“I don’t know what Ricki did,” I whispered, “but odds are I’ll get blamed for it.”
“We got a call to meet our six-year-old in the principal’s office,” Allie said sourly. “What are the odds you didn’t have a hand this?”
“I’m the poster dad for responsible parenting.”
“Really?” my wife rolled her eyes. “Yesterday Ricki asked me if all slow drivers are assholes, or just the ones on the freeway. Any guess where she learned that?”
“Not from me,” I mumbled. “Or else she would have known it’s all the slow ones.”
My wife might have had a point. But until I saw irrefutable proof, I wasn’t going to admit it.
“Marshall? Allie?” a middle-aged woman asked as she opened the door. “I’m Allison Fannin, the school principal. Would you like to come in and talk?”
“No,” I replied. “I’d like to go back to work. Is that an option?”
Allie lovingly held my hand, then crushed it in a vice grip and whipped me into the office. Ricki stood near the principal’s suspiciously spotless desk.
“Thank you both for coming,” the principal began. “We had an incident today.”
Incident. She let that distasteful word linger for us all to consider.
“Incident can mean a lot of things,” I finally said. “An incident between nations could lead to war. Incidental contact in sports means no problem. At work an incident means we don’t talk about it and hope we do better next time.”
“Where do you work?” the principal asked.
“Nuclear power plant.”
The principal frowned. Ricki giggled. I was batting .500.
“My husband communicates in lame jokes,” Allie interjected, while further crushing my hand. “He’s trying to ask what kind of incident this is.”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” the principal replied. “A fourth grader grabbed Ricki’s arm aggressively on the playground. Ricki responded by dislocating the girl’s finger.”
Ricki met my gaze and shrugged apologetically.
“How?” I asked doubtfully. “Ricki’s in first grade. This girls is three years older and presumably bigger.”
“A lot bigger,” Ricki nodded.
“Ricki employed some kind of martial arts move,” the principal said. “And that’s why I wanted you both here. She says she learned it from her father.”
“You taught our girl to break fingers?” Allie gasped.
“A dislocation isn’t as bad as a break.”
“Not the point! This is serious!”
“I think I know what happened,” I said, then turned to my daughter. “Ricki, I’m going to grab your arm and not let go. Can you get my hand off?”
“I just got in trouble for that,” Ricki mumbled.
“This time it’s okay. Can you do it?”
Ricki nodded. I gripped her little forearm firmly. Ricki’s free hand shot out and grabbed the top of my pinky finger. Ricki yanked it back, and my helpless hand followed.
“I taught her that self defense move,” I explained. “It can save a child from a bad situation.”
“This self defense move sent another child to the hospital,” the principal said angrily.
“Which begs the question, why was Ricki defending herself?”
“That’s not what we’re discussing now,” the principal said with a tinge of anger. “We’re discussing your daughter’s use of force that — ”
“Then I’m changing the discussion,” Allie snapped. “Somebody attacked my girl!”
The principal took a deep breath. I’d forgotten how beautiful Allie is when she agrees with me.
“Ricki, what happened?” Allie asked.
“Kim and I were playing behind the trees,” Ricki said grimly. “Two older girls told us to go. I said we were here first and they can’t tell me what to do. One said if I didn’t leave I would get an Indian Burn. I didn’t know what that was. Then the girl grabbed my arm with both hands and started squeezing. It hurt. I said let go but she didn’t. So I grabbed her finger and pulled. Her finger moved a lot easier than Daddy’s. She fell on her back and started crying.”
The principal continued to frown. Allie actually growled.
“So this incident is a learning experience,” I summarized. “Ricki learned how to stick up for herself, and what an Indian Burn is. The bully learned that stop means stop, and the joys of American healthcare. And the adults learned that your recess has a Lord of the Flies theme. Can we go now?”
“No you can’t go,” the principal scoffed. “There are repercussions when one child sends another to the hospital! And there’s the behavioral aspect. Both Ricki needs to learn that this type of violent response is never tolerated.”
“You’re saying if a big girl grabs my arm and hurts me, I’m not allowed to take her hand off?” Ricki asked the principal.
“Not that way.”
“Then what way?” Ricki asked. “Punch her in the face?”
“No!” the principal gasped. “Ricki, you use your words.”
“What words?” Ricki asked.
“Ricki … you should never result to violence. You should always use words to resolve conflicts.”
“I told her to let go,” Ricki replied, genuinely confused that an adult could be this dense. “She didn’t and started to hurt me. What words would you use?”
“If that doesn’t work,” the principal said with less certainty, “then get an adult.”
“There weren’t any adults behind the trees,” Ricki said. “And I couldn’t go anywhere to get an adult because the girl had my arm.”
The principal mulled this over.
“Then go with the face punch,” I recommended. “No broken fingers that way.”
The principal took a few deep breaths and wondered if she’d wasted time at all those meditation classes. Then her door flew open and three boys with bloody noses were ushered in. One fingered a loose front tooth.
“Sorry Allison,” a teacher said. “There was an incident by the garden. I need to drop them off with you; class starts in two minutes.”
“Looks like we’ve exceeded our incident time and you’re on to the next one,” I said as I ushered Ricki and Allie out the door. “I hope you have as much fun with this next group. Remember to use your words.”