Playground Lessons Tough, Like Asphalt

My son's chin quivers, his lower lip and thin voice trembling as he speaks. “This was the second-worst day of fifth grade,” he says, climbing into the van. His eyes pool with tears, but he's trying hard to choke them back.

“Wow. That's bad,” I sympathize. The first-worst day happened just a week ago, when his basketball team lost a one-point game and was eliminated from the post-season tournament. That was a bad day. I can only imagine what this one entailed.

“I had to go to Mr. J.'s office,” he confesses. My son begins a lengthy — if somewhat disjointed — explanation of a playground scuffle that includes a stolen basketball, repeated pleas for its return, and the use of the word “sissy.”

I listen intently as I pull out of the after-school pickup line and turn into the parking lot. “Let's go inside to see Mr. J., and you can both tell me what happened.”

Clearly, if I'm going to get any accurate information, I'll need an adult perspective. Not to mention, my son's not exactly objective. He wouldn't last 30 seconds in Bill O'Reilly's “No Spin Zone.”

“Mr. J.” — “The J. Man,” “The J. Dawg,” students have many names for him — is the assistant principal. His job includes a wide range of roles, from disciplinarian to mediator to sounding board. Melees on the playground are one of his specialties.

When we knock on his door, Mr. J. waves us in, and we take seats around the small table in the center of his office. We all agree that getting in a fight at lunchtime is out of character for my son, who, though not a pacifist, is wise enough to see there are unpleasant consequences to the rough-and-tumble life — such as pain.

My son reiterates, rephrases, revises, and repeats his version of the story, which essentially puts him in the role of misguided advocate for the “victim,” his buddy Michael. Michael “had the ball first,” “didn't do anything,” and “was only standing there.” This doesn't explain why my son felt the need to hold back Michael and the other boy involved in the mishap to keep them from pounding the stuffing out of each other.

We discuss whether my son had alternatives to diving into a fistfight. I suggest that because the adult supervisor on the playground saw the entire incident, perhaps my son could have called on him to help rather than assume the role of “recess vigilante.”

My son tries again to replay the skirmish, as though a more thorough explanation will help me understand why his response was reasonable. Mr. J. says things like, “It sounds like you wanted to defuse the situation. That's good. But what else could you have done besides get in the middle of a fight?”

Mr. J. explains that my son and the other boys must complete a “Think Sheet,” a worksheet designed to reassess one's actions and devise a plan for the future that avoids playground combat. They also will serve as table washers in the cafeteria for a week, a natural consequence because it cuts their playtime short.

When we get up to leave his office, Mr. J. says, “Every mistake is a learning opportunity.” He's a big fan of “the teachable moment,” and thank goodness, because his days are filled with them.

My son slumps his shoulders forward and hangs his head low as we walk back to the van. “Why are you so upset?” I ask him. It's clear the assistant principal believes he meant well, even though he made a bad decision. “Everybody makes mistakes.”

He can't really articulate his feelings, but I get that he's sad because he believes he was unjustly accused. “I didn't do anything,” he keeps saying, though clearly he did do something. The part where he admits shoving another boy shows there obviously is an infraction, and I'm the kind of mom who believes there's always more to the story than what I hear.

On the drive home, we talk about the difference between actions and intentions — a key concept when teaching accountability. “Nobody can judge your intentions,” I explain. “You might have been thinking, 'Here's my chance to win a Nobel Peace Prize by breaking up this fight,' but the playground monitor can't read your mind. He can only watch you jump in the middle of an argument and assume that's what you meant to do.”

I tell him I believe he meant to break up the fight, but that ultimately, he's accountable for his actions. He stares out the window and heaves a resigned sigh.

I decide to cheer him up. “And anyway,” I point out, “there's no way this was the second-worst day in fifth grade. It's not nearly as bad as the day you gave your speech in social studies and you were the only person without note cards or a visual aid.” Somehow, he's not uplifted.

Later that night, he brings me the completed Think Sheet and a pen so I can sign it. He has described his actions, his intentions, and his alternatives for the future in a way that tells me he understands what he did wrong.

I give him an encouraging smile and say, “Let's make this the last trip to Mr. J.'s office, OK?”

But I know better. There are too many teachable moments in his future to keep him from visiting “The J. Dawg.”

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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