A Dangerous Space

Yesterday’s paper contained an article, “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” which describes how some universities now offer a “safe space” for students who are offended by outside speakers. If, for example, a student finds a speaker’s comments “troubling,” he or she can now go to a room where they might enjoy coloring books, cookies, Play-Doh, and calming music. (I’m not making this up!)

In response to the safe space movement, Adam Shapiro, a junior at Columbia, created what he called “dangerous space” because he believes, “Kindness alone won’t allow us to gain more insight into truth.” I hope you’ll indulge me this morning as I tell you about a couple of truths I learned in a “dangerous space” I once stumbled into during Grade 9.

It was my last fistfight, and it actually took place during an art class. We had a very progressive teacher who was new to the school, and she liked to flick the overhead lights on and off furiously, whenever the spirit moved her. I think this was her way of “igniting curiosity, imagination, and passion” in her students.

My erstwhile opponent was a guy known as “Wawa.” A quick aside: I have to explain that nickname. Those of you fluent in the language of Native Americans, or for the less erudite — if you are fortunate enough to be familiar with the quicki-marts that abound in Southeastern Pennsylvania, you know that “Wawa” means “wild goose,” but that’s not how young Tony Waters earned his moniker.

During the first month of school that year, we were shown “The Miracle Worker,” a wonderfully inspiring black and white film about Annie Sullivan, the woman who figures out how to communicate with and eventually teach Helen Keller, a girl who, as a result of a childhood illness, did not have the ability to hear, see, or speak.

Annie Sullivan achieves a breakthrough when she uses her fingers to spell the word “water” into Helen’s hand. As Annie pumps water from a well, Helen makes the connection; she grasps that the letters w-a-t-e-r have meaning, and because she is deaf, she can only blurt out the sound “Wawa” in recognition. At that cinematic moment, in front of 200 Grade 9 boys in a darkened assembly hall, a somewhat sullen Tony Waters instantly became “Wawa.” We meant no disrespect to Helen, Annie, or even Tony for that matter. (Ok, perhaps there was a smidgeon of disrespect for Tony.) Because Tony took an instant dislike to it, of course, the name stuck.

At the risk of sounding like a bad sociologist, it seems to me that there were a lot more nicknames a generation ago, and I’m not quite sure what their absence means. Just don’t ask me to tell you what mine was. Ok. Would you believe it was “Supreme Leader?” Well, it was worth a try…

Anyway, I don’t want to embellish or glamorize things, and I won’t tell you if I won my last fight. I will only sheepishly admit that I ended up being thrown through the art room’s window, thus gaining instant access to a less than scenic view of North Philadelphia.  But my lack of pugilistic prowess is not what I want to dwell on today. (I will leave that for Wawa!) No, what I remember much more vividly was the dry-mouth dread I experienced as I walked into the Dean of Students’ office – along with Wawa – to have a face-to-face meeting with Fr. Kearney, the Dean of Discipline, a man known as “The Shadow” at our all boys Catholic school. Talk about experiencing a dangerous space!

Fr. Kearney would not have been nominated for any sort of peer counselling award. I’m not sure he could spell Carl Rogers’ last name if you had spotted him the R-o-g-e-r, and I don’t recall his ever nodding his head in quiet affirmation or starting a sentence with, “I think I hear your saying that…” Had “Ellen” or “Dr. Phil” been around during the less enlightened 70’s, I’m betting Fr. Kearney would not have tuned in on a regular basis. He was a hardened somewhat cynical cop, one who had spent too many years on the beat. A thousand boys a day can do that to you, I guess.

As a result, I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that a somewhat jaded Fr. Kearney was not at all interested in hearing MY side of the story. He didn’t care that Wawa had stolen my red Crayola crayon. He didn’t understand that I would have lost face in front of my grade 9 peers, had I let such a transgression pass. And he wasn’t even minutely interested in the racial overtones that lurked, I was sure, deep in the background of this conflict.

Instead, Fr. Kearney made 3 points, which still remain remarkably vivid today:

First, he made Wawa and me split the cost of the window — a double window I might add — despite my protesting that it was hardly my intention to break two panes of glass with my cranium. “I am not interested in your intentions, Power. I am interested only in your decisions.”

Second, when I apologized for fighting (and even now, I’m not sure if going air-born after a discreet and somewhat gentlemanly push actually qualifies as fisticuffs), he said, “I don’t care that you were fighting. You and Mr. Waters (Fr. Kearney had evidently missed “The Miracle Worker”) can go over to Broad Street and pound the “stuffing” (I’m not exactly sure if “stuffing” was the cleric’s word of choice on this occasion) out of one another. I am punishing you only because you fought here at school.”
And third, Fr. Kearney gave us “jug.” I’m not sure if j-u-g comes from “justice under God” or if it is from the Latin derivative “jugo-jugari – to punish,” but whatever the source, jug entailed standing silent and still in a hallway for an hour. When I modestly suggested that perhaps this time might be better used for study, Fr. Kearney cut me off in mid-sentence. “The purpose of this exercise is not academic in nature, Power. It is designed to make you never want to return to my office again.”


