I had an experience yesterday unlike any other I’ve ever had in a classroom before. I’ll do my best to relate what happened and hope you’ll give some thought as to what you would have done, thought, or said in this situation. If you feel like commenting please do. In my experience, this is a conversation that rarely happens in most of our lives. I would appreciate reading your reactions.

Yesterday was the first day of my class “Restorative Justice: The Promise, the Challenge” in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I’m taking the class because I believe the principals of Restorative Justice are central to the potential for success in undoing racism and healing from the legacy of slavery.

For those of you unfamiliar with Restorative Justice you can learn a great deal at this website. For the purposes of this blog post I’ll state briefly (and inadequately) a definition that should help. Traditional justice asks three questions when an offense has been committed. What laws/rules were broken? Who did it? What do they deserve? Restorative Justice goes further by asking more questions. Who all have been hurt (this includes victims, offenders, and communities)? What are their needs in order to be made whole (or as whole as possible)? Whose obligations are these? The aim of Restorative Justice is to put things right for as many people as possible. I’m sure I’ll add more posts over the coming week or so. For now this should give you enough context within which to place what happened today here at EMU.

What happened had nothing to do with racism. It was about a young girl who died and the many lives that were impacted. What follows is not a transcript of what was said. It is my best recollection at recreating it.

A woman was brought into the room and introduced to us. Sonya then told us her story. It wasn’t easy for her. She choked up often and wiped many tears from her eyes. “I want to tell you about my daughter. Brooke was a beautiful little girl. She loved animals. We’d go to the park and she loved to watch the birds and listen to them sing. Her favorite movie was Beauty and the Beast. The only part she didn’t like is when the girl saves the Beast and he turns into a handsome prince. Brooke said she liked him better as the Beast. He was rough around the edges like us.

“Brooke was not planned. I was young and I got pregnant. I wasn’t married. I had no job or prospects. I didn’t have a college degree. I didn’t really have any reasonable way to care for a baby. I was advised to give my baby up for adoption. I considered it. But when she was born that was it. She was so beautiful. I was given this amazing gift and there was no way I would give her up. She saved my life. It wasn’t easy. We lived with my mom for several years.

Seven years ago Brooke was six years old. We lived in an apartment near my mom. I had a job. I was going to school. Things were going well. My boyfriend lived nearby as well. One day we had a fight. It was pretty bad. He called that night and apologized. He asked me to come over. I told him I couldn’t. It was late and Brooke was asleep. He said to bring her over and put her to sleep on his couch. He really wanted me to come over. He wanted us to be together; to make up; for me and Brooke to spend the night. I said no. It was almost midnight. Brooke was asleep. He was insistent.

“I went. I got Brooke up and put her in her car seat and I headed for my boyfriend’s. There is one traffic signal between my place and his. The light was green. It was when I was in the middle of the intersection that I saw the headlights and the car was not slowing down. It hit our car on the side in the back where Brooke was. She was buckled into her car seat. I had my seat belt on. But the crash was so hard and so loud. When I came to I turned around and saw Brooke. She was gone; dead.

“In that moment I became two people. One person wanted to hold Brooke and love her and breathe life back into her. The other person wanted to destroy whoever had destroyed my daughter. A person walked toward our car from the other car. She was just a girl. She just looked like a stupid girl. She walked toward me and I screamed at her, ‘Murderer! Murderer! You murdered my baby!’

“Another girl, they both were just stupid girls, came over and grabbed her; pulled her away. Then the police and the ambulance showed up. I watched them take Brooke away. And I saw the police arrest the driver of that car. My life ended that night.

“It’s been seven years. There isn’t a day that I don’t think about Brooke. I lost my job and quit school. I just can’t get over it. I’m on partial disability. I’m in counseling. I take medication to deal with my depression. And now the girl who murdered my Brooke is getting out of prison. It’s not right.”

We asked a few questions; offered our sympathy and Sonya was led out of the room. A younger woman soon came in. It was Rebecca, the young woman who was driving the car that killed Brooke. “Hi. I’m Rebecca. I guess you know I just got out of prison. Before all this I was in college. I wanted to be a lawyer. I had good grades; great grades. Everything was going great.” It was weird watching her. She had a smile on her face though it was clear she wasn’t happy to be here. “My best friend was Diane. From the first time we met we just clicked, you know? We lived together in a house with some other girls. We did everything together. She was a really good friend.”

