the dumbest, stupidest thing I have ever said, “James if you say that again I will slap you in the face!” (Now you have to understand I never ever threatened anyone with physical violence – and never ever used it in any way, yet somehow these words poured out of my mouth.)
James looked me up and down and shouted, “F_ _K you Percy!!!” Now the class was watching and I felt I had no choice but to follow up on my STUPID threat. I did not slap him, I basically tapped him on his face. James went crazy, trying to punch me, kick me, cursing me, threatening me – “My brother just got out of jail for shooting someone, he’s going to come here and shoot you!”. As he said that one of my students said, “He’s not kidding Mr. Percy.” At that point James then ran out of the room.
I brought my class to lunch and came up to my room trying to decide what to do next. My strength as a teacher was the relationships I created with my students, and I felt any chance I had to establish a positive relationship with James was totally lost. I was now his enemy. AND, every 10 seconds I thought about his brother and the gun; I knew when James made a threat he was going to carry it out, his reputation depended on that.
About 30 minutes into the lunch hour, James passed by my door and a few seconds later passed by my door again staring at me. I knew I had to confront and handle the situation. As I walked to the hallway, I didn’t know if he would be there with his gang or his brother and the gun.
James was alone and glared at me, “You better watch out Percy I got something for you!” I saw he was holding something up his right sweater sleeve. I said very calmly, “James, let’s talk about what happened this morning.” His response , “You better watch out Percy I got something for you!” as he touched what was under his sleeve.
So I grabbed his wrist and pulled out what was under the sleeve. I expected a rock or a club of some kind. What was there was a butcher knife with an 8 inch blade. James looked at me and with great anger said with great hatred and no fear, “What you going to do now, Percy?”.
Here is my question. What did I do, so that in ONE MINUTE I completely changed his attitude about me. I became the only adult authority figure he liked, trusted and respected, and who could control him. ALL IT TOOK WAS ONE MINUTE. WHAT DID I DO – WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?
I knew I had to get James to be willing to change his mind about me, my safety and possibly my life depended on that. I also knew if I made him wrong in any way, that would only fuel his upset and hatred. So I focused on where I could honestly make him right for what he was feeling and what he was doing. I focused on what happened AFTER I ‘slapped’ his face.
James was expecting me to threaten him with the police, or drag him to the principal, or call his parents. What I did totally surprised him. I apologized to him. I said, “James you should be as mad as you are, and if someone had ‘slapped’ me on my face I would be as mad as you are. I owe you an apology. I am sorry.” His face went from a look of glaring hatred to one of surprise and uncertainty. But he was not totally won over by me, I knew I had to say and do one more thing. When I said what I was going to do he totally “melted” and his whole demeanor changed to one of agreement and cooperation. What do you think I said?
I knew I had done something that was the worst thing I could do to him, I humiliated and embarrassed him in front of the class, something he could never accept. I said to him, “Not only am I apologizing to you alone in the hall, I am also going to apologize to you in front of the class.” I still remember his look as I said that, he instantly became a trusting 11 ½ year old boy, not a menacing threat.
When the class came to the room after lunch they were amazed to see James willingly and cooperatively standing by my side. I said to the class, “I owe James and you an apology, I was totally wrong to threaten James and wrong to have carried out that threat. James I am sorry. and I will never do that again.” No one had ever made James right for his negative behavior, but when I honestly did make him right, he was willing to change his mind about me – let me tell you i was greatly relieved.
Now that James’ attitude was changed I was able to put in control. I had him get three negative marks for his conduct and behavior before the ‘slap on his face’. James sat down, and an hour later came up to me and said, “Here Mr. Percy, I also brought this”, and he took a knife out of his pocket and gave it to me. I thanked James and told him I will give this back to him at three o’clock and please don’t bring it to school again.
A few days later I got a letter from his social worker amazed at what happened with James. I was the only authority figure he liked, respected and trusted. Our relationship, our friendship, lasted over the years and he would come back somewhat regularly to visit me at school.
What is the point of the story.
My James story is a small microcosm of what we are facing today on a large scale. And if I was able to create a positive relationship with him, in minutes, by understanding his reality, and then taking the necessary steps to handle his upset and disagreement, we can surely make a change in this world of “I am right and you are wrong” which only leads to confrontation, upsets, and rebellion.
Obviously I didn’t agree with James wanting to harm me and take revenge with that knife. But I was willing to truly understand his reality, and acknowledge and sincerely allow him to be right to have that reality. When that happened only then was he willing to change his mind about me.
Relating that story to the social unrest and protests (even the looting), by honestly being willing to see things from their reality, and allow them to be right to have that reality, Not necessarily agreeing with it but acknowledging their viewpoint, ONLY then can we have true communication and a sharing of reality.
When we all know we have TRULY been heard, NOT JUST BY WORDS BUT BY ACTIONS, we can make the needed changes to our society. The protesters have a strong understandable belief about the wrongnesses that have been done to them, the police also have their reality about what they have to confront and the realities they face everyday on the job.
Let’s focus on where we can truly understand the other’s reality, and allow them to be right to have that viewpoint. And, I emphasize, NOT NECESSARILY agreeing with it, but seeing and agreeing with the rightness of what the other person feels and believes from their reality. Only then can we make the needed changes to create a better world.
“A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”