A young man’s leadership creates a crisis and leads to a circle

I had a conversation this morning with a young man named Marcos who is on the board of one of our local non-profits. When he was in elementary school, Marcos was selected to be bussed to school in a neighboring town. It was, he said, part of an integration effort. He is Latino; his parents are legal immigrants from Mexico, so he’s second generation. Which, for a child an immigrant family, is a challenging generation.

Lots of bullies at his school, white kids who habitually hit and shoved the often much younger latino children. As a fourth grader, Marcos was one of the older boys. He soon found himself organizing the latino kids into a group that stuck together for mutual protection. “I fought a lot,” Marcos told me, “especially when one of the little kids had been hit. I just wouldn’t stand for it.”

Over time the situation grew increasingly tense. They playground became strictly segregated; Latinos were not allowed on the baseball diamond, and the white kids stayed off the soccer field. Tensions rose, along with fights and bullying.

One day Marcos decided that the Latino group had endured enough. So during recess he organized a group march from the soccer field to the baseball diamond. “I wanted to start a rumble,” he told me, “to settle it once and for all.” So, as his group’s leader, he issued a formal challenge to the other group. “After school, in the field out back,” he said, and they agreed.

But someone told the principal. And just after lunch Marcos found himself in a room with teachers, other students (both Latino and White) and the school’s administrators. “We all sat in a big circle,” he remembers. “And they had us all tell what was going on. We stayed there until we talked it out.”

I asked him if things were better after that. “Yes,” he told me. “We were able to play baseball and there were fewer fights.” Does he attribute these positive changes to the circle? “That, and a couple of the most racist kids moved on to other schools. But it really helped a lot.”

I very much doubt that they called their intervention a “restorative circle” or even a “circle.” But that’s what we would call it nowadays. It was an opportunity for eveyone to discuss a situation, to explore its impacts, and to come to agreements about how to make things right. And before it could happen, it took a student leader who was fed up enough to create a crisis. That, and administrators who were willing to work through the situation, instead of caving in to the temptation to use a police state approach.

Bullying students does not stop student bullying. Authentic efforts to understand what is going on and to make things right…that’s a path with some promise. Can we learn to appreciate student leaders whose misbehavior illustrates systemic injustices? I think so. I’ve seen it happen a couple of times this past year.

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