My most recent YA manuscript, FALLING IN, explores how someone who has irreparably f—-d up can make their way back to community, connection, and wholeness.
And there has to be a path back. Period.
It doesn’t have to be easy, but it must allow for that person to be fully restored. I take this unpopular stance after seeing the opposite play out again and again among students and teachers at the school where I teach. Take these three examples:
- A girl who read her friend’s coming-out text and replied “Are you serious?”
- A teacher who asked a class to debate a sensitive topic.
- A boy who hurt several girls he’d dated with manipulative and/or bullying behaviors.
In every case, these people were rebuked/belittled, ostracized, and relegated to being known only for their transgressions. The issue became so extreme this year that our administration delivered a district-wide lesson emphasizing that bullying someone for bullying is never okay.
When I discussed this lesson with my sophomores, they told me in no uncertain terms that they disagree. They think someone who has done something wrong “deserves” to be “isolated and removed from the community,” and that “none of their friends should talk to them anymore.” Meanwhile, their definitions of “something wrong” focus on a spectrum from leaking racist or homophobic attitudes to committing sexual assault (typically, they are not talking about crimes such as physical assault, murder, theft, and vandalism).
I was surprised by their vehemence, then worried, and finally grieved. This is not a way to live. Every person screws up. Sometimes people hurt others. Sometimes people hurt other people severely.
And most people won’t change when locked in a social prison. In fact, social penalties often either (a) encourage people who have done wrong to diminish their actions as “not that bad” or (b) create a narrative in which these people feel they have been the ones wronged (e.g. “cancelled” or “martyred”).
In addition, the difference between the girl whose text appeared to be unsupportive and the boy who was manipulating his girlfriends is significant. If both behaviors earn the same consequence, we are not making the world more just or verdant. Just more afraid.
A honorable path for restoration includes a way for a wrongdoer to
- take responsibility for their actions
- learn about why/how their actions are hurtful, inappropriate, or unhelpful
- make reparations to those harmed
- have accountability and support in living differently
The girl’s text message–on balance with the rest of her life and allyship–might take ten minutes to repair following this path. The boy’s might take the rest of the year or more . Admittedly, the high bar here might suggest that few people will follow through.
But as I said, the honorable path doesn’t have to be easy; it just has to be clear, available, and supported.