Playing with Fire

The other day I went to fetch Rio from our friend Jeff who had been looking after him for a few hours. We met at a local biodiesel plant where Jeff has an office.

As Jeff and I caught up, I heard a loud noise coming from the corner of the grassy field where Rio and Jeff’s son were playing. My eyes landed on Rio throwing rocks at a building that housed one of the plant’s offices, complete with big windows and solar panels. Jeff had actually built it. Just the kind of structure you don’t throw rocks at.

“What are you doing?” I asked Rio as I approached.

“Throwing rocks,” he said.

I looked closer to see that a rock Rio had thrown had pierced the glass of one of the windows, creating a small hole with a web of fracture-lines emanating from it.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I asked.

I listened to his weak answer and then lectured him for a few minutes before calling Jeff over. “Yup, we’re going to have to replace this window,” Jeff said calmly. “It’ll probably be between $100 and $200.” I thought I heard Rio gulp.

Rio knew he was in deep. At one point he asked if there was such a thing as a “jail for kids.” I thought about my options. I knew I could punish Rio by taking away movies and playing with friends, or I could think of something that related more directly to his crime and that actually enhanced him in some way.  Because my wish is to have Rio learn from his mistakes instead of being haunted by them. This meant giving Rio some dynamic consequence he could work in his hands. In my politics I’ve long favored restorative justice over punitive justice; here was my chance to apply a grand idea to my own little court case.

First, I knew Rio had to acknowledge his mistake and apologize to the people it impacted. I had Rio apologize to Jeff, since he had built the house. I also told Rio we’d come back during the week to apologize to the women who work in the office. He’d have to look them in the eyes and say he was sorry. Finally, I told Rio that he would have to do community service to earn the money needed to pay for the window. I imagined asking friends to think of menial but skill-building jobs they’d be willing to pay Rio a little cash to do: Sorting recycling? Sweeping? Weeding? All the proceeds of course would go toward the window.

Rio seemed dismayed by the idea, which was a good sign. I think he intuited that this punishment would be much more taxing than losing a few privileges. “It will probably take you three months to pay back that money,” I told him.

Then his face lit up with an idea. “I know! I’m just going to go home, grab two hundreds from the Monopoly game and give them to Jeff! It’ll be over in about five minutes!”

Oh my, this was going to be a long three months.

As we drove home, I thought about my own childhood mishaps. One hot July day when I was thirteen my friend Rob and I were bored and starting wondering if inflammable paint was less dangerous than flammable paint. You know, like invalid is the opposite of valid? We decided to pour a little of both kinds of paint on piles of dried leaves to find out.

We quickly learned inflammable paint was very flammable! The two of us cheered as the flames crackled with technicolor. After 30 seconds or so, we beat out the fire with sticks and then moved on to the next pile.

On the fourth try, we laughed and frolicked a little too long, and when we tried to beat out the fire, it was too late.

“Get your mom!” I yelled.

Rob ran up to the house. “We started a fire!” he blurted.

“Oh Robbie!” his mom snapped, running into the house to call the fire department.

Rob and I raced back to the scene of the crime, only to find a greater inferno and a new witness: Mr. Pickering, Rob’s neighbor and my future high-school English teacher, who was trying to douse the fire from his side of the fence. He knew we were the culprits but would not deign us with a look.

As the fire inched closer to Pickering’s yard, the firemen finally arrived, hosing down the fire to black smoke in mere seconds.

As the fire trucks readied for departure, the chief pulled us aside: “You two are lucky — this whole block could’ve been up in flames!”

That evening Rob’s father, an Episcopalian minister, came home and calmly took in the news. In his car on the way back to my house, he offered to come in and explain to my mom what had happened. I accepted his offer immediately, knowing my mom’s reaction might be tempered by his mellow nature.

Reverend Rankin and my mom talked in private for a few minutes and then he bid a kind adieu. My mom sat down and looked at me. “Today is Friday,” she said. “By next Friday I want a ten-page report on the subject of fire, with a table of contents, a section defining words like “flammable” and “inflammable,” and a bibliography with at least six sources in it. I want the whole thing put in a three-ring report folder and in my hand by noon.”

I think I remember this event so clearly not because of the error I made but rather for the path my mother laid out for me in the wake of it. This is the beauty, and the labor, of restorative justice. It would have been easier for my mother to punish me through a grounding than to administer her rather complicated plan. And surely it would have been simpler for me to endure the loss of a privilege than to delve into encyclopedias and check out books from the library for the damn bibliography. But then there was that memory, guiding me as I stared down Rio.