As I was reading the on-lines newspaper articles about the closing of the winter games at Nagano, I started thinking about a student I had met briefly at the end of last week and whom I really couldn’t since get out of my mind. He is someone whom I think is an Olympian in every sense of the word though he never competed in the games. He doesn’t have a gaggle of camera luggers following his every movement. He won’t appear on a box of Wheaties or a can of Campbell’s soup; and he certainly won’t be sitting down with Larry King or bantering with David Letterman. I don’t much about him beyond what I learned in a five to eight minute conversation. I don’t even know his name. He may be disappointing to some, labeled a unexceptional by others, written off as a failure or a “don’t belong” by still others. He certainly is not an honors “hot ticket” item on campus. But, in my book he is as towering as a Tara Lipinski or the members of the American ladies’ ice hockey team. And I think you should know about him because his is but one of many unnoticed olympian stories unfolding all around us, providing ignored stirring and arresting moments of fortitude, endurance and perseverance that reach into the realm of the gods though not into the headlines of man.
It all began as I was walking between buildings after class last Thursday. I student whom I did not know and had never seen before came up to me. This is how our brief conversation went, although don’t hold me to every word, but how I vividly remember it:
“Hey, you’re Dr. Schmier, aren’t you?”
“Thought so, what with that sucker and boombox and all. You got a minute?”
“Sure, and it’s a Tootsie Pop. Have one. Who are you,” I asked.
“That don’t matter none, but my friend who was in your class said I can talk with you and you can help me.”
I didn’t press him. “Let’s sit over there,” I said as I moved towards a near-by brick bench.”
Ready to hear about problems with he was having with a professor, I said, “I’m listening.” I wasn’t ready for someone to step out from Boys of the Hood. He quickly told ME about having been a bag boy before he hit his teens, having dropped out of school for the riches of the streets, having been caught in literal cross-fires by rival dealers, having been attacked on more than one occasion, quickly lifting and dropping his loose shirt as if signaling with a window shade to show me the scars of stab and gunshot wounds (!!), having done some time “in juvi,” having done some “real hard time,” having gone through rehab, taking care of his little boy because “my woman run out on us,” having given all that up and changed the course of his life, having had to go into hiding because “they thought I had ratted,” setting everything straight, having left his home city “to get away from those times and places and people” and enrolling in the University, and is now feeling “hard” pressure to get back into “the scene” because those around him are drinking and doing drugs.
I hesitated to answer. Had to catch my breath. All I could say at the moment was, “Don’t you think you have to see the director of our anti-drug program or a councilor? Why come to me?”
“I ain’t going to talk to no stranger about my shit,” he agonized as if he thought he had made a mistake.
“But, I am a stranger, too. I don’t know who you are and you sure don’t know me.”
“I don’t know those people,” he explained. My friend told me you give a damn about people. Really care. Don’t just word it. Word on the streets is that you’re a real friend of students and that I can trust you. He said you can tell me what to do.”
“You already know what to do.”
“Well, what’s troubling you, really bothering you?”
“I just told you, man. I come to school to straighten out my shit and put that other stuff behind me and forget it. I want to get an education.
He thought a few seconds. “My people went through a lot with me. They hid me when I was being hunted and wouldn’t give me up when they was threatened. I owe them and got to pay them back by becomin’ somebody and doing something. I want to be somebody my people can be proud about. I don’t want to disappoint them.”
He thought a few seconds more. “I want to be something and a somebody. And I don’t want to be pushin’ no drugs or no broom and I should enough don’t want to be pushin’ up no flowers.”
His eyes suddenly got glassy. He took a deep breath. And as he stared into mine eyes to make sure I would be hearing his words,, “I want to be a better person for my boy. I don’t want my boy to grow up to be a piece of drugged-up, scarred-up crap not worth pissin’ on like my father whoever he be or like me. I want my boy to grow right and be somebody.”
“So, I didn’t come here to hang with people to go back to smokin’ and sniffin’and f—– around. I don’t want to get back into that shit no more.. But, they’re sayin’ that I’m dissin’ them because I don’t cool with them. I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings by getting them to think I’m dissin’ them.”
