The Kool-Aid Bandit

A Graffiti-Writing Ten-Year-Old Fixes His Mistake

Rushing out the door on my way to work, I was stopped cold by large yellow spray-painted letters: F-U-C-K. The word screamed from the white fence separating my apartment building from my neighbor’s home.

Worse yet, my car didn’t escape the graffiti. The trunk of my red Mazda now sported a couple yellow streaks.

The child villain?
Occasionally, events happen to remind me I live in a big, scary, urban area. Unknown villains, who could care less about me, make their chilling presence felt.

But a couple days later my neighbor said she knew the identity of my city rogue. Rumors pointed to 10-year-old Stephen some five houses down.

What do I do now? I felt angry some punk kid could scar up my car and scare me with his crass words. I could demand money. I could insist he be punished. I could file a complaint with my local police department.

Take the key and lock him up?
The last few years I’ve covered the juvenile beat at my local Catholic newspaper. Trailing Catholic chaplains I’ve toured juvenile detention facilities. Seen 15 year-olds locked up in human cages. Met teens who spend 23 hours a day in a cell—for much worse offenses than Stephen.

The Ten Commandments Of Restorative Justice

When you do justice in a restorative way:

1. You focus on the harms/hurt of the crime rather than
the broken rules.

2. You are concerned about the needs of both victim and the offender, involving them both.

3. You work towards the restoration of victims, empowering them and responding to their needs as they identify them.

4. You support offenders while encouraging them to understand, accept, and carry out their obligations to the victims and the community.

5. You recognize that difficult obligations should not be intended as pain.

6. You provide appropriate opportunities for dialogue between victim and offender.

7. You find meaningful ways to involve the community.

8. You encourage collaboration and reintegration rather than coercion and isolation.

9. You are mindful of the unintended consequences of your actions and programs.

10. You show respect to all parties.

— Harry Mika and Howard Zehr

But they too started with graffiti. That’s the first thing. How did people treat them at 10 when they began causing mischief?

The trend in the U.S. is to punish youth severely. The Catholic chaplains say that leads to a life of crime. They envision
something different. Something they call restorative justice . Get the kid involved in restoring what’s been harmed and healing who’s been harmed.

Trying restorative justice at home
Staring at those bright yellow F-U-C-K letters, I wondered how to enlist Stephen in restoring the fence and my car. How do I get his mom to help make this happen?

My neighbor mom and I went to talk to Stephen’s mom. I told her I understood kids make mistakes. I thought it was important he learn from his mistake and help me to paint the fence white again.

She looked at me suspiciously. I said nothing about legal complaints and stuck to fence painting talk. Said I’d look into what needed to be done to fix the car.

A trip to the body shop and the employee pulled out some magic solvent which took off the spray paint pronto. And gratis. A lucky break.

The Kool Aid bandit
I pitched in the $4.49 it cost me to buy a little can of paint at K-mart. It was my investment in seeing if restorative justice had merit. A couple days later, a pudgy, short-cropped hair Stephen knocked on my door. Said he was ready to paint. A ring of pink Kool-Aid circled wide around his mouth. His t-shirt a candidate for a Tide commercial.

Together my Kool-Aid bandit and I painted the fence. The offensive letters disappeared. The fence shone bright white in the spot that had been restored. Stephen painted additional panels.

When we were finished I told him I hoped he wouldn’t do this again to anyone else. I also said I’ve made lots of mistakes. I learned the best thing is to see if you can fix what you’ve done wrong as soon as possible. I was proud he had done the right thing and helped me paint the fence. Stephen beamed.

Seeds in the city
A neighbor kid came and asked what was going on. It looked like fun! So, I explained. He looked incredulous. “And this is your punishment?!” he asked Stephen. I explained about fixing mistakes. They looked at me a little quizzically and then ran to play tag.

I felt great about my restored car, my restored fence, and a budding connection with a couple of 10-year olds and their moms. And maybe we all planted a restorative justice seed in my neighborhood in the city.