Quite by accident I was left in the room alone with the gathering children. I say by accident because I’m simply a floater, not yet fully trained, and quick to name my place as the extra. Ready or not though I was the adult in the room and the children were gathering. The dispute was territorial and it had all the markings of an irascible showdown not unlike we see in the struggle for Jerusalem. And there was really no place to hide.
Seth had been displaced from his desk. The classroom has 12 desks and when the 13th new student arrived on Monday, Seth drew the imposed hospitality card. A rather easy-going child who is apparently quite mature, it was probably the path of least resistance. With his desk given to the new student, Seth spent a displaced Monday on the couch. This was Tuesday morning, the new student was already settled in Seth’s desk, and Seth had been relocated (again) to the rocking chair. He was finding difficulty doing his work in a moving vehicle and was on the prowl for a more sustainable perch.
Dominique’s place was theoretically unchallenged but not unchanged, the borders had become malleable. Not only had Seth’s nearby desk been populated with a bewildered new kid, Dominique’s buddy Josh to the north had been moved to the other side of the room following a Monday afternoon rumble. In short, all the desks had been shuffled in an imposed attempt to change the social order. Dominique’s place was uncertain and he reached for a boundary, pushing back and using the couch as part of what would be his new domain.
Seth longed to return to the couch which had been a comfort in his first day of exile but the previously open couch was now under Dominique’s control. As the two boys each asserted their right to the welcoming space, the furniture between them began to move and fists clenched. My voice from the other side of the room might as well have been from a distant universe and I noted my instinct to run in the opposite direction. Territorial disputes are always messy and collateral damage is inevitable.
As I approached the two boys, neither was in the mood for a rational conversation with a teacher. Dominique was in control of the disputed territory and with Seth demanding cessation, Dominique solidified his hold. Seth may not by typically aggressive, but displacement reaches to core instincts and his are strong. This was a standoff. In a miraculous moment, Seth allowed his eyes to connect with mine and his ears to hear my invitation. His better instincts prevailed, he lowered his fists and backed away in exchange for (an albeit temporary) seating at the teacher’s desk. It was a face-saving prize, not a long-term solution, but the crisis was temporarily averted. With Dominique’s land grab aggression isolated, he could be reeled in and a sentry (read: another adult) placed on the couch to hold the space for Seth’s eventual return.
As I consider a territorial dispute in a therapeutic elementary classroom, I am struck with the transcendent nature of our human conflicts. The description could just as easily have been one of Israel and Palestine or any other number of international skirmishes. Our need for place (the assurance of shelter) is fundamental, if Maslow is to be believed, and as we continue to push and pull and redefine the borders we will face unrelenting angst.
Meanwhile, as I was pondering the failed land grab by Dominique, Macy had arrived and discovered that her desk had been moved to the center front. Macy is not known for impulse control and her reaction was swift as the desk flipped, papers scurried and children ducked. Her hands now folded across her chest, her face in full pout, she dared any of us to respond. Thankfully another adult had entered with Macy and I was not the peacekeeper called to respond.
Later in the day, I sat on the floor putting together a puzzle with some of the kids. Macy and Dominique and Seth were all happily playing nearby. I was aware that the disputed land on which I was now sitting wasn’t, quite frankly, great land. There was a wrinkle in the carpet that made it impossible for the puzzle to lie flat. Our frustration was great as we gathered the pieces and they jumped out of location. Why would this corner have ever been the focus of such hot pursuit?
And then I remembered. Land disputes are never really about the land. What is at stake is identity, place, roots…. complicated and messy. While I have no great wisdom to share when two interests have competing claims to one piece of real estate, what I can offer is compassion as I listen to the genuine cries of grief, the plea for justice, and the yearning for a place to call home.