Sunday, February 8, 2009

On Escalation and Fear

Today, I dipped a toe in the waters that my students swim in every day. And, luckily for me, I was able to quickly pull it back out.

I play football every Sunday in a competitive (but recreational) flag football league. No pads, but there is full contact outside of tackling (which is what the flags are for). The competition level is relatively high (a number of semi-pro football players, ex-college athletes, some lower-level pro), but it's a recreational league. For fun. And I usually have quite a lot of fun playing (a lot of exercise, get out a bit of aggression safely and legally, with guys I enjoy playing with).

Of course, due to the fact that it's competitive and there is contact, people get a little too serious, sometimes. Tempers flare, people run their mouths - there's an occasional (but brief) fight. Of course, it's never actually the best players that run their mouths - it's the players that aren't as good but get frustrated and compensate with their mouths.

So (yeah, I'm going to stroke my own ego a minute) I don't talk trash. I don't get into it with other players. I'm the first to call out a good play by my opponent, and apologize if I get overly-aggressive. And I'm a good player, so opponents respect my abilities. As a result, I never have problems with players on the teams we play against, even if some of my teammates end up getting into it (which always pisses me off). In fact, I generally end up being asked to play with a lot of different teams (and do so, occasionally) because of my abilities and tendency to get along with folks.

But not today.

I'll try to keep the football-speak brief, but we played a team today that had one star player. Really quick, good hands, he was tearing us up a bit. So I ended up playing up on him (when I was on defense) and getting physical (putting my hands on, bumping - all legit football technique) to limit his effectiveness. And it worked. Problem was, he wasn't so happy about it, so he started running his mouth. Complaining about me holding him (I wasn't, really - again, everything perfectly legit within real football technique; I hate cheaters and dirty players more than the ones that talk mess) and getting in my face about it.

I try to calm him down. I say that I'm just playing defense, not trying to play dirty, it's all good, so just chill the f--- out. But he's not having it. Suddenly, instead of playing his game, he's trying to cheap-shot me while telling me "it's on, now - all game long." I tell him, cool. Because, in all actuality, there's nothing sweeter as a defensive player than when you can get the best player on the team to totally lose his focus and be off his game like that (we ended up killing them, as a result).

So our offense gets the ball, and I head to the sideline. My new friend (we'll call him "Mouth") is waiting for me, and continues to run his mouth about how it's on and he's going to be all over me, etc. I'm done with being friendly about it, so I just say, "go ahead," and smile. I'm not too worried about it (it's pretty easy to spot the "all talk" guy and somebody who is going to follow through; not to mention the reason he's running his mouth is because I'm dominating him, physically).

That should be that, right?

Except one of my teammates (we'll call him "P") sidles up to me and, with his back to Mouth, says, "You want me to take care of this? I've got something in the trunk for him if you want . . ."

I look in P's eyes, and he's stone-cold serious. So I tell him, "No, we're good. We're just going to keep it on the field." P says okay, and that's that, for him.

But the Mouth heard. And he suddenly gets real quiet. For the rest of the game, he doesn't say a word to me, doesn't touch me or do anything else. He ends up pulling himself out of the game, being the only one who doesn't shake hands when it's over, and he leaves before we're off the field.

And I never thought I'd find myself in a situation like that. I got in a couple fights in high school, but they were the "slap at each other and end up rolling around on the ground" kind of fights that ended quick and led to nothing else. I never thought I'd end up (especially at my age) in a spot where that next-level kind of violence was so close by. I know some of the guys I play with mix it up a bit, but I didn't intend to be part of it.

And, luckily for all of us, I didn't want it to be bigger. But, still, as I walked out into the parking lot (alone, because I was rushing to my next game), I couldn't help but keep my eyes peeled to see if something more was going to happen.

Because the Mouth was straight scared (and with good reason). And you never know how fear is going to cause somebody to react - what kind of stupid decisions it can lead to.

And I started thinking of the kids I work with. And what if this had happened in their world? What if Mouth was somebody that lived around me? Somebody I knew I'd run into on a regular basis? What if he was so scared of the next time he ran into me (or P, more likely) that he decided he needed to do something? So he gets his homies, and next time we run into each other . . . ?

Or what if I felt the need to "take care of it" worrying about what he was going to do? What if my friends or family was telling me I couldn't just let it be? Constant pressure, constant fear, constant escalation from the little and stupid into the dead serious.

That's the world my kids live in. That's why a 16 year-old kid (who used to go to our school) was shot in the face about a month ago - by some 30 year-olds. That's why a 15 year-old kid (one I've known well for the last three years - a smart, charming, well-meaning kid) got locked up for the next 3 years on a weapons charge about a week later.

When fear and a general lack of safety are given, how are people going to react? How are kids going to react?

It's that same kind of escalation and fear that causes outsider kids to go shoot up their high schools (or colleges).

It's that same escalation and fear that leads to people blowing themselves up to kill our soldiers (or citizens).

It's that same escalation and fear that leads to our soldiers returning the favor to other countries' citizens a thousand-fold.

And I am so glad of my privilege in that I can mostly avoid the direct costs of that kind of fear and escalation. I don't walk down the street with the itchy feeling of a target painted on my back. I don't live in fear of the people around me. I don't feel the need to "prove myself" or "protect myself" - because I feel safe. And that kind of safety is something I take for granted all the time.

But, today, that little tiny taste of the other side is giving me some appreciation for that safety. It makes me appreciate the safety that let me grow up where and how I did. The safety that let me let a stupid conflict while playing a game remain just that - and not a permanent regret.

And it makes me wonder how things can change. Because, ultimately, putting people in jail doesn't do a damn thing (in the case of kids I know, it just guarantees they'll come out as criminals). Increasing the police presence and profiling doesn't help. Because none of that takes away the fear (most often, it just escalates it). And, as long as the fear remains - and the feeling of safety stays away - things are not going to get better.

So how can we take away the fear?

Give kids (and adults) alternatives. Jobs. Drastically improved education. Representation. True power. Make them believe that they don't need to be afraid all the time, that they do have some control, and the rest will take care of itself.

So easy to say . . .


uglyblackjohn said...


CVT said...

I'm so intrigued by the "damn" comment - so much that that could mean . . . Any chance of some enlightenment?

Lisa J said...

Wow. I am amazed by your ability to take an incident like that and turn it around to empathize with your students. I totally thought you were going somewhere else with your story and then it ended the way it did. You are so right, it is so wrong the extent to which children (especially kids of a lower socio-economic status and particularly if they are minorities) only makes the problem worse. Some day hopefully our society will be enlightened enough to realize that.

Thank you, this was quite a treat after your hiatus.