During my long career as a teacher I mostly worked in areas of town where life was difficult for those who lived there. They were places where gangs and violence were far more commonplace than in the suburbs. I saw the underbelly of poverty and neglect and its impact on good people who were doing the best they could to care for their families and provide opportunities for their children. By far the vast majority of my students in such places were hard working, law abiding individuals who were simply caught in the uncaring cycle of economic want. They were generally determined to better themselves and most of them eventually did. Sadly a few bad eggs sometimes spoiled the whole lot giving the impression that life in such places was by definition violent and dangerous. I learned instead that such communities were filled with vibrancy and hope and that misbehaving adolescents usually grew into fine adults.
Nonetheless all too often certain students achieved reputations as troublemakers when in fact they were actually quite sweet. Whenever things went missing they rose to the top of the suspect list and so became victim to a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. One of them was a very bright young man with whom I formed a relationship of mutual respect. I saw that behind his tough veneer was a bright and eager student who struggled to be seen as a good person. His quick temper had often landed him in hot water either from talking back to his teachers or refusing to be pushed around by his peers. He and one our counselors were working on anger management but his fame as a firebrand often preceded him. When I overlooked his antics and focused instead on his intellectual abilities he calmed down into a model student whenever he was in my class.
I was in charge of a fundraising program from St. Jude’s Hospital that involved recruiting students to get sponsors who would pay them for working a series of mathematics problems. Those funds along with the completed workbooks would then be returned to St. Jude’s. I was such an enthusiastic supporter of the annual event that I volunteered to do all of the work involved in checking the student work and compiling the money into one check for the organization. It took extra time from the students but they took pride in being able to do something for others. They were as enthusiastic about the mathathon as I was, so the donations came pouring in from the community.
On one afternoon I was busily counting the money at my desk when there was a disturbing commotion in the classroom next door. Without thinking about securing the funds I rushed over the see if I might assist the teacher there. It ended up that she had fallen and so I helped her get to her feet and waited to see if she was going to be okay. I then called the school nurse to come to do a brief inspection. All the while the stacks of money sat unguarded on my desk.
When I finally returned the notorious young man who was often regarded as a delinquent by my peers was sitting casually behind my desk. He immediately chastised me for being foolish enough to leave so much cash unattended but assured me that he had watched over it in my absence. He cautioned me to be more careful in the future.
I was probably more lax than I should have been when it came to protecting valuables. Not long after that someone stole my wallet which just happened to be filled with money that I had withdrawn from the bank for a trip to a conference that many of us were planning to attend. I only realized the theft when I decided to purchase some snacks for the road trip and found that my wallet was missing. Several people immediately suggested that they had seen the same young man who had guarded the St. Jude’s donations lingering near my classroom. They were as certain that he was my thief as I was that he was innocent. I was so sure that he was innocent that I didn’t even want him to be interrogated.
Many years passed when I received a call from the neighborhood police department. A city worker had found my wallet while cleaning out the sewer system. It was intact with all of my bank and credit cards neatly placed in the leather slots of the wallet. Only the money was missing.
I was overjoyed to get the wallet because it was the final proof that my student had not been involved in the theft. He did not live in the neighborhood where is was found and there was no way that he would have been there. Each afternoon he boarded a bus that took him in the opposite direction to an apartment complex that was far away from the place where my wallet was found. He had always been vindicated in my mind but now I absolutely knew that he was not involved.
I will never know who stole my wallet but I am glad that I was unwilling to jump to conclusions based on innuendo. I have always believed in the saying that a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty. We often jump to erroneous conclusions about people that have nothing to do with the truth. Justice demands that we do not equate the circumstances or appearance of someone with reality. Past mistakes do not make someone a criminal. In fact I have found that given a chance most people want to do the right thing. We all need someone to believe in us but sadly some among us are too often denied that basic equality that most of us enjoy. Reputation does not equal guilt.