By Tom Richards, Former Board Member
To the Willistown Township Board of Supervisors:
When I was head of a small Pre-K and elementary Quaker school in West Chester, PA several years ago, I was always impressed with how the preschool teachers dealt with disputes between children who were three and four years old. These “arguments” stemmed from a variety of issues in the classroom and the playground – one child did not share his toys with another, a little boy pushed a young girl on the playground, a young girl called her friend a nasty name after her doll was taken away.
When these incidents occurred, teachers relied on a technique called the “peace table” where two youngsters sat at a table across from one another and began the process of trying to settle their differences. Only “I” statements were allowed as in “ I did not like it when Danny knocked over my blocks” or “I felt really sad when Olivia called me a bad name. “ No interruptions were permitted, no yelling was allowed and name- calling was verboten. Please remember that these were children who were only three or four who were simply what all young kids do – express their feelings in honest yet inappropriate ways.
It could be painstaking work. Teachers closely monitored these interactions at the table, gently guiding the interchanges, asking helpful questions and supporting students as they began to learn the skills of listening and empathy. Saying a quick “ I’m sorry” was not good enough as the adults made certain that both parties were heard and both parties took the proper steps to learn from their mistakes and understand what their preschool peer was thinking and feeling. Did it “work” all the time? No, but I saw it “work” enough times that preschoolers actually asked to visit the peace table when they felt they had been wronged and they were struggling with how to temper their emotions.
In today’s divisive world, we adults need a peace table. When I attended a local supervisors meeting a few weeks ago around the issue of gun violence in the United States, I witnessed anger, intimidation, bullying and a refusal to listen. After hearing several pro second amendment folks voice their opinions about gun control, a woman spoke “on the other side”, expressing her views that we should look carefully at restricting semi-automatic and automatic weapons. Before she was able to finish her thoughts, she was interrupted several times by the “gun” people who, with rudeness and incivility, tried to shout her down. Granted, this is an emotionally charged issue, but to simply stifle someone else’s opinions without even a hint of trying to understand is alarming, counterproductive and dangerous.
At that moment, we were in desperate need of a peace table. While gun advocates speak strongly about their rights, those who want to prevent gun violence through legislation, legal protest and dialogue, have rights as well. Yet, when, in this case, second “amendmenters” tried to scare someone with opposite views, they were forgetting about the right of free speech, the right of speaking without intimidation, the right to disagree with impunity and freedom. We needed some adults at that time that could facilitate how to navigate the peace table because those who were the screamers and the yellers lacked the patience, skills and empathy to foster and maintain conversations that were both respectful and meaningful.
To all those who fear that people like me want to expunge your second amendment rights, I have no desire to do so. To those who worry that I want to take away your tradition of hunting and target shooting, that I want to discredit and diminish your family traditions of gun ownership and usage, I have no desire to do so. To those who think I that I want the government to take all your guns away, I have no desire to do so. But I do have questions about the purpose of having an AR-15 in our society. I do have questions about the need for bump stocks, silencers and loosely legislated concealed carry permits. I have a right to ask those questions without being shouted down.
What I do want is for you to honor my rights as a non- gun owner, to be willing to listen to and speak with me, to permit me to finish my thoughts, to acknowledge and understand my fears, hopes, dreams and most importantly, my ideas to prevent another Parkland. We are the adults. We are supposed to know how to solve problems with mutual respect and understanding. Yet, we are stuck in the muck of intolerance, exclusivity and arrogance. We lack empathy and grace.
If we are to work together, to truly diminish and hopefully end the agonizing and continual dance of gun violence in this country, like those preschoolers I mentioned previously, we must come and sit at the peace table. Facing one another. Hearing one another. Discovering one another’s stories. Having uninterrupted conversations. Looking for common solutions. Leaving our egos and agendas at the door. And staying at that table even if it takes forever.
The table is large enough for everyone. Come join us. And if we struggle, our kids can always teach us how it’s done.