To belong implies a selection was made. There was a choice and options. In my rugby years, making the Select Side was a sign of being elite. You were one of the best in your region. You were chosen from those who showed up. By default, then, some were not selected. They did not make the cut. This is the conundrum of community: to band a group together you also have to protect this group from others. Saying yes means you also have to say no. The biggest threat to community is infiltration by those who do not share its values.
How does one know who shares their values? How does one know who is inherently opposed to them? What signs or symbols does one put out into the world to show whom or what they support? Flags, tattoos, bumper stickers, and clothing say specific things about what one believes is important. They are deliberate choices put on display that signal whether they are like us or not like us (sometimes read as with us or against us).
Some are silly and more prideful than territorial. If I see someone with a Packers sticker, shirt, or hat, my eyes reflexively narrow. The story in my head is that we are enemies. I assume that my reaction is reciprocated.
If a student wanders into my class from elsewhere, I am quick to see them as a threat. They present a distraction to what we are doing and how we are doing it. When this student comes from the neighboring gym who is well beyond the control or care of the long term sub, my instinct is that they want to spread that distraction over here. I make a bee line for them with intense, ‘get out of here’ eyes until they slink back through the doors. I rarely have to get near them. The message is received.
The desire to protect my class stems from multiple streams of consciousness. The first is the identity and experience of ‘otherness’. For over a decade, I have been trying to create a third option to the typical sports or fitness paradigm that is traditional in most high schools. Kids who wanted a different kind of PE could sign up with me (someone who also wanted a different kind of PE) and we would be the ones willing to try and develop this other thing:
Getting intimate and playing with senses and emotions. What does it look and feel like to take care of someone?
As one would imagine, we were seen as less-than in the eyes of the athletes and weightlifters. Instead of vocally combating their barbs, we went ultra secretive. We didn’t care because they didn’t know. We laughed at their ignorance. There was a distinct separation between them an us. They became the other we wanted nothing to do with.
A second reason to be eager to defend is that it takes tremendous energy to steer a large group of teenagers into doing. Once they are finally with you, you look to spot and eradicate any outside influence that can potentially derail the harmony that’s been built. Third, the gym I reside in is practically a hallway. The exit to the rest of the building all run through it, so lunch onlookers, skippers, and anyone needing to use the restroom have to walk across it. Making kids invisible who don’t necessarily want to be invisible (and for whom your attention has been attuned to) is a daunting and often futile task (especially when you aren’t backed by admin/ campus monitoring) that always keeps your antennae up and ready to turn your head toward an intruder.
Last year served as a turning point. Amidst all the chaos of masks, COVID, a loud neighboring class where anything goes, not enough supervision, and everyone being overwhelmed, I started observing before intervening. I noticed that the kids in my class were smiling as they engaged with the visitors. They were not threatened or offended. They were curious and trying to be with/ make friends. Being around people is what they needed most. I had been looking at the situation with my eyes instead of theirs.
Belonging doesn’t have to pair with exclusion.
The barrier can be permeable.
After two years of lockdown and isolation, interacting with people became the most interesting and novel thing. I started realizing that the kids from the neighboring class simply wanted to be in a place where games were structured and people participated. I began inviting them in to play with us. They were great. Respectful, cooperative, and leveling up what we were able to do because new bodies and skillsets entered the space.
I have to remember that the students aren’t to blame for the conditions in which they find themselves and act accordingly. I have to remember that outsiders might be curious and want in versus stubborn and want to lure out. ‘Others’ aren’t necessarily diluters of purpose, actions, and motivations. They can be a conduit. They can remind about the reasons to be welcoming and that new, different people can add value and meaning. The can expand us in a natural and organic way, one that doesn’t need gatekeepers for the community to evolve.