WASHINGTON — This month in my city, two 17-year-olds were shot and killed. Andre Wallace and Natasha Marsh were high school sweethearts. He was a football team captain and she was an honor-roll student. They were planning on going to West Virginia University together.
In the bleak days after their murders, I found myself thinking: This is going to keep happening because so many young people don't know how to avoid conflict.
While details are still few, we know that Andre was involved in some sort of scuffle after a high school basketball game. Punches were thrown and punches returned. The fight was broken up - but it wasn't over. Later that night, as the couple unloaded groceries from a car in front of Natasha's home, another car pulled up, and a spasm of bullets took the lives and future promise of Andre and Natasha.
I keep thinking, what if Andre had ignored that first punch? Walked away? I know it's against the street code of manhood. I also know that concept of manhood is getting young people killed. So, I'm not blaming Andre, I'm only saying conflict can't be resolved by engaging in it.
Adults should make greater efforts to redefine rules of respect. What if the shooter didn't feel that he had to defend his "rep" with a gun. What if his self-respect came from within, and mere words couldn't take it away. This self-respect, I believe, would lead to a deep respect for all life.
So far, though, all we adults who serve as mentors seem to be doing is telling the kids not to fight instead of showing them another way. I am no exception.
For three years, while working with a local youth group of two-dozen inner-city teenagers - half African- American, half Latino - I said "no fighting, and no put-downs" so many times, it became mere background noise. And I was frustrated, having to constantly step between fuming kids or send them home.
So last summer I hired two conflict mediators to come and teach us some basics.
First, we took time to simply learn about each other - which helped peel away the labels of "fat boy," "albino," and "thug" to something more human. We told each other our fears and dreams. We learned that Sean, who had spent time in jail, wanted to go to barber school; that Walter, an XXL-size 12-year-old who carried a knife, was scared most of the time.
We learned to say "ouch" when someone used a put-down. I admit it sounds hokey, but it gave us a way to collectively identify hurtful language - something that often leads to conflict. I'd hear the kids saying "ouch!" when someone let fly a particularly nasty insult. Everyone would look up and mark it. The stone thrower got the message.
We didn't have a fight all summer.
I can hear people scoffing, "Sure, saying, 'ouch' is gonna stop kids shooting at kids."
Conflict resolution is not that simple, but it can begin there. I think it should be taught in every public school and that it should be mandatory. Beginning in kindergarten, students should learn how to resolve disputes along with their ABCs, all the way up to senior year, so that standing up for yourself will come to mean walking away.
I believe it could be one of the most important weapons we could employ.
Yes, we can expel the kids from school if they fight, check each and every one for weapons, even arrest them. But until we give them a road map that shows another way, we'll be condemned to our losses - losses that come now with such dreadful and persistent repetition.
*Katie Davis is a writer and a National Public Radio contributor living in Washington, D.C. She also runs a youth group called the Urban Rangers for young people, age 10 to 22.
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