To make sense of our universe, we categorize. I needed to see all black adults as clones of Dr. Martin Luther King, to put them in a favorable box. Likewise, I needed to see my Trenton High School students as good. Interestingly, one of the security guards at Trenton High, a person of color who also categorized, tried to make sure I did. In my first week, she told me,“My kids are good kids,” her gesture encompassing every kid in school. Perhaps she was afraid I’d pegged them as bad or difficult. After all, most suburban people, white and black, called me a saint for working at Trenton High. They read The Trentonian, whose masthead was “Love us, hate us, read us.” Some of the school’s negative press was valid, but a mild disturbance in the cafeteria would likely be reported in an inflammatory front-page headline.
Sometimes, The Trentonian had a point. During a summer vacation in Hawaii, I picked up two volcanic rocks for my earth science class. I’d heard about Pele’s revenge – the streak of bad luck inflicted by Pele, the goddess of fire, for taking them – but I figured it was only two rocks and for a good cause. Then my father-in-law developed cancer, my daughter broke up with her boyfriend, the refrigerator failed, and my husband’s brand new car was stolen from our driveway and totaled during the police chase that followed. That September, back at Trenton High, I was telling my first-period class about Pele’s revenge when a young man piped up, “Was it a red Accord?”
I gasped, “How did you know?”
The young man explained that as part of an initiation he and other black friends had been required to go to Princeton in the dead of night to steal Hondas, but he said earnestly, “We would never have taken it, Mrs. Schivell, if we’d known it was yours!”
In contrast, my wallet was stolen at Trenton High on two occasions―in spite of the fact that my students knew it was mine. The first time was when I floated among rooms. I had to leave my purse temptingly visible on the teacher’s desk because the desk wasn’t mine, and the drawers were locked. My principal, who was black, advised me to put my purse out of sight, but where? My wallet vanished when I was called out of the room for a minute, but I didn’t notice until class was over. The next day, I chastised the four members of the class, one of whom had to have been responsible and all of whom knew who was. “I trusted you!” I protested. No one confessed. Their spokesman told me I’d been asking for it.
Perhaps these students, unlike my car thief, had little affection for me. I’d just returned from a year’s furlough and hadn’t had time to rebuild my reputation. On the other hand, the young woman who most likely took my wallet on the second occasion may have had other motives. She’d returned to the classroom after school was over, while I was tutoring one of the young men from her class. My purse was on a chair, out of sight under my desk. She walked over to the chair, then turned and played at the chalkboard behind my desk, and finally left, saying to the young man that she’d wait for him so they could take the bus together. Focused on tutoring, I paid little attention to her. But later, when the young man had gone, her strange behavior triggered my suspicions, and I checked my purse. She was picked up and searched by security, but no wallet was found. The young man was not searched. Two days later, a bus driver returned the wallet—missing only cash. Perhaps she took the wallet because she wanted to impress the young man or because they were in cahoots or perhaps because she wanted to get back at me for being hard on her in my attempt to elicit her best efforts in class.
But what about all the other classes? Even in my own room, I often forgot to hide my purse; yet hundreds of students over my 23 years at Trenton High were not tempted. For these hundreds of students I have no stories. Respect for property doesn’t make for stories, doesn’t beg for a motive. Ironically, we don’t ask kids why they behave well, just why they behave badly. The deviant “you asked for it” or “stealing’s OK except from friends” seems more interesting.
It did feel weird to know a car thief and to have him point out in the auditorium the young man, his arm in a cast, who’d driven and totaled my husband’s Accord. Such stories make titillating cocktail party conversation, as does the one about the young man who flashed a $50 bill when I gave him his free lunch tickets—just to show he was gaming the system. But I and the media are guilty of sensationalism when we tell these stories. So are the people who want to read them. The truth is reassuringly boring: although a very few Trenton High students couldn’t be trusted, most were good kids, just as the security guard promised.