One of the reasons I switched over from writing on The Coupon Goddess to Melanie In The Middle was to share some deeper stories with you. Stories about my life and what I’ve learned while living on this beautiful ball of dirt we call home. This is one of those stories…
Eight years ago I was living in Tampa. It was a very difficult time for me. My husband took a new job and we had to pull up our roots in Boston and try to get those roots to transplant in Tampa.
There wasn’t enough Miracle Gro to make that happen.
My girls were just babies. Babies that were born ten months apart with some significant developmental issues that required me to carry them both around on my hips due to their lack of trunk strength. Their first steps were taken around two years of age.
My sons had their own problems. We lived in a nice neighborhood, but the schools were sorely lacking. Because of this, we had to enroll them in a private school forty minutes away. Every day I spent three hours in the car shuttling them back and forth to a school that they hated and we could hardly afford.
We would go through the car line in our older mini-van amidst the Escalades and Hummers feeling very out of sorts. The boys didn’t fit in and I wasn’t having much luck making friends either.
I was lost.
So, when my church was looking for volunteers to work at summer camp for disadvantaged inner city kids, I jumped on the opportunity. Surely spending time with kids who had less would help me gain perspective on my situation.
I will never forget that first day of camp. Us adult counselors were to bunk up with two kids. And the two that were assigned to my room were not familiar with the term “boundaries”.
After haphazardly tossing their meager belongings into our closet sized room, they jumped on my bed and gave me cornrows and “fixed” my makeup. By the time they were done I looked like a hooker, but it made them happy and also had them trusting me a bit. A fashion risk worth taking.
Once the girls were settled in, their sole intention was to find the boys. I spent most of that week keeping the girls out of the boys side of the camp. It was an enormous struggle. The kids were all tweens and teens and it felt like it was raining hormones that entire week.
I’m not sure what I was expecting out of those kids, but I walked into it mentally unprepared. There is a huge difference between city kids and suburban kids. The city kids are harder. They grow up faster. And they were totally ok with having sex at the age of twelve.
I was grossly unprepared to mentor these kids. They might as well have been speaking Russian because I couldn’t understand them at all. I couldn’t relate to them because our life experiences were so completely different, and I was feeling like I wasn’t serving a purpose there.
And then I met Jose.
We brought the girls and boys together one day to play some team building games. Life lessons and fun mixed together to get the kids working together and learning new ways to communicate.
But there was this one kid who would have nothing to do with team building. Jose was a bully. A tough kid who had a mouth that would make a truck driver blush. Jose was loud, crude, rough and as far as I could tell, destined for prison some day.
I didn’t like him. He didn’t like me either. But the girls? Yeah, they were smitten. And I did everything I could to keep them away from him. Unsuccessfully.
Jose liked my two charges. He would follow us wherever we went, torturing us the entire way. Vulgarities spilling out of his mouth, I wanted to bleach my eardrums at the end of every day.
But one afternoon things got out of hand. A skirmish broke out between Jose and another boy. At first it was just like two baby rams bumping each other around, but then it escalated into a true fight. Fists flying and making solid contact. Like two well trained boxers.
I watched Jose turn from a child to an adult in a blink of an eye. And the hate and violence that came out of him scared the hell out of me. It took two men to break up the fight, and it was a struggle.
Once pulled apart, each boy was battered and bleeding. Two twelve year olds that looked like they had taken part in a bar fight, broken beer bottles and all.
Once pried apart, I took Jose by the arm and found a quiet spot where I attempted to calm him down. He was shaking and barely able to speak. And to this day, I can’t remember all I said.
But I do remember one part of our exchange. I asked him what he wanted for Christmas. Figuring that it would get him thinking about something else. What kid doesn’t love to talk about gifts?
Jose thought about it for a moment, and shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t come up with anything. He asked me what my boys would like. And I answered Legos. He looked at me wide eyed and asked if I would indeed buy them Legos. Of course, I said. That’s when he looked at me with twelve year old eyes and said I wish you were my mom.
I died a thousand deaths in that moment. My heart ached for this child. A child who never knew the innocence of playing with Legos on the floor of his room.
He didn’t have a room most of his life. He was in and out of shelters like a revolving door. I learned all of this that hot summer day. Listening to a part child part man share his story while blood dripped down his lip.
In an instant this changed me. It changed him too. The rest of that camping trip Jose never left my side. His behavior changed. He got along with kids. He laughed. He cooperated. And the dang girls liked him even more because of it.
Never mind that he nicknamed me Grandma. I was the ripe old age of 34. Younger than his mom even. That didn’t matter. We had a bond that took us both by surprise. A bond that would go beyond that camping experience.
Saying goodbye to Jose was painful. He wrapped his arms around my neck and another counselor had to pry him off of me. Both of us sobbing. One getting in an old beaten up school bus headed back to the inner city. The other getting into her mini-van headed back to the comforts of suburbia.
I’m not sure if either of us understood what exactly happened that trip, but we both were changed because of it.
Once home, Jeff didn’t know what to do with me. I was a mess. There were lots of tears, and I begged Jeff to let me reach out to the powers that be to see if I could visit regularly with Jose.
But his mother resisted. And even though their lives were precarious at best, she didn’t want Jose to have a female mentor. His mom and I talked, and I know she was threatened by my stability.
Jose and I kept in touch for years, and last we corresponded, he had won a leadership award in his community. I couldn’t have been more proud.
One of the things I wanted to do for Jose was to give him a set of Legos that Christmas after our summer camp experience. I knew that he would’ve loved it, but his mom would have none of that. I wasn’t able to give him any gifts at all.
Looking back, I feel like Jose gave me the gift that year. A gift of perspective. A new way of looking at kids, all people really. A realization that even the most unlovable have something to teach us. And if we take the time and effort to look for something good in those unlovable people, we just might find it.
And that is a life lesson that I’m incredibly thankful for.