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11/25/2012 10:47:00 AM
Being peacemakers in a world of evil
Catholic News Service
Students in Cardinal Theatrix act out a bullying situation as they teach teens about ending harassment and peer pressure on campus at E.D. White Catholic High School in Thibodaux, La.
Catholic News Service
Students in Cardinal Theatrix act out a bullying situation as they teach teens about ending harassment and peer pressure on campus at E.D. White Catholic High School in Thibodaux, La.
Liz Quirin

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — As a public high school teacher many years ago, I saw a good number of knock-down, drag-out fights, some between boys and a few between girls. I tried to stop them and sometimes became one of the casualties.

A veteran teacher told me to watch the fighters and try to see which one of them really wants to quit. Grab that one by the arm and walk away. It was supposed to work, but I was too frightened to try it.

In those days, the weapons of choice were fists, but times change. Now we have students not only bringing their fists but guns, knives and other weapons to school and using them on other students.

We used to flinch at the word "Columbine" until we replaced that with 9/11. Other violent tragedies followed, including the recent movie theater massacre. We were still recovering from that shock when six people were killed at a Wisconsin Sikh temple. These crimes continue to multiply, and many folks are just waiting for the next display of violent aggression.

However, as schools reopen for the fall terms, some have taken a proactive stand against violence with their students. At one school, students and staff begin their day with a "peace pledge": "We are peacemakers. We are respectful, in actions and words, to God, self, others and all creation."

Sounds pretty simple, but the underlying concepts are anything but simple to put into action. In fact, one student told the principal that if he employed the peace language and attitudes at home, he could get himself killed.

That's what young people are up against these days as they try to navigate complicated situations at home and at school. In school, you hear the language of peace, speak to others with respect, and you are rewarded. At home, the situation may be completely different, and your life may depend on responding and reacting differently.

Young people learn quickly how to respond correctly, according to the situation, or they may not have a second chance.

In a school promoting peace, using the language of peace instead of violence, students learn the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. They talk about and learn about empathy, impulse control, managing their emotions and problem-solving.

I can't quite hear a fourth-grader say something like, "It's disrespectful when you hit me; I don't like it," but it's certainly worth a try. Giving children tools to keep them safe is obviously a no-brainer.

We tell them to watch for traffic when they cross the street. Why not give them the skills to find a different way to approach violent people and situations they can't avoid, and what better place than school where they spend so much of their days?

Teachers touch so many young lives, and they never know which child will be changed by a conversation, an encouraging word, a piece of advice or a lesson on building peace.

Just as a farmer plants his seeds in the spring and waits for a fall harvest, so too does a teacher plant seeds of hope and peace in each student. Not every seed germinates, and not every student will become a peacemaker in life, but just the possibility that one or two or maybe more young people will grow and spread peace makes the effort not only worthwhile but critically important.

In 1983, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter on peace, "The Challenge of Peace." They wrote: "Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus Christ."

Well, in that case, we'd all better get moving. Peace.

The writer is editor of The Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill.  

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