It only takes a word, like "whore" or "mother." Or a threat, like "watch your back." Sometimes a look, interpreted as critical, is enoughto touch off a fight.
Whatever the reason -- and sometimes there's no reason -- students at Annapolis Middle School say fighting is anever-present part of their lives. Every day, many of them come to school ready to fight or fearing the possibility.
Although some students say they try to avoid confrontations, a handful of students sitting in an empty classroom talking last week said they would fight if "pushed into it." They spoke excitedly about recent fights at the school, who fights and why.
For most, being pushed into a fight meant hearing unflattering rumors, being called names or having their property taken or damaged. Fights over girlfriends and boyfriends also are common.
"Destruction of property, insults that build up, people getting against you -- there's lots of reasons," said 14-year-old Candace Clark, who said she fights often.
"It'srumors that start most of it," said Kelee Gray, 14, who also describes herself as a fighter. "You don't pay attention for a while. But ifyou don't do anything, they keep it up. And then, you're just going to go off on them."
The violence usually starts with a verbal confrontation. Words are followed by pushing, poking or slapping. Once someone "gets in your face," it's almost impossible to back down.
"You don't want to punk out," said Candace. "If someone has it out for you, you have to stand up for yourself. If you don't, you might as well pick out your coffin color, 'cause you're gone around here."
Students acknowledge that they love watching fights. When a fight breaks out, spectators link arms and form a circle to make it difficult for teachers to get through.
And one fight usually spawns another.
"When somebody fights, everyone says after, 'I can beat him -- I can take him down with one punch,' " said Greg Stewart, 13. The challenge then becomes beating the winner or pounding the loser even more.
Educators are exasperated. They fear fighting has become so ingrained that reversing the trend may be impossible.
Their students fight because they have never learned other ways to resolve conflict. They fight because they are "egged on" by peers. They fight because theybelieve any display of weakness only encourages further harassment.
Annapolis Middle Principal Kevin Dennehy is committed to breaking the cycle through constant surveillance and the development of peer-mediation programs.
"I'm not comfortable with the physical (conflict) at this level. The potential to get hurt is way too high," he said. "The fear and intimidation of other students just has gotten out ofhand."
Students say many fighters are feared and respected. Although students criticized peers who fight without provocation, those who "fight for good reasons" are admired for "standing up for themselves."
But not all students agree fighting is justified or resolves conflicts.
"Just because you don't fight does not mean you can't stick up for yourself," said Helena Gilberta, 14, who said she stays out of fights. "I was taught to walk away. I don't want to get hurt."
"I read a book about this," said Sitia Chew, 13. "It said, 'It takes a big man to walk away. It only takes a wimp to fight.' "
But avoiding violence at her school takes practice and a lot of self-control, Sitia said.
"I don't talk to anyone. When I'm upset with someone, I don't tell anyone, 'cause I don't want it to get back around," she said.
Kelly Cranford, 14, has been in three fights this year. Each time, she said, she got punched for a remark she had made. To avoid getting punched, she said, she should have kept her mouth shut.
"I knew it was my fault. After I said something, I knew it would bring on trouble," she said. She did not believe the aggressors in each case should have let her remarks go by without action.
"It's not bold to walk away," said Candace. "If someone says, 'Step up to me,' you have to fight them."
Some students find it difficult to imagineschool without fights, or the threat of violence. They can't think of ways teachers or principals could stop the physical aggression. Andthey don't believe the violence will stop when they move on to high school.
"No one can stop it," said Candace, resigning herself to four more years of fighting.
"It's going to keep happening," said Kelly. "I think it will happen after high school too. The real world is even tougher than school."