He is uniquely qualified for the job: The feisty, colorful 57-year-old says that in his 27 years in the classroom, he has broken up more than 1,000 fights and disarmed more than 400 students--only twice by force, and once by taking off his clothes, a trick to make the student think he was crazy. He teaches 299 other tactics, which include looking at the bridge of an angry student’s nose rather than directly into the eyes to keep the student from feeling “dared’'; reading hostile body language (a subtle roll of the shoulders signals the student is about to swing, so step to the side); and using nonprovoking language to tell kids to do something (a student who tosses a milk carton and misses the garbage can is more likely to bridle at “Pick up that milk carton’’ than at “You just missed a three-pointer--try again for two’’).
Commanday had little “formal’’ training for his post. He practices tai chi, a gentle, balletic form of Oriental self-defense, yet he regards physical force as an absolute last resort. In fact, although he stays in shape, he assiduously avoids bulking up his already formidable 6-foot-2-inch, 197-pound frame so that he doesn’t appear intimidating.
But he’s a virtuoso with what he calls “the most dangerous weapon in the world, the human tongue.’' During his classes, which range from two-hour workshops that he gives both in New York and schools across the country to a 30-hour basic training course, Commanday uses verbal abuse to provoke confrontations with his audience. “I embarrass them, scream at them, call them [obscene names],’' he admits.
But the venom is calculated. It’s a test to allow the teachers and administrators in his class to judge how much they contribute to the mayhem. “The class is designed to get each person to evaluate himself, to see himself in a difficult situation,’' explains Commanday. “I feel I’m giving them the worst they’re going to face, so when less than that happens they feel better prepared.’'
The technique has its dangerous moments. A school security officer once punched him in the mouth, a principal with a black belt in judo came at him hands flying, and an assistant principal tried to slice him with a knife. But it has its rewards. One surly principal who lunged at him kicking and throwing punches later stood up in class and told Commanday: “I’m part of the problem. So what can you do about it?’'
“I threw my arms around her, kissed her on both cheeks and said, ‘Next time you want to beat the shit outa somebody, give ‘em a hug instead,’' Commanday recalls with a chuckle. “She later wrote a letter to the mayor about the course. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I’m dead.’ But it was all complimentary.’'
Not surprisingly, about half of the staff members who take Commanday’s course--even the ones he doesn’t go mano a mano with--either drop out or flunk out. Those who stay--about 120 now graduate each year--become better peacemakers via a heightened understanding of human behavior and common sense. “We survive on our ability to use our instincts,’' says Commanday. “What I do is heighten [those] instincts.’' --D.F.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as a One-Man Antiterrorism Unit