School fights

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Conflict that obliterates learning

Bullying and fighting can consume kid's entire attention at school. It literally monopolizes the brain. At times, all the kid can think about is that next fight or that big revenge. I recall a few cases where my mind was totally stolen from morning to evening by "social frictions". Learning was at the bottom of my priority list. I will depict the two most memorable events below.

Life or death dilemma

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
In grades 1-5, I experienced no major distress. In a class with little "kid recycling", there is always a drive to determine the alpha male, the top dog. The process is as messy as the current mish-mash of titles in heavyweight boxing. There are occasional unscheduled fights that determine a winner here and there. Gradually, the circle of strength narrows. At some point, there is an inevitable clash of the strongest boys in the class that may determine who rules the roost. Our initial fights were rather innocent, based on wrestling, often without mean spirit. In the third grade, it was me and one Piotr Ruta who seemed to be the best wrestlers. We never managed to determine the top dog though. We were just best friends in the class. We would wrestle a lot and these were very even fights. This was for fun. Piotr's older brother would practice judo and Piotr would bring lots of moves to our "training sessions" (e.g. fighting at my home, or on the grass in the playground).

Things changed a bit in the fourth grade. Our school moved. Classes were reorganized. There were new guys to fight with. In the 6th grade, aged 12, I was moved to a parallel class for bad behavior (partly related to my fighting). At the same time, a guy named Skitek joined my old class. He was short, muscular, prematurely developed, and not too smart a kid. He brought in a new fighting style: boxing. One day he destroyed my best friend Ruta in a schoolyard fight. Ruta was left writhing in pain with torn clothes in the bushes. A picture that pains me to this day. The same picture also struck fear in me. Skitek looked like a dangerous guy. During one of the breaks, I traditionally moved to play with kids from my previous class, rather than hanging around the new class crowd. At some point, I felt a searing pain in between my shoulder blades. It was the dumbhead Skitek defending his territory. He hit me in the back without warning: "This is not your class any longer! Get the f... out of here". My whole class that I used to rule would watch in silence. I could not back down. This would be a disgrace that a young mind would not stomach. This would be the end of my 4-year investment in climbing to the top. The school break was almost over, I showed utmost composure and declared: "Long break, behind the gym. You and me. Life or death!". Skitek agreed to fight.

For the next 2-3 hours, I was totally consumed by the prospect of the fight. It truly felt like life or death. I would sit at a school desk, ignore the teacher, and think. I had little experience fighting a boxer. What if he puts my teeth out? Or makes my eye pop broken? Or kill me with a punch? I was literally trembling. It would not cross my mind to get out of the trouble, e.g. run, snitch, talk, etc. I had only one option: fight like mad. That was our kid culture.

We met behind the gym as planned during the long break. Crowds of kids stood in a large circle. They came from both classes but not only. Everyone was rooting for me because Skitek was a new kid, and I was generally liked in my school. The backing of the audience did not help much though. My plan was simple, dive for Skitek's legs, bring him down, wrestle him to submission, and choke him to defeat or death, whichever comes first. His plan was pretty transparent. He clenched his fists and teeth, assumed a boxing posture, and aimed haymakers for my head. My move was first. I took a dive for his legs. In the process, I met a clubbing rock-hard punch right in my nose. I grabbed Skitek's legs and failed to bring him down. He shook me off free. At this point, my plan did not change. However, my nose felt like broken and my second dive might be less committed, more fearful, less effective. This did not look good. At this point, God bless, our PE teacher Przybylska noticed the crowd, rushed in, and broke the fight.

The winner and the dominance were not determined, however, I earned enough respect from Skitek to win peace for myself for the next 1.5 years, i.e. until the time the school got enough of me and I was expelled. My mind was never at peace though. Each encounter with Skitek would produce a tension with a possible eruption into a fight at any minute. Learning was the last thing on my mind. My nose was not broken but gave me a lifetime of nosebleeds despite repeated cauterization procedures

