He Said: “Don’t Turn Out Like Me.”
The first day I saw him, I told him that the new school policy allows facial hair. He told me months later that this news had made his day.
The first day he sat in my classroom, I asked everyone what they would regret not doing before they died. He answered on that index card that he would regret not seeing his grandmother one last time before she passed away. That answer stuck with me.
This is my first year teaching high school. It is also, for the time being, my last.
Yesterday, this boy told me something that settled heavy over my mind and my heart. However, it was not only what he told me that kept me from sleep; it was the way he insisted on telling me, despite my lighthearted attempts to decline this piece of information he offered. I have a curious habit of running from difficulty. I like to live without burden, barely glancing over the surface of any unpleasantry. This time, as if he knew how desperately I wished to avoid the matter, this boy pushed me, forced me into a territory I try to avoid.
He said: “Don’t turn out like me.” And he said it repeatedly, once every few sentences. As if he needed to tell me. As if in telling me, he could repent for his wrong. As if in telling me, he could share his burden with someone he could trust, someone who will understand.
He can trust me and I will understand. But I don’t want this burden. It is selfish for me to think this way, but it was also selfish for him to tell me. I am not angry and I forgive him, for it is human nature to be selfish – and who better to be selfish toward than people who you trust to understand you?
He told me that he needed to fill out this form before the end of the day, but how could he if he didn’t know her birthday? I asked to look at the piece of paper he held in his hands, and he let me – though he said he was ashamed. It was a court document, with a large watermark that said “SAMPLE” printed diagonally. On the top of the paper, I saw that he had written his name. Above that, I read one word: “paternity”. I pretended I hadn’t and gave the paper back to him.
I laughed a little more than I should have. “This is a sample,” I told him jokingly. “You can’t submit this in court.”
“It’s not the real one. They don’t let you take that to school,” he said in the way he usually says things. A classmate asked what it was for, but he didn’t share the information with him. “Don’t turn out like me,” he said again to me.
I gave him a sidelong glance and asked, “What are you talking about?”
“You saw what it said.”
“All I saw was SAMPLE,” I lied.
“How could you not see? It was in bold letters at the top of the page.”
“Because she’s not nosy,” said another student who was nearby. I blushed inwardly. He was coming to defend my lie.
The boy gave me the paper again and told me to read it.
“I don’t want to know,” I told him.
“Read it,” he insisted.
I had to. So I took it. And I read the entire line. He had to establish paternity.
“Oh,” I told him, in a voice what jokingly suggested that he was in trouble. How else could I react?
Class was almost over. We talked a bit more, and I did not try to give him any advice. I thought if I should, but I hadn’t really prepared for this. What could I tell him? To be brave? To live honestly? To call the girl and ask her for the baby’s birthday? Then, the bell rang. Class was over.
I wish that I could have helped him in some way, but I didn’t know what he wanted from me. Did he want advice, or just someone to learn and share in his burden? I can only imagine how lost or troubled he might feel. For the rest of the day, this knowledge weighed heavily over me.
But beneath all my feelings of unease and futility, a small voice within me asks a question. It is persistent, and won’t let me rest. It is an abstract question – more of an emotion, and I can’t quite put it into words – but let me try to phrase it the best I can:
How must he view himself to say something like ‘don’t turn out like me’? It is a sad phrase, one that he should not be saying or feeling.
The way I see him must be different from the way he now sees himself. I see a boy who is still so young, who tries to make good decisions, who respects others around him. I see a boy with heart, a drive to succeed, and a willingness to do good in the world. I see a warm-blooded youth who has waded a little too deep into the waters of life and wishes that he had stayed closer to shore. He is trying to make his way back.
I want to reach out and grab his hand, but I cannot. The school year is almost over. I won’t see him again, not like this, not in the intimate connection of teacher and student. I hope that he finds his way.