Elementary Justice

Scott Farrell comments:

Justice. Mercy. And what lies between. These virtuous qualities are at the heart of our perception of knightly character, yet they often seem to be in conflict. Do we impose strict punishment on someone who inadvertently breaks a rule without harming anyone? Do we look the other way when someone violates the law simply because “everyone does it”?

Author Robert Fulghum has a marvelous way of finding metaphors for life’s hard questions in the simplest of situations. In this essay, excerpted from his latest book What On Earth Have I Done?, he explores the crucial matter of justice vs. mercy through the eyes of a school crossing guard, and reminds us that chivalry exists, not in a conflict between two black-and-white ideals, but rather in an ever-shifting balance between two important qualities that keep our world both safe and civil – the ultimate goal of the Code of Chivalry.

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Walking the thin line between the law and forgiveness


A debate over inches at a school cross-walk provides an intriguing lesson in the value of justice ... and mercy.
The idyllic image of an overly-enthusiastic young crossing guard maybe comical, but this situation also provides a lesson in elementary matters of justice – and mercy. Artist: Nick Hufford

“Would you like to use my feet? My shoes are 12 inches long?”

An offer I made to three girls across the street from me who were absorbed in measuring the distance from a sign to a parked truck. The girls were fifth graders — safety patrol members in charge of the elementary school crosswalk at the corner nearest my house.

“Yes,” they shouted in chorus, and one of them raised her red STOP flag and escorted me safely over to the scene of a possible crime.

Here’s the situation: A sign on a tall post on the corner says, No parking within 30 feet.

A pickup truck with a construction company’s logo on it is parked closer than the girls think it should be. The girls are empowered to report the license numbers of any vehicles breaking the law while they are on duty — usually those driving too fast or not stopping for children. It’s been a slow morning, and the only opportunity for the girls to exercise their authority is this parked truck. And it is not an incidental issue. The truck does ever-so-slightly block their view of incoming traffic.

What to do?

So I carefully walked up the curb, foot-in-front-of-foot, from sign to pickup, and sure enough, the truck is 27 feet away from the sign. Aha! Busted! One girl, the sergeant in charge, has her pad and pencil at the ready. Wait — not so fast — the girls are not in agreement.

What will happen to the guy if they turn him in? Will he be arrested and taken to jail? Is three feet over the line really such a crime? Does “30 feet” mean exactly 30 feet or “somewhere around” 30 feet?

And there may be mitigating circumstances. “My mom does this all the time.” “Maybe he’s somebody’s dad.” “Maybe he’ll be right back and we can talk to him.” “Yeah, maybe just warn him about not doing it again.”

“But the law is the law, and he’s broken the law.” “Yeah, but only by three feet.” “Besides, it’s almost time to go to class — maybe he’ll be gone when we come back.” “Does it really matter?”

They did not ask my advice. And I didn’t want them to ask. On their own they were sorting out elementary issues of human community. That’s why they are in elementary school. Underneath the specific issue lay the fundamental ones: What is right? What is wrong? What is the law? What is justice? And what part should mercy play in figuring the equation?

They were not leaving until they decided what to do.

But I quietly went my way — out of sight and, I hope, out of mind.

They were doing just fine by themselves. They didn’t need me, only my big feet. And only then because they wanted to establish some objective facts. Good on them.

What did they decide? I don’t know. They and the truck were gone when I came back. But I do know that how they were deciding was admirable — using their minds to figure out the right thing to do. They could have ignored the infraction and gone to class. But they knew their job and accepted the responsibility. I went on home feeling that their corner of the world was in very good hands.

All too soon they will confront conflicts around drug and alcohol use, sexual experience, women’s health rights, and political leadership. I trust they will continue to do what they did this morning — get the facts and use their minds in a collaborative way in the name of justice. Make a judgment and act on it — knowing that it’s never simple or easy.

If I could have said anything to them I would have pointed out that they, like the driver of the truck, were in the construction business — responsible for building and maintaining a just world, one small decision at a time. Taking care of their corner.

And as to their question: “Does it matter?”

Yes, it matters a great deal.

©2008 Robert Fulghum

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FulghumAbout the author:
Robert Fulghum is a popular essayist and bestselling author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and numerous other books. This essay is from his book What On Earth Have I Done? Stories, Observations And Affirmations.

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