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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!”