Jay Wamsted has taught math at Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta for thirteen years. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines—including Little Patuxent Review, Mathematics Teacher, and Qualitative Inquiry. He can be found online at Mockingbird, River Teeth, Ruminate, and Under the Sun. In addition, his 2017 TEDx talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust” recently posted to the TEDx YouTube channel. He and his wife have four young children, and he rides his bicycle to and from work just about every day.
Touch and Go
The day ends at 3:30 in the high school where I teach, and it is 2:55 on a Friday afternoon. I am off this final period from instruction and am heading back to my room, having just left a meeting on the other side of the building. I stop outside my door to speak with a student who is taking refuge in the seclusion of the hallway, and then I hear it—the noise roiling down from the far side of the building. My student looks up, misplaced teenage eagerness etched in the grin of her face, and I throw my backpack at her feet.
“Shit!” I say, and take off running.
Given how loud the fight sounds, I am shocked to find out how far away it is. I sprint the sixty yards down the hall, following the noise the way a dog might track a scent, my anxiety increasing in lockstep with the swelling volume of the chaos. I arrive just in time to see a colleague pulling one girl out of his classroom and into the hall, her legs kicking and arms flailing as he shepherds her clumsily through the door; inside the room two separate groups of friends are trying to keep another pair of girls apart. All together there are probably a dozen people struggling with each other in some form or fashion and everyone is screaming. I’m the only adult present now.
I make my way past one girl, whose friends have her under control and toward the corner where the other girl is dangerously close to breaking free. Desks are everywhere, splayed out amidst a flurry of papers and books, but I don’t even break stride as I leap over one and up onto another. I jump down and find myself face to face with a tall, athletic girl who has just at that moment managed to slip the grip of her friends. I don’t know her, and as our high school is on the large size it is safe to say that she probably doesn’t know me. She needs a name, though, as she’s only moments away from shoving past me, and I have no choice but to stop her.
I will call her Kayla.
I am in my tenth year of teaching at a pretty rough school, one where our dropout rate approaches 40 percent and 80 percent of our population lives under or around the poverty line. I have broken up a good number of fights over the years—an unfortunate skill required in certain schools like mine, and one only able to be learned through trial and error. In other words, I have badly botched more than one effort at stopping a fight.
The first time this happened I had stepped outside my door during a class change only to find a crowd swarming around a pair of young women who were clearly intent on far more than verbal disagreement. I pushed my way into the scrum, shouting out well-meaning words about how there must be some other way, and immediately the blows started. I grabbed the closest girl, but poorly, by the arms, and when she twisted against my efforts her shirt slipped up over her shoulders as I held on to her sleeves for dear life. She tripped and fell, inadvertently taking me down with her, and there we were: me lying on the ground and holding tight to an ersatz pair of handcuffs; her thrashing and screaming, scarcely restrained—and wearing only a bra. I couldn’t even figure out how to stand up, and we had to hold our place on the ground until help arrived. It was an embarrassing, painfully ridiculous moment for both of us.
Years later I was walking down the hall to speak to another teacher, and as I approached her room I heard yelling and cursing. I walked through my colleague’s door to find her chatting with one of our football coaches, a former college quarterback who was using a full-nelson wrestling hold to restrain a violent girl. The room looked as if a small tornado had torn through, and the girl was full-on screaming, bucking both legs in the air in repeated efforts to break free. The coach, however, was calmly holding on to her, fully in control of the situation as he waited for a police officer to come escort her away; I joined into the slightly surreal conversation taking place between the adults. With not a little admiration, I noted that despite all the disarray the girl’s shirt was unruffled and intact. Ah! So that’s how you keep ahold of a girl while also being sensible about touch. Good show.
Kayla pushes past me, rushing forward as I lean to her left, missing her completely—but this move is a part of my plan. I pivot and grab her arm; this time, though, instead of trying to use my tenuous grip to keep her in place, I pull myself in, using her momentum to thread my left arm under hers as I simultaneously make a grab for her right. My first attempt fails, and as she tries to jerk away from me she spins, jerking me along with her. It is then that her elbow catches me square in the jaw.
Blinded a bit by the shock, I still manage to take hold of her right arm on my second try. Before she knows quite what’s happening, I slip both of my hands under her arms and up behind her head, interlacing my fingers and applying just enough pressure to her neck to keep her in place. She thrashes, she kicks, she yells, but I have her held tight in the former college quarterback’s full nelson.
The other girl has been pulled out of the room by her friends during our frenzied grapple, and now some semblance of order has been restored—Kayla is skillfully cursing me out, true, but the other fifteen or so students are all watching us in stunned silence.
I take a breath and realize that my jaw is on fire.