“What happened that night, Rebecca,” asked Ingrid, the woman leading the discussion.

“I’m getting to it.” She kept looking down and fidgeting with her fingers. Her smile looked sad. It’s as though she had to smile to cover up what was really going on inside. She wept while she spoke like Sonya had. “It was my twenty-first birthday. I never drank. Never. I had never had any alcohol before. Diane said it was my birthday. We should celebrate. I figured it would be fun. I should try a drink now that it was legal and all. So we went out. We drank. A lot. I had a class the next morning and a presentation to give. So around midnight I told Diane I needed to get back home and get a good night’s sleep.

“I know I shouldn’t have been driving. But it was only a couple of miles. The crash was so loud. Everything just stopped. We were moving and everything was okay and then everything just stopped. I looked over at Diane. She had blood on her face. I asked her if she was okay and she said she thought so. I got out of the car and walked toward the other car. It was totaled. The woman got out and screamed, ‘Murderer! You murderer!’ I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,’ over and over again. She screamed that I murdered her daughter. That’s when I felt Diane grab me and pull me away from her. The next thing I remember is the police showing up and the ambulance. I watched them take the little girl away. I was arrested. I guess you know the rest. The trial. I went to prison. I’ve been there for seven years.

“I always got every job I wanted. I was good. Now I can’t get any job. I applied for a job recently and it’s just what I’ve always trained for. It was in criminal justice. I told the guy who interviewed me that I know the system inside and out. It was sort of a little joke, but true. He didn’t laugh. He just looked at my resume. I knew I wouldn’t get the job. I live with my parents again. I don’t know what to do. I have no future.”

“What would you do if you saw Sonya?” someone asked.

“I don’t know. If I were her I would want me dead.”

Finally Diane was brought in to share her story with us. She was the quietest of the three; more reserved. She seemed the most calm but I don’t know if that was true or what. “Rebecca was my best friend. We were good friends. We were the same age but she was just; she acted older. She was definitely the mom of our friendship. She always took care of me. If I needed a ride or if I had no food in the house she always took care of me. Since she didn’t drink she was always the designated driver. She was a really good friend.

“When we went out that night I just wanted her to have a really fun time for her twenty-first birthday. That’s all. And we did. We laughed a lot and we drank a lot. After she went to prison I finished college. I’m a counselor now. I moved away to Boston which is where I live now. I’m engaged, actually. I have the most wonderful fiancé. We’re getting married. He doesn’t know anything about this. I just can’t tell him.”

“What happened that night, Diane?” Ingrid was curt.

“Yeah, well, when Diane said she wanted to leave it was only midnight but it was her birthday so whatever she wanted, you know? We went out and she tried to hand me the car keys. She said she couldn’t drive because she was too drunk. I told her I couldn’t drive. It was only two miles and it was her car. It was a stick shift and I couldn’t drive a stick. I keep wondering if I had driven that night if things would’ve been even worse. So she finally agreed to drive. I remember that my window was rolled down and I stuck my head out. I saw the red light coming up. I also realized we weren’t slowing down. Rebecca was driving so fast. And then we hit the other car. I remember Rebecca asking me if I was okay. There was blood on my face but I patted myself; checked my body and felt okay. I told her I thought I was okay.

“She got out and walked to the other car. The woman practically flew out her car window at Rebecca and she was screaming at her; saying that Rebecca had murdered her daughter. Rebecca froze. I thought the woman was going to kill her. I thought she would grab Rebecca’s throat and strangle her to death. I got out and ran over and pulled Rebecca away. That’s when the police and the ambulance showed up. They put me in the ambulance to check my face. I saw them pull that little girl out of the car. And I saw them put the cuffs on Rebecca and put her in the back of the patrol car.”

Ingrid seemed impatient and judgmental with Diane. “Why didn’t you tell all of this in the courtroom, Diane? Why didn’t you tell them that you practically forced Rebecca to drink so much; that you refused to drive. That she didn’t want to drive and you forced her to?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t think it would help. It wouldn’t matter. She was driving. And she was drunk. That little girl died. Nothing I could say would change any of that.”

“She protected you once again. And she went to prison for seven years.”

