Now there’s a title. See, recently I’ve been thinking about this awkward and kind of surreal afternoon I had at school that came about because a teacher made a terrible conflict resolution decision, and I wanted to share that story today. Because that afternoon was weird.
Keep in mind that the following post will contain discussion of bullying, and those weird decisions adults make that your kind brain can’t process—and, in my case, that my adult brain still can’t process. So, this story:
I started getting bullied when I was four. I was still getting bullied in my first year at university. It stayed with me, and it always will. It was a frequent topic of discussion with my therapist. For the most part, I don’t hold it against the bullies. Excluding those at university, they were kids, and nearly all of them were victims of crushing peer pressure. It’s a select few who were part of the elite who seem to have bullying in the brain. If you’ve been bullied, you probably know the type.
I left primary school and went to a new school at, you know, the age when you do that. It was a small school I went to, as well. To put it in perspective, there were ten people in my year. This all created a small town style atmosphere where everyone knew everyone else’s name, but there was a disadvantage: You couldn’t keep a thing to yourself.
Seriously. Every piece of dumb teenage drama spread through the school in what felt like seconds and having a secret was impossible. This is more than a little sucky if you’re an angsty teen and embarrassed by every aspect of your life. Being in a small class of ten also became a major problem. In the small space, with nowhere else to go, every drama was amplified. Every tension was heightened. It was like living in Mean Girls.
Eventually. our the teacher whose job it was to oversee our class decided to do something about this. I can’t say I agree with the strategy she took.
There was a kitchen in the school used for all sorts of things. Sometimes, we used it in lessons and such. It was next to a little area with two tables and a collection of mismatching chairs. The teacher took us into this room and sat us all down. Then, after only a small lead in basically saying that we weren’t being so nice to each other, she went around the room and had each person choose a classmate and name a positive trait they possessed, followed by a flaw.
This was a terrible, terrible idea.
I don’t even think I need to explain why giving teenagers who disliked one another permission to name a flaw is terrible conflict resolution. It was a lot of weak, halfhearted admissions of good qualities, followed by flaws which felt far more pointed. And not necessarily out of malice, either, but we were in a very venomous environment and that’s just kind of how the brain functions.
This went on for a while. One by one, people picked someone out and named a strength and a flaw. I don’t remember a lot of what was said, just some of it, but I do remember being profoundly uncomfortable.
I remember thinking as the process went on that I did not want to say anything. It felt extremely inappropriate, and even though I could name any number of strengths about any of the people in the room, pointing out a flaw felt unnecessary to me. I didn’t see how it would resolve anything. If anything, I only saw it being used as an opportunity for an outright, open dig instead of hinting at an opinion via a dumb nickname. (Mine was Gimli! Which, I’m proud to announce, evolved into a general, later class-wide insult.)
When I had to say something, I went with what felt like the tamest thing I could think of, because I still thought that this whole thing was absurd. I said that someone in the class was funny, but that on occasion the joke went a little far and entered the realm of tactless. That’s ironic, given that I’m a tactless autistic son of a bitch, but there you are.
If asked to do this today, I would refuse.
I don’t remember the positive things said about me. I’ve heard it said that, if you have to criticise anything, you should end on a positive point because the last point is what will stick in people’s minds. And we were all stuck having to make the last point the flaw. So, even if the teacher was trying to get us to appreciate each other alongside airing the problems, then this wasn’t the way to do it.
The student who picked me said that I was sometimes sarcastic to the point of being hurtful. I acknowledge this to be true, and it’s something I’m still trying to work on, even in the tone of my posts.
The other flaw was pointed out by the teacher. This is because, after the students were done, the teacher pointed out a strength and a flaw of each us. That was even more uncomfortable than the teachers doing the same because it came off like, “You fools said the wrong thing, here are the criticisms you should have made.”
The teacher told me—again, I’m afraid I don’t remember the strength pointed out—that I take things too personally. And boy, did this bother me. What led up to the teacher pointing out a strength and flaw of everyone should explain why.
Once we’d all gone through the awful strength and flaw naming process, the teacher asked if anyone was feeling uncomfortable or upset. I rose my hand. There were tears in my eyes because, again, I’m an autistic son of bitch and crying is how I respond to every negative emotion. Judging by how the teacher reacted when I said that we didn’t need to point out each other’s flaws, she misunderstood those tears.
Yes. She told me that I take things too personally. I don’t think that she put any thought into why, and this is where I’m going to make my point.
I know, I know. This post has a point. Imagine that.
I want to stress that I’m not trying to justify my hurtful actions by saying this, but: I’m sarcastic because I was severely socially anxious and used sarcasm as a weak defence against the bullies, and I “take things too personally” because I’d been belittled and whittled down until there were no aspects of myself which I could even hope to like, because I felt like nobody else did or ever would. I was constantly on guard.
And this, in the end, was why I disagreed with this exercise. Of course, I was a young teen and unable to recognise and articulate why I had a problem, which is why I expressed it so poorly to my teacher. I can express it now.
Our class was in a bitter, seemingly unending internal conflict. Sitting us down and making us point out a strength and flaw did nothing to fix this, because we didn’t have the emotional intelligence at that age to understand what lesson was being taught to us, or why it was valuable. If we possessed that emotional intelligence, we wouldn’t be in such a childish conflict in the first place.
We couldn’t change the behaviour of anyone else. We can only change our own behaviour. My telling a teenage boy that he was insensitive—and I highlight, not just being able to tell him that he acted insensitive—was unlikely to change that behaviour, because he was unlikely to internalise that and do anything about changing it. To better a behaviour, we must have recognition of why it’s a problem. Else, why would we care enough to change?
If anything, the focus of this strange exercise should have been on how our behaviour was a problem, not our actual character traits. Regardless of what people actually said, that was the scenario as set up by the teacher: Name some fucking character traits. That only serves to antagonise.
As I see it, the only structure that can work is, “This is what you did, and this is how it made me feel,” with perhaps an acknowledgment of why they did whatever they did if you know it. That’s how you resolve conflict. “You’re overly sarcastic,” is a lot less effective than, “When you say things like [sarcastic comment], it makes me feel [however you felt],” because a realisation of how an action had an effect means that that action doesn’t need to be repeated.
Simply saying “You’re sarcastic,” or whatever else? That will usually just lead to the person getting defensive, even if they don’t realise.
I knew this at the time, I think, but I didn’t know that I knew it. Years of people taking jabs at the good and bad aspects of my character had made a comment on either meaningless, and given how antagonistic the classroom environment had become, it was the same for everyone else in the room. It just made everybody uncomfortable. It was kind of trippy, actually, and I know what the teacher was trying to do, but it was executed horribly.