Homepage | Introduction | Parenting Columns | Travel Features | Misc. Musings | Contact | Purchase Info


Mistakes in judgement can be handled without giving the message
that you have lost all social value
because of your mistakes.

Les Miserables

442 words


A story of Redemption
by Dianne Roth


Over 30 years ago, while looking through library shelves for a book to read, I came across Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It was 1500 pages long. It changed my life.

If you are not familiar with the story, it is about Jean Valjean. He steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child and is put into slavery for nineteen years. Given parole, he must show his papers wherever he goes. Branded as unsavory, he is unwelcome anywhere and turns to stealing. He even steals from a priest who befriends and shelters him. The priest shows such uncommon and genuine compassion toward this wretched thief that he awakens to his own best self. He tears up his parole papers and builds a new life, always striving to do what is good and right.

The other formidable character in this story is Javert, the prison officer presiding over Valjean’s years in slavery. It becomes his life’s work to find Valjean and return him to prison or kill him. Why? Because it is the law and the law is... well, The Law.

It is a story of punishment and redemption.

As a child, I chaffed under punishment that I felt was outsized for my childhood mis-deeds. Rather than regret, I usually felt anger and hurt. To be fair, I was probably rambunctious and careless, often acting before I thought. But my childish sense of justice felt wronged. I found a kindred spirit in Jean Valjean.

Years after reading the book, I spent my Extravagant Entertainment Fund on a ticket to the stage production of Les Miserables.

Last week I saw the movie and was again touched by Valjean’s struggle to redeem himself from the thief he was.

This time, though, it was Javert that captured my attention. He is a proud man who does his job well. Jean Valjean broke his parole, he must be punished. It is simple , “It is The Law.”

To Javert, that Law had no room to allow for a man’s self-redemption. (spoiler alert!) In fact, unable to accept that his own life was saved by the person he would punish, Javert kills himself rather than choosing to let Valjean escape. How did Javert, or any of us, come to see punishment as the only answer?

As a teacher, I ask, “What is the goal?” Is it simple compliance? “You will be good, or else.” Or, is it something greater? “I can help you make better choices.”

I gave up punishment long before I met Jean Valjean, but his story lead me to seek new ways to help children find their better selves with compassion and justice, not punishment.


Dianne Roth is a teacher, mother, grandmother, and freelance writer. She lives in Oregon.




Last updated on September 17, 2013