Questions for Ben
What was your inspiration for this book?
I was born to conservative white parents in Bolivia, South America. This gave me a perspective on justice not shared by many American children.
By the time I was ten years old, I had been through three revolutions, walked the streets stepping over dead bodies, had a man shot to death only feet away and watched my first execution. Because our home in Bolivia was up at 14,000 feet on the high plains above La Paz, there were no schools. As such, I was never sent to school or home-schooled until fourth grade, at which point I was sent away to boarding school.
The school was run by strict English matrons that ruled with iron fists. Minor infractions were punished with a stick. Severe infractions were punished with a leather strap that left my hands in bandages. My own personal infractions never seemed to be minor. Also, a child such as myself who couldn't read or write was not dealt with remedially, but rather punitively. If I did the best I could on an assignment but failed, the next day I had to improve or get a strapping. To know that a strapping was coming and I had already tried my hardest was probably the most frightening thing about boarding school.
I also learned early in life the sting of racism. I knew what it was like to be held down and have mud smeared in my face and to be called a “Gringo.” I learned at a tender age what it was like to look at my skin and hate myself simply because one thin layer of my body was different from other children. When I came to the United States as a teenager, I discovered that people’s differences went much deeper. Sadly, it took becoming an angry teenager and seeing the inside of a few police stations before I learned to embrace my differences and to be proud of them.
This is a long way of explaining that Touching Spirit Bear is the book I wished I could have read when I was adolescent. The hard lessons learned over the years were ones I wanted to share with today’s teenagers.
Tell me about the bullying you experienced in school.
Coming to the U.S. at age 12, everything about me seemed different; the clothes I wore, the games I played, how I spoke...everything. I thought at first that I was bullied because I there was something wrong with me. I was so ashamed of my differences. It took me many years, but with time I became proud of what made me different.
I did learn that bullies were bullies because they were afraid. Bullies always pick on students who are different and on those they don't understand. What I learned about people in general is that we fear what we don't understand and we try to destroy whatever we fear. That is why most bullies are bullies.
TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR F.A.Q.
Questions for Ben
In Touching Spirit Bear you talk about Circle Justice. What exactly is Circle Justice?
With traditional justice, punishment is used as the main tool to try and deter future crimes. But in Touching Spirit Bear. Cole’s parole officer explains Circle Justice to Cole this way. “If you kill my cat, normally the police fine you and that’s it. We still hate each other, I still feel bad about my cat, and you’re angry because you have to pay a fine. In Circle Justice, you sign a healing contract. You might agree to help me pick out a new kitten and care for it as part of the sentencing. By doing something for me and for another cat, you help make things right again.”
He goes on to explain to Cole that he shouldn’t do this to avoid jail but for the sake of healing. Cole realizes that he is also a victim. It is the bad from his past that would make him want to kill a poor small animal.
What I find wonderful about Circle Justice is that the end goal is to heal. Everybody helps toward that end. In the above example, Cole’s layer might take him to the zoo to help him gain an appreciation for animals. The victim’s lawyer might take Cole to a veterinarian to watch operations for a day to see how hard some people work to save a life that he so easily took. The judge might even take Cole to his personal workshop to let him help build bird houses to return to the animal kingdom what he so recklessly destroyed. Always the end goal is to change hearts and have both sides forgive each other and become neighbors again.
In reality, Circle Justice, or what is often called ‘Alternative Justice,’ takes more manpower and time, but the results are worth it. One benefit is that it allows community members who are normally excluded from the process to help. Secondly, using punishment, as many as ninety-five percent of those punished will go on to commit more crimes. With Circle Justice where healing is the end goal, sometimes less than ten percent ever commit crimes again.
You write about a bear attack in this book. What made you decide to have a bear live with you personally? Were you ever scared?
When I came to America, I was able to watch TV for the first time. My favorite show was Gentle Ben. Later, my fascination with bears led me to volunteer time with bear studies in Northern Minnesota.
When I found out about Buffy, a research facility had already removed his front claws. They were going to destroy him if they couldn't find a proper home. That was when I decided to raise Buffy. As for fear, I don't think I ever feared Buffy, but I do know I respected him greatly.
Questions for Ben
So, what ultimately is your end goal if this were an ideal world?
My dream is a world where no child is ever victimized. If we had that world, our need for justice and healing would almost disappear. But we do not live in a perfect world, so we need to learn to heal. Another lesson I wish so desperately to teach children with my writing is that they are not helpless citizens on this planet. They are the “authors of their own lives.” Through education, they have the power to control their futures as surely as they control the events of some story they make up on a piece of paper.
Part of this self-discovery is the realization that we all have the choice between punishment or healing. Educators need to wake up to the fact that encouragement is a much more powerful tool than punishment. There are those who would consider this admonition unrealistic, but I for one believe in the power of our children to change the world. I love a saying I saw in a school recently. "If you want to change the world for a year, plant rice. If you want to change the world for ten years, plant trees. But if you want to change the world for a lifetime, educate a child." This is my belief—we can educate young students that forgiveness and healing have the power to overcome anger and punishment. But to do this, adults must first learn forgiveness and embrace healing in their own hearts. This is the justice I wish to see our world embrace.