Holding Space

We sat in metal chairs in a large circle. About 35 teachers, principals, and school counselors. We were there to learn the process of mediation so that we could teach students the skills of peer mediation. Data showed that having mediation skills could reduce bullying and address anger management, which could also help prevent violence in schools. This was in 1991. Sadly, we failed.

I had been a middle school teacher for 18 years, then shifted my focus to adult learning. I began to teach teachers, counselors, police officers and others who worked directly with students “in the field.” The specific skill set for conflict mediation included listening, using “I” statements, paraphrasing, and asking for forgiveness. And also, cookies. Food was required for peacemaking at the table.

In 1993, Virginia elected a Republican governor. Money for training teachers went away. Razor wire was installed at youth detention centers. Incidents of bullying in schools began to rise. And some parents denigrated the concept of “mediation” because they refused to approve of “meditation” in public schools. Just a slight misnomer there. Not a big deal.

Now, all these years later, what I remember most from my own mediation training was a story my teacher told us about having lived in Japan. There he learned that the Japanese culture practices minimalism. He learned the concept of “ma.” Floral arrangements are often a single, silent, lovely flower. No need to stuff greenery to overflowing. Table settings are sparse—a tiny tea cup, a pale porcelain teapot sit quietly on an uncluttered table. Beauty walks softly into a room, but never announces itself. One must experience it. In silence. No need to fill the space, the ma, with chatter. And this is the gift that Emma Gonzalez gave to us all on March 24. Space. Reverence. Silence. For 6 minutes and counting. 

She and her generation must work. They can do this. I grieve with them and for my generation’s lack of will. Yes, we tried. But not hard enough. Perhaps there just wasn’t enough space, enough ma, to sustain us. 


Richmond VA