Many years ago I was working at a school in southeast Houston that served a community populated by a number of gangs. Many of my students were known members of such groups, but for the most part they confined their onerous activities to after school hours when they were off campus. Nonetheless there was often an air of tension between the members of the various affiliations, and the faculty was well aware that we needed to be watchful lest some sort of violence erupt.
For whatever reason the real toughs actually like me. I used a bit of reverse psychology with them by referring to them with salutations like “Mr. Soto.” I told them that they were my prep school students and that we would treat one another with polite regard. I remember one day when the young men all showed up wearing dress shirts and ties because they wanted to look like boys from an exclusive school. I suppose the key to my success was that I valued them as much as I did the young men that I had taught in a private school that really was a renowned college preparatory institution.
On one occasion I was going to travel to Austin for a conference right after the school day ended. My suitcase was in my classroom and I had visited an ATM machine that morning to get money for the trip. Just before the group’s departure after the students had left for the day a fellow teacher called me to her classroom for some advice. I was only gone from my own room for a few minutes, but when I returned I decided to go to the faculty lounge to purchase some snacks for the drive. When I reached into my purse for some change, I realized that my wallet was missing. Since my handbag had been locked in a cabinet all day long save for the short time that I left my classroom unattended I knew that it must have been taken very quickly.
It was sickening to think that one of the students had probably stolen my wallet. Aside from the inconvenience of having no money and no credit cards when I was on my way out of town, it saddened me to think that perhaps one of my pupils had done this. The whole time that I was at the conference I thought only of who might have been audacious or desperate enough to steal from me. When I returned I was determined to find the thief.
The school was like a small community so both teachers and students were buzzing about potential candidates. The talk in the hallways had begun to focus on one particular young girl who had previously been caught taking small items here and there. Before long the sound of her accusers had risen to a loud roar. So many claimed to have seen her lurking near my room that the principal even called her to his office and invited me to attend the questioning.
The young lady protested her innocence, very quietly at first and then more and more indignantly as it became apparent to her that the principal believed that she was guilty. She insisted that she had been outside waiting to board the bus that would take her to her apartment project several miles down the road, and that she would not have had a way home if she had lingered inside long enough to sneak into my classroom. She was adamant that while she may have lied and even engaged in thievery in the past, this time she was innocent.
The principal dismissed the student and asked me what I wanted to do. He was willing to punish her because so many had indicated that they thought that the girl was guilty. I decided to err on the side of finding proof beyond a reasonable doubt and asked the principal to let the student go free. He felt that I was making a mistake, but he agreed to back off pending the emergence of more evidence.
The furor over the presumption of the young lady’s guilt grew so loud that I had to talk with each of my classes. I told my students that I was not willing to convict the girl based only on her prior reputation and hearsay. In truth nobody had actually seen her inside my classroom rummaging through my things, nor was anyone able to say with certainty that they had even seen her nearby. All of the stories had been peppered with words like “I’m pretty sure” or “I think I saw her.”
Before long everyone forgot about the incident. I eventually left the school, and my only regret about the whole thing was that it had been so inconvenient to get new identification. Also the wallet had been custom made in Estes Park, Colorado and it was one of my favorite possessions.
Maybe six or seven years later I received a call from the City of South Houston informing me that one of the workers had found my wallet inside the drainage system. When I retrieved it the leather was damp and moldy from sitting in years of runoff and sewage, but every item including my driver’s license and my credit cards were still inside. There were even photos of my children that were spotted with mildew. Only the money was gone.
I asked where exactly the wallet was found. I was told that it was in a drain about ten blocks away. When I told them the story of the theft, the city officials conjectured that one of the kids who lived in the neighborhood must have taken it and then ditched the evidence after pocketing the money. I agreed with that assessment but also swelled with a sense of righteousness when I thought of the young girl who had been accused of being the thief. At that moment I had the proof that she could not have been the one, because she would have been on a bus heading many miles away in a very different direction from the place where the wallet was dumped. She had been telling the truth and the other theories had been only emotional innuendo.
I’ve often remembered that incident even when serving on juries and I have tried to have the same kind of detachment in my search for the truth on those occasions. Each of us deserves the benefit of doubt, otherwise our fates will be determined by thoughts and beliefs rather than facts. I figure that if I am wrong in being that way, the final reckoning will set things right.