When I spotted K in the hallway on Friday afternoon, I realized right away that he was late to one of two classes he needed to graduate. We made eye contact, holding it long enough to be sure he got the message (“I see you. You should be in class. Get moving!”). He flashed a half-smile and inhaled noticeably in recognition. Assuming he got my telepathic message, I wondered if he would heed my unspoken advice. I kept moving, but when I passed by his classroom a few minutes later, on the way back to my office, he was not there.
This was roughly the 500th time I had caught him skipping this particular class — he was stuck in physics while his friends had lunch. As a result, I went to check in the cafeteria. As soon as I walked off the elevator, I saw him sitting by himself on the steps at the end of the hall, near the exit. When he saw me, he started laughing and covered his face with his hands. I walked over slowly, considering my next move.
It was May of his senior year, and by this point I had grown tired of shepherding him from class to class. I asked him why he decided not to attend class that particular day, and he responded by boasting about his grade. He had failed physics more than once, so I gave him credit for carrying a 75 into the final marking period, which was about to begin. Unlike him, I knew how tenuous that grade was, however, and I told him as much.
“But Mr. E,” he started, preparing what I assumed would be his rebuttal. “I’m going to graduate, I’m going to pass…even if its mostly thanks to you.”
I smiled reflexively. By this time, one of his friends had joined us, apparently preparing to join him to go downtown. The friend he was with was headed to an internship and was supposed to leave, but K had classes in the afternoon, including the other graduation requirement he was still missing. I considered physically dragging him to class, knowing he would let me, but I thought better of it. He had stunned me slightly with the compliment, so I was briefly speechless as he waved goodbye and headed to the door.
“Hey,” I called out, and he turned to face me, never stopping entirely. “I’m not happy with you walking out on your classes, even if you think you can justify it ‘just this once’ and it won’t hurt you. It’s your call, but I’m disappointed. I expect better from you.”
I recognized my mother’s voice coming through a bit. She rarely got upset with my siblings and me when we were kids, but her disappointment was legendary. The guilt trip was like her finishing move, and I cant remember a time when it failed to work on me. Without planning to, I tried my own, not sure whether it would work. I had grown very close to K during high school, and I knew he cared about my opinion of him. That wasn’t the first time he had given me a share of the credit for his achievements, which was extraordinarily humbling. Nonetheless, he was 17 and immature for his age, so I didn’t expect much of a response.
I went back upstairs to continue working, and he apparently left the building. For a few minutes, I was distracted by the lecture I had in store for whenever I saw him next. For the next hour or two I was head-down on work, so it was a real shock when I saw him waltz into the office near the end of the day. Glancing at my watch, I realized that the second class he needed for graduation would have just concluded, and I was ready to tear into him for coming back to school at the worst possible time.
When we locked eyes, he must have seen my lecture coming. He breathed deeply through his nostrils, almost like a bull, and a mischievous smile played across his lips. I asked why he would come back now, right after the most important classes of the day. He told me he had just come out of class actually, smiling in triumph, having proved me wrong.
I sized him up for a second, deciding that he was telling the truth. He was a lousy liar. The frustration drained out of me, and we shared a smile. I maintained eye contact, trying to get the rest of the story out of him. He told me he left as planned to go to the bank, and then he sat down in the barber to get a haircut, also as planned.
“They were busy, but the guy said he would squeeze me in if I waited for a little while. I was sitting there waiting, not thinking about school at all, but I kept hearing your voice in my head, like ‘you’re better than that…I’m disappointed…’. Like you were haunting me. So I had to come back, and I made it just in time for 8th period.” He flashed a worksheet as proof, though we both knew he was incapable of lying to me convincingly.
That day had been stressful for me. I argued with my boss, hurried to meet a couple deadlines, and I was in a pretty foul mood by that point in the day. When K explained why he came back to school, something in my brain clicked in a way that I had not expected. For months, I had struggled with my job and whether I was making a big enough impact. I had wavered, doubted myself and my choices, and this conversation shifted my perspective. You can go years never really knowing what impact you’ve had on the world. I lived long stretches of my life wondering if I mattered at all. Regardless of whatever happens to me in the future, my spirit is buoyed by the knowledge that I did something for a young man who needs/needed my support. It was a huge boost at a time when I really need it.