“I love this story by Ruben Perez. Where you have a ‘hole in your heart’ is where your shame is, and it is where you work to fill that hole in your heart.”

Ruby Payne

During my third year of teaching, I was faced with the dilemma of having to deal with the reality that we had a kleptomaniac loose in our elementary school. I was certain it was not one of my students as I felt I had a good grasp of what occurred in my immediate circle. We were in the middle of the school year when the pattern of missing items gained momentum. It started with one or two missing items a week and progressed to an almost daily occurrence within a month. Pencils, erasers, rulers, and various other personal items were disappearing, slowly at first and then much more rapidly as the year progressed. At some point my students started to accept it as normal, and even more tragically, expected. When we returned from recess or transitional classes, students would do an immediate desk check and announce what was missing. Comments like, “Well, whoever it is got my ruler,” “Yeah, my new pencil is missing,” and “I don’t leave anything in my desk anymore. I take everything with me because I know somebody is going to steal something,” were becoming more frequent.

My frustration level over this reality was extremely high. I just could not understand how this person could not be caught in a time period spanning about four weeks. On a day when my students were in music class, the principal called a last-minute meeting for our fifth-grade team. I ran to my classroom to get a folder where I kept notes for every meeting we held. As I walked in, I saw a student of mine named Sammy on his knees, quietly sifting through the contents of a desk in the middle of the classroom. I was so focused on getting my folder that it took me a minute to realize he was not at his assigned desk; he was at someone else’s desk. It was at this moment that I stopped and looked at him. He was red-faced and staring back at me. I knew him to be reserved, timid, and sensitive. He was the kind of child whose shy mannerisms could easily make him invisible in a crowd.

“Sammy, it’s you?”

He replied “yes” in a whisper and stood there motionless. With purposeful and directive delivery, I asked him to put back everything he had just taken and return to music class, and I informed him we now had an appointment to have lunch together the next day. His shame-filled demeanor led me to believe I had little to worry about between that moment and our scheduled conversation.

It was during our talk that I asked all the typical questions most people would ask: “Why have you been taking other people’s property? Weren’t you afraid of getting caught? Don’t you know that this type of behavior will only lead to worse problems?”

I felt increasingly defeated as Sammy gave answers that didn’t help the situation. He kept responding with noncommittal and ill-focused answers that were laced with enough guilt and shame to prevent us from having a meaningful conversation. “I don’t know,” he would say, or,  “Yeah, I know.” Despite the shallowness and choppy nature of our conversation, Sammy’s nonverbals were communicating something I didn’t fully understand. I proceeded with a gut feeling.

“Sammy, is there someone in your life who calls you stupid?” That is when his eyes locked onto mine.


“Who is it?”

“My mom.”

I instantly and instinctively regretted asking the question. How in the world could I possibly address Sammy being called stupid by his mother without diminishing her in his eyes? I needed to advocate for Sammy, but I also felt the weight of having to advocate for the relationship he had with his mother.

“I have a question, Sammy. When your mother calls you stupid, is she ever in a good mood? Does she only say that word when she is stressed or angry?”

His facial expression told me that he was deep in thought and trying to be as honest as possible. “She only says it when she’s angry.”

I said, “I’m not going to defend anyone for calling you stupid. It’s wrong and it’s hurtful. What I will say is this: The fact that your mother does not call you stupid when she is in a good mood and when things are going well is your proof that she really does love you. I’ve met your mother, and I know a little bit of what goes on in her life. She has three jobs, and I can only imagine the amount of stress she is under on a daily basis. She is working very hard to keep a home and pay the bills. When people are angry or stressed, they sometimes yell at the people they love the most. I don’t know why that is, but it’s the people we believe will never run away from us who often get the harshest treatment. It’s not that your mother thinks you’re stupid. It’s that she is so frustrated that she takes her anger out on people at home, away from the people who affect her job. But that part doesn’t help you at all. It just hurts regardless of why it happens. By the looks of things, it hurts pretty deeply.

“Do you know what a black hole is?” I asked. We had already established ourselves as huge Star Wars fans, and Sammy was particularly interested in space.

“Of course,” he said. “It’s a hole in space that has superpower suction. It is so strong it even absorbs light.”

“That’s correct. It is so strong that it takes in anything around it. When our hearts carry a hurt, it can sometimes feel like our hearts have a black hole. Hearts can get so hurt and so empty that it can make us feel a sense of urgency to fill it with something. Black holes don’t care what you fill them with; they are hungry for anything that is close to them.

“Here is what I suspect might be happening, Sammy. When you take things, it feels exciting. Sometimes, there is a little bit of an adrenaline rush when we break rules and try not to get caught. When you take things, the excitement can make it feel like you are putting something in the black hole of your heart.”

While I was saying this, I also animated the actions of grabbing things for visual purposes. I slowly grabbed pencils, markers, tape rolls, etc. and placed them inside my shirt, where I kept them pressed against my heart. The visual caught his attention.

“The problem is that the excitement does not last very long. So, you do it again. Then again and again. Pretty soon, you have a habit of taking things just to feel the excitement. Sammy, a black hole never gets full. You must deal with the reason it exists first. No ruler or pencil will ever fill the hurt.”

He was quiet for a while. He affirmed that what I demonstrated was very similar to his experience. We spoke a bit more before I felt it was time to address his actions.

“Sammy, there is a saying that goes: ‘Hurt people hurt people.’”

He thought for a minute and replied, “Like my mom sometimes hurts me because she is hurt?”

“Exactly! Now let’s talk about how taking people’s belongings is a repeat of this cycle.”

He immediately recognized the parallel, and there was a strange combination of guilt and relief on his face. I surmised that he finally understood why he did what he did. He didn’t want to hurt other people; he was not focused on that part of the equation. After he admitted full responsibility for his actions, he agreed to return all the items he had taken. Two weeks later, Sammy approached me and said that ever since our conversation, he had stopped stealing. More significantly, he had also stopped having the need to steal as well. We did not have an issue with missing items for the rest of the school year.

Sammy was not, in any way, shape, or form, a bad kid. He was a hurt kid whose actions hurt others while he was trying to cope with his own pain. I did not excuse his actions, nor did I minimize the offense of theft. My assessment was that Sammy’s emotional wound needed attention first. Only then would he be able to take his eyes off himself to see how his actions affected others. It was so gratifying to see him accept full responsibility and start making decisions based on a deeper level of empathy for himself and his classmates.