Once I came out of the bathroom at the end of lunch and walked right into the middle of a massive argument. Two boys were inches from each other’s faces, screaming at the top of their lungs, and at least a hundred people were surrounding them, clamoring for a fight. I pushed through the core and in-between the two boys—both of whom I knew—and started in as loud as I could on the typical talk: “Hey! Hey! Hey! You need to calm down— this isn’t worth it! You know if you fight they’re going to suspend you! Walk away, walk away!”
One boy whipped off his shirt and somehow redoubled his vitriol. The crowd roared over my voice. I gave up on reason and turned to the boy I knew better—the shirtless one—and tried to walk him back. But there was nowhere for him to go. A hundred more students had moved up the steps from the cafeteria and joined the crowd in the twenty seconds since I engaged in the incident. They were crushing forward on the original onlookers, holding up cell phone cameras in expectation of action, exponentially increasing the chance of violence. There was not another adult in sight.
The shirtless boy came to me. I pushed against his bare chest, but the wave behind him urged him forward; I had no choice but to back up. The fully-clothed boy walked backward with me—the crowd like a living organism willing to move one way but not the other—and we marched thirty yards down the hall in this bizarre tango, my 5’10”, middle-aged body the only thing preventing not just a fight, but a riot.
We hit the end of the hallway, and for the first time fear overtook my adrenaline. I was cornered, still pressing against the shirtless boy, still keeping him from an attack, still using my body as a shield; my hands were slick with his sweat. Well over two hundred people were crowding toward us—teenagers pushing, yelling, filling every available space. I worried about my glasses if I were to be knocked in the face—already they were sliding down my nose and my vision blurred.
Out of nowhere, a colleague of mine came cutting through the crowd. He embraced the shirtless boy from behind in a huge bear hug, freeing me to spin and grab the other young man. I pushed him through a door and slammed it shut, immediately turning back to help the other adult calm his student down. But he already had the situation firmly under control.
He was whispering something into the student’s ear, something almost incantatory in its soothing repetitions, and the boy—apoplectic just moments before—had collapsed in his arms, desperately holding on as a child to a father. My colleague quickly moved him off the hall and into an office, whispering all the while. I was stunned. The boy appeared to be crying.
I speak to Kayla.
Girl, you need to calm down. Stop kicking, stop screaming, it’s too late for all that. Calm down, girl, calm down. You hit me in the jaw, I can’t just let you go, you hit me, I got to hold you. I got to hold you until we figure this out. You got to stop kicking, stop screaming. I got you, you’re okay, I got you, I got you.
And, as if by magic, Kayla does calm down. She asks me several times to release her, but increasingly halfheartedly, and her writhing efforts to free herself quickly lose vigor. After only a minute or so of my whispering, she is completely still.
A beat or two go by and the room suddenly swells with conversation, Kayla among the participants. She is relaxed, and, like the boy in the hallway, is using my physical presence as a means to opt out of her anger; only in my arms is she safe to stop fighting.
The official line in my district is that no teacher is ever to touch a student in any manner, and this rule makes absolute sense in the abstract. In reality, however, working with teenagers involves a constant barrage of physical interaction. Handshakes, first bumps, high fives; ingratiating arms around your shoulder as a student asks for a favor; brief, back-slapping hugs from the boys; so-glad-to-see-you hugs from the girls. When my hair was to-my-shoulders long students would feel it between their fingers without asking; now that it is buzz-cut short they rub my head as if for luck. If my shirt is ironed, they will touch it as a compliment; if it is wrinkled the same action will be a prelude to poking fun.
My classroom was designed to hold about twenty-five students comfortably, yet I rarely have less than thirty on roll; I often have close to forty with three or four of these crowded behind the personal space of my desk for a better view of the board. The mere act of moving around the room to watch my students at work involves bumping up against the bodies of the young men and women under my charge. I can concoct a strategy for awkward hugs, of course—dropping both arms to my side and tensing up theatrically, rolling my eyes and saying something like, “What in the world? Let me go!”—but what I cannot do, in any reasonable sense, is to refrain from touch altogether. To do so would require standing completely still at the front of my room throughout the school day, rudely dismissing innocent teenage overtures at relationship.
The exception to the official ban on touch, of course, is the fight. In fact, it is explicitly said that if a fight is going on and you as a teacher fail to engage in the action required to break that fight up, you can be liable for legal action. In other words, you are never to touch a student, except when you are required to touch a student.
These types of situations can go badly for the adult in question: not only might you be putting your body in harm’s way—and every year several teachers at my school are injured in such incidents—but you are also interacting with adolescents who are in states of extreme emotional volatility. I know colleagues who have been accused of abuse after breaking up a fight—students claiming either that the educators were acting too aggressively or that they were taking advantage of the moment to engage in licentious touch. Every time something like this happens, the building buzzes with teachers telling each other different versions of the story, and we all say something along the following lines: “You can bet I’ll never break up a fight again. They can just wait for the cops to show up.” I have said these words several times myself.