Like a hardened criminal, I can say that I did my time. And perhaps in a way Fr. Kearney became my Annie Sullivan. It may be something less than miraculous, but after serving my sentence, I think I got his message. I patched things up with Wawa, who raised a very good question, one that I had failed to consider: “What was I supposed to do? Ask ‘Mother may I’ for that stupid crayon?”

Group suffering can be good for the soul, even when one party is almost completely and utterly innocent and never should have had to pay for that window or served that jug in the first place. But I digresss… Who knows? Had this event occurred years later, Wawa and I could have starred in “Prison Break” together.  I might have even called him “Tony.” Well, maybe. All I know is that I never did get another jug, and I never got in another fight.

Don’t get me wrong. We all may need a “safe space” every once in a while, and I like Play-Doh as much as the next guy. But life’s lessons seem clearer to me in the dangerous spaces. That’s why, when a UCC lad tells me about an issue that strikes my middle age mind as something less than cosmic in significance, I stop and remember what I learned from spending time in a particularly dangerous space with Wawa, The Shadow, and that far too precious red Crayola crayon.


13 thoughts on “A Dangerous Space

  1. Jim,

    This is priceless. I just shared it with my wife and will also with my colleagues.

    I, too, served Jug on a single occasion. And talk about stupid. In our era, all sinners sat in an overheated classroom and had to perform some sort of mindless task for 90 minutes.

    I still recall that day when the priest wrote the number 1,000,000 on the blackboard and said “Okay, start subtracting by 9’s and when you get to zero you can leave.” I started out like crazy and after 15 minutes with a pencil worn to a stub and early onset of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, it occurred to me that the 90-minute JUG period would probably be over before I reached zero.

  2. In case you want to correct the post on your blog…

    Helen Keller was not born blind and deaf. She became ill at the age of 19 months and lost her sight and hearing. Those early memories (especially hearing) did have some impact on her ability to communicate.

  3. Your speech was not culturally sensitive. “The Language of Native Americans…” really? Come on. You should use the correct tribal name, e.g. Cree, Sioux, Navajo. That is like saying the language of Africans. There are hundreds of different languages.

  4. Our prefect of discipline, Fr. John P. McGinty S.J., used to grab students and throw them against lockers. And he liked to do it “by surprise.” There was a genuine streak of sadism in him.

  5. I just finished reading, with pleasure, your latest fireside chat. Admirable story-telling, and I especially like your deft conflation of Fr. Kearney and Annie Sullivan as miracle-workers, as a way of introducing your own epiphany. The master’s touch. They that have ears, let them hear. You are not bad at this kind of thing, you know?

    My own Dean of Discipline was Fr. Justin, who was resolutely of the old school. He and Fr. Kearney would have gotten along very well; though they differed in their methods, they agreed in their belief in rough justice and the didactic power of punishment. And now that I think about your tale, they would have agreed in their belief in the didactic power of injustice, too. Fr. Justin, an Anglophile, favored the wooden paddle over jug, but a chacun a son gout, as neither of them would have ever said.

    I am sure that your boys will be entranced to hear about how it used to be, before parents did their utmost to protect their precious children from the slightest jolts of life. I am not sure that the brutal school I attended built my character as intended, but it certainly taught me a lot of life lessons, mostly of the negative kind. However, one is probably never to young too learn that life is not fair.

  6. Thrown through a window (and for an artistic cause). (“No way!”)
    The students will really like that story.

    (Tragically, my own fighting career was almost ruined by a ‘dislocated toe incident’ in primary school.)

  7. Dr. Jim –

    There must be a great file on me somewhere in the building detailing all of my indiscretions. Suffice to say, living in the boarding houses with 113 other boys, there were often ‘disagreements’ over things like the red crayon, just replace “red crayon” with “mother jokes” and you get the gist of the scene.

    I grew up with a brother, and parents, so my mother was outnumbered 3 to 1. It wasn’t until I had my own family that I realized what it’s like to be the odd man out – literally. That can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. I see fewer sibling fist-fights than I re‎call having with my brother, though more emotional disagreements over other things that seem insignificant on the surface, but mean a great deal to them.

    As a parent, I now realize how difficult it can be to understand the minds of young adults who are dealing with much more than whatever the ‘red crayon’ is. I will occasionally get a call or email from my wife, at her wits end, because of something that’s going on with the kids. I always say the same thing: “are they behaving like kids again?” and we laugh. Sometimes a little perspective can go a long way.

    Learning to accept that people, places and things are different, and occasionally outside our comfort zone, is essential in order to get along on this tiny planet we all share. That is a choice we all have – to fight situations we dislike, or to accept them as real, and find a path forward. Arguing about the red crayon will not change the situation, there is only one red crayon.

    Even if you find a safe place to bury your head from things that upset you‎ – they will still be there when you put the red crayon down. An open mind, on the other hand, is exceptionally powerful. It took me more than four decades to realize that; I smile more now, and my crayon budget is surprisingly low.

    ‎It all starts with an open mind.

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