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  • Jose Luis Navarro

Restorative Justice 101: How a 9th Grade Hustler Got Punched in The Eye and Saw the Light

Updated: Jun 29

Restorative Justice practices have fundamentally shaped my educational philosophy. I've witnessed real transformation occur when educators approach students through an ethos of collaboration. And since childhood, I've watched what happens when authority figures use their power to do things for kids or to them, instead of using their power to do things with them.

By middle school, kids have solid expectations about how their mistakes will be handled by those on high. In my case, any mistakes I made, whether willful or accidental, were met with punishing blows from my mother's fists and feet when her anger flared. You better believe I learned how to take the beating and cry as soon as possible to make her stop.

My friends Alejandro and Mateo had no such worries about their mom. She was a housecleaner to some big deal actor, and she blew her money buying nice clothes for them. They were both shorter than I was, unfortunately. No chance of me getting their hand-me-downs. Alejandro and Mateo ended up in a gang.

The kids I ran around with were my friends out of circumstance, not choice. We lived in the same neighborhood, had single mothers, and faced the same low expectations. Many of us got smacked around or ignored at home. It was during my 9th grade days of hustling and heading down the wrong path that I first saw how Restorative Practices help young people develop agency to to solve their own problems.

All Fun and Games in Junior High (North Hollywood, CA, 1985)

You’d think I’d have a little more respect for the school I lied to get into. When I was just 11, I decided there was no way I was going to the school near my mom’s place. I was getting tired of wasting time with kids I felt were going nowhere. I didn’t know which direction I should be headed, but I wasn’t about to head nowhere willingly.

I got my mom to sign an application to my junior high of choice — using Lee’s address. He was a truck driver, a friend of my stepdad’s. He was cool with us using his address, which was great for me because my report cards full of D’s and F’s were delivered there instead of to Mom’s address.

I had wanted to do better, but guess what? When you have trouble inside of you, you attract trouble outside of you. One day in late September of my 9th grade year, I was hanging out by the handball courts, where black and brown kids wailed on each other for fun. A big Iranian kid, who ended up in the Bloods, clocked me in the eye.

I couldn’t see.

One of my homies, Poncho, took me to the office, and I remember the Santa Ana winds blowing scents of olive, oak, and jasmine.

The office secretary said to the Dean, “Oh this one was hit at the handball courts. You know how they play.” No questions, no investigation. I was just a boy being a boy, right? Actually, I was a stoned idiot that got jumped! The Dean called Mom first, but she didn’t answer. Lucky for me, she had chosen that exact moment to go to the laundry room.

The fact that my mom put my dad’s phone number on my school emergency contact card is inexplicable. My mom hated him. To the point where, a year prior, she told Dad me and my kid brother Mike were too busy to go accept his invitation to go to Disneyland with him, my half sisters Misty and Wendy, and their mom. Busy? Please. She just laid on the couch watching tv all day while Mike and I messed around in the front yard and got in trouble for throwing rocks at each other.

It did strike me then — as Mom, Mike, and I huddled around the answering machine while he was leaving the Disneyland invitation — that maybe he wasn’t as bad as Mom claimed if Disneyland was on the table with him.

Dad had no idea that I was always in trouble for smoking weed, ditching school, and getting bad grades despite having being labeled a “mentally gifted minor.” By 9th grade this gifted minor was sticking to the easy stuff, like PE, shop classes, and graphic arts (where I designed a notepad with my mom’s signature on it to write excuses for whatever I’d done and not done).

I seemed to have entered an unspoken agreement with my teachers; if I didn’t take over the class by being a comedian or a jerk, they would let me slide by with a D.

Mr. Self-Discipline Sets Me Straight at Ernie’s Taco House

My dad: the womanizer with the word “Self-Discipline” tattooed on his arm, a real smooth talker who went to Cosmetology School based partially on the fact that he was the only straight man in the program. Lots of perks. You get what I’m saying.

He arrived at my school in a crisp white smock, with his beard perfectly groomed, and smelling like Halston cologne. 5’5”, big smile, stocky, a belly. I wasn’t embarrassed of him — far from it. He gave off doctor-like vibes.

The Dean gave my dad a copy of my grades, and then he took me to lunch at Ernie’s Taco House in North Hollywood. Dark and cozy with a working fountain and the best carne asada tacos. Mom never took me and my little brother out to eat. I decided to stay quiet, but when he started talking about my bad grades, I said, “Why do you give a shit?” That’s exactly where I braced for a smack on my face from across the table. It never came. Instead, Dad talked to me. Talking, by the way, felt worse.

First he started in on what his dad, my Papa Louie, used to say about fighting. “There are three things worth fighting for, mijo,” he said. “One, you fight for your family. Two, you fight for people who can't fight for themselves. And three, you got to figure out on your own. Every man has something they want that's worth fighting for. Was the fight today worth it?”

He never looked up and never raised his voice. And he called me a man. He said that every man has something that's worth fighting for. That really got my attention.

Looking at me in my Guess jeans and Adidas shoes, he asked, “Why do you have those fancy jeans and those fancy shoes?” Dad knew we were broke. He knew we were on food stamps. I wasn’t going to say it, but by 9th grade, I’d put in a few years of hustling. A bunch of us kids got picked up in a van and taken to different poor LA neighborhoods to go door to door selling chocolate. We went home with our socks full of cash.

Then he dropped the bomb that I’ll never forget. He said, “Someone could break into your house and steal all this stuff from you! But with your education, you can get it all back. The one thing they can never take from you is your education.”

I could have dismissed it all. What did he know? He was no model of discipline and integrity. I know that arm tattoo was basically a lie. But instead of telling him he was full of it, I felt just how right he was. The way he talked to me disarmed me; my defenses dropped, and I saw myself clearly. I could not continue living like I was. I didn’t want to. My choices were scaring me. Mr. Discipline — in one brief moment — showed me that education was my hustle.

Do the Best You Can With What You Got, Where You're At: The Heart of Restorative Justice

A few months later, Mike and I moved in with Dad. Mom tried like hell to get us to stay with her, weeping and clinging on to my crying little brother. No tears for me. I stood strong.

Is Restorative Justice efficient? No. My dad could have saved a ton of time smacking me across the table and sending me back to my mother. Is Restorative Justice is effective? Yes. I knew I needed this kind of parenting. My grades picked up once we moved in with Dad. I was on the honor roll from spring semester of my 9th grade year until I earned my Master’s Degree at UCLA.

Restorative Justice came to me when I was waiting for the hit. Instead of slapping me around, Dad talked to me like a man and appealed to my deeper values. All I needed was someone to care enough to stand between me and my bad decisions and have high expectations of me. After 40 years, this life-changing conversation is still with me.

Over the years, I discovered that my father was a massively imperfect teacher. He left my mother and a string of other broken hearts. “Mijo,” he’d say, “I don't want you to be like me. I want you to be better than me.” I saw his hypocrisy; I was no fool. But I also was smart enough to know he cared enough to push me. I saw he was doing the best he could with what he had, where he was at.

Thirteen year old me is like many of our students. They long to live up to high expectations but end up living down to low expectations. They want authentic connection but settle for bonding through hustling and troublemaking. They know they don’t want their current reality but can’t imagine a different one. When parents and teachers use their power to work with kids — instead using their power over them — opportunities for healing and real learning can begin.

As educators, we can’t do everything. But we can always do something. Let’s talk about how to implement Restorative Justice practices at your school — and like the Santa Anas in September, usher in bittersweet scents of transition.

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