“A fight just broke out in the quad!” blared the voice on my walkie-talkie as I walked the campus corridors at the tail end of lunch. High school administrators supervise the school grounds during every break to prevent just such occurrences. Getting the location, I stepped up my pace and headed to the altercation. Two rival groups were in a fist fight with many observers circled around. Calling to a few familiar students and campus aides, two seniors, Fernando and James, were separated and reluctantly headed to my office. I escorted Fernando into the office and had an aide sit with James in the hall.
Once seated and after a quick assessment—no bleeding or wounds and an offer of tissues or water, I encouraged Fernando to take a deep breath and asked, “Can you tell me why you are here in my office?” It’s not the expected question of, “What was going on!” or “Why were you fighting?” The question communicates my interest in hearing what he has to say. From there, I ease back into the incident and get his take on what precipitated the fight and how it all played out. As he settles down, I ask, “Do you think you have any responsibility for what happened?” His initial response is, “No.” As we continue to talk it shifts to, “Well…” then, “Yes, but…” I thank Fernando and say, “Have a seat outside while I talk with James,” and follow the same process.
Fernando is from Mexico and James from Honduras. One group resents the other and often words and anger flare between them. James’ mother came to the U.S. as a nanny for a famous entertainer. She’s absent from home often due to her job, and James takes responsibility for the care of his younger siblings. Fernando works full-time in the kitchen at a local deli.
Together, in my office, they avoid looking at one another. I start by thanking Fernando for his honesty; James looks up in surprise. Fernando pivots when I say something similar to James. “You two are more alike than different. You’re both responsible, smart and learned English quickly. Why fight?” Ah, it’s their image, the need to show superiority over the other group. I point out our country’s history of degrading each new group of immigrants: the Irish, Jews, Italians, Chinese and Japanese to name a few. We talk about building bridges of connection to prevent future confrontations. They shake hands, cautiously, and leave.
Both boys turned eighteen as June approached. There were no more fights between the groups for the rest of the year. I never saw James after graduation. Occasionally, I’d see Fernando at the deli, wave and say hello. On one visit, he proudly shared that he was starting his second year of college. Tears filled my eyes seeing Fernando’s excitement. It was a desire to connect, a request to be heard and a willingness to listen that built the bridge between us.