I'm at the library on a Wednesday morning -- working. In walk two teenage boys. School is in session. They are not there. Uh-oh. Suspended. Again. One was expelled last year but later returned. He came to me during that time asking for a job. At 14, he is too young for me to hire even if I had an opening. But I had a project that required multiple hours and offered to pay him to do it. He did an excellent job with it.
Now he's back in school. Except he's not. He and his "step-cousin" (quotes indicate a need for a wedding to make it official) are suspended. I ask how they managed that. I don't comprehend much of their answer, but get the gist of it: It's the school's fault. And they have managed to be disrespectful to the wrong person.
Cool! I'm all over this. Do they need to do community service? Because I love unpaid young laborers! It's a gorgeous day and I have landscaping to weed! Work at the library counts as community service. How can I get in on this opportunity?
How I would love to reach into the lives of these young men. And "young men" they truly are. In other times and places they would be moving into an adult world, spending time with the older men, learning the ways of the tribe and their place within it. In our time and culture, they are expected to sit quietly at a desk, pencil in hand, and take in the wisdom of their teachers. It's obviously not working for them. They need an alternative curriculum.
How in the world can I, a 56-year-old library lady, make a difference? I'm old enough to be their grandmother. Why would they have any respect for me?
My enthusiasm catches them and they agree to pull my weeds. Except they need to eat lunch first. Off they go, returning 20 minutes later. Is it all right if they use the library computers before they start? Ah, these child-men. So used to asking permission for everything they do. I ask, "Am I in charge of you?" The older one cops an attitude and says, "No, I'm in charge of you!" Ha ha. Juvenile humor. What a cut-up. I smile and let it slide. I hold him no malice for the comment. I wish he could indeed feel in charge of something that would require him to pull his act together.
Since they seem to be open to direction, I offer to tell them they have ten minutes before they need to get back to work. After fifteen minutes I hunt them down and lament that they are caught up in computer stuff and I'll never get any work out of them. They're not sure how to take me, but they turn in the computers and go off to ask the town clerk about working at the library instead of the job she assigned them.
They come back with the disappointing news that they have to finish the task she assigned them first. Aha, so there IS someone in charge of them. Or at least one of them. The other claims he isn't required to do community service and is helping only because he's bored. I have no way of knowing how much truth he's telling as he carefully averts his eyes while talking.
It doesn't matter. I love honesty, but have no expectation that juvenile delinquents will speak truth to me. Why would they? I listen carefully and add a grain of salt to every word. I try to avoid making any response that depends on them telling me the truth. But sometimes I detect genuine truth slipping out betwixt and between the lies and am grateful for every morsel of honesty they offer me. Because I love them. I know much more about them through my small-town connections than they know about me. I know they are in difficult home situations. I know the older one is attentive to his younger sisters. I know he lied convincingly about his age so he could attend VBS a couple of years ago. (But was eventually found out and told not to return.) I know his "step-father" (more quotes for lack of a different wedding) is facing charges of disorderly conduct. I know his previous stepfather died of cancer a few years ago and the extended family has grieved deeply. My heart aches for him, a boy/man who has managed to alienate a lot of adults in his short life as a less-than-model student.
They return again. They're not sure if they want to pull weeds. We go out together and look at the weeds and they pull a few, but landscaping doesn't seem to be their passion. They stay long enough for me to probe a little about the impact of this "time off" on their school career.
How I wish I could make a difference for these young men. But all I know to do is to love them and embrace them with my words for as long as they hang around and then let them go. My day is richer for the time I have spent interacting with them. Is theirs better for having been seen and loved by me? Is love enough? And if not, what is more?