“Ever think why they don’t cool with you rather than asking you to cool with them?”
“Never thought about it that way.”
“Sure you do have. Aren’t you talking to me to get me to say what you want to do is okay to do?”
He hesitated as if he really didn’t want the words to come out. “Never thought about that either…..Yeah, you’re right. I just want to get an education and not worry about hurtin’ anyone’s feelings.”
“So, why aren’t you listening yourself?
“I know. But…”
“No buts. Getting an education and walking a straight and narrow path is going to hurt anyone’s feelings? No real friend is going to feel that way. Real friends help you, kick you in the butt. Who should you really be afraid of disappointing? Who are you really ‘dissing?””
“Me, my people….my boy.”
“I’m proud of me so should they too.”
“So? I don’t I have the solution to your problem.”
“I did I wouldn’t be talkin’ to you.”
“Think about it.”
“…..Me, I guess.”
“No guess. You have to decide whose life you’re going to lead and who’s going to lead your life. Who you goin’ to diss? Yourself, your people, your ‘friends’—your boy?”
“Don’t know…Yeah, I do….I think….But it’s so damn hard.” He paused for what seemed like an hour. Then, in a tone of near surrender, spoke to the ground, “I dunno know. No one around here seems to really give a damn whether I’m here or not. You have to be one of those high and mighty good students (his emphasis) with the grades and stuff for anyone to take notice of you and kiss ass. But, I’m a good person now, and I’m tryin’ my ass off. Don’t that count for nothin’?” Then, he lowered his head and spoke softer to the ground. “One professor said I didn’t have what it took and didn’t have time for me. Maybe she’s right. I ain’t worth lookin’ at and don’t really belong here.”
“Hey,” I countered with a combined tone of annoyance and encouragement, “You looking for medals? Join the army. Was it easy leaving the streets?”
“No, like to get killed doin’ it.”
“Was it easy in rehab?”
“It was a hell you’ll not see, no.”
“Was it easy getting your equivalency diploma?”
“Is it easy taking care of your son?”‘
“That suckers,” he smilled, “No ways.”
“Was it easy believing in yourself?”
“No. Still ain’t.”
“Is it easy cracking the books?”
“It’s a real struggle. But, I’m not what you would call a good student. I’m barely gettin’ low C’s, very low C’s.”
“Is it easy having a job at the same time?”
“Did saying that any of this stuff was hard stop you?”
“Well, if they weren’t easy, why did you do them?”
“They was important to me?”
“And this stuff coming down with your friends isn’t”
“Was getting your high school equivalency diploma different from getting clean?”
“Is taking care of your son different from studying?”
“You ain’t kiddin’. He takes up a lot of my time.”
“But they were all important.”
“So, should you be talking about things being important, hard or different?
“You had the answer all the time.”
“Yeah, But what should I do?”
“Well, being hard hasn’t stopped you. Being really important is what got you to turn your life around and get here. So, if you decide what’s important, being hard or different doesn’t matter.
“Yeah. That’s right….I guess. You gave me lots to think on. Here comes the bus. I got to make class. Thanks for listenin’. You sure helped me a bunch. My friend was right.”
“By the way,” I emphatically and sincerely added and he was getting up to leave, “don’t let those low C’s or that professor kid you. You’re not a piece of crap! You’re already a ‘something’ and a ‘somebody.’ You’re not a crackhead or two-bit hoodlum in some back alley or lying dead in a morgue, are you? You had the courage to leave the streets, face yourself down, come to school and get a new life. That takes guts (not the words I used) in my book. Your boy already has a father to look up to and your people can already be proud of you.”
He grinned, turned, and walked quickly away and got on a bus to go to another part of campus. Strange. That chat took only a few quick minutes. I turned, feeling like that person at the end of an episode of the Lone Ranger who always asks, “Who is that masked man?”
Whoever this young man is, his unfolding story reminds me of Germany’s Hermann Maier, who after what appeared to be a devastating flying and cartwheeling fall on the slops, came back, despite a spain and bad bruises, like some sort of Lazarus to win two gold medals in skiing. I’d like to be around when this reborn young man celebrates his victory lap on the graduation stage.
Make it a good day.