Sunday, February 1, 2009

Empathy comes of age at Malcolm X Elementary

This is a true story about a group of second graders, their school, and their families, who taught me that the strength of a community stems from compassion and mutual support.

I'll start un-poetically and bluntly... A fight broke out during the second grade performance at my son's school, Berkeley's distinguished Malcolm X Elementary, last Thursday evening. So what's so unusual about a fight at school? Well, besides the fact that fights are rare at our school in the first place, the ones involved weren't second graders but rather, a group of parents who had gone to see their children's performance.

It started in the most ridiculous way imaginable that we can easily imagine: someone's cell phone ringing during the final dance number of the third play of the night. Words were exchanged between two men who came to blows and it quickly escalated into a full-blown brawl with at least one more person, a woman, taking part in the violence. A parent from my son's class who was nearby tried to break up the fight and was attacked as well. Meanwhile pandemonium broke out; people were running, children screaming. Many of us just stood there, trying to keep a safe distance from the fight while watching over our children, unable to believe what we were witnessing... When I first heard the scuffling coming from the back of the auditorium, I thought folks were dancing along to the kids' performance but then I saw a man hitting another with a chair and quickly realized this was no dance-along. I tried to stay cool and scanned the area to make sure that no children were threatened (all the second graders were upfront next to the stage along with their teachers and a few parents) but there were siblings in the audience.

The violence ended quickly. The culprits were scurried out of the auditorium and police were called to the scene. I remember thinking to myself "how dare they..." and wondering if those involved were parents or outsiders who had come into the school looking for trouble. Memories of my own experience with domestic violence flashed through my head and I felt at once guilty and scared.

After one of those eternal minutes, our school principal took to the stage and seized the microphone, announcing that the brawlers were no longer in the auditorium and calling for people to calm down and return to their seats. She spoke with encouraging resolve to parents and students alike, saying something to the effect of "we will not let this incident ruin our second graders' performance and experience of this evening" and asked the class that had been onstage if they wanted to start the dance number over and finish the play. To this the children answered with a resounding "yes!" and were instantly greeted with the parents' adrenaline and anxiety filled cheers; the show was on again and even tough we were shaken by the fight, we gathered our strength and came together as a community to support our children and show them that our love for them is much bigger than the damage that this awful incident could possibly bring to them.

The following day, as parents had gathered at the school to recoup and discuss the situation, a parent approached me, the mother of one of Sebastian's classmates who uses a wheelchair part of the time. "I just wanted to tell you that last night, your son came up to me and asked if Milo was OK; Sebastian was very concerned that Milo wouldn't be able to get away from the fight quickly enough." She was very touched by my son's concern for Milo. I played it down at the time and said something like "All the students look out for Milo, he's a really great kid" but deep inside I was choking up, feeling very proud of my boy's sincere expression of empathy at a time when most were just trying to get away from the fight and thinking that it is during these trying times, that offer a window into our souls, that one's true character emerges. I was so proud of Sebastian, of Milo, of being a Malcolm X parent, and grateful for being part of a community of people who are at the same time, teaching and learning from our children that true strength comes from the heart.

During our class' performance (which was prior to the fight breaking out) Ms. Gold's second graders told the story of Philippe Petit, the man who walked a tight rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Milo requested not to have his wheelchair during the performance which ended with the class spinning around on their bottoms while Milo stood up and waved to the audience. I don't think this story needs an ending really, because the story of love and hate is far from over... This is a picture I took of Milo standing tall at Malcolm X Elementary.

1 comment:

Carlos Bazua Morales said...

YO tambien estoy orgulloso de Sebas.... ya es todo un padawan en rumbo a ser un guerrero Jedi ! me lo saludas!