This will not be one of my more well-received columns. Iím fairly certain Iíve never written this before, but here goes: I think the Norwich City School Board made the right decision.
Sure, I think they and the school bungled it a bit along the way, but I believe ultimately they were right in allowing this weekendís leadership retreat to the Adirondacks.
Truthfully, Iíve gone back and forth on how I feel about this issue a dozen times this week Ė and that in itself is a rarity. Having been around the block a few times, Iím usually pretty clear in deciding who I believe is right and who I think is wrong in any given situation. Not so much this week, when we learned that an apparently rushed-through leadership programís enrollment included one of the three vandals involved in last yearís desecration of the Norwich Jewish Center.
Outrageous! This kid shouldnít be allowed to go on any weekend field trips! Like many people, that was my initial, gut reaction. Ultimately, Iíve concluded, my gut isnít always right.
The biggest mistake made by the Norwich school in this situation is the one thatís the root of so many community debacles over the years Ė a failure to communicate. Iíll not delve too far into the timeline specifics here, but for whatever reason, this leadership program thatís actually been planned for many months got a last-minute rush past the school board, and apparently never had a faculty-wide buy-in at the high school. Iím convinced that a lot of time and effort went into planning this weekendís program aimed at both developing and nurturing student leaders, but Iím equally convinced the failure to communicate that stirred a large portion of the current controversy. How hard would it have been to get Joe Maiurano (the high school teacher, not the mayor, in case youíre confused) to give his powerpoint to the board, and in front of the public? The majority of the questions about the programís timing and selection process couldíve been nipped in the bud right there. For the ten millionth time, people, if youíre planning something even remotely different in Chenango County, ask yourself first, ďHow can this come back to bite us in the ass?Ē Answering that simple question and avoiding the resultant pitfalls would save everyone a world of hurt.
But the larger issue here is more emotional Ė spiritual, even Ė than procedural. There are those who believe, in the local Jewish community and elsewhere, that this particular young man has no business participating in a school leadership program, particularly one with a perceived ďrewardĒ value. They might be right. I canít even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be a member of that group and see such a devastating act of destruction visited upon it. Had it been my church, my home, my family, I donít know how Iíd react to seeing this miscreant so much as smile afterward, much less benefit from a school program aimed at a selected few. Itís a good, valid argument Ė one thatís difficult to disagree with. But I do.
I donít know this kid from Adam. Maybe heís a great kid who made a terrible, terrible choice last April. Or maybe heís a rotten nogoodnik who, if given a second chance, will waste it. Either way, Iíve got to believe in the power of forgiveness. Not just for this boy, but for our community as a whole.
In the vitriol aimed at this young man over the past week, both in print and in public, I havenít seen much evidence of our willingness to forgive, or our belief in the promise of youth Ė even one whoís clearly taken a wrong turn. Following the logic of some of the arguments Iíve heard, this boy might as well leave town. Heíll never be allowed to play sports, join the band or go to prom without facing public scorn for a crime committed in his youth. I truly hope that as a community, weíre not that vengeful. I donít see any benefit in turning the hate he and his cohorts exemplified back on them. Who does that serve?
Although it always seems to be good sport to second-guess the decisions made by educators, I also have to trust that the teachers who nominated this student for the leadership program (and these are people who really do know him) did so because they thought he would truly benefit from, and contribute to it. Maybe he will, maybe he wonít. Iím glad the board was able to draw the distinction between his judicial sentence and his academic career Ė Iím not comfortable with the school being involved in the enforcement of the law. But Iím most glad the majority of the Norwich school board trusted its professionals enough to know what theyíre doing, and to give the program a chance. Maybe we should do the same.
All that said, the whole thing still makes me uneasy. Perhaps itís just too soon. The horror of what happened at the Jewish Center last April is still fresh in our minds, and rightly so. Maybe he should be marginalized until his probation is over, until some attempt at real restitution is made, or until community outrage has dissipated. But without knowing him, Iím convinced that in the end this canít all be about punishment and payback. Iím not a church-going man, but Iím pretty sure thatís not how God would want it.
The first step in healing, they say, is to find at least a measure of forgiveness. The wound was reopened anew in Norwich this week, but itís time we started to heal.