"Did you catch the robbers, Mister Caven?" Armando was walking out of school with his mother at the end of a very long day.
"I think we took care of it," I told him with a grin of confidence. Inside I wasn't entirely sure.
The day had begun with a letter in my box informing me that one of our second grade classrooms had been broken into, and a great many items had been taken: baby wipes, oatmeal, toys, a great big bag of candy. This doubled up on the fifth grade room upstairs that had also had things stolen from it, specifically a great assortment of rubber band bracelets that the class had been making and selling as a fundraiser. It probably should have been an easy enough leap to connect the two incidents, but we didn't right away.
Why not? Because schools are supposed to be safe places. When I went down to talk with the teacher and students of the second grade class, they all looked so terribly sad, and after a few moments of relating the discovery of the ransacking of their room, the talk quickly turned to all the different times these kids and their parents had been victims of crime. Break-ins, hold-ups, car theft, all of these were things that happened to them out in the mean streets of Oakland. It wasn't supposed to happen here inside their safe haven: school. When I left, I assured them that their principal and I would get to the bottom of this, and we would set things right. I had no idea how we would do this, but I wanted to give them something on which to pin their seven-year-old hopes.
Around lunch time, we got a break in the case: A fourth grader had been spotted with a bag full of rubber band bracelets. Upon preliminary questioning by our principal, he said that his sister had given them to him. "Where did your sister get them?" That's when the story started to twist and bend. It's also about the time I showed up and played my "good cop" card: "You're already in trouble, so you might as well tell us the whole truth. At least that way you can't get into more trouble for lying." It took a few more minutes for this seed to take root.
Eventually, he spilled the whole story. His sister and his godbrother ahd been walking home the night before, and they stopped by the school, at his sister's suggestion to see "if there were any rooms left open." They found two, and the three of them filled their backpacks with what they could carry and slipped out the side door. "Does your mother know you took all these things?"
As it turns out, the answer was yes, and when our principal walked the boys home at the end of the day, she never got to speak to the mother. Some of the items were returned, but the food and the juice boxes and one of the containers of baby wipes had already been consumed by the family. In this household with two single mothers and children ranging in age from one to fourteen, the kids had been providing for their families. In the way that made sense to them.
I heard about the home visit, and my principal and I wondered what sort of impact we might have on the situation. We had found the thieves, we had recovered some of the stolen goods, but we didn't feel heroic. When I walked out of the office and saw Armando leaving the after school program, walking out into the darkening streets of his neighborhood, I wanted to give him some good news. I think we took care of it. As much as we could.