Monday, December 20, 2010

Two Lumps of Coal - Two Different Lessons

It has been cold and raining non-stop here in N. California for days, and thus I do not leave the house much. So the other day, when David left for Costco, I settled into my recliner to enjoy a cup of tea, with a good book on my Kindle and my little dog, Holly, snoozing peacefully on the carpet right beside my chair.  I am in the stage of life where I sometimes doze off - and I must have - because suddenly I was startled by pounding on my front door.  I opened the door to a sobbing teenage girl yelling, "Please can I use your phone to call the police?  They are trying to choke me."

I quickly ascertained that she had run to our house from the house that is directly across from our own.  While we live on a nice, quiet cul-de-sac, unfortunately there is "always one" in every neighborhood and in ours it is the house directly across from us.  You know the one I mean, the house where in summer they do not mow their lawn very often, and in winter they don't rake up their leaves or clear their gutters.  Their driveway is sometimes cluttered with cast off furniture or appliances, and you privately worry about what "they" are doing to property values on your street, when goodness knows in this economy those are already difficult enough.

As soon as she calmed enough that she could speak without sobbing, I showed her where the phone was and she called the police.  The officers then asked for our address, and whether she could remain with me until they could arrive.  I said she could.

It took them nearly an hour to arrive, which I thought odd in view of the harrowing account she had given in answer to their questions during the phone call.  Domestic violence, substance abuse, foster care.

During that ensuing hour, I offered her a box of tissues, a bottle of water, and asked if there was anything else I could do.  She was 13 years old, had been staying across the street for about a month, with her mother and the mother's boy friend, who had tried to choke her, while her mother helped hold her down and tried to put tape over her mouth and nose.

She was in eighth grade, I learned, or would be if she still attended school and her name was L.  She said her mother had not gotten around to enrolling her since they moved in, renting two rooms from the young man who owned and also lived in the house.  She said her father had abandoned her at a children's receiving home a few months ago, and finally her mother had agreed she could come stay with her for awhile. 

Pitifully, she looked down at her crumpled tissues and then up helplessly at me and said, "Neither of them want me."

Heart-rending as her story was, I was beginning to notice discrepancies in her account as she told it the second time.  Meanwhile, she had become remarkably calm and cheerful, remarking on how nice our home was, saying she loved my dog, and she wanted to live in a home just like mine someday.

When the two officers arrived, one female and one male, the female officer asked her several questions, specifically asking her to describe what had occurred and whether she had any injuries. The officer observed that there were no marks on her throat where she claimed to have been choked.  There were, however, two red marks on her cheeks where she said she said she had been hit.

Later, after a good deal of going back and forth by the officers between our house and the one across the street, they took L. to a children's center to be evaluated by a mental health professional and then placed in a juvenile facility.  This was partly for her own safety as the female officer said to her partner, "That is not a good situation in that house over there, and you can smell the drugs and alcohol.  I don't want to leave her in that environment."

On the other hand, they had confronted L. with the claim by the mother and boyfriend that L. had pulled a knife and threatened to kill them, and the owner of the house was backing-up their story.  They also told her that their records showed that she had been in trouble several times before and that this was not the first call to police she had made recently.  She admitted to the knife, but claimed self-defense, acknowledged she had kicked holes in the door, but that was because "they were trying to beat me" and gave various accounts of why she had been thrown out of prior schools, foster homes, etc.

Finally, the officer said, "L., you are quickly running out of options.  You have burned through several places to live, and the way you are going, you are going to end up in juvenile detention if you do not try to get along with others."  

During the two hours L. was in my home, I talked to her about things that are within our control and things that are not.  I told her that God loved her and had a plan for her life.  I told her I was sad that she had such awful life circumstances, and that while things might look hopeless right now, she could learn to make better choices than those around her were making, and that God would help her if she asked him to.

