I met him a couple of days ago, at an 'outreach' I did for my job. A coworker and I presented our workforce program to a group at a community center which does amazing work with the homeless and disadvantaged population in our city. Most of the people there had come for the free lunch, but several were there to hear us speak.
He sat at the end of one of the long tables being set up for lunch. Younger than most of the people in attendance, he sat, hunched over, still wearing his leather jacket, flat-brimmed cap, and very dark, wrap-around sunglasses.
My first thought was, 'thug.'
He didn't appear to be paying attention so I was surprised when, after the presentation, as I was speaking to several attendees who had questions, he motioned me over with one finger.
Oh, noooo. He did not just beckon me, did he?
But he had. And he did it again, a few moments later. I went, intending to tell him to remove his glasses while speaking to me. I didn't have to, though, as he took them off before telling me his name. His eyes revealed an even younger kid than I expected. I pegged him at 17 or so.
He told me he was interested in getting into a training program to be an interpreter for the Spanish-speaking community. He pulled a folded, well-worn flyer from the local university out of his pocket and handed it to me, asking if that was the sort of program we would pay for. I told him it was possible, but that I'd need him to come to my office and meet with me, so we could determine whether or not he was eligible for the program. We set up an appointment for him, at 10:00 this morning.
I doubted he would make it.
This morning, 10:00 rolled around and, as expected, he was a no-show. But at 11:00, I got a call from the front desk, letting me know someone was there to see me. It was him. He apologized for being late and said he'd fallen asleep on the bus, missed the stop, and had to take another round-trip to get there.
We went back to my office and I told him to sit. After a few cursory questions about his situation, I found out that he was 18, homeless, staying in a shelter that will close in a month, and just about a year out of seven years of institutional foster care.
I make it a point not to register shock or surprise or disapproval when listening to a client's story. I try very, very hard not to allow my own story or my personal idea of how people should live cloud my ability to remain open and understanding and non-judgmental. Sometimes it's hard.
It wasn't hard this time.
This boy's story, told with humor and heart-wrenching honesty, nearly broke me. This "thug" was nothing but a kid who never felt loved in his whole entire life; who never had anyone standing behind him, telling him he could be anything he wanted to be; who was unwanted and mistreated and abandoned; who was failed by everyone who should have helped him; who was told and made to feel that he was stupid, incapable of learning, and would never amount to anything.
He tried to shock me, telling me about things he's done. He said several times, "This might make you kick me out of here." There was no kicking. But I chastised him. I told him I was going to play 'mom' and tell him the same thing I'd tell my daughter if she was doing something unhealthy or dangerous. As he was leaving, he said, "You're a good mom, aren't you? I can tell. You care. You listen. And you didn't judge me for all the shit I've done. I wish I'd had a mom like you."
He made me wish I was his mom. This bright, handsome, personable kid deserved a mom who didn't put vodka in his bottle to make him sleep; who didn't beat him, leave him to fend for himself when he was too small to feed himself, or choose to terminate her parental rights because he was inconvenient. He deserved a mother who made sure he could read past a 3rd grade level; who told him he was smart and special; who read to him and held him and simply loved him.
When I asked him how he sees his life ten years from now, he told me he figures he'll be dead by then. I said I was sure the people who loved him wouldn't want that. He said, "Well, see, that's the thing. No one loves me. No one has ever really loved me. So there's not much to care about or stay here for. You know?"
I don't know. I can't even imagine. But I have to try.
I can't save everyone. I know that. I can't even help everyone. I know that, too. I might not be able to help him. He needs much more than I can offer within the realm of my position. But tonight? I went to the bookstore and I picked out three books on his reading level, which, I hope, will interest him. If he wants to reach his dream of being an interpreter, he's going to have to improve his reading and writing skills. It's a small act -- not much... and it might be too much, as far as work is concerned, as it's not exactly part of our program... but someone has to make this kid feel visible; someone has to make him feel like he matters; someone has to make him believe that the few dreams he has are not for nothing.
And if not me, then who?