Once upon a time, there were four young men from four nice families. These teenagers were ordinary guys — they were testing limits, looking for a little excitement, but not hardened criminals. One fine day, as they were leaving school, they saw a motorcycle parked along the street leading toward the train station. It looked out of place parked there, just inviting a little mischief. Little did they know that the motorcycle belonged to someone connected to their school, in fact, to the husband of a teacher. To them, it appeared that the bike was an easy target on which to practice mischief of one kind and another; it was just begging to be vandalized. The four boys egged each other on, each doing their creative part to damage the motorcycle. Because these boys were not well versed in the ways of crime, they were not terribly clever with their vandalism, and they were spotted and reported by a neighbor.
So far, the story is much like many days in the life of an international high school, but the developing action of the plot builds in the way each young man and each nice family responded.
The high school principal and the guidance counselor invited the perpetrators and their parents to come to school. They planned to have the families meet with the owner of the motorcycle with the hopes that the boys would learn a valuable lesson about actions and consequences. Boy #1’s parents sat with pained expressions on their faces. They understood that harmony in the community had been broken, and that restitution needed to be made. Boy #2’s mother shed tears of grief, deeply concerned that her son was making bad decisions and desperately seeking the path to growth. With their parents’ guidance, both of these boys offered to work to repay the damages, and later they performed “community service” through doing landscaping for the owner. The motorcycle had been damaged beyond repair, but its owner saw the value in offering the gift of hard work to these boys, even if it could not possibly compensate for the loss of property. You see, someone had offered him the same gift in his youth, and he knew the value of remorse and restitution.
If the story ended here, it would have a happy ending. It did have a happy ending for these two boys. Years later, they would describe the “motorcycle drama” as a turning point in their young lives. Both are now gainfully employed adults, making valuable contributions in their own ways to their churches, communities, and families. But there were two other families involved. These other parents asked the question, “What was the motorcycle doing there, anyway?” They asked, “Was it really so bad? It was an old motorcycle after all.” They argued, bargained, blamed others — even themselves — and tried to manipulate the system. They wanted to protect their sons at all costs and prevent any pain from entering their lives, even the pain caused by their own bad decisions. These two boys did not face any consequences at that time, but their lives have been marked by a whole series of consequences spiraling lower and lower, deeper and deeper into lives of addictions, broken relationships, and sorrow for them and their families.
Obviously the motorcycle incident was not the sole determination of the direction their lives would take, but it gives a hint as to how their parents dealt with the challenges their sons faced then, and would continue to face.
As a parent, I know the anguish of wanting to protect my children from any pain, discomfort, or tough lessons. There are certainly times when I needed to be their advocate, but I have also seen the strong and determined adults they have become through having to learn and grow through consequences, and even through the challenges arising through the chances of life. As a school leader, I am also faced with the option of sometimes allowing the natural consequences of bad behavior or dumb decisions to painfully work their way in students’ lives, while other times offering an alternative way out of the situation. When these choices arise, I try to remember the lessons I learned through this story that happened once upon a time. Grace will always win in the end, but as Anne Lamott so eloquently wrote, “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” Sometimes grace is not taking the easy way out, but rather the tough love that is willing to take the hard way through, and to help our children and students further along in their journey than the place they were before.