"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, October 14, 2013

Respect is good, but latinum's better.

I was coaching a soccer game last week and something happened that has stuck with me enough to kick-start my long-neglected blog. (Just don't expect this to become a habit again.)

Okay, so the other team was leading 1-0. But that's not the thing that happened.

This is what it feels like when doves cry.
When your opponent scores first, things get tense. Your players on the field get anxious and start fouling more. On the sideline, your players on the bench start grousing more and want to tell the referee what to do. And you, the coach, yell a lot more, as if anyone on the field can actually hear what you're saying. There's this burden that wasn't there just a moment before: a weight on your shoulders or a wall to climb or a monkey on your back, and with every minute that passes without a reciprocal goal, the weight gets heavier and the wall gets taller and the monkey gets angrier.

One of the opposing team's captains was this bigger kid whose mere presence on the field controlled a lot of the game. At one point he was fouled and went down loudly, maybe in pain, maybe just to get attention, and he stayed on the ground longer than necessary, as soccer players around the world are wont to do. The bench on our side began to murmur in earnest, commenting on this player's acting and whining skills. But he got up and play resumed and within moments the ball was out of bounds near our bench. The muttering about the other team hadn't petered out yet, and one of our managers (a young lady who takes down stats like shots and goals and yellow cards) said, clearly but not loudly, probably to no one, "That kid just whines about everything."

A defender from the other side had picked up the ball, just to the right of our bench. He seemed ready to throw it in, but instead he turned around, glared right at this girl manager and jeered, "Can you tell me what the score is?"

I immediately said, "Hey!"--like, what else am I going to say? "Screw you, kid!"? I did use my most outraged tone, and I physically stepped towards him, cutting off as much visual access to my bench as possible, like a mother bear protecting his cubs. I knew that he had heard what the manager had said, got offended himself, and decided the clever retort was to counter by reiterating the score, the only thing that mattered in the long run. A logical move, to be sure, but still a taunt, and despite it happening quietly on the field between players all the time in every game, taunting is one of the taboos in high school soccer (indeed, in all high school sports) that could lead directly to a red card and possible further action against playing in the future.

I promptly recuperated from my "Hey" and lobbed a "No one's talking to you" and then a "You can't talk to the players on my bench." This kid just smugly turned away, but before he threw the ball in, called back over his shoulder, "You respect me, I respect you."

That's it. That lame, self-serving, know-it-all saying. That's what stuck with me.

I've heard this before. Many students in my classroom make similar, if not exact, statements: "If you don't respect me, I don't respect you."


I can't count how many of my students have employed this notion in order to give me attitude about any little thing, whether I ask them to focus on work in class or I take away a distracting cell phone. Just this week, a girl in class was blaring music through her headphones so loudly she didn't even notice I was asking for her phone, so when I grew riled and reached to take the phone away (I knew she wasn't going to give it over willingly), she jerked her hand away and said, "You don't pay my phone bill. My own dad doesn't get to take my phone away." And while I contemplated the kind of parent who wouldn't take away his daughter's phone when she deserved it, no matter who was paying the bill, she added, "You can't disrespect me and snatch away my phone." The rest was chaos and the class laughed and the bell rang and she walked away, having saved face in the wake of my overwhelming disrespect.

I'm not sure how much of that story is just me needing to rant at how inconsiderate the KIDS TODAY are, but at least some of it has to do with my point.

The licence implied by such a philosophy (Respect Me, Respect You--isn't that a Lionel Richie song?) allows me to react callously at the slightest provocation. If you don't show me respect, then I can say and do anything I want to you because you were mean to me first. I mean, it seems like so many kids--is it just kids?--are walking around locked and loaded, angry at the world, at their circumstance and misfortune, expecting at any moment, someone, some adult, will disrespect them. How else are they supposed to react?

Their default is not to begin in a position of respect, despite the station or rank of the other person. There is no automatic respect given to teachers or police officers or parents or Presidents of the United States. No, the default position is to wait to until they are disrespected, because, ultimately, it's going to happen, isn't it?

It's the self-satisfaction that gets me the most. Our children have learned that this behavior is totally expected. That they need to be tough and not take any crap from anyone. That they have the right--nay, the duty--to be nasty if someone is nasty to them first.

I don't think I'd wake up Jake the Dog.
One obvious problem with this knee-jerk reaction is, what if there is no disrespect intended? What if you've misinterpreted the situation entirely, but you react like a jerk anyway? I don't go around asking myself how I can disrespect my students every day. But lots of them seem to think I do. How dare Mr. Wescott interrupt my nap time and ask me to write a stupid college application essay? Who does he think he is? Maybe if I just ask him what the score is....

Of course, my soccer manager meant the disrespect. She was being mean. So was the whole bench. So was I, for that matter, because even though I said nothing, it sure seemed to me that other team captain was being a bit of a baby. Therefore, the player who spoke to my bench had every right to taunt them with the simple fact of the score, right?

Except, why can't he simply be content knowing that the complaints from the opposing team come from the frustration of being beat by his team's superiority? What does it take for my students to get past the automatic defenses and understand that no matter how I treat them or how they perceive I treat them, their education is more important than saving face?

I know this sounds largely naive to a lot of people, youthful soccer players, high school students, and upstanding adults alike. I know this is like harassment, that perception matters as much as, if not more than, intention. But what if our young people learned not that if someone shows you disrespect, then you get to disrespect them back, but instead that if someone shows you disrespect, then you should just continue to show that person respect anyway? Isn't it more respectful to understand that the person insulting you is merely frustrated, not personally hateful toward you and your soccer team? Isn't it more respectful to see that your teacher is just doing his job and doesn't want you to fail and drop out and live in a ditch because you can't distinguish between a simile and a synonym?

I know at the very least we'd save a lot of time.

Now, watch the video for "Say You, Say Me" and marvel at the wonder that is Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines dancing. Respect.