Thieves are so often demonized. You can get drunk and offend everyone, have the junkiest yard on the block, or blow off an important event, but as long as you don’t steal anything, you’re usually forgiven. Thieves on the other hand are considered the lowest of the low: people who take other people’s possessions must not have souls.
An incident of thievery was recently brought to my attention, something that happened many years ago that I may have forgotten if the thief hadn’t popped back into my life to confess. The crime went down like this: I was working at a large university, running a tutoring center for students who needed to learn how to write well overnight, or at least by the time their paper was due. How many times did my staff—students themselves—explain to international students the difference between “a coffee cup” and “the coffee cup”? How hard did we try to explain to them why we lived “on a street” but “in a city”? And why were we teaching white kids from Phoenix how to write in complete sentences? Our job was stressful, and sometimes it brought out the worst in my employees: patience ran out, tempers flared, and sometimes they just didn’t show up for work.
I couldn’t blame them.
My favorite student employee at the time was a lovely young woman, a girl really, who did everything that I didn’t want to do: she set up databases on the computer, entered huge amounts of data, then created reports for The Big Guys. She collected and processed time cards for payroll; she created and posted everyone’s work schedule.
I sat behind my computer and played with this new thing called “e-mail”.
In fact, I was so entranced with e-mail and this other new thing called “the World Wide Web” that I rarely left my desk. I drank pot after pot of coffee and kept a supply of energy bars in my drawer in case I got weak. I was glad the bathroom was right down the hall.
Sometimes—without taking my eyes off the screen—I would reach into my desk drawer for one of the three energy bars I knew were inside, and there would only be two. It was always my peanut butter bars that disappeared, never my maple. After awhile, I figured out what was happening: my favorite student employee, the senior who did half my job, was stealing them.
I didn’t think a thing of it because it reminded me of when I used to steal when I was a college student.
That was even further back; we’re talking the 80’s. I rented an upstairs room in a small house, with kitchen privileges. The owner, a nice elderly lady, lived downstairs and was rarely home. She enjoyed regular Coke, whereas I usually drank Diet. She enjoyed carrot cake from the bakery; I couldn’t afford carrot cake, nor was it on my rigid diet. She also liked milk—big jugs of it—and I did too, but milk was too heavy for me to carry home from the store, and I didn’t have a car.
If there had been a fly on the kitchen wall during the nine months I lived in that house, he would have seen me holding my roommate’s two-liter bottle of Coke up to my mouth and sucking it down, enough to give me some much-needed calories and a sugar rush, but not enough to be missed. He would have seen me slice off a small wedge of carrot cake and eat it from my hands, stuffing it in my mouth like I’d never had a dessert before. He would have seen me glugging milk straight from the jug at 2 a.m. when I got back from a kegger, maybe crinkling open a piece of Kraft cheese and folding it into my mouth. I would keep the cellophane wrapper in my room so my roommate wouldn’t see it in the garbage.
So, as a thief myself, I knew exactly what my favorite employee was doing. I didn’t say anything though, just as my former elderly roommate never called me on drinking her Coke or scarfing down her carrot cake. I know she would have gladly shared anything from her fridge with me, any food at all, like I would have shared my energy bars with this girl.
Now that the World Wide Web has something called "Facebook", we can all get in touch with people who stole from us and people from whom we stole. That’s how my favorite former employee found me, and she confessed immediately, even before she told me about her new baby girl and the master’s degree she eventually earned. She just had to tell me it was her who took those bars, and how guilty she felt, and how she felt even guiltier now, knowing that I knew the whole time.
I hope she reads this and understands that we are all thieves, taking things that don’t belong to us every day. We steal away when we want to; we rob people of their time. I think today that the thief inside me is most sorry for robbing my best friends and loved ones of their peace of mind, leaving only worry behind. I’m kind of on a mission to make up for that, which is a lot harder to replace than an energy bar.
So no worries, my former favorite employee. I always saw myself in you.