The Dance Teacher’s Dilemma


Edward was a part of a cohort of teachers in a middle school that was participating in a unique project to develop a whole-school model for restorative practices.
 
He appeared a bit skeptical during the first day of the five-day training. He sat, pensive and quiet, with his arms folded across his chest. The morning of Day Two, Edward showed up early to share some insight around what he had learned the day before. He had spent the better part of the evening, he told me, wrestling with the idea that children didn’t learn best from punishment—as he himself had. But he was curious to learn some new concepts. That conversation was the first of many we would have about the value of a restorative mindset and how it could help Edward build better relationships with his students and create his ideal classroom community.  

One morning a few weeks later, I ran into Edward in the main office. He asked if I had time to meet with him because he needed to discuss something of “critical importance.”
 
We sat across from each other in the room designated “Restorative.” He began by telling me that he was especially grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of the group of teachers being trained in restorative practices. He said that he had long thought of himself as fair, patient, and willing to bend over backwards to help his students succeed. But he was concerned that his latest attempts to help a former student, Tyler, had backfired.
 
Edward recalled that Tyler, who was small and quiet, had looked lost and out of place in his sixth-grade class. Edward had made sure to pay extra attention to Tyler in class, and Tyler had gradually come out of his shell. As Tyler began to confide in him, Edward learned about some of the difficulties Tyler had been experiencing at home. The relationship between Edward and Tyler had continued even after Tyler graduated from middle school. It deepened after Tyler found out that the man he had known as his father was not his father. Tyler had even started to call Edward “Dad.” As a way to provide some support for a young person who was living with financial insecurity, Edward would “hire” Tyler to do odd jobs, such as helping him shut down the dance room for the summer.
 
On this day of our conversation in the Restorative room, Tyler had volunteered to clean out Edward’s meticulously kept car. Edward was proud of Tyler for taking initiative and for his offer of help. But when Edward went outside to bring Tyler a bottle of water as he cleaned the car, Tyler and the car were nowhere to be seen.
 
After first believing that something awful must have happened, Edward realized that Tyler had taken his car. Edward told me that while he was walking back into the building to call the police with steam pouring out of his ears, his mind had flashed over images from our week of training in restorative practices and over some of our conversations. He decided not to call the police, but to go back outside to wait for Tyler.
 
Tyler pulled up in Edward’s car a few minutes later. Too angry to speak to Tyler at the moment, Edward had asked for the keys and told him to go wait in his classroom. Edward had gone to the main office as a way to delay the confrontation with Tyler, and ran into me instead. He asked me to lead a restorative conversation between him and Tyler.
 
After several attempts to leave the Restorative room, Tyler broke down and apologized, saying “I’m sorry, Dad” over and over.  Edward, who was still very upset, explained to Tyler that his act of betrayal was made all the worse because driving the car had put the lives of others—and Tyler himself—at great risk. “You could have killed someone, or yourself, and I would have had to live with that!”
 
When asked why he had done it, Tyler’s thin body racked with sobs. Edward turned to me and said that the only reason he hadn’t called the police was because he knew that once they were involved, there would be nothing that he could do. All of the images of young black men shot and killed by police were playing like horror scenes in his mind. His love for Tyler and concern for his safety meant more to him than his car.
 
Edward was angry because he felt that he had been taken terrible advantage of. But his newfound restorative outlook made him believe that there was a better way to resolve this issue than calling the police. Plus, Tyler’s being arrested wouldn't answer the question of why he had taken the car. Edward just really wanted to know why, in the face of everything he had done, Tyler would steal from him.
 
When I asked Tyler why, his response was a jumble of “my mother put me out because her boyfriend doesn't like me; my grandmother moved away and won’t tell anyone where she lives because she’s scared of my mother’s boyfriend; my father isn’t my real father; I sometimes sleep on the steps of the house just so I can really sleep,” and that sometime he thinks about not being here at all.
 
When Edward heard that, he told Tyler it would break his heart if he did anything to hurt himself. Tyler told Edward the only reason he was still here was because he knew Edward would be sad and he didn't want to make him sad.
 
As difficult as it was to sit in the middle of this young man’s pain, I held his hand as tightly as I could and asked him to believe that Edward truly cared about him. And that his anger and fear were not bigger than his love and concern.

I asked Edward to believe that while Tyler had made a huge mistake, it was about his need to believe that Edward wouldn’t “leave him” in the way his mother had. His test was to do a colossally stupid thing and see how the adult who said he cared would respond. His rubric was an unsophisticated tool kit with which to measure trust. He just needed to know that he was worthy of love and concern. I also shared that Tyler needed to experience some power. He needed to feel that he could do something, he was master of something and for the time that he was behind the wheel, he experienced himself as someone who wasn’t dismissed, hadn’t been ignored, and was in control of his life. 

The entire conversation was a slow, two-hour march to no immediate resolution. It was the beginning of an unpacking of issues that went far beyond my capacities as a facilitator. There were a myriad of challenges facing this young man, including housing, mental health, and possible abuse, all of which are the basis of healthy human development—the need for food, shelter, security, and belonging. None of which were readily and consistently available to Tyler, save for the relationship, now strained, he had with Edward.
 
Edward’s willingness to work through what had happened with Tyler allowed him to see that the problem wasn't Tyler’s intention to take advantage of Edward, or Edward’s own feelings of betrayal. The problem was the complicated thinking of an adolescent who thought the immediate feeling of power he got by taking a car without permission and driving past his mother’s house outweighed all possible consequences.
 
In a moment of full transparency, Edward told Tyler that he didn't know how long it would take for him to regain his trust in Tyler. But that the door was open to begin the work ahead.