“I couldn’t understand how I went from feeling such a good feeling of being clever and getting away with being better then the system to having what felt like a physical pit in my stomach and a flush of shame that I was convinced would never, ever go away…”
The other day, we caught some kids figuring out how to scam the card machine at the store. These weren’t bad kids, but it didn’t even occur to them that they were stealing, or if it did, they didn’t draw the line to the wrong of it. So I decided to pull out a story that I’ve only told a few people about what happened with me when I shoplifted at about the same age that these kids did.
Stealing and shoplifting are a fact of life for a store like D20, and what you would only know if you actually did the books at the end of the month, is that while the stealing is a fairly small percentage of our sales, so is the profit that we end up with each month, and that little bit of stealing here and there, really hurts us a lot.
But that is never my first thought when we catch someone stealing, particularly a kid. I know, from personal experience, that moment in time can be the point where someone chooses what kind of person they want to be. This is the time when I should say that we prosecute every theft to the maximum extent to make sure to strike the fear of god in potential thieves and keep us safe, and it is true that if it’s an adult or someone who I believe has done it before and will do it again, I’ll do whatever we need to to protect the store and the other players. And I’ve discovered over the years that this isn’t a place of “innocent until proven guilty”, that I have a greater responsibility to keep this a safe and comfortable place, and that my suspicions are enough for me to ban someone (though the times that I have banned people, we have always had more then suspicions.) But what I really want in those moments, is for the kid to feel that shame deeply, because that is the right thing to feel, but also know that it is in their control to never feel that way again. And I know that because I went though it too.
When I was in my tweens, I lived in on the South side of Chicago, and my best friend Jimmy and I would go after school to a local mini mall that had a Walgreen’s like store that sold magazines and comics, and a bookstore among other things. One day we figured out that if we waited until they weren’t looking, we could stuff some of the comics and magazines into our backpacks. One of us would go and talk to the person behind the counter and the other was on backpack stuffing duty.
That first day, when we got back to our neighborhood and took out our haul was amazing. We had been scared and thrilled, and here was this treasure that was 10 times what we could afford with our allowances put together. We went back the next day, determined to increase our haul. This time we took multiple copies of the more expensive kids magazines, because we’d decided we were going to open a backpack store for our neighborhood kids, charging half what they normally sold for and pocketing the small fortune we knew we were going to get. We also expanded to go to the little bookstore in the same mall. Again, our team efforts were an amazing success, and we got home with backpacks stuffed with our pirated treasures. At no point in this time did either of us feel bad or guilty. Scared was the worst we felt, but that only fed our sense of accomplishment…we were kings, we could do anything.
The next day would prove to be our last as master shoplifters. We once again stuffed our backpacks at the drug store magazine rack, and then headed for the bookstore. We had figured out that we could stick books in our trumpet cases, since we were hauling them around after band practice. (Understand, even though this was the south side of Chicago, we were both kids of people at the University, my dad in med school, Jimmy’s a professor…neither rich, but we weren’t in any kind of real need.) Among the books I grabbed for our illicitly funded entrepreneurial project was a Jules Feifer book, that I knew my dad would love to give to him as a present. It’s interesting that that book would and continues to be something that brings the intense shame feelings back to me, even as I think about it writing this.)
The clerk stopped us as we tried to leave the store with a sorry shake of his head. Our hearts froze at this, and it was through thundering ears that I heard him say that he’d actually let us go the day before, but that there was just no way to turn a blind eye now. He took us to the back of the store where there was a break room with a long table and had us sit. He gave us the option of calling the police or our parents, and we both mumbled up our phone numbers to call. Jimmy’s dad came first, and I learned later that he’d gotten a paddling with the flat end of a hair brush. (It was a different time.) Looking back on it, and how much longer it took him to straighten out, I think that didn’t do what it meant to for him. Having the punishment so direct and over, let Jimmy think he’d done his time and come through it. Not so much time to think. I, on the other hand sat their waiting what was probably an hour or hour and a half, but what felt like 5 times that. As I sat in that darkened room and waited, all I have was the thought of what my father would think, and what he would think about me. I kept flashing back to that book that I had stolen for him, and knew that the moment of smiling gratitude that I had been anticipating would be forever transformed into something much much darker. I felt a shame so deep that I could not imagine ever feeling anything else. When my father finally showed up, in his hospital scrubs, a sense of exhaustion obviously pouring off him, he did not explode with the rage I knew I deserved. Instead, he said nothing, just looking at me with an expression of utter disappointment. And that was worse. I walked home, side by side with him, saying nothing to each other, and feeling worse then I’d ever felt about anything in my life.
I was right about not feeling better. The shame stayed in that pit of my stomach for months, there when I went to bed, there when I woke in the morning, there as I sat at my desk, filling every open thought. I knew at that point I would never, ever chose to do anything that would make me feel that bad again. Eventually, I had a day where there were ten minutes where I forgot the shame, and another with more and after about a year and a half it was a thought that just came up when I thought about doing something wrong.
Something interesting came in it’s place. As I went for longer and longer without doing anything like that, and knowing I had made that choice, I started to feel some strength that wasn’t there before. This part will sound cliche, but is true, the longer I went with that, and as I got older and made the decision that I was going to add not lying to the other honesty I had chosen, I got this quiet strength that let me know that whatever else life presented, I was a good guy. The funny thing about it is the longer I do that, the stronger it becomes.
Over the years I’ve lost it once or twice. Once, not that long ago when I was doing a start-up, an investor insisted that I cut out an engineer that had been working with me from the beginning in a way that I knew inside didn’t feel right. I went along with it, because I needed the company to succeed for the sake of my family. But in doing so, I lost that core strength inside of me, and not only did the business fail, but for about 8 months, so did I. It took a long time to build myself up after that.
That core honesty can cost at times, we probably would have a different space for the store if I’d been willing to mess over another business owner, but I know now where that leads, and it just isn’t worth it. I have something inside that lets me face the toughest stuff and keep standing, and I’m not going to let anyone, even me, take that away from me again.
So nobody gets a free pass for stealing. You steal, you will make it right, and you will have to face the shame of it, as you should. And then it is your choice what you do with that. No teacher, mentor, friend or parent can do it. This happens in the secret part of yourself, and has to live their when it is just you, with no one else looking. True honesty is doing the right think, even if you are certain that no one else would know one way or another.
We’ve had a bunch of people get caught stealing at the store over the last 5 years. It’s a small percentage, maybe 20% who get it and get themselves onto the right path again. Some have been around with us for years, and I trust them, not because they told me to, but because I can see that they know what a secret power choosing to be honest gives them, and they wouldn’t do anything to loose it. For the rest, they are gone. I hope them well and that they eventually figure it out, but I won’t risk having them among the other players here.
-Ben Calica- D20 Games Shopkeep….