There is something about playing a Spongebob Squarepants board game with two 8-year-old boys that can totally restore your faith in humanity.
Let me explain. Every Tuesday night I volunteer at a local homeless shelter for families. I am supposed to tutor kids ages 5 to 15. And sometimes I do.
Sometimes I teach them to read. Other nights I try to explain that writing a ‘little p’ is not really the same as writing an uppercase one – only smaller. Sometimes I struggle to remember what inverse equations are, let alone how to explain them to a less-than-eager teenager who would rather dismantle his MySpace page than sit with me and learn math.
But more often than not, I just listen.
Some nights, midway through an explanation on what makes an animal cold-blooded, a student will interrupt to say something like: My dad used to drink a lot – he only drinks a little now. Or, my mom can’t answer her phone or her boyfriend will get really mad. My grandmother is addicted to drugs – that’s why we can’t live with her anymore…
However, most evenings are fairly mundane with an occasional wetting-of-the-pants incident to liven things up. But when they do, it feels like someone moved your heart to the other side of your chest with a fork.
One night a few months ago a 14-year-old confessed that everyone she knew – family and friends – was in gangs. She said she hated it, but didn’t know how to get away from it. She confessed she hated how she looked and was afraid to make friends at school because they might find out she was homeless. She said older boys (and adult men) were hitting on her and it made her uncomfortable. This is the same girl whose dad was in prison for selling drugs and whose grandmother was a drug addict. Her mother was in rehab.
And then she apologized for complaining.
All I could think was – man, and I was sitting here thinking she was upset with me for not being able to explain her math homework to her. This girl has so many strikes against her and so many other stresses in her life to worry about than whether or not her math homework gets done.
So we stopped working and just talked. In the end we did not tackle a single a math problem. But I think listening was the best thing I could do for her at that moment. She just needed someone to talk to who didn’t owe her anything – who didn’t have any obligation to her. Someone who was not being paid to listen to her. Someone who simply cared about what happens to her.
Afterwards she thanked me for listening. I told her I understood that her life sucked right now. I promised her things would get better, but not right away. I told her she needed to stay focused on herself. Stay away from drugs and boys. Do well in school. And never forget that she alone can change her life – but just not right away. I also told her it was OK to cry.
Then she gave me a hug. And I hugged her back even though we aren’t supposed to. (Shelter rules.) I never saw her again.
Sometimes I think about her and how she is doing. I pray she is OK. And I can only hope that maybe, sometimes, she thinks of me too, and remembers that someone out there cares.
But this leads me back to Spongebob Squarepants and my night with two 8-year-old boys. Tuesday, no one had a sad story. They just wanted to play. And they just wanted me to play with them.
The boys had just met this summer but already referred to each other as their best friend. They looked out for one another on the playground and in the classroom. They didn’t let each other cheat. They accepted losing with grace and they acted with humility when they won. Afterwards they said, “I like the homework club. It’s fun.”
Right there. That made my week.