Saturday, March 13, 2010

Not Seeing

I often mention that we're an urban preschool and as such we've had to deal with certain urban problems and urban wildlife. Yesterday, we were again reminded that we live in a big city.

During our closing circle yesterday, as parents were arriving to pick up their kids, a man followed one of the parents through the gate and into the building. At least two other parents saw him. They said he just walked in like he knew what he was doing and they thought he must be a contractor working for the church from which we lease our space. He went back into our cubby area where he grabbed two purses. A nanny who was waiting outside in her car saw him running away, but even then she didn't think anything about it. We only put it all together once we realized the purses were missing.

We called the police who arrived almost instantly, while a third car was sent to cruise the neighborhood in the hopes of spotting him. The guy is apparently a pro. Even before the police arrived, both of the stolen telephones had been disabled and he had used one of the credit cards to pay his own phone bill. (It seems like this will be the way to catch him, right?)

I later talked to a couple of former Woodland Park parents with children now attending the preschool across the street to warn them to be vigilant. One of them described the man exactly as our own witnesses had, saying that she had seen him trying to get into their building earlier. She said that she hadn't thought much about him either because he was wearing "clean, well-fitting clothing."

We are a community of accepting, kind-hearted people, which I wouldn't change for anything in the world. I already know that everyone who saw the thief is kicking herself for not having confronted the guy with a simple, "May I help you?" There were some 40 sets of adult eyes on the premises at the time the crime was committed and I'm guessing that many more of them saw him. Obviously, he didn't appear threatening and the incident proves the bromide, "If you act like you know what you're doing, people will assume you do."

It shouldn't have happened that a stranger could just walk in like that. Even a friendly, "Hello," an acknowledgement that he'd been seen, would have probably been enough to deter him. Of course, not being "seen" is exactly how guys like this operate, just blending in, taking advantage of our urban habit of not seeing. One of the witnesses said that he was walking so closely behind a parent she knows that she assumed they must be together. But he wasn't with anyone, he was alone, and he was taking advantage of our tendency to assume the best of people. I should feel angry, and if it had been my purse, I'm sure I would, but I find it touching that the first thing he did was pay his phone bill so that he could reach out to connect with other people, people who presumedly do see him, who will listen to him.

Some of our parents are going to be talking with their children about the incident for the next few days: a handful of kids were there as we were realizing what had happened and 2-3 were still there when the police arrived. They are already well aware that sometimes people take your things, that's one of the earliest preschool lessons. As young as they are, they are not naive. I don't think any of them seemed particularly frightened or upset, but they are going to want to talk about it.

As we waited for the arrival of the husband of one of the parents who had been both victim and witness and her 2-year-old daughter, I overheard them discussing the situation. The mother answered for what I'm sure wasn't the first time, "I don't know why he took my purse. If he wanted money, he could have just asked me and I would have given him all I had." Her daughter had a lot of questions and I loved how calmly and honestly her mother answered them. I know she was upset, but she was working to not convey that to her child. Not only that, but she was demonstrating compassion for that man who had victimized her. More than anything else, I hope that this is the lesson her daughter takes away from this incident.

When the girl's father arrived with his set of car keys (yes, the police had sent a patrol car to their house to wait for them in case the thief had decided to go there) she really wanted to be the one to tell him about what had happened. She gave him a calm, accurate accounting, then added, quite rationally, "We should have called the police before he took mommy's purse."

The three of us, as upset as we were, laughed and this encouraged her to repeat it several more times.  She basked in this moment of being seen and heard. We laughed each time she said it, and told her she was right.

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Deborah Stewart said...

Oh, I got chills reading your recount of the days events. I felt both frustrated that this happened and relieved that you all handled yourself so maturely. But really, I am sorry that this occurred - any time a person undermines your sense of security or trust, it can take some time to recover. So are you all designing a plan for making sure this type of incident wont happen again? Might be worth a little thought.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

It is so hard to not become jaded by this kind of thing. I'd be nervous wreck. I'm glad the police were so diligent. We had an incident at our school a few weeks back and it took them hours to arrive...we live in the suburbs, what else were they doing.
I hope this doesn't cause too much distress with your kiddos.

Jess said...

WOW! What a scary thing to experience. We are lucky enough at the preschool I teach at to have coded/locked doors on both entrances to the building to try and stop this from happening, although I know for sure that it is not fool proof.

SurprisedMom said...

It's incredible that the little girl came away from this incident with humor instead of bitterness and fright. I am so glad the incident was handled as it was, with calmness and compassion, instead of anger and callousness. I know it had to be upsetting for everyone concerned, but the life lesson you taught all that were there was humanitarian in the least and life-affirming in the most.
(Do you ever think about moving your school to the Midwest? No? Sorry, just wishful thinking.)

Play for Life said...

It doesn't matter how good we think our security procedures are, this will always be an issue in pre-school and kindergarten with large numbers of people entering and exiting at the same time. The main thing is the children were kept safe and none of your parents was physically harmed ... it may even be a blessing that no one challenged this person ... and a good reminder to all of us to revisit our own security procedures! Thank's for sharing this with us.

Unknown said...

This made me so sad. I love that the police were so quick to help and show concern.

Noah said...

Oh yikes. Our environments are so unpredictable, even when we take precautions we can never fully control them in so many ways.
It sounds like you all are bouncing back and making the best of it all - I hope everyone stays ok.

Launa Hall said...

Tom, I'm so sorry this happened to your community.

This was a post about an agregious theft, and yet it was really a post about what really matters, and truly seeing each other. I was really moved by how you told this story.