Breaking and Restoring Trust

Let’s call them Z and Z.  The other day, they did a stupid, sneaky, dangerous “teenage thing,” and fortunately for Z and Z, they “got caught” by some Powers That Be before they had a chance to hurt themselves or anyone else.  The details aren’t important, since teenagers tend to do stupid, dangerous “teenage things” from time to time.  But in the course of their “thing,” Z and Z broke the trust of a lot of people who trusted and cared about them, including me and those Relevant Powers.

What is it about trust that’s so important?  Why were we all so upset and disappointed with Z and Z?  It’s obviously an important foundation for community; it’s hard to build a community with someone you don’t trust.  Hierarchical structures arise from distrust and mistrust, from the need to keep tabs and sort people out into the trustworthy and the untrustworthy.  Over time, Z and Z had been sorted out into the trustworthy, responsible group, and I suppose that label came to seem more real than a slowly-developing pattern of less-responsible, less-trustworthy actions.  I can see the pattern now, with all the benefits of hindsight.  Did the label deceive me, or did I just want to believe that, having been trustworthy in the past, Z and Z would still be trustworthy in the present and the future?

But last year, a different Z and Z did a different stupid, sneaky thing.  And a few years before that, it was Z, Z, Z, and Z, with yet a different stupid, sneaky thing.  Is there something about factory-model schools, even good, caring ones that are small enough to know you by name rather than number, that encourages dishonest behavior?  Or, if it doesn’t overtly encourage dishonesty, at least makes dishonesty seem easier, sometimes, than honesty?

I suppose no one is brutally, totally honest all the time; that would be a hard world to live in.  But I think most people, most of the time, expect most others to be mostly honest … and maybe that’s why breaking trust seems so significant.  You said you would, but you didn’t.  That’s a sentence we hate to hear, and we also hate to say it.  And maybe our reluctance to say and hear the hard thing contributes sometimes, in a perverse way, to breaking trust.

I need to think more about that.

Obviously there’s a pain-punishment cycle of some sort waiting for Z and Z; that’s how institutions respond to sneaky, dishonest, dangerous behavior.  The details aren’t important, but the aftermath is vital.  As I think about the previous sets of Z, we were somehow able to restore trust and rebuild community with them, and they went on to be responsible, successful young people in the end.  And yet, at the time, I felt just as angry, upset, and defeated as I do when I think about this set of Z.

That’s why I’m writing this post on an early Saturday morning, before the last of the short Saturday weather-makeup school days in These Parts: because I want to move past the anger and upset, go ahead and have the difficult conversations with Z and Z, and somehow begin some work that’s both vital and unattractive.  N and the others were genuinely apologetic, genuinely focused (at least for them) on Friday after our difficult conversation on Thursday, and perhaps Z and Z will be genuinely contrite as well.  But restoring trust is hard and painful.  It will be a long time before I (we!) can trust Z and Z again, and even when the trust is restored, it will be different from before.

That’s the thing about trust, about breaking it and restoring it.  I guess the good news is that joyful learning communities are strong enough to contain and channel the anger, the disappointment, and the other feelings that come when trust is broken … and that is good news, because people aren’t perfect, and all of us do things to break trust from time to time.  Near the end of a difficult, painful week, that seems like especially good news.

I wonder what other news, good or bad, and what other discoveries await us all today.

Published in: on March 15, 2014 at 10:04 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The trust between student and teacher is something like the respect you were discussing last week. (Or was that the week before?) This had me thinking about how those in authority can give trust unconditionally and those under the authority can give respect without either having earned a thing. The relations begins there. The teacher can build respect and the students can build trust and both, as you have pointed out, can be lost.

    And for some reason this also made me think about facebook and my utter disdain for it. I hope that Z and Z can pull it together. There’s an opportunity for growth in all of this but there is a weightier implication in all that you are saying, something not so easily fixed.

  2. Satia, that is such an excellent point about what can be given without being earned and what needs to be built … and what can be lost, and how it can be lost. I’m still thinking about the implications, too.

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