CONFLICT MANAGEMENT AND THE CREATION OF THE COOL STEVE STORIES
It was way back in 1972 on a pleasant autumn day. As I stepped out of the sparkling sunshine into the shadowy confines of the Coney Island Child Psychiatric Clinic, I was greeted by three people who could have been movie actors. One was a beautiful social worker in her late twenties, with flowing brunette hair; another, a tall, handsome psychologist in his early thirties; and the third, a psychiatrist who looked like he was trying out for a part as Sigmund Freud, with his long, graying beard and pipe. Initially they were warm and friendly but, within a few minutes, switched to more earnest expressions. The psychiatrist took charge at this point, informing me that I would be working with eight very troubled male teenagers—two individually, and six in a group. My first job teaching conflict resolution under the auspices of a real life professional organization had begun.
It was a period of time before the current practice of converting the psychological concerns of all children brought to a psychiatric clinic into a language of illness believed to be due to chemical imbalances. The prescribing of pills as the main—oftentimes only—action offered was something I had never dreamed of. Instead, a staff of professionals and several advanced psychology students from Brooklyn College sought to provide empathic emotional support, understand the conflicts the children were experiencing, and guide them toward more mature coping. I was one of the Brooklyn College students.
Achieving the first two goals proved to be a breeze. The kids’ hunger for attention made it easy to develop genuinely enjoyable relationships. And the way the boys spoke and interacted readily revealed volumes on the topic of conflicts with which they struggled on a daily basis. Guiding the boys toward more mature coping, however, tripped me up.
“Called you a jerk!?” I replied. “Yikes! What did you do about it?”
“I shoved him.”
“How’d that work out?”
“I got sent to the principal.”
“Do you like to get sent to the principal?”
“Hmm, if you don’t like it, maybe we can figure out how to respond to a name caller in a better way.”
“If someone puts me down, I ain’t gonna let him get away with it.”
“I can understand that. Let’s discuss a few ways to deal with name calling that doesn’t let the other guy get away with anything and yet won’t get you sent to the principal’s office.”
“Na. If that guy calls me a name again, I’m really gonna let him have it! He better not start with me again!”
“I can see just thinking about this is really making you angry.”
“Yeah, it is!”
“Well, I have good news for you. I think I can help you to come up with some ways that you can handle name calling that you would respect but won’t get you in trouble. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
“Listen, I don’t wanna talk about this anymore!”
At this point, I realized that, for now, to pursue this any longer would be counterproductive.
Shortly after this, I noticed that the two black kids in the group I was working with were frequently being put down by the four white kids.
Some words got thrown back and forth that could have made a Brooklyn boy blush. Well, okay, maybe not a Brooklyn boy, but most people. Anyway, my efforts to address this were, unfortunately, met with the boys shouting over me as their anger flamed into rage.
“You’re doing just fine,” my supervisor assured me. “Working with kids requires great patience.”
I would have preferred specific suggestions on how to better teach. Still, his comments at least temporarily took some pressure off of me.
But as time went on, my patience waned, and I began to have difficulty falling asleep. In the wee hours of the morning my mind kept going over and over incidents in which my efforts to teach something to the kids ended without success. And then, during one such night, amidst an experience of what felt like endless tossing and turning and excruciating frustration, suddenly I recalled an incident that happened to me in fifth grade. Back then I had recently seen the movie, The Pride of the Yankees, with Gary Cooper starring as the New York Yankees’ great baseball player, Lou Gehrig. Nicknamed “The Iron Horse,” Gehrig had his Hall-of-Fame career cut short at 36 years of age when he was stricken with a fatal disease. As the film comes to an end, it reenacts Gehrig’s farewell address in front of a packed, tearful crowd at Yankee Stadium. I’ll never forget his parting words. “People all say that I’ve had a bad break. But today…today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Shortly after seeing the film, I decided to read a Lou Gehrig biography and learned that his parents were from Germany. Because I had grown up on war movies that depicted Germans as the vicious enemy, I had, at that time, come to hate Germans. But, when I began to read Lou Gehrig’s biography, I found my hatred undergoing a dramatic change. The story tells us that Lou’s parents were from Germany, spoke with a German accent, and this led the kids in his neighborhood to incessantly torment him.
Lying in bed recalling having read that biography so many years ago, my mind, at one point, returned to thinking about teaching kids coping skills. It seemed to me that there was something about that Lou Gehrig story that enabled me to reconsider attitudes that I had firmly held for so long. Perhaps if I could tell the kids at the clinic stories about a hero who portrayed higher levels of maturity, they might identify with the hero. I figured that kids like to try out the behaviors of their heroes. I know I did. Criticizing the actions of characters in the story would produce less defensiveness than when I had directly criticized the actions of the kids at the clinic. If I told the stories when the clinic kids weren’t already in a defensive state, maybe they would be open to a real discussion. Once they had thought the issues through, perhaps then they would be better able to integrate what they had learned into their own lives.
Soon afterwards, each time I saw the kids at the clinic dealing with a different conflict in a way that struck me as immature, a story dealing with the conflict in a more mature way just came to me in some strange, effortless manner. The hero of the stories, Cool Steve, has many of the attributes that the clinic kids admired.
I made it a point to tell each story at some point in our session when things were relatively calm. And it turned out that the kids loved them. When I told the stories to the group of kids I worked with—kids well known for their rambunctiousness—they settled right down and you could hear a pin drop as the tale unfolded. They discussed them, grappled with the issues, and oftentimes came to agree that Cool Steve had handled the conflict in a way they respected.
An interesting discovery that I made when I was teaching conflict management to graduate students at the University of Minnesota was that the adult students there enjoyed the stories every bit as much as teenagers. And so, with that encouragement, the stories grew and grew so that they now comprise a series of three novels collectively called The Cool Steve Stories.
Readers of this blog know that as I provide lessons on conflict management, I often illustrate the ideas with newspaper comic strips. Although these comics are very helpful for introducing basic ideas, to really learn the subtleties of applying the ideas of conflict management in actual situations it is hard to beat the longer narratives that novels provide.
The first novel in the trilogy is A Hero Grows in Brooklyn. Most of the action occurs when the main characters are junior high school students. If it was a movie, it would likely be rated “PG.” Fights in the Streets, Tears in the Sand, the second novel in the trilogy, deals with some more mature themes. The main characters are now beginning an urban high school and there is a modest amount of cursing, and some talk about sexual feelings and fantasies. It would probably be rated “PG13” if it was a movie. Love, Sex and Respect, the final novel in the trilogy, takes the main characters through to their high school graduation. If the book was a movie, it might be rated “R.”
You can learn more about the novels at this blog’s NOVELS page. There you will find that the first novel in the series can be downloaded for free on any iPad, Nook, Kindle or computer.
I encourage my students to check these books out because they provide memorable adventures that are not only fun and exciting, but teach some profound lessons as well.
Have a great week!
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.