Missing: Legos (Or, What Happens When Children Steal)

My classroom is like Toys "R" Us.

It's full of everything that a child could possibly want: Legos. Beanbags. Puppets. (Unfortunately, since I teach theatrical design/construction, it's also filled with spraypaint and box cutters. Not to mention thousands of dollars of audio-visual equipment.) It would be difficult for any child with poor impulse control to walk into my classroom and NOT grab everything she could get her hands on.

And sometimes, that happens.

Last week, over $300 worth of Legos were stolen from my classroom. I'm mentioning the price, but that's really not what's important. (After all, my school offered to repurchase all of the kits.) The important part is that my eighth grade students had been working on those kits for almost a month. When they discovered that all of their work had been for nothing, that someone had stolen their Lego constructions in what appeared to be the dead of night, they were incredibly upset -- and I didn't blame them. One of my students vowed to track down the thief and "teach him a lesson." I told him that, no, he couldn't launch his own private investigation and then wreak vigilante justice on the perpetrator. But I understood his frustration.


And I tried my damnedest to recover those Lego kits. I noticed that they were missing during Saturday Boost (our school's Saturday academic enrichment program), so the Boost Coordinator and I found a way to unobtrusively check student backpacks to make sure that no one was smuggling out thousands of Lego parts. No dice. I contemplated other possible methods for Lego recovery. Should we make an auto-dialer call to parents, asking them to check their children's bedrooms for strange and unusual Legos? Should we interrogate all of the students who had Friday after-school detention? Take them into the Dean's office, one-by-one, and see who cracks first? Should we run a covert undercover operation, entrusting a crafty fifth grader to question her peers and find out who was responsible? I dedicated way more mental space than I should have to how we could solve the mystery -- but, at the end of the day, it all just seemed detrimental to classroom culture. While I wanted my students to believe that justice always prevails, I also didn't want my classroom to resemble a McCarthy hearing.

Besides, justice DOESN'T always prevail. And maybe it's better for students to learn that lesson in middle school over stolen Legos than out in the "real world."

(Let's all just be glad that no one has stolen the spraypaint yet.)

On the bright side, an incredible coalition of boys volunteered to come in after-school on Friday to help reassemble the Lego dragon. And while they weren't able to finish (or even come close), the fact that they were willing to cut into their weekend time to get this film project off the ground meant a lot to me.

The reality of the situation is that students are going to steal. And lie. And get into fights. Because they're children who are still trying to figure out how to deal with the sticky situations that life tosses at them. They haven't yet developed the skills necessary to cope with frustration, so they respond by stealing a Lego dragon. Or throwing it in the trash. Or maybe hiding it in another classroom. (We haven't figured out exactly what happened yet.) While we teach coping strategies in our classrooms, it takes a while for students to get the hang of using them on a regular basis and presenting themselves like a high school-ready/college-bound scholar. Until then, we have to accept that our fifth and sixth graders are a "work in progress" and that they're sometimes going to make the wrong choices. That's part of growing up, and we need to accept that -- instead of calling our parents and complaining for hours about how we need to lock down detention so that students can't wander the hallways and steal our Legos. It doesn't mean that they're "bad kids" or that they don't like us or our class; it just means that they haven't mastered emotional constancy yet, but they'll get there.

Until then, I'll spend my Friday afternoons sitting in my classroom, sticking together Lego bits and listening to students say things like: "Lego can't really sue us for using their products in a film. After all, if we release our film under parody laws, we should be fine."

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