Most days at the school begin in the same fashion. I stand in the back of the classroom as the teacher calls attention to the front of the room. Inevitably, a contest breaks out over who can speak louder—each voice requesting to lead the opening prayer. A voice is chosen. The student begins, “In the name of…”
Competing voices emerge in the room at different cadences, each on their own trying to lead the group. The pace is scattered, the volume is raucous, but the words are all the same, “Lord, Teach me to be generous…”
Yet, in the midst of their memorized prayer of generosity, I quietly pray something different. I pray the same words each time I visit the class: God, give me patience. Help me to help them. I don’t know if I’m doing any good here, but I hope so…
He stands in front of me, his chin held up with bravado. My chin is tilted down in order to look him in the eyes. His chest protrudes forward and his feet are firmly planted—it’s a stance of strength.
But, I have a hard time taking him seriously. He is in sixth grade, and I am not. While he is braced in defiance for a fight, I struggle not to laugh at the situation. I’m not as scrawny as I appear; I am nearly a foot taller than him—besides, I must have at least 40 pounds on this kid… Yet, here he is, battlelines drawn in the sand.
He squints slightly, tilting his chin upward. He grins nonchalantly, “I dunk on people like you.”
He punctuates the statement and maintains eye contact. I don’t play basketball. I don’t particularly watch or care about the sport. Yet, I know that’s not why he said it. He said it to prove himself: brazen, defiant, and “his own man.” The line was a challenge to me, a dare. How would I react to such an affront? He waits, staring me in the eye, trying as hard as he can not to blink.
As I see this young man in front of me, I realize how little I understand him: I would have never squared off to a teacher or volunteer in the way he has now. I would never have stood in such a posture, or attempted such an insult… And yet, here he is. A sixth-grader squared off against a man a full head taller, a man wearing a black clerical shirt and white collar. What has he seen or heard in his life to make this OK? What has happened to him? How hard has this kid’s life been?
As I stand in front of him, all I want to do is give him a hug. Damn it—Just be a kid for a little while!
He hasn’t blinked, and neither have I. His grin has faded, “Like LeBron…” He nods to accentuate the claim. Dunk on me, like LeBron, huh?
I smile, intentionally and gently, “Yeah. I bet you could.” My hand instinctively raises to his shoulder, where it rests as I look him in the eye. “Can you have a seat in your desk, please.”
His chin lifts, acknowledging my request. Then, he shrugs. He pivots towards his seat and walks away. It’s clear that it’s on his terms, but I’d like to think he heard me.
A few weeks later, and I’m in the class again. The bell rings. It’s time for lunch, and the students file out in a variation of a stampede. He walks up to me, “Mr. Biro, you coming tomorrow?”
“No. Sorry, I don’t usually come on Friday, remember? I’ll be back on Tuesday, though.”
“Oh… You should come on Fridays, too.”
With that, he walks out the door of the classroom following the rush towards lunch. I straighten the desks, collect the books, and pick up the spare sheets of paper the class has left behind on the ground.
There are plenty of things I’m good at doing, things with concrete results that I can see and measure. Yet at the school, I am just a volunteer—often, I’m just crowd control. It’s only my presence that I offer to the teacher and the students. I have no idea how to measure the effectiveness or return on that investment.
But as I walk out of the school, back to my house, it hits me: He wanted me there. I have no idea why, but he wants me there.
I don’t know what I’m doing right or well at the school, but he wants me there. That feels important, and so I go, I work, I hope, and I trust that I’m doing good—even if it’s all guesswork with mysterious and immeasurable results. But he wants me there, and that is enough for me.