I want to tell you about him.
I want to tell you how he walked into my room two years ago, afraid, nervous, unsure of his surroundings. I would add that I was drawn to him almost immediately, one of those kids of the almost-favorite kind that you're not supposed to have, the one who listens to you a little more intently, who exudes goodness. He's the kid who you know has a story that will be difficult to hear but who absolutely will not tell you until you ask, who will not in any way expect you to ask or to care.
I want to tell you how the story did spill out, over a few meetings that I asked for because I am nosey and because I saw some things that I didn't like. It was simply and unaffectedly told: parents in crisis, financial difficulties most people can't comprehend, culture shock, family responsibilities, and an unbelievable belief that the fix to all of this could happen inside these borders, in these rooms.
I will tell you that behind obvious gifts of politeness and skill with adults, beyond an inexplicable deep respect for and hope in authority, a clear grasp of goals and a natural intelligence, lay other, more insidiously damaging things. His head nodded in class with the exhaustion of a caregiver. A few assignments were unclear, his eyes got sadder. When he told me that he cared about mathematics and basketball and only wanted to get good grades so he could be an engineer and he wanted to play on a team, I wished I had a direct line to supreme beings in charge of both of these worlds to which I was so unconnected.
If you want to feel weak, listen to a kid you desperately want to help say "Professor, can I play basketball?"and have no idea of the answer to that question. And also be a terrible liar with no game face of your own. Wish that you could immediately purchase an NBA franchise or ethically sweet talk the coach at your alma mater. Feel a failure.
And say "I don't know, but I will try to help you find out" because this young man needs and has come to expect the truth from you, and furiously Google intramural teams in your area because you don't know if he's made it in time or has a skill level to be on the school team.
Sit with that. Know this is your job but know that if this were not your job that you are wired this way. Wonder why you are wired so as to kill you.
Wait. Wish him luck on his way out of your office door to an interview for a grocery store job that he will mindfully and successfully keep indefinitely. Cry with your head in your hands when that door closes behind him. Wonder why, in all of your immense fallibility and failure at personal life management that this person, who outstrips you in integrity, ambition and patience in every way can fall into step beside you on the way back to your office from class and shyly ask, "Will you be my mentor?"
Say yes although you have no idea what you can impart to him. Say yes because no isn't an option, because no one has ever asked you this before and may never again, and even you can recognize an honor when it's offered.
Record in your electronic gradebook the A that he deserves. See him a couple of times a semester after that, when he needs to set up his schedule, when he sends a one line e-mail that says "I don't know what to do. I am confused. Can I see you? Respectfully. D." Hear him tell you that he keeps going to the coach's office, that basketball and school are still his priorities, along with his younger brother. Discreetly look away when the story is harder to tell.
Watch things level out. Listen to politicians argue and people in much better circumstances bemoan them daily. Know that you can never, ever, flip the switch back on your brain to where it used to be.
Finally, this fall, send an e-mail into the ether, when you find him on the list of people you check in with every semester, to make sure all is well and to offer whatever it is that you can if it is not. Make it a simple two-liner asking how he is, how his classes shook out. Read a reply that comes back not an hour later, thanking you for the question, asking when he can stop by.
Clear your schedule within reason when that time comes. And as he sits in your office, smiling, feel what may be inappropriate maternal pride.
Feel relief in the break in the trail of tears at your door. Know that he has, for now, dodged the fastest, craftiest bullets. He is on point. He has almost a 4.0. He is practicing with the basketball team every day, whether they will let him play or not. He is playing basketball. He doesn't care what we call it. He is still working. His brother is okay. His father has a job. His mother's story is less vague and slightly more promising.
And out of nowhere he has these broad shoulders and he is smiling this smile that you have never seen. He looks at you across the short distance in your office and when he meets your eyes you nonverbally acknowledge that all is so much better than either of you ever expected the first time he was here. Be almost giddy with that information and know that within this conversation is the reason you are here, although you could not have articulated that in a job interview, or to yourself when you stumbled in here. And when you leave you know that it will be what you say meant the most, made it worth whatever it was, which in the long run will be enough.
So you seek out the coach -- who doesn't know you at all, who could have expected you to be selling textbooks or floor lamination for all you knew -- later that afternoon. Thank him for letting him be there, for granting a wish, for giving a kid from thousands of miles away a place to work out one of two small but at the same time boundless dreams that have made the difference between success and devastation. Expect that when you mention this name that you will see the same recognition of simple greatness, of what we are always looking for but so seldom find -- check eyes for confirmation of redemption and how occasionally the right thing happens in spite of itself, or at least appears to for the moment.
And when that coach looks back at you distractedly, no obvious idea of the real importance, smiling and nodding and politely but that's it?
I tell you.