Alicia was in middle school, shorter for her age with mousy brown hair, big blue eyes hidden behind thick lenses in ugly plastic brown glasses, cherry red lips with crooked teeth and freckles along her cheeks and nose. Her clothes sat large on her frame, baggy hand-me-downs from her brother and clothes from a neighbor 10 years out of style. She was big, a pale eyesore amongst the beautiful, colorful, tanned Abercrombie and Fitch replicas that she secretly admired. They always looked right, they always said the right things, and they could afford to be loved. How could they not be loved? Considering all she saw they gave to one another, and all they gave to her was hate.
They “picked” on her, the school counselor said, “such a shame too, since she was so bright.” Couldn’t get her to admit where the bruises came from so she was often sent back to class empty handed and easily targeted.
“Did you tell?”
“Bet she did.”
“She dresses like she found everything she owns in the garbage.”
“God, does she ever bathe? She smells like dog!”
It went on and on. Never mind she lived in a less than ideal situation (with her dad working most nights). Never mind she didn’t quite get enough to eat, slept in a room with no air conditioning or heat. Poor? What is that? Who cares, she doesn’t look/smell/act right.
It started innocently enough. One day Alicia didn’t bring her red coat to school. By the end of the day, in her last class, there was a red coat on the back of her chair. The bell rang, she scooped it up out of habit. At this point, it was an innocent accident.
She did not look at it or wear it on the bus ride home. She simply rushed to the bus shoving it into her bag as fast as she could. Couldn’t miss the bus, no one could pick her up. No one would be able to until late. The school was scary at night.
No thought of the coat or the backpack until after dinner, one plate each, scrape the crumbs in the trash and wash the dishes quietly, quickly, and get up the stairs to silence and homework. She grabbed her backpack and ran up.
Once in her room, she tossed her bag down and took out the coat, the books and homework that would soon become obsolete… and then she saw the white. Her red coat did NOT have white on it. White? Flipping the coat over she noticed the white piping and the logo of a designer brand. It was a very popular brand. Gosh, how soft it was! How could she have not noticed that! Of course it wasn’t hers!
What could she do?! Should she take it back to her class? Take it to the office? Take it to Lost and Found box by the gym? Put it in a bag and take it back…. or wear it.
She could wear it.
Maybe whoever that girl was would notice the coat and ask for it back. If she took it to the office, it would just end up in the Lost and Found. EVERYONE knew the items in that box ended up at the local Goodwill every two weeks (with a middle school of 1,500 kids you have to keep on top of that box). Eventually someone just like Alicia would end up with the jacket, so why not her?
If they wanted their jacket back, all they had to do was ask. If they never asked, she got to keep it. If her parents asked, which was doubtful, she would say the neighbor girl gave it to her. That was a common enough occurrence!
She went to school the next day and no one asked. No one wondered. She got picked on a little less and that coat became her second skin to block the bullies. She almost forgot the coat wasn’t hers. Almost.
This started a chain reaction in Alicia’s life, she started looking for items left behind. Pencils, pens, erasers, necklaces in the locker room, items in corner after sweeping and in the Lost and Found box at the end of the two week period, right before the clean out. She rationalized her acquisitions. She was praised by her peers for her sudden good fortune. The bullying lessened.
Until, one day, Alicia got the wrong item out of the box.
A gold necklace proclaiming she was “pretty” adorned her neck for a week and it was noticed. One of the most popular girls in year six, Brittany who was all blonde and blue eyed and Limited Too and Abercrombie adorned, realized she had left her necklace somewhere and obviously it COULDN’T be Alicia’s. Too expensive. So Alicia was cornered and Brittany and her triad of besties shoved Alicia back into a corner. Surrounded, they pushed her and kicked her all the while demanding the necklace back, telling her that someone like her didn’t deserve to wear such a necklace. Pretty and smell like dog, pfft, unlikely.
She was told it was stealing, pretending that something you found was yours. Only it was said with much more conviction and more references to eternal damnation and less about the difference between right and wrong. It was returned and the girls all parted ways.
This encounter jolted Alicia into admitting that perhaps she was in fact a thief. On the bus home, she asked her seatmate what she thought about finding things and keeping them. A similar response about how that was considered stealing was given.
Once home, Alicia looked at all of her treasures. They weren’t hers. They never were. She stared at them, some from many months ago, some from just the other day. She thought about how much better things were with them. Then she thought about the encounter.
The encounter instead of making her see reason, enraged her. Why not her? Why can’t she have nice things? These thoughts emboldened her even more. She began to look through unattended backpacks in unlocked classrooms. Sometimes she even took things out of people’s bags to only switch the pockets around, move a homework assignment to the wrong place and watch her bullies freak out when they couldn’t find homework or pencils to use that day. “Now they would know what it’s like to be without,” she thought.
This probably would have continued on and escalated to more serious events except, once again she picked the wrong target.
