Tom’s World — Tom Westfall
It has been said that one of the problems with the American justice system is that there is very little rehabilitation; the recidivism rate is quite high and when young people (men in particular) are incarcerated in their late teens and early 20’s there is a strong likelihood that they will spend significant portions of their lives, subsequent to release, back in prison.
Enter the notion of restorative justice. Although this model won’t work in every occasion, the basic concept is this: “If you broke it, you fix it; if you messed it up, you clean it up.” The offender is required, in this model, to make the “victim” whole in terms of the damage that has been done by their wanton act of wrongdoing.
I was pondering this recently as I reflected on an experience from my childhood. My father was a somewhat stern and taciturn man prone to expressing his anger in a manner that let those “in trouble” know that they were in trouble. Not one to eschew physical punishment, my father had a separate paddle for me and each of my siblings and he was not wont to use it when he felt the situation warranted it. On rare occasions he even resorted to using a belt to inflict corporal punishment. I tell you this as a prelude to this anecdote that defied his traditional sort of punishment and actually got my attention in a positive manner.
As a young boy growing up, summers were a time of immense joy. Although I had chores and a mandatory “reading hour,” generally speaking I was free most of the day to pursue the things that boys pursue — baseball, and anything that could be done outdoors. My friends and I would often gather early in the morning and plan some activity.
As often as not, sandlot baseball was on the list of things we were going to get accomplished. On one particular day, several of us had watched “Home Run Derby” the night before, and thought that rather than just play “work-up” or “two-on-two” (small town!) baseball, we should try and replicate “Home Run Derby.”
I had a fenced yard, which meant that if we played in the street we could use the fence in my yard as the home run fence. It seemed like a good idea, but as we set up, my father happened by and said, “Boys, you can’t play here; you’ll break a window in the house.” Then he left for work.
We batted a few balls around, and after noting that none of us could hit one over the fence and then another 40 or 50 feet to the house, we decided that it would be okay to go ahead and engage in a spirited round of home run derby.
For the next hour or so, we traded pitching and batting and truth be told, only one or two balls managed to scrape the fence and land on the other side. We were pleased with ourselves and the game continued until the moment when I accidentally connected with a fastball and drove it straight through the picture window in our house. My friends scattered quickly. I went inside and helped my Mom clean up the glass, while I awaited my father’s return at noon, and the subsequent spanking that I had earned through my willful disobedience. I even went so far as to go put on a couple of extra pairs of underwear, hoping to pad the buttocks a bit in anticipation of what most likely was going to be the whipping of all whippings.
My father came home at noon. He looked at the window. He looked at me. He said, “Wow, looks like you didn’t listen very well. How are you going to fix this?” I stared mutely. Nothing was computing. I didn’t answer. He said again, “You broke this and you’re going to have to pay to have it repaired. Let me know if you need some help figuring it out.” I almost fainted with relief. I wasn’t going to be whipped. It wasn’t that I really minded a spanking — I had long since learned how to block out the temporary pain — it was more the humiliation of the thing. And then it dawned on me — how was I going to pay for that window? I had no money and no job.
Longer story short: After getting a cost estimate at the local lumber yard ($132 installed) I took out a six month loan from my father, and I got busy trying to find ways to earn money. My best venture was selling fishing worms, which I dug up in the garden — I made well over $80. That fall I went door to door in Otis selling serving trays. That netted me just enough to pay him back in full. I spent most of my waking hours that summer and fall, earning enough money to “make things right with my family” and when I did, I felt an immense sense of satisfaction.
And needless to say, I never played home run derby in the street again; not because I was afraid of my father, but because that was MY window. I had skin in the game! I suspect that real learning occurs in this manner more often than it does when people are merely “punished” for their transgressions.
Westfall can be reached at email@example.com.