Sometimes the kids don’t like a teacher.
Sometimes a teacher doesn’t like the kids.
That could be. . . awkward.
I was waiting at the door when Brad arrived. I introduced him to my father before we went upstairs. I asked him if he wanted a Coke or anything and he readily accepted one. He said his practices always left him thirsty.
When I brought two Cokes upstairs he was looking around my room. It was rather plain and I was a little embarrassed about it. I didn’t have the walls covered with posters, I didn’t have a computer; about the only thing I had were lots of books I’d read and a small CD player and a radio. But Brad didn’t seem to notice the Spartan condition.
He sat on the bed and drank about half his Coke. Then he asked the question I figured he would.
“What’s the matter with your dad?”
I expected it so wasn’t surprised. “He’s had diabetes most of his life, but it finally got worse. He’s been in a wheelchair for several years, but two years ago it affected his eyes and now he’s blind as well.” I said this very simply without any emotion. Emotion, I’d discovered, always evoked a really sympathetic, unnatural response, which always made me feel awkward.
“God, that’s awful. I’m really sorry.” Brad looked like he meant it, that he felt bad about what I’d said and he seemed genuine. He seemed to be reacting to my father’s problems, not feeling sorry for me. I couldn’t help but like him for that.
“Yeah, it is awful, but he does the best he can. He stays cheerful, and he’s just this great guy. If you ever get the chance to talk to him, you’ll see. We talk a lot, and do stuff. When you’re around him, you sort of forget about the problems he has. He’s just Dad, you know?” I needed to stop talking. I was sounding a little funny, some huskiness was creeping into my voice. I looked around the room, at everything but him, and after a pause said, “Well, you want to get to work?”
We settled down on the carpet and started working on the rest of the book, the stuff we hadn’t had time to complete in detention. The camaraderie we seemed to have developed in working together for two days in detention was still present, and without the detention room restrictions, this time we were able to make the studying fun. Within a short time I was teasing him, he was being sarcastic right back, and we were actually doing math and laughing at the same time. Who’d a thunk it? Within a shorter time than I’d imagined we’d finished, and I was sorry it had to come to an end.
From what I could see, Brad might have felt the same way. He closed his book and then started fidgeting. I could tell he wanted to say something but was hesitating. Finally, I guess the pressure got too great for him. Brad was always a straightforward, shoot from the hip guy. Holding back wasn’t in his character.
“Danny, can I ask you a question?” Brad asked with a very serious look in his eye. This made me nervous, but what was I supposed to do, say no?
“Well, this is a little embarrassing, but. . . .” He looked very uncomfortable, but Brad wasn’t one to let something being difficult stop him. “Danny, I really appreciate the help you’ve given me. I mean, it’s been great and you didn’t have to. You put yourself out for me. And you’ll never know how much difference it makes to me. So, well, I kind of feel in your debt, you know? So I’m going to talk to you about something, and it’s, well, I feel uncomfortable saying this; I don’t want to hurt your feelings, and I know this might, but I’m going to go ahead anyway.”
He paused to take a breath, then said, “Danny, you don’t seem to have any friends at school, and you’re this really great guy with a cool sense of humor, smarter than almost anyone in school and cute and, and. . . .” He blushed a little, probably embarrassed when he realized he said that, but then plowed ahead. “Well, I don’t understand why you’re such a loner. You could be one of the most popular kids there, but you just stay to yourself. Why?”
I didn’t answer right away. I had to maintain my composure, and talking about myself was always difficult. Eventually, I said, “You’re right. This is embarrassing. I don’t know what to say.”
“Danny, I want to be your friend.” Brad put his hand on my forearm and looked at me right in my eyes. “I want you to be my friend.” He was so direct, so focused, it was sort of intimidating. Brad wanted to be my friend? Wow. But this was unknown territory for me. I didn’t know what to say. He was waiting though, looking at me. I had to say something.
“I’d like that a lot. I really like you, um, I mean, being around you. But Brad, you don’t really know me. And I don’t much like talking about myself.”
“Well, I like you. We get along with each other and all. I’d really like hanging with you. I want to be your friend, I want to hang around with you more. I think you’re nuts for backing off from people, pushing them away. You’re smart, you’re kind and considerate, you’re, well, you’re fun to be with.” He stopped. This was a strange conversation. Kids aren’t usually so open with each other. They keep their emotions and inner feelings to themselves. They protect themselves that way.
What could I say? He was looking at me so intently, his eyes were so deep as he looked at me, I couldn’t just blow this off. I had to talk to him. He was waiting for a response.
“Look, Brad, I’d love to have lots of friends, go to parties, go on dates, sleep over at friends’ houses, all that stuff, but I just don’t have much time for friends. I guess I can talk about it if you want me to.”
I paused, hoping for I don’t know what, maybe a major earthquake to interrupt us, but Brad just kept staring at me, the earth remained still, and I had to continue.
“I used to have friends, not a lot because I’ve always been shy and stuff, but I had some friends. Then, when my father’s eyesight failed, everything changed. He couldn’t work any longer. He didn’t have any sort of disability insurance which meant Mom had to go to work. She doesn’t have a college degree and had never worked before so all she could get were minimum wage jobs, and, because we had some big bills from Dad’s eye problems, just to pay off the debts and make ends meet, she ended up having to work two jobs.
“So, instead of being a carefree kid, I was suddenly left with having to do everything around the house that my father couldn’t do and my mother was too tired to do.” This was starting to sound mushy and sad and like I was sorry for myself, which was one of the reasons I didn’t like to talk about it. A lot of people were a lot worse off than I was. What I was saying sounded more like a kid whining than anything else. I was 13. I should be able to take this responsibility in stride without whining about it.
Brad kept looking at me, not much expression visible on his face, but seemed to know there was more, and all he said was, “OK, go on.”
“Well,” I said, “I want to go to college, and my parents want me to go, too. The only way I can do that is if I can get a full scholarship somewhere, so I have to study hard enough to keep getting A’s. In everything. If I don’t start now, I won’t be prepared for high school. On top of that, I have to do all the housework, and the yard work, and cook the meals and sort of take care of my father, you know, at least be here for him. This really doesn’t leave me much time for friends. And I don’t have any money to go to the mall or movies, either. The friends I used to have would ask me to do things and I didn’t have the time or the money to do them or, at first, the energy because doing all that work I hadn’t done before was more than I expected. Doing all that and worrying about my dad and everything and trying to get all A’s, well, it just wore me out. I’m used to it now, but after always saying no to my friends, they just stopped asking and finally stopped hanging with me. I’m not surprised. I didn’t have any time for them. So, when they stopped hanging with me, and me being shy and finding it difficult to make new friends, and not having time for friends anyway and. . . .” My voice sort of trailed off, and I looked down at my feet.Brad kept looking at me, and then did something I’ll never forget. He stood up, moved closer, sat down next to me and hugged me.
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