Between 9:30 and 10 AM yesterday morning I bicycled to our post office, in the center of what is known to be one of the safest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. As I got off my bike and crossed the sidewalk several feet ahead of eight to ten teenage boys, I felt a small green object fly past the left side of my head and strike the sidewalk ahead of me. It appeared to be golfball-sized hard tree nut of some sort. I momentarily decided to ignore it, guessing that one of the teens had acted out of mischievous impulse to impress his friends, and probably wouldn’t do it again.
I then felt at least two hard objects hit me in the back, one after the other, causing a bit of a sting. Not exactly what I would call “playful.” My heart began to race. They had crossed a major line, and I had to put a quick stop to it. As I quickly turned around, I noticed that there was a senior woman in her eighties or so standing between the boys and me, hunched over and slowly making her way along the sidewalk. I looked directly at the boy nearest me and scolded, “Whatever you’re throwing at me, you could have accidentally hit her with!”
I was hoping to get them to consider some of the additional implications of what they were doing, even if they clearly had little regard for my own well-being.
“I know,” he enunciated with emphasis.
The taunting grin on his face told me I was not about to have a productive interaction of any kind, especially as I had already put him on the defensive in front of his pals by raising my voice. Having had past first-hand encounters with much more elevated group violence (per my “race riot” recounting in Naked Idealism), my instincts told me it was probably best just to let them pass as I walked into the post office. So that I did, but endured one more stinging shot to the right side of the neck, right below my ear, after I turned my back to go inside. This was immediately followed by laughter.
I hastened my walk to get up the wheelchair ramp with my bicycle, given that they were now aiming directly at my face and head. (I normally lock my bike just outside the post office, but was not about to make myself even more vulnerable by attempting that.) Three utility workers standing less than ten feet from the entrance quietly observed, not offering a word of support – it reminded me of classic case studies from social psychology.
As I cleared my mind and dusted off my temporarily bruised ego (fortunately there were no serious physical injuries), I realized that more than anything, I wanted to do something to ensure that they never did that to anyone again. Although I couldn’t identify which boys assaulted me, I called the police to alert them of the potential that the group might do this to someone else. I knew that police arriving on the scene might simply give the boys an exciting story to bond over, but at the very least I wanted to deter them from doing the same thing to someone else that day.
Alongside the unfeeling “I know” response from one of the boys, one of the most unsettling parts of the event was what I observed as I exited the post office. The boys were continuing to stroll down the sidewalk very slowly and leisurely, seemingly without a care in the world. I would have expected them to at least pick up the pace a little, recognizing that assaulting someone in a busy public place might have some type of repercussion. But they clearly had no fear of this whatsoever.
I’ll never know many of the facts about the occurrence, such as why they suddenly targeted a complete stranger like myself (perhaps because I was wearing a bike helmet and looked “funny” to them?), why they had the need to attack me (perhaps to establish dominance within their peer group?), or what my most effective response could have been (I’ve already discussed that with a few people, weighing personal safety concerns against a desire to plant some type of seed of change in the boys’ minds). However, it led me to consider several things.
First, it really didn’t matter what characteristics I possessed that made me appear as “different” to them. As long as differences continue to provoke aggressive responses in us, be it due to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, eating preferences, or even wearing a bike helmet, we have a lot of work to do. Those of us whose appearance, lifestyle, philosophies or other characteristics place us outside the norm in anyway must be especially cognizant of this. I was simply wearing a bike helmet in a generally safe and relatively crowded neighborhood, during one of the safest times of day.
Secondly, we must never become too complacent in our surroundings. I’m in no way suggesting that we allow ourselves to become paralyzed by fear or “what ifs,” but we should also never allow ourselves to become too comfortable, too safe. And this applies not only to our neighborhoods and physical surroundings, but to our workplaces/jobs, our circles of relationships, and our level of personal development. It’s often a little discomfort that enables us to grow, and there are often positives amidst whatever our environments throw at us (hopefully not literally!).
Finally, I considered the value of life coaching/consulting on another level. I realize that teenagers are prone to mischief from time to time, although usually not at the level of assaulting complete strangers. Some of those kids probably don’t get any of the elements of coaching in their daily environments – e.g., assistance in defining a life they want, guidance in creating strategies to get there, support in identifying and overcoming obstacles, and encouragement throughout the process. So instead, they resort to behavior that will make them feel accepted by their peers, without consideration of the impact it may have upon their own life, let alone the lives of others. If they can’t envision a future that excites them, where’s the incentive to do otherwise? There are many theories of human development, but I believe this is at least one piece of it.
I won’t go into all my thoughts regarding how I could have used coaching in my encounter, because it would have been difficult with such a large group – and it may well have put me in further physical danger. But for anyone who has kids or works with kids, experiencing coaching first-hand may be beneficial. Many of the same structures and processes we learn to apply to ourselves in coaching can also be applied to children, having a “trickle down” effect. I don’t have day-to-day interactions with kids, but graduate students to whom I’ve taught coaching skills have reported successfully applying their new coaching skills both to themselves and to their families. There are even “parenting coaches” who work with families for whom child behavior is a central challenge. I wish the families of the boys I encountered yesterday could connect with some of them!