“Yeah.” Diane looked down.

“Diane,” one of my classmates asked, “did you visit Rebecca in prison?”

“No. I just couldn’t. I wrote. I wrote her a lot the first year. But every one of my letters was returned unopened. So I eventually stopped.”

I asked, “How can you be engaged to someone and keep all this a secret from him?”

“I just can’t deal with it. There are some things that are better left unsaid.”

I had a hard time believing these words were coming from a professional counselor. “What if he finds out and then confronts you about not telling him about such a significant incident in your life?”

“I don’t know. I hope he’ll understand. I hope he’ll agree that this is the one thing I need to keep just to myself.”

There was a lot more that took place. We met with each of the women one more time and asked a few follow-up questions. Would Sonya consider meeting with Rebecca since Rebecca is truly sorry? Sonya doesn’t really care about Rebecca. Yes she took responsibility for what she did and she went to prison. Her parents experienced loss so Sonya realizes she has something in common with Rebecca’s parents. But Rebecca is coming back now. Brooke is in the ground. She’s never coming back. There is no comparison. We asked Rebecca why she never read any of Diane’s letters. She said there was no point. Once that prison door shut she was in a world that no one outside of prison understands. Diane wouldn’t understand. They were no longer in the same world. And Diane didn’t need her in her world anymore.

Then the class discussed all we had witnessed and what could be done about it. We were split into three groups and given roles to play. One group was the family and friends of Sonya. Another was the family and friends of Rebecca and Diane. The third was comprised of members of the community; a city counselor, a psychologist, a former offender, and a few others I can’t recall. I was assigned the task of viewing this situation from the perspective of being Sonya’s best friend. I sat in a circle with classmates who became her parents, two aunts, her brother and sister, her counselor, and a friend of hers from childhood.

From the perspective of each of our characters we were to discuss issues such as:

• What are my feelings and concerns, having heard this?
• How does this impact me, my group, and my community?
• Has justice been done? If not, what does justice require in this situation?
• What are the next steps that our group feels needs to be taken?

After discussing things for awhile we asked if we could meet privately with Sonya and that was arranged. We talked about what she was going through; what she’d been through for the past seven years. What could we do to help her heal? The other two groups discussed the situation from their perspectives as well.

We came together then as a complete class to discuss what we had experienced. One of my classmates observed that “never in my culture do twenty-five impacted people get together to discuss these things. There are multiple levels going on. So often in the United States people’s issues like this are ‘solved’ without them even being there.”
I noticed that my own tendency was to judge others in the room based on my own preconceived notions that come from my own life experiences. Since I was to experience this as Sonya’s best friend I found that I had little sympathy for Rebecca’s family and friends. I pre-judged the “former offender” even though I had no idea what offence he had committed. I judged the counselor for not curing Sonya. I realized that I bring clear biases even though my goal is to not be a judgmental person. It is deeply ingrained.

We noticed the impacts on virtually everyone in the room and on many people who weren’t in the room. What about the ex-boyfriend who had insisted that Sonya wake up Brooke to come over to his house? He’s now married with kids. What scars does he carry? It felt like our intent in engaging people in deep conversation about this horrible incident was to help relieve them of their burden. But how do we find justice for so many people? We also realized how much everyone’s culture (we are a class of 23 that are from 11 different countries) and life experience impacts our thoughts and actions.

What do you think?

NOTE: When Sonya walked into the room, and throughout our conversation with her, I wasn’t sure if she was actually Brooke’s mother or an actress portraying Sonya. I decided not to ask because it felt appropriate to live with my own discomfort as part of this exercise. It wasn’t until the end of the exercise that it became clear that the three women who told their stories were not Sonya, Rebecca, or Diane. The true story upon which this exercise was based has been changed, as have the names. I wish to acknowledge the tremendous job that Heidi, Kirsten, and Trina did in portraying these three characters. Their acting skills added tremendously to the experience. I also wish to acknowledge Ingrid DeSanctis, a writer, actress, and former drama professor at EMU, who coordinated this exercise with her three former students. I hope that some of those reading this posting shared my discomfort in not knowing if we were confronting the actual people from this devastating incident.

Whether you choose to share your comments in response to this posting or not I do hope you’ll give thought to what justice means in this story to various people who were impacted. I’m finding it awfully complicated.