Saturday, June 1, 2013

The One That Got Away

"Oh my gosh, I know this kid."
I was reading a breaking news alert on my office computer. I recognized his name right away. I scrolled down to his picture.
"Yup, that's him."
It was Chris from the after-school program I supervised in the early 90's--only now he was all grown up and in a lot of trouble. He had shot a gun at police and managed to escape for a few days before being arrested. The article described him as a homeless drug addict with multiple arrests.
When I knew Chris, he was only ten or eleven, but he showed signs of trouble early. When I took the kids out to the playground for foursquare and jump-rope, he'd sneak back into the classroom and take the teacher's pet rat out of the cage until one day, it escaped. Another time, he and a friend pried open the air conditioning control box in the classroom and broke the glass case surrounding the mercury. I had no idea that mercury, once no longer encased in glass, turns into a silver ball that rolls around like something out of a Terminator movie. Nor did I know that it was a bio-hazard, but luckily we got it taken care of without anyone getting hurt. Chris did more than his share of teasing, taunting, fighting and cussing back in those days. He was rambunctious, angry and moody and I was a new youth worker still cutting my teeth. I may not have pictured him growing up to shoot heroin and police, but I could tell that he was headed in a bad direction.

And it bothers me that I lost him.

Sure, it wasn't my job to "save" or "rehabilitate" the kids in my program. This was a recreation program, not social work. We'd play Connect Four and Uno. We'd add fractions and practice spelling words. We'd draw, weave lanyards and listen to music. If you misbehaved you got a time-out or sent home, but in the midst of all the backpacks, pencils and behavior refereeing, I grew to care about the kids, even Chris, despite his mischievous ways and angry outbursts. As I sat at my desk reading the news of his arrest, I wished I could have, would have, done more. This last outburst is going to cost him much more than a 15 minute time-out or a conference with his mom - it means he'll spend many, many years in prison. I shook my head and felt a pang of sadness. I wondered what, if anything, I could have done back when Chris was just a little trouble-maker running around on an elementary school playground, before he was the glassy eyed man in the mug shot on my computer screen.

I remember another kid from my after-school program. 
I'll call him Richard.
Richard was bright and sensitive, with thick, brown wavy hair and a lively personality. He had two things in common with Chris--big brownish yellow "cat" eyes and warning signs of trouble to come.
Chris, as I've described, was a mischievous trouble-maker.
Richard was gay.
Yes, even at 10.  He didn't call himself gay, and he may not have even know fully what it meant or who he was, but I knew it. The other kids in my program knew it, too, and as a result, Richard was teased mercilessly. They never missed an opportunity to call him "fag" or "homo" or other vicious names I can't repeat here. Unfortunately, for Richard, my program was chock-full of Chris types who loved to play sports, punch shoulders, tease girls and wrestle in the grass. Richard on the other hand wanted to read, play educational games on the computer or hang out with the girls and talk. So the boys let him have it. I spent many after-school hours putting an end to the name calling and comforting or distracting Richard from the taunts. I'd draw cartoons with him, listen to him talk about his Dad who lived in New York. He'd tell me about the "You're the Doctor" software he had installed on this home computer and fill me in on how his latest heart surgery was going. He told me he wanted to be a "paleontologist" not because he liked fossils and dinosaurs, but because he thought the word sounded important. Richard had a big vocabulary and a big, sensitive heart that he wore on his sleeve. One day, during a basketball game outside on the playground, Chris blew by Richard for a lay-up and as he passed yelled "C'mon Fag!" This wasn't the first time Chris had called Richard that name, but it triggered something in Richard I had not seen before. Usually he just acted like he hadn't heard anything. This time, his face turned red and he shouted "Shut up!" so loud his voice went hoarse by the second word. I grabbed the ball, did one hard dribble with both hands and told everyone to go inside. They listened. I am sure I had fire in my eyes. Once inside the classroom, I told them all to sit down. I was sweaty and angry.
Have you guys ever looked up "fag" in the dictionary? They all sat staring at me, motionless. 
Well, if you do, you'll see "fag" means a piece of wood used to light a fire, like a match. How in the world did a word that means "match" ever come to mean a gay man?  My voice was loud, maybe too loud, but I continued on.
Because it comes from a sick time in history. Remember how they burned witches at the stake in the Middle Ages?  They just stared. At this age, they were studying California history and building mission replicas, but they were going to get in this time machine whether they wanted to or not.
Gay men were used as kindle wood in the middle ages to start the fires of those being burned at the stake. They set them on fire first and then used them to set fire to the witches or other people they were burning.  It's sick and disgusting. What a terrible thing to do! I couldn't tell by looking at them if they were shocked, fascinated or didn't believe me.  
Look it up if you don't believe me.  None of them moved.
From now on I never, ever, ever want to hear that word again!  
My lecture probably went over their head, but they shut up with the fag word after that. Later, I found out the story I had shared about the origin of the word "fag" was really just an urban legend, but it worked, at least when I was around. However, Richard kept hearing the word in other places. I know, because he had an older sister who used to come to the program and talk with me for a little while before walking him home. She was really worried about him. So was I.
One day in late spring near the end of my time coordinating the program, I sat outside with Richard on the curb of the school waiting for his Mom to pick him up.  He was the last one to leave that day.
"I want you to call me when you turn 18."
He looked at me with a puzzled look on his face. 18 probably seemed like a hundred years away.
"Why?' he asked.
"Because I want to see how you are doing."
He tucked his knees up under his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs. He stared down at the gravel for a few moments. Without lifting his head from his knees, he turned his face toward me. "How will I know how to reach you?"
"Just call city hall and ask for me. Or go by and see the owner at the sports card shop where I work on the weekends. He'll know where I am. Or look me up in the phonebook or something."
His Mom's maroon Honda pulled up in front of us. He grabbed his back pack and stood up.
"See ya!" he called over his shoulder as he got into the car.

