A worn “High School Musical” wallet with two dollars in it is currently sitting in my jacket. I acquired it after school today, when a student I’ve nicknamed Mastermind handed it over to me, her mom standing next to her with a look somewhere between bemusement and exasperation. The wallet, Mastermind had told me earlier, was hers, as was the money. I was asking since that exact sum had gone missing from another girl I’ve dubbed Digo‘s pencil case. Mastermind is the only student with what passes for a prior record in the third grade.

The story changed of course once her mom explained to me that she hadn’t given her daughter any money, and her daughter wouldn’t have any money otherwise. When her mom took charge of the inquisition Mastermind tried a new performance. Now the wallet was a gift from the guidance counselor and the money was given to her by her friend (aka follower), another student of mine.

I’m looking forward to getting to the truth tomorrow. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to try out a good old fashioned prisoner’s dilemma with eight-year-olds. I’m sure however, the experience will be less than enlightening and somewhat anticlimactic. Relying on these two students to tell the truth will probably be something like a reenactment of Rashomon, but with third graders instead of samurais.

It’s not the first time I’ve faced a situation like this obviously, and they always begin and end practically the same. This is actually one of the rare cases where I’ve resolved who took the money. Still, even with this pretty much settled, the resolution remains unclear. What will the consequences be? Her mom already knows about the incident (and every problem we’ve had prior) but seems in complete denial. There’s very few privileges or rewards to take away. Recess? The kids spend lunch time in the auditorium. Choice time? She won’t earn it anyway. Field trip? Can’t be taken way because of Chancellor’s Regulations. Suspension? She can’t afford to miss instructional time, and even if she could, it’s doubtful she’d take any lesson away from the experience.

In the end I’m asking myself how many second chances a kid should get. I believe in building relationships with students based on trust and a willingness to forgive. When a student makes a mistake, I’ll explain why it is wrong (or more often ask them to explain themselves) and give them a chance to make a change. But with a student like Mastermind there doesn’t seem to be any lag time between one transgression and the next. It begs several questions. Does she even understand right and wrong? Does she totally lack impulse control? What is going on at home after each of these problems?

I’m not sure I can answer the first two questions yet, but Mastermind’s fairy tale draft gave a glimpse of an answer to the third. Her writing told the story of a princess who was badly treated by her parents the King and the Queen. She wanted to go to the scary castle, but they wouldn’t let her, so she cried. When they got home, they punished her and she learned to be a good girl. Maybe the fairy tale is just a fairy tale, but it seems like Mastermind’s developing a somewhat strange sense of morality. And it’s hard not to feel sorry for her, even as she acts out day after day.

So how will I handle the theft of two dollars? It doesn’t shock me like it might have two years ago, but it still bothers me deeply, because it shows a flagrant, purposeful act against the classroom community I’ve worked to create. And I really believe that even an eight-year-old who may lack empathy for others should be able to understand the wrongness of stealing. If she doesn’t see that already, somehow I’ll have to teach her.