“I didn’t put that there!” The agony in his voice was apparent; I could see by his expression that he knew the more he protested his innocence, the less I would believe him. We were at a standoff, with all the evidence stacked against him. If I didn’t handle this carefully, I would find myself in the very type of power struggle I strive to avoid.
This little drama had begun before school even started, when I’d had a chat with the young man – let’s call him Ted – about the recent rash of pranks and mischief he’d been involved in. The discussion had gone well, and he’d assured me he could get himself under control, so I did not need to call for reinforcements (aka his parents).
Then after lunch, another young man – let’s call him Hank – came into class, laid his literature book on the table, and left to use the restroom. When he returned, his book was missing. Since he sits next to Ted, I confronted Ted directly, “Did you take his book and hide it as a prank?” With great sincerity, Ted held up his hands and said, “I did not. This time I really didn’t do it.”
We checked the name inside his book – yep, it said “Ted.” We checked everybody else’s books. I turned to Ted, gave him The Look, and asked again, “Are you sure you didn’t take his book to be funny?” “I swear I didn’t!” he protested. “You can even look in my backpack!” With that, he unzipped his backpack, and we both leaned over to peer in. At the bottom lay a familiar-looking book. He pulled it out, opened the cover, and – you guessed it. It was Hank’s.
Hence the standoff. On the one hand, I didn’t think Ted was dumb enough to claim to be innocent and then lead me right to the evidence that would convict him. On the other hand, I couldn’t figure out any way for Hank’s book to get into his backpack unless he’d put it there. We agreed to let it be a mystery for now, and to continue on with the class.
As soon as the period was over, one of the girls at the table squealed, “We’ve solved the mystery!” When I heard the explanation, it all made sense. Turns out the books had been accidentally swapped yesterday: when Hank returned to his classroom, he’d taken Ted’s book with him. Ted, in the meantime, grabbed what he thought was his book and put it in his backpack at the end of the day.
Then today, after Hank left to use the restroom, Ted spied the book on the table, checked the name inside the cover, and picked it up, not realizing he had another copy in his backpack.
There was relief all around, as you can imagine, and I was so glad I’d given Ted the benefit of the doubt rather than accusing him of what seemed like out-and-out lying.
The moral of the story is that we don’t always need to be quick to believe the worst. Certainly kids lie, and we have to be ever-vigilant for dishonesty. But sometimes it pays to take a step back, listen to the denial, and consider other possibilities. This situation ended well, with Ted feeling like I’d treated him with respect, and with me feeling like I had been right to trust my instincts.
This time, at least.