For years, I continued to work with youth in various capacities--day camps, prevention programs, mentoring groups...the days passed and I forgot about Chris and Richard. Until one day, my phone rang.
"Hello?"  I answered from my home office.
"Hello, Hope?"
"Yeah?" I didn't recognize the voice.
"It's Richard." (He said his last name as well.)  "Do you remember me?"
 I pushed away from my computer. I felt goosebumps forming.
"Richard? Of course I remember you Richard!  Oh my gosh, how the heck are you?  You must be 18!"
He laughed and said he was OK. His voice was much lower, but still pleasant, like someone about to tell a joke. He described his saga after leaving the elementary school where I worked. As predicted, he had a very rough junior high, an even worse high school, until ultimately his mother pulled him out of the school district and sent him to another high school out of the area. He finished there, but in the meantime made some bad choices and as a result had some physical and emotional scars. He described himself as emerging from a very dark period in his life.
"I am so glad you called and that you are doing OK. I have to admit I am a bit in shock. I can't believe it. I wasn't sure you would remember to call."
 "Oh, I remembered!" He laughed nervously and then there was a long pause. "You know, there were times I wanted to kill myself, Hope, but I didn't because I knew I had to call you when I turned 18. I was like, oh man, I gotta call Hope in another year so I guess I better just stick around for a little bit."
"Really?" My voice was thin.
I had goosebumps on my goosebumps. My eyes watered. I cleared my voice.
"That's exactly why I wanted you to call me Richard, that's why I told you to call me when you turned 18. I knew you were going to have a rough time and I was worried about you. I wanted to make sure you made it though. I didn't know what else I could do; I knew I couldn't be there, so I thought maybe if I tell you to call, maybe if you remember that you have to call, maybe you'll check back in all those years later and I'll know you are OK."
He was silent for a few moments.
"Why were you so worried about me?"
"I was worried because I knew you were gay, Richard, maybe even before you did, and I know how kids can be, how the world can be. You were having a tough time in my program and I just had a feeling that junior high and high school would be a really hard time for you."
"It was. It sucked. I hate this valley. How'd you know I was gay?"
We laughed.
Our conversation lightened up and turned to the old after-school program days. He asked if I kept in touch with any of the other youth leaders or if I remembered the day that it hailed and we had to hunker down inside.
"Hey, I still have that card you made me in the program."
"What card?" I used to spend time drawing with the kids, sketching cartoons like Ren and Stimpy or SpongeBob and then giving them away, but I couldn't immediately think of what I had made for Richard all those years ago.
"Remember the 'Richard President of the United States' card?" he asked.
"Oh yeah! Wow, you still have that?" I had created this card in the afterschool program and given it to him because even at 10, Richard looked and acted presidential. He was smart, had perfect hair and charisma. Plus, I wanted him to feel good about himself in the midst of all the teasing that was going on. I wanted him to know someone thought he was cool, even though he couldn't nail a jump shot.
We ended our conversation by deciding to meet up for lunch. To this day, we still keep in touch on Facebook and he is doing well overall.
Chris is headed up river.
He's the one that got away.
In Matthew chapter 4, Jesus tells two of his disciples, Peter and Andrew, to follow Him and he will make them "fishers of men." Jesus wanted his followers to bring others to Him. He wanted them to reach out. Sometimes, I feel like a "fisher of youth" as I meet young people in my community who are tossed about in rough waters. I try to cast a wide net of love and encouragement, share the hope that keeps me from capsizing. Some get in the boat, some get away, some come back years later.
I'll keep fishing.

-Hope A. Horner, 2013
Follow on Twitter!  @HopeNote

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