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The Dreaded Hitback

“Why did you hit him?” I ask.

“He hit me first, I had to get my hitback.”

“There is no such thing as hitbacks. You tell me if someone touches you.”

“But my mom told me not to let people hit me or push me around.”

Oh lord, the hitback. I first met the hitback on my first day of school, as well as its foundation: “Mom told me so.” Recently, one mom spelled it out for me. We were talking about a smaller boy — I’ll call him Tim — who had recently gotten into a fight. His mother explained the hitback to me soberly, as if initiating me into an old truth.

“He’s not a big kid,” she said, “and if he lets everyone push him around now, he’s not going to make it in middle school. He’s not going to make it on the playground.”

Perhaps, perhaps. But, I countered, Tim has gone from being a smaller boy who gets into arguments to being a brawler. These days, he is always on the lookout for hitback justice. If his toe is stepped on, he must step on the offender’s toe. If he is bumped while walking to the rug, he must bump back, as if there is a ledger in heaven measuring out force received against force delivered. Ninety-nine percent of second-grade physical contact is accidental, especially among bumbly, jumbly boys. If every push requires a push back, second grade will become a world of ceaseless pushing, painful and dull.

And we see many adults with this mentality, obviously trained in the school of hitbacks, and their lives seem to be precisely that: painful and dull.

But there should be justice, and Tim should learn to stand tall and respect himself. So here is what I have told my students, perhaps one thousand times: “There are the rules of the classroom and there are the rules of the street or the playground. In the street or the playground you are on your own, and so you need to make sure people do not push you around. But in the classroom, unlike in the street, you have a job, and that job is to learn. If someone pushes you in the classroom, you tell me not because someone did something wrong, but because someone is not letting you do your job. It is my job to make sure you can do your job. If someone is messing that up, it is my job, and not yours, to fix the situation.”

Notice how this dodges the real issue for the kids: Justice is very hard to maintain in a school so full of hitting, pushing and shoving. There is certainly a lot of joking physicality, as there is in every elementary school, but there is also far too much out and out fighting. When I try to imagine what it is like to be a 7-year-old in my school, I am at a loss as to how I would hold my head high. I don’t know, honestly, how I would respond to the constant, constant pushing, shoving and yelling. But as an adult, I do know this: A hitback is no solution at all.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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