Keeping the peace in my neighborhood

One person can put many on edge; one person can help spread calm as well. That's why, when I was burgled, I chose to mentor the culprit.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
The sun sets over a small town in Maine.

I live in a poorer quarter of my small Maine town. But I like it here. It’s pretty, and I know all my neighbors.

It does, however, have its share of characters and intrigue, and although the police make a fair number of visits, I’ve always felt that it is also incumbent upon me to do what I can to keep the peace.

Some years back I returned home to find that I had been burgled. As I said, I know all my neighbors and therefore had a pretty good idea who the culprit was. I spoke with the police, and when I made my suspicions known they rolled their eyes. “He’s got quite a record already,” they told me. “If you prosecute Jared” – not his real name – “he will go to juvenile detention until he’s 21.”

Jared was 15 and well known to me as a local tough whom I had taken pains to handle carefully, being kind to him without getting too involved. Tall, lanky, and bearing an immense chip on his shoulder, he was a street fighter who aspired to acquire a tattoo as soon as he could round up the necessary cash.

I asked the police to hold off until I could speak with Jared. In the interim I went to his high school and told the principal what had happened. I also suggested an approach to resolution that wouldn’t involve the law.

My next stop was Jared’s house. When he saw me, fear filled his eyes. “It’s OK. Let’s take a walk,” I said. As he loped beside me I asked why he had invaded my home. “Stupid mistake,” he said.

“If I take you to court, you’ll go to the youth center for six years.”

Jared registered a note of contrition and I seized the moment. “Look,” I said. “And listen carefully. I spoke to the high school. I’ve offered to mentor you for one school year. This means you have to meet with me for one hour every week. We’ll spend a half-hour on homework and a half-hour talking about anything you like. But you must commit, and you must repay the money you stole from my house.”

He took the offer. 

To Jared’s credit, he showed up in a quiet, dedicated space in the school every Friday morning. Precious little homework was done. Slowly but surely, however, he opened up and we had candid, heartfelt conversations. I learned about his broken family, the aspirations that seemed to far exceed his willingness to work toward them, and his lack of meaningful connections with others. Friday after Friday we sat, we chatted, I listened. He repaid the pilfered money. When the 10 months ended, I extended my hand to Jared and said, “That’s it. Thank you.”

He laid his hand in mine, but tentatively, and looked at me. “That’s it?” he echoed.

“Yeah,” I said. “You did two grown-up things during the past 10 months. You showed up, and you finished what you started. I’m proud of you.”

Jared tightened his grip and pulled himself toward me for the most fleeting of shoulder bumps. But the mentoring experience had a lasting effect on both of us. I remained involved in his life for some time thereafter, and in return the neighborhood benefited from a more civil, responsible Jared who had learned that he could live up to what caring people expected of him. 

I long ago realized that the wider world often lets us down, but it’s still possible to think of the space around us as a world unto itself – small enough for an individual to effect significant change. I wish I could say that Jared stayed on the straight and narrow. He eventually strayed and has been in and out of prison. But when he’s out, he sometimes drops by. I feed him. I give him the occasional ride. And I thank him again for thinking enough of our neighborhood to let it continue in peace. “I’m trying to be good,” he recently told me.

Aren’t we all?

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