But then, sometime later, I will find myself the only adult in a room where two girls are trying to beat each other senseless, and I will have no option but to own up to my responsibility—a moral imperative far surpassing any requirements laid down by the school district or even the personal obligation I feel to the parents of these children. Rather, something in these moments never fails to call on my simple sense of what it is to be human. This desire for peace and safety, even in the midst of such a broken place, is the primary thing that leads me to embrace personal and professional risks in order to wrestle against some unknown teenager.
No other adult arrives, and so I continue to hold Kayla in the full nelson, waiting on help. As time passes, however, the situation becomes uncomfortable—with Kayla no longer struggling, the length of our bodies pressing so closely together begins to feel wrong. I can see beads of sweat on her face; I can feel her breathing regulate. Still, no adult comes to my aid, and I am afraid to let her go—I’ve yet to form any real idea about what occurred in this classroom just minutes ago to cause such a fight, and she and her friends, if quiescent, are still angry. I’m uncomfortable, but the sharp ache of my jaw trumps my aversion to being this close to a stranger. I don’t know what else to do, so I continue to hold on to her.
My wife and I have three children, and they are all still small enough that I can pick them up and carry them good distances if need be. These moments, when one of my sons or my daughter is tired or hurt or scared, are the closest I ever get to another human being who is not my wife; this scene with Kayla now runs an unusual third.
Holding my children marks a peculiar shift of intimacy between my wife and me: she carried all three in her womb for forty weeks and nursed them for even longer, but now as they get older I am increasingly the one to pick them up when they need it. They will fling their arms around my neck, wrap their legs around my waist, bury their heads in my shoulder; if they are crying my shirt will soon be soaked with their tears. In those moments when I am holding one of my children, their helplessness and my responsibility intersect in our full-body touch, and I could not imagine a more visceral sense of what it means to love and care for a child. Such wild trust is both humbling and terrifying—the weight of their bodies never failing to bring to mind exactly what it is to have another life depend so much on my own.
I let Kayla go. She has completely calmed down and it’s become untenable for me to continue holding her in such an intimate posture. I am nervous about her being free to run, but I don’t know what else to do. She steps away from me and as her friends close ranks around her. I reposition my body so that I’m between them and the door, keeping my eye on her at all times. The room is full of relaxed conversation now—a casual glance from outside would probably even suggest that some sort of instructional activity is in progress. I’m straining to hear the approach of another adult who could help me figure out what to do with this stilled aftermath; it has now been several minutes since Kayla’s teacher left the room dragging the other girl away.
Sitting in the desk closest to me is a former student—the only name in the room that I know—and in the strange peace of the moment it seems rude not to speak to him in some manner. I express surprise that he is taking this particular class at this particular time, as I had thought him to be elsewhere during the last period.
He shrugs and turns his hands skyward. “This ain’t even my class Mr. Wamsted,” he says. “I was just walking by, saw the fight going on, and ran in to watch.”
He grins at me without a trace of self-consciousness. I manage only a weak smile in return. I turn back to watch Kayla. We wait.
I have a good friend who was abused as a child. Around the time he was five his father began hitting him, pinning him to the ground, throwing him around the room—beating the hell out of him every once in a while. The father’s problems were legion, not limited to his family, and this physical abuse seemed to be his maligned way of seizing control of his life. Only after my friend reached full adult height during his junior year of high school did the father grudgingly relent and cease the abuse; this relief, of course, did not mark an end to their troubles.
Often when I touch my friend—to get his attention, or accidentally in a crowded space—he flinches instinctively, atavistically, and I can almost see the pain and anger in his eyes. The first time I ever hugged him as we were saying goodbye he froze the way I do when a teenager approaches me with open arms; he later told me it was all he could do not to punch me full in the face.
Once, I watched an acquaintance reach around his back to grab something off a table, touching him incidentally in the process. My friend reflexively grabbed and twisted the interloping arm, spilling scalding coffee everywhere. He apologized profusely, but I got the feeling he might not have felt all that contrite. Something fundamental is broken in his sense of touch, and he knows that it isn’t his fault. He’s not the one who needs to apologize.
It happens so fast that I miss it. Kayla shoves out of her circle of friends and breaks for the door, responding to something in her line of sight that is outside of mine. She’s halfway there before I can react. I’m unable to stop her from making it into the hallway.
When I do catch up to her, rounding the corner and taking in the scene, I find her again at the throat of another girl—whether or not it was the same one drug from the classroom minutes earlier I do not know. My principal has the other girl in a fairly good grip and is hauling her backwards, but a much older colleague is proving unable to restrain Kayla.
