Some of my husband’s and my wedding anniversaries saw long-stemmed red roses and fancy dinners in expensive places; others included my feeble attempts to prepare gourmet food and steal a couple of romantic moments in a houseful of foster kids.

This anniversary was of the second variety. I was making dinner which the whole family would share since no one ever willingly invited my whole gang over for dinner. My husband and I were lovingly teasing each other, unafraid to show genuine love in front of the kids, when Eric walked in. He was only sixteen, but was over six feet tall with gangling arms and legs, which still had not made up their mind about which direction to go. He wore a goofy smile on his face, his hair in his eyes. In other words, he looked like he always did, but his smile was even more mischievous than usual, if that were possible.

Eric walked over to us and presented us each with a gift, saying, “Happy Anniversary.” This teen, one of our favorites, was rather special, but the presentation of gifts posed a problem for us. This child had been detained in several places; he was once again at our house while awaiting placement in another correctional facility. He had broken the law continuously and got caught only a fraction of the time. His offense– stealing. This kid was a notorious thief.

His past had included stolen cars, various types of electronic equipment, and countless smaller items. He was the proud owner, we once discovered, of a complete set of tools that enabled him to break into pop machines in a more “professional” manner. We really liked this kid. He wasn’t malicious; he just stole.

As foster parents you learn to judge the behavior, not the kid. He often lied and almost always denied his crime, even when you were standing in front of him with proof of his guilt. In some ways, he was the worst kind of criminal since he appeared to feel no remorse. But in spite of all this, he seemed to care for us.

His greatest delight was to try and “beat the system.” He studied and attempted to practice theories of law for his own benefit. Although his interpretation was always creative, it was rarely correct. He showed great ability to indulge in what I call “flexible thinking.” He would spend hours asking questions. He wished to know what the penalty might be for such-and-such an offense. Then he would start his investigation in earnest.

“What if I pleaded?” he questioned. “Suppose it happened this way?” He would continue describing numerous scenarios, looking for one which would enable him to escape punishment. Eric was constantly looking for a way to outsmart the police, the court, his parents, anyone. This was a special pleasure for him. If there was an angle, he would find it. This teen could have been anything he wanted to be if he had put this much effort into education and legitimate pursuits. He may even have really “beaten the system” by becoming a world-class lawyer.

Now here he was offering us gifts. I opened the small white box. It contained a very nice pair of earrings. They were long, thin, and narrow, kind of like Eric himself. They appeared to be sterling silver, twisted in a unique and lovely way. Everyone who knew me knew I loved earrings and wore them daily. This was in my “fishing lure era” as my husband referred to the gaudy, long, and large collection that graced my jewelry box. These, however, were classy and looked more expensive than Eric’s almost non-existent budget would allow.

My husband and I exchanged quick looks.

Uncertainty crossed each of our faces. We disliked accepting gifts from our kids since it made those unable to give feel badly. But, from this kid? My husband was admiring the fancy lighter he was given. It really was a beauty. He smiled at the lighter, then our eyes met again. The silence grew overlong, so finally I spoke.

“Eric, they’re really beautiful, but you shouldn’t have,” and this time I really meant it.

My husband added, “This is great, but really you didn’t need to…”

Finally, a smile of understanding lit up his face. “You think I stole them, don’t you?”

“No, no,” we lied in unison, protesting much too loudly. Our answer sounded weak, even unbelievable. If it sounded that way to us, I wonder how it must have sounded to Eric.

“Well, I didn’t,” he hesitated. ” I would never do that to you guys,” he replied with a voice filled with hurt. “I respect you too much to give you anything stolen. I paid for them. If you don’t believe me, ask your son.  He went with me.”

Frantically, I tried to place my son in all this confusion and the growing crowd that gathered in my kitchen. Suddenly, I felt relief as I caught a nod of my son’s head from across the room. We started to thank Eric profusely, but I feared it was too late. The damage had already been done. He explained he thought of us as parents and insisted he cared too much for us to give us a stolen gift. He said he respected us. We felt rotten.

Rumors about this kid, if true, reveal he has not completely turned his life around. He still may be in trouble. His life may continue to involve crimes committed in anger to get back at those that ignored and neglected him.

“Beating the system” may hold appeal for him, even now. His lawyer-mind may to this day be working out his defense before he even does the crime.

Change is often painfully slow. But for one glorious moment, he paid us the highest of all compliments. He actually paid for our gifts with real money, the stuff he cherished above all things. It was a sincere gesture of love, and we will never forget it.