Fourteen pennies, that’s all it was.
Stack them together, and the tower of coins wouldn’t rise an inch off the kitchen table. It’s hardly worth the time thinking about, let alone scrounging around the house with a measuring tape to find 14 cents to be certain.
But sometimes making a point is worth more that the effort. After all, a penny isn’t just a penny. You’ll never have a million dollars if you don’t have a penny, so a seemingly worthless coin has value, especially when teaching a child an important lesson.
I found out as much one recent night during dinner when my 7-year-old son Gavin jumped up without warning, raced over to his jacket, scoured the pockets, and skipped back to the table.
“I almost forgot these pennies,” he said proudly.
Initially, I paid little attention given that I was carrying on different conversations with my 10-year-old daughter Celeste and wife Karen, but as those topics wound down I turned my eye to Gavin.
“Where did you get that money?” I asked.
“I found it,” Gavin answered.
“Obviously. Where did you find it?”
“In a garage.”
I didn’t like where the conversation was going, but I plowed on. “Was your friend with you in his garage?”
“No, I was going to knock on his door in the garage to see if he could come out and play.”
“And did you knock?”
“No, I saw the pennies in a pile of dirt on the ground, and it was too distracting,” he said.
“So, you didn’t knock on the door? What did you do?”
“I picked up the pennies and put them in my pocket.”
I slid the pennies over to me and counted 14 of them.
Gavin took 14 cents from a neighbor’s garage. I’m sure he didn’t mean to steal and didn’t realize he did anything wrong because he didn’t try to hide anything. In fact he was proud to have found them, and he answered my questions without hesitation.
The honesty in his answers and actions was pure, but taking the pennies was without question wrong. I raced through the reactions I could have, as though I were running through a Nickelodeon obstacle course filled with buckets and pits of slime.
Gavin found the pennies in a pile of dirt on the floor, so I figured someone probably swept the garage and hadn’t finished the job. The sweeper must have seen the pennies, but chose to leave them in a pile of dirt, meaning the coins were nothing but trash.
Surely no one would miss trash. I could ignore the pennies, no problem. I wouldn’t miss them if they were in my garage. After all, their combined buying power wouldn’t cover a phone call to my next-door neighbor.
But I brushed away that irresponsible thought the moment it violated my better sense. If I looked the other way now, he would think it was OK to take something out of someone’s garage.
Next time it might be a toy, a scooter or a bike. My active imagination had me visiting him in jail 30 years from now, so the amount of money was irrelevant. However I tried to trivialize the matter, the fact remained that Gavin took something out of a neighbor’s garage without permission.
Sure, he didn’t stuff a toy in his pocket while we were shopping, but he took something that didn’t belong to him. I could see it no other way, but didn’t want to make a big deal out it because he didn’t realize he did anything wrong.
I took a deep breath. “Let me see if I understand this, Gavin. You found these pennies in our neighbor’s garage, and you took them without asking. That’s stealing.”
He slowly turned his head to me and widened his eyes. “But they didn’t want them,” he protested. “They were in a pile of dirt!”
“It doesn’t matter, Gavin. You took something that didn’t belong to you.”
He shook his legs and wrung his hands, the agitation clearly growing like weeds in the garden of his innocence. His eyes danced on the edge of a teardrop.
“Am I in trouble? Are the police going to get me?”
“Calm down, Gavin,” I said. “No, the police are not going to get you, but we have to return those pennies.”
“But I’m afraid.”
“That they’ll be mad at me.”
“I don’t think he will be, Gavin. I think he’ll appreciate you returning what doesn’t belong to you. Don’t worry. I’ll be right beside you.”
He stopped fidgeting, put on his shoes, and walked me to the neighbor’s house while I told him what to say. We arrived at the house moments later, and I rang the bell. The father answered the door, and I motioned to Gavin.
“I found these in your garage, and I took them,” he said while handing back the pennies.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”
The father reached out his hand, took the pennies, and brushed it off. “Oh, it’s OK,” he said through a smile. “Don’t worry about it.”
I shrugged. “It’s just 14 cents, but it’s the point,” I said.
“I understand,” the father said, still smiling.
I carried Gavin home, and told him how proud I was that he admitted his wrongdoing and set it right. I also replaced the image I had of him wearing pinstripes behind bars with one of him wearing pinstripes on the pitcher’s mound.
Hey, I may not be a Yankees fan but if I’m dreaming, I might as well dream big.