Most 28 year olds that I know aren't faced with the proverbial question of sitting with the kid who is all alone in the cafeteria. Yet that was a decision I ran into this evening at dinner. You see, most 28 year olds don't lead high school conferences on college campuses all summer. Three times a day I grab a tray, decide between chicken parmesan or a corn dog, and scan the crowded cafeteria for a place to sit.
This evening, a student sitting all alone at a round table caught my eye. This is surprising enough because I am sure he has spent most of his adolescence blending in. Or at least trying to. He wore glasses that were partly covered due to his shaggy hair resting on the gold frames. His t-shirt was slightly baggy and his shoe laces were twisted in double-knots and frayed. I slid my tray on the table and asked if I could join him. He said "sure" and continued to scan the noisy room.
I dove in with the standard event director/student conversation starters. Where are you from? What grade are you in? What do you do for fun? You like sports? It turns out he did like sports. He at least liked to watch them. When his devotion to a certain NBA team, that didn't make sense geographically, came up, I asked him if he ever lived in a certain city.
"Yeah," he said, still looking around the room. "for a while."
"When did you live there?" I asked.
"Well, I was born in Philadelphia but then we moved to Orlando. My mom and dad broke up when I was two."
"Okay. Orlando's cool. Disney World, huh?" Yep, that's the best I could come up with.
He continued, "But then we moved back to Philadelphia, then to Boston, then back to Philadelphia, and then back to Orlando. Then Texas. Then Orlando. Boston. Orlando. Boston. And now we live where we do now."
I'm not making this up. I assumed he was in the circus or something. I have a brother in the Army. He doesn't move that much. So I asked him how they ended up in the town he lives in now. That's when it changed. For the first time, he looked at me when he spoke.
"It's the only place my brother's dad wouldn't think to look for us."
I nodded. Not because I agreed with him. That's just my default response to things. I think I must have seen a counselor do it once or something. You put your hand on your chin, nod, and say, "I see."
The thing is, he said it so nonchalantly that he was able to transition to the next topic of conversation faster than I could keep up.
"That's crazy huh?" he asked.
"Sometimes people can be really..." I started.
"No," he corrected me. "The Lakers-Celtics." His eyes had drifted back to the flat screen on the wall.
I'm not a counselor. I'm not that good of a listener. But I know this. That kid has seen more life than I probably ever will. He's learned to cope with it to the point that it's now a part of casual conversation. Basketball and domestic violence. All part of a balanced dinner.
As I walked to the auditorium this evening, there was a part of me that wanted to keep walking. I knew that this young guy was just one of many stories that fill the seats every night at CIY MOVE. I wondered what right I have to sit in my comfortable office chair and write scripts and create elements that are meant to give students like this guy hope. What can I tell him about surviving high school? I had parents that love me. I had girlfriends. I was a freakin' class officer.
Of course, none of that matters if it isn't my voice. We have been trusted with fragile and complex characters. It is my desire that we always tie them into the bigger Story.