About five years ago, I took a group of high school students to China: fourteen bright, eager, willing kids, who spent most of the week volunteering and teaching English.
One evening, we were walking down a wide boulevard from our hotel to a local restaurant. As most groups do, we had broken off into pairs and threes to walk over there, and I was chatting with one of the boys–let’s call him Sam–and checking in about his rooming situation.
“How’s it going with Tim*?” (*Names changed to protect the identity of the miscreants).
“It’s going okay,” he said. His reserve surprised me because I thought he and his roommate were good buddies, and enthusiasm tended to be Sam’s default mode.
So I asked him what was going on, and he got a little evasive. Tim and another kid, Jim*, were hanging out, messing around. He was being super vague. “What do you mean?” More evasion.
“What do you mean?”
“OK,” Sam finally said. “Toilet paper… looped around the shower curtain rod… matches… deodorant spray… *PFFFT* ball of fire.”
“You know, the thing is on fire and you spray the aerosol on it…”
“No, I know what you mean.” I spun around looking right at those two kids. “WHAAATTTTT???!!!!!”
“Sam, what did you tell her!!!” Tim yelled as he and Jim took off fake-running down the boulevard, shouting something in their wake about loyalty.
I was livid. (I was also suppressing the urge to laugh–that was often my coping mechanism for dealing with high school craziness. It is just *so* good sometimes–you can’t make it up. I also later saw a photo of the fireball. It was spectacular. And, of course, highly improper, etc…)
Later that night, Tim and Jim got an earful from both myself and the other supervising teacher: safety, responsibility, respect for property, lucky no one got hurt, and so on. We spoke of things these 16-year old boys knew but sometimes forgot (maybe where pyrotechnics were involved). They expressed penitence, we made our peace with them, and all felt okay about starting over again in the morning.
But the next evening, while checking in with the students at their rooms with my husband (who had come along on the trip to help, darling man), we stopped by Sam and Tim’s room. As we left, I held out my hand and asked for his matches. And as Tim sheepishly put the little box in my hand, I gave him a knowing look, as though stirring up the dust of the previous day’s fiasco.
In the hallway, my husband said to me, “I think you should have left the matches in their room.” The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. “I think it would have showed him that you trusted him.”
I was telling this story tonight to a few people while we were on the subject of how to respond when someone has stepped out of bounds. Often, we are left with a choice: to make a point by boring into them with guilt, or to illustrate their value to you, despite their mistake. And, in spite of how appalled I’d been by their lack of common sense, their value to me was that they were great kids–respectful, fun, willing–and, wherever possible in their mistakes, I wanted them to have new beginnings. I wish I had told them that and let them keep the matches.