I sat across from a student last week, and he solemnly stared ahead, fairly disinterested in why I was sharing an empty classroom with him. I had pulled him from class and, because I was acutely aware of the clock hanging above me, I was doing my best to create a rapport out of the scraps of silence and humor and awkward stillness that lay around us. I tried my usual tactics: I asked about sports. And then I asked about video games. And then, t.v. shows and music and secret, hidden talents. And then, after more silence, I asked about school and finally, girls. Still, he stared ahead, unwilling to share and unwilling to crack. Arms crossed, he occasionally moved his mouth this way and that until he found the place where his breath bounced off of his top lip and made a sound he seemed to like.
“How long do we have to stay in here?” he asked.
I looked at him, his red t-shirt torn at the shoulder and his hair shaved close to his head. He seemed so very sad.
I understand, I thought. I understand what it’s like to feel so tired. To feel so heavy. To feel so sad.
“We don’t have to stay in here very much longer.” I said. “But I’d like to hear a little bit more about you. I’d like to get to know you a little better, if that’s ok with you.”
He glanced at me, and squinted his eyes slowly.
I spoke again, “I know that you don’t know me very well and so I don’t expect you to tell me all of your secrets. But I would like to hear your story. I’d like to hear your side.”
He looked down at the desk for several minutes and then looked up at me for the first time. I waited, sensing that he wanted to say something.
“My side goes like this. I’d be a better person if other people would be better people to me.”
I felt my breath catch in my throat and neither of us said anything for a little while as I let the quiet fill up the room.
Finally, I reached across the desk, tapping my fingers slowly in front of him to get his attention.
“You know,” I said, “I think that may be the wisest thing I’ve heard in a very long time.”
And ever so slightly, I think I saw him smile.