I watched as she was, by turns, tearful - charming - chatty - sly, even a bit cunning - and helpless/hopeless - all while trying to play me and the two officers.  Her survival skills were well-honed, and they needed to be.  Obviously the three dysfunctional adults who lived across the street had had an hour to get their story coordinated before the police arrived.  And L. had lied about just enough of the details that they could not charge anyone with anything.

By the time she and the police departed, she was not the only one who had been deeply affected by the days' events.   I could not help but be reminded of another December, long ago......
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My two sons were ten and twelve years old respectively, and that spring they had received pellet guns, along with safety instructions from their father, and pleas from their mother not to "shoot each other's eyes out."  I hated the things, but I was overruled.  A few months later, while visiting their grandparents out in the country (who lived in the middle of an orange grove about three miles outside town) the boys were playing in a nearby field, when they came across an old abandoned car.  It was up on blocks, no wheels, all rusted out, weeds grown up around it.  They assumed it was a junker that no one cared anything about.

But oddly enough, it still had all the windows intact, including the windshield.  Well, that was more temptation than the two of them could resist, and they spent the next hour gleefully shooting out each and every window.  The farmer who owned the field, discovered who had broken the windows, and came to their grandparents house to report their misdeeds and to say that either we pay him for the glass, or he would sue us for property damage.

The boys readily admitted their actions, and we agreed to pay the man - as soon as the boys could earn all, or at least some, of what he claimed was owed him.  Yes, it was obvious that he overcharged us for the "value of the glass", but it was more important to us that the boys took responsibility for their actions.  We had them do various chores and odd jobs for several months, saving all the money they earned to pay for the broken glass.

The agreed upon pay date was late fall, and their father and I explained that the we would pay the amount they had been unable to earn, but that we would have to take it out of the Christmas saving account and there would be no presents for them this year.  Then we gathered the two hundred dollars required, in ones and five and ten dollar bills, and divided it into one hundred dollars each.

Then we took the boys to the farmer's house, and had them personally knock on his door, each pay him one hundred dollars, and apologize for their actions, again.

That Christmas Eve, after the boys were in bed, I cried as I looked at our tree, which had not a single gift under it for either of our sons.  We read the Christmas story as we always did, and we went to church, but there was no cheerful scattering of paper and ribbons that next morning.  It was a hard lesson for them, and was harder on their parents than either of them ever knew, but neither of them ever got into that kind of trouble again.  Period.

They were not sly or cunning.  They did not lie or manipulate.  They paid for their mistake and they did not complain about it later.  I wept over the sad impact of their lesson, but I was also proud of them in the end.
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Two Decembers.  Two different families with young people who had made mistakes.  But one has parents who do not care, who are abusive and dishonest, and do not wish to be bothered by a truculent teen.  The other two boys were rambunctious, and foolishly disrespectful of someone else's property.  But their parents cared more about what they could learn from the mess they made, than about a quick answer to a tough problem.  They learned integrity mattered more than gifts, and that Christmas was about a Saviour much more than gifts from the Magi.

Both families put only "lumps of coal"  in their children's stocking, but one did it with selfish meanness, while the other did it with love and respect - even if we cried over it.

I am praying for L.  Would you please pray for her and all the young people like her, who have no one to care enough about them to teach them important life-lessons? 


  1. You had me captured through this entire post Marsha. Very interesting stories and the contrast is fascinating. Good for you and your husband for sticking to your guns and giving your sons a lesson they'll always remember. I'm such I wimp I would have caved.

    I am often saddened at the lives some kids have to live and feel helpless. Why do some children experience so much evil so early that survival skills are necessary? These are the kinds of situations that make me wonder what God has in mind. I guess we do what you did that day for your neighbor girl--offer a safe place and share Truth.

    Have a Merry Christmas friend.

  2. Excellent parallel Christmas accounts. And I agree with Tami. Your post had me captured too, and I already knew the story about the boys!

    That poor girl. I agree that her tactics were her own method of survival. So very sad indeed.