a visit to the police station

The Teachable Moment That Wasn’t

Sometimes, helping a stranger doesn’t carry the lessons one hopes

Julia Scheeres was walking to her kickboxing class in Berkeley, California, with her seven-year-old daughter one Saturday, when she noticed something amiss. “I see this woman on the other side of the street, bedraggled, her jacket’s halfway off, and she’s sobbing,” Scheeres said. So she told her daughter, “We need to help that woman, she’s in distress.”

Scheeres and her daughter were walking parallel to the woman on the other side of the street. “This is like a teachable moment,” Scheeres recalls thinking, a chance for her daughter to see what it was like to offer a helpful hand. When she and her daughter crossed the street, Scheeres asked the woman what had happened. “She tells me she was robbed, all her money was taken, and that she’s homeless and she’s looking for the police station. Well, the police station is on my way to the Y.” So Scheeres told the woman she could take her there.

So far, so good. “She’s crying, my daughter’s scared, we walk several blocks together. We get to the police station, we’re buzzed in by some remote voice, we want to file a police report,” Scheeres told Good Turns recently. “They put us in this small room, there’s nobody there. They buzz us in and it’s just weird. It’s like this weird little hallway.” Scheeres and her daughter and the homeless woman were told to wait.

“I think I stayed with her longer because I wanted there to be a good resolution”

“So we’re just staying there, I’m trying to draw out this woman and talk to her, and little pieces of her story start to raise some concern,” Scheeres recalls. “This wasn’t just some woman who got jumped going down the street. There was this lead-up of bad choices and scary events leading up to her being on the street sobbing, an association with some rough characters.”

“As we’re waiting for the cops to come out into this little room and interview her, I’m just trying to stay with her, asking, Is there anybody I can call? And she’s sobbing and crying,” Scheeres said. “And all of a sudden she turns on my and becomes paranoid and says, ‘Who are you? How do I know I can trust you? What do you want from me?’ And I’m trying to talk her down, I’m like, ‘No, no, I’m trying to help you. I’m waiting with you until an officer comes to take your report.’ And my child is getting increasingly uncomfortable and scared, and it got to the point where we finally just had to walk out and leave her there.”

While Scheeres doesn’t know what happened to the woman, she’s pretty sure the experience only made her daughter more wary of people on the street. “I wanted it to be this teachable moment of having empathy, being a good samaritan, and helping people on the street, woman to woman, human to human,” Scheeres said. “And to show my daughter this is the right thing to do, that sometimes you go out of your comfort zone and you help people. And it completely backfired.”

“If it was just me alone I probably would have been like, You know what, I’ve got to go, I’m sorry. But I think I stayed with her longer because I wanted there to be a good resolution. She was getting louder and more accusatory and paranoid, and I had to make the decision to be the mom and protect my child from this,” she says. “I had that moment of, Oh damn it, I cannot believe this is happening, what have I exposed my kid to?”

What she exposed her to was one person trying to help another. While such gestures don’t always bring with them the lessons we hope they will, the help gets delivered all the same. Whether Scheeres managed to engineer a teachable moment or not, we salute her for the effort, and for delivering the help to someone in need.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user jeffedoe)

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