I push into the fray, intent upon putting another full nelson on Kayla, but because of the manner in which my colleague is attempting to hold Kayla, I can’t fully grab her. He has his arms wrapped around her stomach—the worst way to keep an angry person in check, as it leaves all four limbs free to flail—and I’m attacked by her kicking feet. I let go and she lurches past me yet another time.
I often see students flinch at casual touch in the same manner as does my friend. My school obviously can be a violent place, and it is no big secret that this aggression can be a spillover from home or the streets. Control is something that those who live in poverty often have in short supply, and my students, like my friend, can easily find themselves under the thumb of a friend or relative who feels compelled to demonstrate power in an abusive way.
A culture of silence keeps me largely on the outside looking in on such matters, and when I’m made explicitly aware of abuse it comes mostly in the form of suspicious bruises on children or their mothers, furtive whisperings in the counselor’s office. One horrible semester, however, my classes were stricken by the apotheosis of domestic violence: the double murder of a student’s mother and sibling at the hands of his stepfather.
Overt displays of abuse are unusual, to be sure, and more often I find myself wondering about the private lives of certain students based on the way they carry themselves physically, the way they react to innocent touch. It is not uncommon for me to put my hand on a teenager’s shoulder in an effort to direct their attention, or to grab someone by the arm as he’s walking by, and to feel in their body the exact same type of autonomic response I felt when I hugged my friend that day. Every muscle will tense and the student either will glare at me or, more alarmingly, stare off past me with dead eyes. My heart skips a beat as I quickly withdraw my touch. I stumble hurriedly over whatever words I was hoping would help them through their classwork, desperately trying to give us both a reprieve from a terribly painful conversation.
I almost never know anything for sure, but every time it happens I make an alarmed mental note never to touch that student again. I have so little to offer these young men and women in such violent situations; this is no after-school special, and I am powerless to fix what is truly broken here. All I can do is extend some small measure of dignity by keeping up a positive relationship while being vigilant about their personal space, hoping against hope that my gut reaction is terribly off base.
The entire hallway is chaos, students everywhere screaming at Kayla and her adversary, and the next thirty seconds or so seem to run in dream-time. I re-engage with Kayla’s arms and yell at my colleague to let her go, that I have her, but he either doesn’t hear me or doesn’t believe me. Instead, with my assistance he manages to drag her backward toward his office, weakly and ineffectually, and I hold on to her arms as best I can to keep her from hitting him. In doing so, I stay exposed to her frenetic kicking, and I take quite a few knocks on my shins and knees.
Thankfully, the door to his office is opened just in time by another student, and we get Kayla inside, quickly slamming the door and leaving her alone to cool off. The other girl escorted off down the hall by my principal. Another principal arrives, ascertains that I know nothing about who is fighting or why, and peremptorily dismisses me.
My role in the fight is over. The police show up just in time to move the stragglers along as I head back to my room and my busted Friday afternoon.
Time snaps back to normal as I walk down the hallway, dodging the out-of-place students who are fleeing from the authorities. Every muscle sore, as if I have just run a race for which I was unprepared. Back to my desk I try to salvage some time, get some work done, but I find myself entirely unable to concentrate. I stare blankly at my computer screen for the last few minutes of the day, still breathing a bit irregularly, my thoughts scattering.
Every night, before I go to sleep, I check on my three children, asleep in their beds. My daughter is six years old, and after I rearrange her blankets and a small army of stuffed animals I will lay a hand on her forehead, kiss her lightly on the cheek. My sons share a room, and because they are younger it typically takes me a few extra minutes to settle them into place. The youngest only recently shifted from a crib to a bed; as often as not I have to lift his whole body from some convoluted diagonal position in order to return him to his pillow. They, too, each receive a light touch and a small kiss. Sometimes I linger by the side of one or the other of my children, running my hand through their hair as I watch their rhythmic breathing. It is easy to be a parent in moments such as these—reflecting on the fruits of that day’s labor, thinking through the schedule for the next. Hurry and busyness will catch up with me again in the morning; this daily moment of peace feels like a reward.
After checking on the children I will crawl into bed beside my wife who, most times, is already asleep. I will read something for a few minutes before shutting out the light, after which, almost without fail, my wife rolls over, away from me, and settles deep into her pillows. I sidle up next to her, slipping my right arm under her neck as I drape my left over her sleeping body. I draw as close to her as possible, moving her hair off the back of her neck while she nestles into me. Some nights I fall asleep like this; others I will merely lie there and feel her breathe for a time, pulling away at whatever point an arm or leg becomes restless.
On this night, however, I lie with her much longer than usual, unable to sleep but unwilling to separate. In the darkness of our room, my jaw buzzes.