'They Were Fighting Over a Woman . . .'

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As the newly elected Republican majority in Congress threatens to eliminate prevention programs from last year's crime bill, and as the President vows to veto any such action, violent crimes committed by young people continue to rise. Appropriately, the attention of educators turns to the adolescents who either witness crimes by their peers or are victimized by them. But what of their younger brothers and sisters who, if lucky, fill our Head Start centers and preschool classrooms?

Early-childhood educators have always been prepared to help individual children cope with family crises. Unfortunately, many of us now find ourselves working in communities in which families are undergoing continual stress and violent crimes have become the norm rather than the exception. Even if our students have not been the victims of violent crimes, the imminent threat of violence affects the quality of their lives. Beyond creating a physically safe and emotionally supportive environment, is there anything else that we can do to respond to the violence that permeates the lives of so many young children today?

I believe the answer to this question begins with listening to the children themselves. On a recent visit to a Bronx public school, I accompanied a substance-abuse-prevention specialist who informed me that a young teenager had stabbed and killed another in the schoolyard two weeks earlier. As a 1st grader carefully explained it to me 20 minutes later, "They were fighting over a woman and one of them had a weapon." Many of the children knew the antagonists, who were friends of older siblings; some were relatives. For the children, relating news of the killing appeared to be an appropriate way to greet an unfamiliar visitor, perhaps the only way to make an all-too-familiar event seem meaningful.

In the kindergarten, my colleague initiated a group discussion at story time about good and bad drugs, a topic that predictably turned to the schoolyard murder. Everyone wanted to participate; everyone had something to contribute. An accurate and detailed recounting of the stabbing emerged, although it was increasingly punctuated by references to television violence. Of special interest was the "Rescue 911" program, whose title raised questions about telephone numbers to be used in case of emergency--fire, crime, or natural disaster. Children asked what they could do if they forgot the number or didn't know it? Who could be of help? Almost imperceptibly, the conversation had shifted from the real violence of the schoolyard to the imagined or re-enacted crimes of television to potential crises in the children's own lives.

In a halting, barely audible voice one young girl described being awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of her parents, whom she heard fighting through the wall that separates their rooms. She told the rapt group of 20 5-year-olds that she was frightened, upset, and did not know what to do. She wanted to awaken her younger sister. Many sympathetic suggestions were offered as to the appropriateness of such an action. I wondered if she had been motivated by a desire to shelter her sister or by a drive to find reassurance in the act of comforting another. Eventually the voices died down, but the girl could not return to sleep, she said, for a long time.

This very painful revelation inspired yet another round of narratives about family disagreements, most often between the children and younger siblings. There was a great deal of disagreement about how much "my baby," a brother or sister unable to speak, could understand. There was general consensus that it was impossible to win disputes with these siblings, since they are perceived as having a moral upper hand due to their youth. The meeting ended with attempts by the kindergartners to remember their own infancy, harking back to an apparently simpler time when greater vulnerability assured greater protection.

Although the schoolyard drama, with its intimations of adult sexuality, peer competition, and uncontrollable passion, was uppermost in the minds of these children, it was only the starting point for an exploration of more familiar themes such as the importance of family and siblings, moments of vulnerability and safety, techniques of communication, strategies for conflict management, and the separation of fact from fiction. Most educators would acknowledge that these themes ought to be part of any developmentally appropriate curriculum.

But as a guest in this classroom, I could not help but notice the uneasy way that the teachers had busied themselves with housekeeping chores throughout the discussion. I wondered how they understood the events of the past weeks. And I wondered how, beyond the intervention of a city crisis team, whose members had quickly come and gone, the teachers planned to address theissues raised by the killing with their students.

Later, in the vice principal's office, we talked with a small group of teachers. They spoke of the stabbing as only the latest example of the violence that saturates the community. The teachers believed it was important to confirm what had occurred and not to censor the children's talk. But they also believed it equally important not to allow the incident to intrude on the traditional early-childhood curriculum. They sought to create a haven for the children, a refuge in which they could learn skills to insure success in school and glimpse possibilities of another life.

Sadly, contemporary events play havoc with our children's' futures. To me, the schoolyard story highlights the difficulty of teaching children who must contend with constant threats to their safety and integrity. At the same time, it reveals a way forward. Educators cannot control danger on the streets or in the private lives of their students. But we can establish safe zones in which young children come to recognize their own voices and know that they will be heard. After all, once the children had discussed the immediate crime, they returned to themes most relevant to their lives, themes with which we are used to dealing: separation and connection, uncertainty and reassurance, individuality and community. These are issues children struggle with regardless of where they live or who takes care of them.

I do not underestimate the difficulties of creating safety zones. They require our acceptance of the unacceptable violence with which children live, for their stories cannot be told without reference to the worlds in which they occur and to the interactions that give them shape and substance. When we refuse to view children in their social contexts, we refuse the right of every child to tell his or her story.

Undoubtedly, there is cathartic value in telling these difficult stories. But self-expression is not an end in itself. For teachers, children's stories should be the beginning of rich opportunities for the development of curriculum in language arts, social studies, and visual arts. How, after all, do individuals and communities respond to danger? How do our communications systems work? How do we take care of the immature or disabled members of society? What does the community look like from various points of view--child, adult, man, woman, African-American, Latino, Caucasian? The real and imagined dangers of childhood in urban America can be the foundation of a more socially relevant curriculum.

Beyond our listening, we express educational "response ability" by placing children's questions at the center of the curriculum. Learning how writers and artists, historians, and sociologists have responded to the concerns they raise begins the process of connecting our immediate lives and the experiences of others. Schools should help children move between the powerful emotions that fuel their personal search for meaning and the world of knowledge embodying the collective wisdom of society. Indeed, success in school depends on this very kind of engagement, an engagement secured through a socially as well as an emotionally meaningful curriculum.

My point is simple. We are all historical beings. Time and place are at the heart of every biography. As teachers, we help our students understand the past, make sense of the present, and envision a better future. They are fully absorbed as learners only when the curriculum is responsive to the material contexts that shape who they are and what they want to become. We commit ourselves to the future generation because we know that hope resides in time and time can only be lived in the world, a world of many unsettling realities including widespread community violence.

Vol. 14, Issue 36, Pages 37, 39

Published in Print: May 31, 1995, as 'They Were Fighting Over a Woman . . .'
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