Picking Your Battles

for the week of May 6, 2002
by Rubel Shelly

You've heard or read the news reports. This second-grade student was sent to an alternative school because he kissed a girl in his class. That sixth- grader was suspended for having aspirin or nail-clippers in her backpack.

While I appreciate the magnitude of a school's duty to issues like sexual harassment, drugs, and weapons, I also think there can be gross overreactions to normal, innocent, or inadvertent behaviors that cross reasonable boundaries.

If every second-grader who pecked a girl on the cheek and ran had been sent home when I was in grammar school, they might have closed us down. And some of the girls even planted kisses on guys too! Shouldn't "zero tolerance" be tempered by common sense? Is it too hard to distinguish malicious actions from the ordinary stuff that happens with kids in the process of growing up?

A student at a middle school in Virginia was told recently that he cannot rejoin his sixth-grade class until his hair is returned to its natural color. It seems that his parents let the boy dye his hair blue last month for of all things getting good grades. When he went back to school with colored hair, he got sent home. (A sweet old lady who worked in my school's lunchroom had blue hair!)

All right, let's get clear. I'm not crusading for kids to dye their hair weird colors. Or to have funky haircuts. Or to shave their heads. And, yes, I can even imagine a situation where a kid does one of those outlandish things as rebellion against his parents or to be disruptive at school. That having been said, though, is this the stuff that justifies an administration's going to the mat?

I've learned to pick my battles carefully. With my wife or kids, with other faculty members, with acquaintances in the workplace, with strangers in the checkout line it's better just to let some things pass. You have only so many chips of credibility or influence to play. Why, even at church, not everything will be done the way you or I would if we were calling the shots. Right?

Ah, maybe that's the problem. Could the real issue be "calling the shots"? Everybody wants to be king of the hill. But life just works better when others are given respect for their tastes, points of view, and peculiarities. Surely nobody really wants to come across as a petty soul who is always spoiling for a fight.

Before choosing to take a stand and fight, be sure the issue really matters. Just remember: "It is honorable to refrain from strife" (Proverbs 20:3, NRSV).

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