It was a Friday night, the skies were clear, traffic on I-76 was light, and the Center City Philadelphia streets were bustling. I was going to meet friends for a birthday celebration at a karaoke bar on 20th and Chestnut Streets.
I worked my way south on 23rd street and approached Chestnut, preparing to make a left turn. When the light turned green, two couples were standing near the edge of the sidewalk outside the driver’s side window, as if getting ready to cross. They were laughing and chatting, but looked to be in motion, and I couldn’t quite tell which way they would proceed. When I realized that they were hesitating and waiting to continue behind me down Chestnut, I began the left turn, looking ahead a second too late.
Directly in front of my headlights was a woman who had begun to cross from the opposite corner. I had been so focused on the group near me that I neglected to re-check the other side of the street before moving forward. I hit the brakes and stopped less than an inch from her knees. She slammed her hands on the hood of the car to brace herself and looked at me with an expression of surprise, fear and anger. In the lights, she looked frozen and shocked.
She collected herself from her stance, I rolled down the window, and our exchange began. At the same moment, we both called to each other. She began yelling “You weren’t looking! You should have been looking! Where were you looking?!” as I started apologizing profusely, “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I’m so sorry.” I told her I wanted to pull over and tucked into an open spot near the corner. Through the window, she continued to demand a reasonable answer for which there was none: “What were you looking at? You should have been looking!” I quickly relayed the description of my attention being focused on the couples on the corner, and she replied with the same justified anger, “You weren’t looking!”
In that second, restorative tools shot to the surface of my consciousness. This person, who was frightened and upset, did not need to see my side of the story; she needed support! She needed to know that no one was trying to hurt her on purpose and that someone actually cared about her well being.
I stepped out of the car and said, “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t looking in your direction. Are you hurt?” In a shaking voice, she replied that my car hadn’t hit her and that she was okay. With quickly welling tears, I blurted out, “I’m so sorry; I would hate for you to go home thinking that someone didn’t care what happened to you.” This one sentence; it kind of stopped her in her tracks. She took a step back and looked at me with a quizzical expression, like she was trying to figure out how to integrate something unexpected.
I’m not sure if it was those words or my obvious distress, but after a moment she stepped forward and opened her arms to offer me an embrace. As I hugged her, I mumbled, “You shouldn’t be the one comforting me, you’re the one who had something happen.” After the hug, I asked a few more questions about whether she was really sure that she was physically okay, whether she wanted to go to the hospital, and whether she wanted a ride home. (She said “no” with a laugh to the last one.) We embraced once more, and I got in my car. Before leaving, she walked over to the open window, made the sign of the cross, and said, “May you be blessed.” And I was.
In that moment, I was blessed with her forgiveness, which was a great and generous gift. I realized later that I have also been blessed with opportunities to study and integrate restorative approaches to living. In a stressful situation like this, the skills that I’ve practiced were there and available to use. Being able to recognize what was truly needed and attempt to meet those needs changed the whole energy dynamic of the situation, from a potentially adversarial accident to two people moving forward together.
Kate Shapero is a science teacher at the Miquon School in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. She earned her master's degree from the IIRP in 2010.