A smirk dresses his face as he strolls down the aisle making his way to my podium. I have seen this expression before. He reserves it for moments like this. For him, this is a routine exercise. Another teacher, another complaint. This is common practice for James. He boldly walks through the aftermath of his mistakes. He does not fear the consequences that follow.
I, on the other hand, am furious. Yet this emotion is powerless. Fury does not jolt him. I know him well and I can tell he is awaiting its arrival. My fury will not teach him to change. It will not bring back what he stole. I fear that I may have to accept that he will always do this.
Just before arriving at me, he sends out one last smile to the class. He firmly plants himself to stand at the side of my podium and looks up at me.
“Yes?” he asks, tipping his head to the side while looking me dead in the eyes.
His presentation is well planned. He knows why I called him forward. Minutes before, we both watched Ms. Sharp enter my classroom. Her exit was even quicker than her explosive entrance. She was irate. She turned James’ secret act into a public affair.
“Ms. Wexler !” she began, as she rushed towards me, “I am appalled by what I witnessed yesterday…James was caught stealing out of a classroom!”
She met me at the front of my classroom. Her eyes scanned the sea of students for her target. James’ shifty eyes assisted her in locating her suspect. His attempt to camouflage his existence had failed.
This was not James’ first time stealing at school. He was notorious for this act. Most of us were well informed of the details of his previous offenses. In the first month of school when Ms. Dodson was out sick, James led three of his classmates into her room. They attacked her snack closet while the rest of the fourth-grade hallway was at recess. A handful of Taki’s, Twizzlers, and Sour Patch kids earned them each two days of out of school suspension. This incident was only the beginning. In the months to follow he would lead a series of poorly planned heists on campus. Each would route him to the same destination. A visit to the principal’s office and two days of out of school suspension.
“Yesterday,” Ms. Sharp went on, “James reached his greedy little hands into a teacher’s desk and he stole!”
The classes hushed whispers filled the empty space her accusations left behind.
“Is that right?” I asked, rotating my glare to James’ direction.
“Yes, ma’am. He saw a bag of lollipops and helped himself right to it.” she continued, “He even tore open the bag! Can you believe that bag was not even open?”
His gaze shifted to his lap and then landed off to the side. I imagined his mind racing through a list of possible explanations. Was he plotting his exit strategy? What kind of story was James cultivating?
“James,” I announced, “please step forward.”
Ms. Sharp exited the classroom as swiftly as she entered.
“What happened?” I asked, maintaining my voice just above a whisper.
James did not expect this. We stood at the front of the classroom. His back was to his classmates. Only I could see the expression on his face begin to transform.
“I took the…stuff.” He said, darting his eyes away from mine.
“No, that is not going to work,” I explained further. “I want you to look me in the eye and tell me what happened. Tell me what you did.”
He grew more uncomfortable the longer he stood before me. He began to exert his nervous energy before my eyes. His left leg became jittery, bouncing off of his toe as he leaned the majority of his weight onto his right leg. One hand found a tattered sticker on my podium. Anxiously, he began to pick and pull at it. He stammered as he began…
“I…I….tt-took the lollipops.” He mumbled.
I was not satisfied with that answer. His fidgeting was proof that he felt some level of shame. I needed him to live in it for a just a moment. I had never witnessed him physically feeling the shame of what he’s done. Perhaps living with that feeling for a moment will encourage him to avoid it in the future.
“Explain to me how you first saw the bag…did it belong to you?” I persisted.
“No.,” he said, his voice dropping even lower, “I went…behind her desk.”
“Were the lollipops on top of her desk?” I asked, trying to contain my composure.
“Was she passing them out as treats?”
“No,” he answered, “I..I…I opened the drawer and..and saw them.”
He struggled to keep his eyes matched with mine. My gaze remained solid. His leg bounced a little faster as his nails dug a little further into the edge of that sticker.
“When you saw the unopened bag of lollipops what did you think? What did you choose to do first?” I began again.
He paused for a moment. He looked above me. He looked to the side of me.
“Look me in the eyes and tell me what you did.” I insisted.
Finally, his eyes met mine.
“I opened it…and took a lollipop.” He whispered.
I had never seen him display this color of shame before. This was not the interaction he planned for. I was not listing all the reasons as to why he was wrong. He was not interrupting me with his lineup of excuses.
“Did it belong to you?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No.”
“Did you steal from the teacher because you were hungry?”
Tears began to well up in the bottom rim of his eyes.
“No.” He whispered even lower.
“Was it worth it?” I finally asked,
He shook his head once. “No.”
…to be continued.