Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Stolen Laptop and a Teachable Moment

“Mr. Brown, we have a problem.”

It was the kind of call, I dread. Leslie Gill, CEO of Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center was on the line.  The social service agency has allowed the Sweet Potato Project to hold classes on its premises. It was Tuesday and we had just wrapped up our day with a visit to a social engineering firm in midtown St. Louis. Thankfully, I have three senior students and an intern with vehicles. So we usually split the group up and have made frequent trips throughout the summer. 

There were three students in my car when Gill called. Apparently another three had returned to Annie Malone. That wasn’t unusual, some go back to the center to retrieve their belongings or to get picked up by a parent or friend.

“Someone stole a laptop from the office next to your classroom,” Gil went on. “She left her office for about 15 minutes and there were only three of your kids here at the time.”

Damnit! In six years of operating the program, I’ve only had one similar incident. A kid stole a volunteer’s cell phone from the Catholic school pantry where we held classes at that time. The student eventually fessed up and we worked out a situation where he could redeem himself by working a week for free in the pantry. It worked out. the young man and I still chat every now and then. But the initial feelings of betrayal and lost trust was something I never wanted to experience again.

Those feelings returned after I heard about the stolen laptop. Of the three suspected students, I instantly knew the culprit. He’s often late, he makes up excuses to miss or step outside class. I’ve had to talk to him about his work ethic.

Still, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. After all, there were two other possible suspects, one boy and one girl. I sweated bullets that night grappling with the best way to get the thief to fess up, return the stolen item and rebuild trust for our program.

“I told you all a few weeks ago, that two things I can’t stand and will not tolerate is a thief and a liar,” I said surrounded by the students that Wednesday morning.

When I went into detail, the students became as angry as me. 

“Aw, man, whoever it was makes us all look bad,” one student responded. “Exactly,” I continued. “One of you did it and perhaps one or two more know who did it. This is unacceptable and we have to make this right.”

Everybody, including the kid I suspected, swore they knew nothing about the laptop. I told them the police had been called, they took fingerprints so the culprit might as well confess. I was embarrassed as hell when two Annie Malone staff members came into the class to talk about the ramifications of stealing their property. The workers explained that the matter would be dropped if the laptop was returned. The thief had until the next day (Thursday) to bring the laptop back or there would be hell to pay.

One of my senior students, Marquita, asked if she could call out the bandit. She suspected the same student as I, in fact, most of the students did. I told her “no,” the kid had until the next day to confess and redeem himself.

My funky mood intensified that evening. To be honest, I was hurt. This has been a good year for the Sweet Potato Project. A nice donation from David Steward of World Wide Technology, Inc. allowed me to focus on the kids and not spend every summer day trying to raise money to pay them, like the past two years. It’s been a pure joy working with this group. Yeah, some have real problems, a couple are rock heads or jokesters but they were opening up. Their essays about the things they’ve learned, the entrepreneurs and professionals they’ve met and our conversations about reclaiming and revitalizing disadvantaged neighborhoods had given me (as corny as it may sound) hope.

You see, I have the honor of working with young people who live the reality behind sensationalized headlines or soul-crushing stereotypes. Most know poverty, most have lost a loved one to senseless violence or treatable illnesses. Most are children who've been hardened by broken educational, criminal justice and economic systems. They’re ability to navigate chaos while still dreaming big dreams simply amazes and humbles me.

I had the kids submit sentences or paragraphs for a collective student pledge. Their creative use of the words “unity, dignity, community and self-sufficiency” had convinced that they get it, that they’re open to the impossible. For me, the pledge and our mission had been sullied by this one deceitful act. The fact that we might not be trusted in the building angered me immensely.

Their creative use of the words “unity, dignity, community and self-sufficiency” had convinced that they get it, that they’re open to the impossible.

I dreaded the next day even more. Nobody was going to admit anything, I suspected. By morning, I had decided that the whole class would have to chip in to replace the computer and I’d fire the suspected thief, even if he didn’t confess.

As I walked into the center Thursday morning, the receptionist motioned me into his office. As I opened the door, he pointed to a laptop on his desk. He told me the name of a female student who had returned it. She came to class early, he said, remorseful and crying. Something in her soul, he said, repeating her words, compelled her to return the computer. She also told him she would not be returning to class. She was too ashamed.

I was floored. I’d heard the student had issues at home but she seemed so attentive, engaged, and personable in class. Besides, one of Annie Malone’s staffers had driven her home that day. Surely, the worker would have noticed a laptop in her possession or some sort of shady behavior.

The first thing I did Thursday morning was talk to the boy I immediately suspected of stealing the laptop. I told him the name of the real thief and apologized for indicting him. His response shamed me: “Mr. Brown, I remember that day you said you couldn’t stand thieves. I ain’t no thief!”

I thanked him for his honesty and told him why I thought he was the culprit. “This is going to happen to you again in the real world unless you step up your game and stop taking shortcuts.” He promised he would.

I was sorry to hear the offending girl was not returning. I felt she had redeemed herself.  I wanted to use the incident as a teachable moment. I’d find some way for her to pay a penance but she would not be fired.

About a half hour later a car pulled up and the girl I was told had stolen the laptop jumped out. As she headed for the front door, I called her name. She came over. I said, “thank you for returning the computer.” She looked at me as if I had cursed her mother. “Returned what…I didn’t steal anything!”

“Wait, what? I was just told that you’d came in early, dropped off the computer and apologized.” Again, I got that look. “I just got here. It wasn’t me,” she insisted.

I went back to the receptionist. He now realized he'd made a mistake. The girl who brought the laptop back was not my student. I ran upstairs but it was too late. The poor girl had already gone up to class where word had spread she was the perpetrator. She walked into a room of dirty looks and not-so-subtle indictments. I quickly made the announcement that she had been wrongly accused. Thank goodness, she seemed to understand the mishap.

We had a “neighborhood walk” scheduled along the Cherokee strip that day. My mood had improved significantly. Gil had called me upon arriving to fill me in on the details of the mysterious theft. Two girls, claiming to be new students of the Sweet Potato Project, had gone upstairs, and stolen the employee’s laptop. Whatever, it wasn’t one of my students.

Outside Red Guitar Bread on the Cherokee Strip

After we visited a couple of businesses on the strip and talked about the upswing in the neighborhood and the heavy Latino influence, I took the kids to La Vallesana restaurant and ice cream shop. “Get yourselves a snack,” I jubilantly told them. As I watched them sitting out on the veranda, chatting, writing notes, nibbling ice cream or Mexican food, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude.

They didn’t betray me. What I’ve seen in them is real, and our pledge means something after all. Everything was as it should be.

Snacks on the veranda of La Vallesana on the Cherokee Strip