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BOSTONIANS OF THE YEAR

The Innocent

Though street violence had confined her to life in a wheelchair, 5-year-old Kai Harriott forgave her shooter - shocking and inspiring the world with the power of grace.


(Essdras M Suarez / Globe Staff Photo)

In our Baby Einstein-fueled age of little adults, we celebrate the 5-year-old child who can do long division or exchange pleasantries in French or rattle off the preamble to the Constitution without so much as a dropped preposition. Their precociousness seems to close the gap between childhood and adulthood, between us and them, signaling their desire to ape our behavior and perhaps play by our rules.

So what to make of the 5-year-old child who behaves in a way we adults never do, because we don’t feel we can? What to make of Kai Leigh Harriott?

In a Boston courtroom in April, the girl with the dimples and the chunky purple and yellow plastic squares in her braids overcame her sobbing to speak in a whisper. And court workers – those hardened souls who witness the daily parade of human failings, of pointed fingers, of lies and excuses – wiped away tears.

The girl looked straight at the man who fired the bullet that paralyzed her from the chest down, who consigned the buoyant dancer to life in a wheelchair when she was just 3, she looked at him and she forgave him. “What you done to me was wrong, but I still forgive him.”

This simple statement combines the best of the Old and New Testaments. In one sentence, she exposes the inadequacies of both sides in the tired political battle over what to do about crime. Listen up, liberal secular politicians who blur the line between right and wrong by worshiping at the altar of moral-free rehabilitation. Take heed, conservative Christian pols who channel Exodus and Deuteronomy in calling for an eye for an eye while conveniently forgetting Christ’s central message of mercy and forgiveness.

What you done to me was wrong, but I still forgive him.

A Superior Court judge sentenced the shooter to 13 to 15 years in prison, about half what prosecutors had sought. The 29-year-old man then walked over to Kai’s mother to apologize, and the apology turned into an embrace.

Kai’s words ricocheted across a city whose national renown for curbing murders had dissolved into embarrassment and hopelessness amid a wave of new bloodshed. The Roxbury girl who had to miss her class picture so she could testify in court found her photo splashed across publications in Boston, and then the nation. Readers were moved and came forward to offer her trips to New York, San Francisco, and Disney World.

Nine months later, Kai, now 6, remains unspoiled by all the attention. Like any first-grader, she is proud to show off a smile revealing the absence of five teeth. Like any first-grader, she still has to be reminded by her mother to sit up straight and not mumble into her sleeve when meeting someone new. Like any first-grader, when she is asked what she remembers most from the past year, she does not hesitate: “Disney World!”

Of course, Kai Leigh Harriott isn’t just any first-grader. Sure, her act of courage didn’t reverse Boston’s murder rate. Sadly, the killings only escalated. Yet that was never her role. In fact, it is when conditions appear to be most bleak that her example becomes most vital. If a 5-year-old girl can rise above the bitterness and resignation that she is most certainly entitled to and find hope, who are we to sit back and point our fingers or shrug our shoulders?

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.

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