When Altruism Gives You a Hug

One of my colleagues has been going through a rough time recently.  And things are going to get worse because twelve years ago something really horrible happened.  And it’s hard.  It’s hard watching her behind closed doors, sitting quietly at her desk, waiting for the calendar to click by and for the day to be stripped away from her.

It’s an anniversary no one should have to experience.

And every year, she goes through those quiet steps and few of us can understand what she has experienced because no one wants to experience her memories.

We share them with her.  I was there.  I knew her a dozen years ago.  And every year, I remember, even if I am in a totally different part of the building.

I remember.  I hold those memories like a broken snow globe, want to shake up the particles and fragments of those horrible days and wish that the bits and pieces would make a new image.

They don’t.  They keep on taking on the same shapes.

And then the day passes and I move back into my cycle of late winter routine and early spring exhaustion and just keep on counting the days to graduation because everyone is in survival mode.

Until the anniversary starts creeping forward, a little dust shadow in the corner of the hall.  A tidy reminder that days can elapse but memories will stick into the skin with thorny, cruel tenacity.

A senior, today, noticed my colleague in her room with the door closed, hidden behind her desk.  And though I had never taught this lovely gentleman, he and I have formed a nice relationship built on trust, honesty, and sarcasm when the occasion called for it.  As I was standing in the hall, singing to students because snow is in the forecast and it was the morning and caffeine was still coursing thickly through my veins, the student approached me.  Gestured towards the closed door.

“Is she okay?” he asked, nodding towards the quiet part of the hallway.

I hadn’t spoken to my colleague yet this morning.  Her door had been closed when I first arrived, the lights on, the blinds drawn.  I figured she was in a meeting, maybe was having a quiet moment to collect her thoughts before the day started.

Maybe she wasn’t there yet and someone had just been nice and unlocked her door and turned on the lights…

I told the student that I hadn’t spoken with her, didn’t know if anything was bothering her.

And then I remembered.  And the little, dusty shadow crept around the corner, tilted its head in my direction.  I could hear the twelve-year old echoes of my home phone ringing….

I don’t know what I said.  I know I indicated that my colleague might be a bit stressed, might be needing a little quiet.  And, somehow, the student knew.  Maybe she had told his class when he was a freshman.  Maybe he had heard the stories that teachers who had been there would speak in hush-hush voices as we quietly walked down the broken path and worried about causing pain by asking anything beyond, “How are you doing today?”

But this young man knew and we cast away the pretense of secrets and quietly talked.  He shared his concern.  I shared the edges of my memory.

And then he asked me if he thought it would be okay to bring my colleague flowers, a card. A little something to show that he cared and that he wanted to take  on a fragment of her pain and carry it for her.  Give her a brief respite even though he knew she wouldn’t share and wouldn’t release the pain.

But it didn’t matter whether or not she was going to share the sadness.  It was already there, walking on the cracks that would break the mothers’ backs.

It was already there in tidy nuances and I wasn’t going to ignore it and I wasn’t going to scream at it to run away.

Instead, I stood in the hallway across from my classroom, talking to an incredible gentleman whose compassion was larger than any sadness or anger or animosity that could possibly exist.

People keep on telling me that they “don’t know how [I] do it” when I tell them I work with teenagers.  They keep on saying that they wouldn’t trade jobs with me, couldn’t handle being in the classroom.

But, what they don’t realize, is that I get to work with students like this young man EVERY SINGLE DAY.  And I don’t even teach him.  I have never taught him.  And since he will graduate in June, I will never have the good fortune to teach him.  But I have been still given the God-send-blessing to have a completely inconsequential share in his life.

But his words today showed me that he will have a consequential share in my life.  Because I saw, once more, the absolute selflessness and altruism that is within any and every person who has the courage and wherewithal to choose to do so.  This young man will gain nothing out of his act of compassion.  My colleague isn’t his teacher anymore, hasn’t been his teacher in three years.  He has already been accepted into college.  He doesn’t need to earn good grades from her, ask for letters of recommendation, gain assistance on an assignment.

He doesn’t need to do this at all because it isn’t his responsibility or duty or obligation to offer comfort to this lovely woman on a day which would be better off stricken from her calendar.

But, in his own quiet way, this young man is going to go out and buy her a card, a small token that will show that she is loved and cared for.  And he is going to have every senior he can find sign this card because she is responsible for having taught nearly twenty-five percent of the senior class.  And he is going to ask them to show her that they care about her, have always cared about her, and will always care for her.

And he is going to buy her sunflowers because, as I recall, they are her favorite flowers.  And, if they aren’t, well, then he will give her “sunshine on a cloudy day.”

This young man will be….no, wait.  He already is a force of good in this world.  In this world that is contaminated and corrupted by selfishness and cruelty and anger and animosity, this young man will step outside the comfort zone of the high school world and he is going to make changes that will show the world what goodness looks like.  Goodness isn’t about “thank you’s” or “what’s in it for me.”

Goodness is about giving someone a little bit of comfort and love when the day is frayed around the edges and all that is being perceived is a shattered refraction of what isn’t there and what is there.

Goodness is a young man holding a handful of sunflowers and a thousand words of love.

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