Haunted 24/7

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
Another all-consuming event took place in my new school, in the 7th grade. I was considered a good student in my new school. I tried to stay away from trouble. Skitek event made me appreciate boxing. I witnessed Rumble in the Jungle in Oct 1974, and it changed my life for ever. Boxing became my prime fascination. Not as a fighting tool, but as a sport. I collected boxing journals. At some point, during a break, one of my journals was stolen and I learned from my colleagues that it was one guy Pawlak from the 8th grade. The class had already started, but it was too important to me. I found out in which room Pawlak attended his class. I entered the class, which was quite a violation of the rules. Apologized to teacher Ms Niedzielska (I still tried to maintain my reputation as a good student). I approached Pawlak and noticed my journal on his desk. I announced loudly "this is mine" and took the journal. Pawlak jumped to his feet. He was repeating the 8th grade, was 3 years older, a head taller, and looked pretty angry. When he lunged at me to take back the journal, I instinctively released a defensive left jab to stop him in his tracks. It worked. He got hit in his lips and teeth. He was quite perplexed. Teacher Niedzielska stepped in and sent me out of the class (with my journal in my hands). It was not much later that I learned from my friends that Pawlak planned an ambush after school. He declared he would kill me. In the year 1975, aged 13, I started lagging behind stronger boys. It was the time of puberty. While all my friends started shooting up, gaining bulky muscles, I was still a skinny babyface. The new school, the new environment, incomplete knowledge, etc. It all conspired into a scary prospect of meeting a pack of testosterone-raging killers on my way from school, or perhaps on my way to school. They would know my schedule, so it would be pretty easy. I started serious preparations. I was shadow boxing most of my evenings. Practising before the mirror, and imaging the killer punch that would put Pawlak down and discourage him from picking on me ever after. What if he died? I did not care. It was win or die. My way to school was short. I started running it fast so it would be hard to catch me. All that while assuming the posture: "this is how I always run. I am just that strong". The days would pass. I did not see Pawlak. The ambush was not coming. A slightly infected imprint of his teeth on my knuckles has healed. But my fear and determination did not wane. I was not a kid who attended school with a purpose of learning anymore. I was a kid in a battle for survival. It was life or death again. Pawlak and his gang might strike at any minute. Only years later I learned from Pawlak himself there was no gang, and he did not plan the ambush. He admitted he was scared too. He heard of my boxing obsessions and considered me equally dangerous. He feared me like a big dog that fears a viper. Pawlak turned out to be a nice guy in the end. It was that toxic unsupervised social school environment that made us into mortal enemies. For a few weeks at school, my all thoughts were consumed by the prospect of a fight

Schoolyard game theory

We have it in our genes, esp. the boys, that we strive for dominance in a social group. There is a whole spectrum of social dynamics that make fights among kids and teens inevitable. The only solution consists of: supervision, communication, education, and freedom. Schools are handicapped by design. If we cannot reduce class sizes, or add teachers and supervisors, we will have to live with this inherent problem.

Perhaps those little fights are a good prelude into the adult life? Some sort of mental training? I doubt it! The same and better can be achieved with supervised socializing, martial arts, etc. Skills and confidence can be developed without chronic stress and trauma. Without an all-consuming distraction that stops all learning for weeks at a time. In addition, there is also fear conditioning, where neutral stimuli (e.g. meeting a group of males) can be perceived as a threat and elicit a fear response. Kids who experience a lot of stress at school are more likely to see threats in the course of their ordinary life.

On the other hand, martial art training builds confidence, and makes it easier to see the world in more peaceful colors. A confident young man can see love or inspiration where a similar man with a great deal of troubled baggage may see a threat. In my case, a great deal of self-confidence came with a couple of years of boxing that put me on a more optimistic path through life. Naturally, this can also be a matter of personality, training, and education, however, lots of martial arts coaches tell me they see the change in the character in those kids who take on BJJ, wrestling, karate, K-1, aikido, and the like.

Those measures should be combined with unrestrained open system socializing (e.g. in a playground or on a sports field) where adult supervision is needed only to prevent a disaster or to rationally explain complex social situations.

Distracted minds

When I speak of minds monopolized by adolescent problems, I often meet with skepticism. Few people realize that this can be a major problem at school. Research on school and suicide provides valuable insights:

“Imagine trying to teach math and it’s not getting through to the kids and your test scores are down because of this invisible barrier, not known to the school staff,” USC Professor Ron Avi Astor says. “Half the children in the class may not be thinking about what you are teaching them; they are actually thinking, ‘How am I going to die and where am I going to do it?’ When we presented data back to principals, superintendents and teachers about students in their schools and school districts, you see them tearing up and crying because it’s not just an abstract happening in somebody else’s school. They then know these are students in their schools”