Abe was a young man with flaming orange hair, thick braces and yes, the head gear. Abe whose skin was whiter than milk and limbs just a little too long. He wore stripes and solids only, no graphics or designs on his tees. He was teased for his old fashioned clothes and the lettuce that inevitably ended up stuck somewhere on his gear, and always in a place he couldn’t see but everyone else could. One day just before lunch in their English class students went about unpacking their bags, and putting what they needed on their desk and stowing the rest of their things in a corner.
Abe had a very nice see through backpack that showcased the item of Alicia’s next acquisition. In the larger pocket sat a trapper keeper and inside that trapper keeper Abe kept a very cool compass. No really knew why Abe had it, and while he never really drew attention to it, EVERYONE knew he kept it in the zipper pocket.
Alicia bided her time and on that day she was able to come back to the room early from their mandatory outside time (a 25 minute period outside after lunch). Her English teacher asked her to go get a book off of his desk, which she was more than happy to do.
Running back into the classroom to get her teacher’s book, she quickly went to Abe’s backpack unzipped the bag, yanked out the trapper keeper, and fished out the compass. Replacing everything just as she found it, she ran outside with her teacher’s book and the compass firmly in her jean pocket.
Students returned to class at the end of their outside time and began the day’s lesson. Things were pretty normal until they entered into the individual practice portion in the assignment, it was then that Abe made the unfortunate discovery. He needed some paper from his trapper keeper, and noticed the zipper pocket was open just a little. Large round tears flowed out of his eyes and down his cheeks as he frantically looked in his trapper keeper, bag, and on his person. No compass.
Noting the distress, the teacher approached Abe and discovered the reason for the distress. Taking Abe outside for a private talk, the class erupted into murmurs, English work completely forgotten.
“His father gave him that,” said his best friend Troy, shaking his head. Standing up, he yelled at the class to be quiet. “Abe’s dad died of colon cancer and that was the last thing he ever got from him! Whoever took it, better give it back! You don’t know what it’s been like for him! He doesn’t deserve this!” Anger still shimmering in his eyes Troy sat down and furiously began his English class work again.
The teacher reentered the room and in that calm, deadly serious voice of his, addressed the class. “I do not know who took Abe’s compass but I want you to think. I want you to think about the pain your classmate is going through, losing such an important piece of his heart. I don’t care who did it, but at the end of the day, I will leave my classroom unlocked. I expect to find the compass in my top drawer before I go home. Many of you have to come back here for club activities, tutoring, or because you left something or need something. It doesn’t matter to me why you come back here today or who does as long as you end up doing the right thing. There is time to fix this mistake.” He said this meeting every student’s eyes with his own.
Alicia thought about her treasures at home. She tho got about the compass in her pocket. She had stolen. It didn’t matter if she had meant to steal something important. It didn’t matter that she felt vindicated by Brittany’s cruelty before the necklace or after. Stealing didn’t make everything right, it made everything wrong. So very wrong.
Shame welled deep in her stomach and surged to her throat. Having trouble breathing, she gulped and tried to not call attention to herself. Class ended and she left her notebook on her desk and rushed to her next class.
Throughout the day, many students returned to English. Some came in to search for the compass. Some came for club activities, and one small, shame-filled girl crept in and placed a well loved compass in her teacher’s desk drawer.
On the bus ride home talk circulated, who stole the compass? Was it in their English teacher’s desk? Would Abe get his compass back? Maybe the police would come to school tomorrow and fingerprint the room! Justice! Alicia shrank in her seat thinking of what could happen, what would happen tomorrow.
Getting off the bus, Alicia fished out her house key and slammed the door shut. She ran up the stairs and breathing hard Alicia stared at her closet, her dresser, and her jewelry box.
Like a small tornado she tore around her room finding every single thing she stole, and put it all in a big black trash bag. She knew she couldn’t just bring it all back and say, “sorry about the thieving.” No. She had to be done and sorry and do that… repenting. She had to promise she would never, ever steal again! If she bought it back, she would go to jail, be suspended or…. Abe would know it was her. Abe would know and no one would ever look at her the same again. She deserved that and yet, she couldn’t face that.
So it all went into that black plastic bag including the item that started it all; red coat with the white piping.
It was over. No more. She would never steal again. The day wore on and come English the teacher announced the thief had done the right thing, and redeemed themselves. “You are never completely lost,” he said, “there is always hope, and chance to make things right.” On that note, he went into his desk and pulled out the compass now attached to a metal chain through the compass’ keychain hole. He gave it to Abe, who immediately put it on and burst into grateful, relieved tears. So did most of the class, including Alicia who looked on Abe with the new knowledge that she could do better and that she would be better.
She continued to go through school seeing the things other people did not guard carefully, and to her it was a test. Every time a purse was left alone, a person left behind a pencil, she would tell the teacher whose pencil, purse, or book it was.
She became the most trustworthy and honest student of her year. It became a habit, one that followed her as she grew older and memories faded.
For out of all the things she learned in middle school there were just two things she kept in mind years later, the feelings of the compass and the consequences of the red coat with the white piping. She never stole again.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.