The End of Loneliness

I have been remarkably fortunate to have the support of my mother and father through my life. And I have been remarkably fortunate for the myriad people that I have crossed paths with that I feel truly lucky to call friends – from my years at Virginia Tech, to Myrtle Beach, to Annapolis and, now, in San Antonio. But the word fortunate doesn’t come close to describing what I feel about continuing to be a part of some of my students’ lives.

While I have not stayed in close, or even occasional, contact with many of my students, I do still hear from a good number of them now and then. But there are a few that have contributed to me still being a teacher and me being a better person than I was 10 years ago, before I stepped into a classroom.

Some of those kids…I call them kids even though they are in their early 20s now…I met when they were 7th or 8th graders in 2007. When I left my first school, they had no duty to stay in touch with me, but they did. I know I was probably a little overbearing sometimes, and maybe worried a little too much about them, but they still let me check up on them let me give them a little help. But they helped me way more than they could imagine. Being single with no kids, having someone to worry about and check in with has pretty much kept me sane.

After those kids at that first school, I didn’t think I’d ever build that kind of connection with any other students. Because, honestly, as rewarding as it was, it was also really, really hard. Because I knew that at the end of the day, I was still going home to my place, or disconnecting the Skype call and there I would be, with nobody else here but my cat.

But, at my current school, I did build a connection with a few other kids. Maybe it was because neither had much of a father figure in their lives. Maybe it was the level of honesty I have always had with my students. Maybe some combination of the two. But, the connection is there. These kids just graduated from high school back in June. I help a couple of them with their math classes, but they also just send me a text to see how I’m doing.

I know I’m not the only teacher to get a text on Father’s Day. I know I’m not the only teacher that has had a kid say he was angry because I wasn’t his dad. I know I’m not the only teacher that has former students come by their classroom to say hi and to say how their life is going after high school. As awesome as that is, and as blessed as I feel when those things happen, at the end of each day I still came home to my place with nobody else there.

But recently, that changed. I’ll get to that part of the story in a second. But need to fill in quite a few blanks.

Almost exactly a year ago, I put up this blog post about a couple kids that went through more than they should ever have to. One of those kids had a somewhat difficult remainder of his senior year and an even more difficult summer after graduation. He went from living with his mother, to a one set of grandparents, to an uncle, to another grandmother. A couple of those nights in between one or the other he crashed on my couch. Each time, I made the offer that he could stay longer term, and would be stable as long as he showed some responsibility. Each time he refused and went somewhere else.

Many times in that period, he was irresponsible, immature and inconsiderate. I take some of the blame for that…I tried to keep on helping him, but never tried to really hold him accountable for his choices. I just kept hoping that he’d use that help to start getting himself out of the hole he had dug himself. I finally came clean to him – told him that he was irresponsible and immature. Told him that I wouldn’t check in with him anymore. Told him that I simply couldn’t continue watch him make poor decisions. But also told him that he would always be able to reach me if he needed to. I kept worrying about him, but I kept that worry to myself.

That was one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had. Those other kids I talked about earlier – I’ve gotten upset at each of them for something over the years, but never got to the point of feeling that I had to let them go and just wait to see if they ever called again. I felt like I had failed. And I felt even more alone that I had. I still had my friends, and I still had my job that I loved, but…it was just hard.

He had been accepted to Texas A&M – San Antonio, but withdrew from classes three days into the semester. With no form of transportation – he got sort of scammed when trying to buy a used car that ended up running for all of one day – it was hard to find a job. Admittedly, he didn’t take the necessary steps and didn’t dedicate himself to being successful. And that led to some other very difficult conversations.

In early September, his uncle decided he couldn’t stay there anymore. So I picked him up and he moved his stuff into my place. Thought he was finally going to stay. But that lasted about 3 days. He made the decision to move in with the other grandmother. When he left that was even harder, because for those few days I wasn’t worried about where he was or what he was doing.

After that, it sort of went back to what it was just before he came here for those few days. I did buy him a bus pass so he could try to find a job somewhere in the area where his grandmother lived, but he didn’t use it much. He said he found a job but it wouldn’t start for another couple weeks. I didn’t know why he didn’t continue to look for another job, but I had to let him make that choice. Saw him a few times and each time I picked him up, he reeked of cigarette smoke – apparently his grandmother was a heavy smoker (and was in general poor health, but I repeat myself). He was clearly not in a good place, neither physically nor mentally. And I’m fairly certain that he was hanging out and smoking (not cigarettes) with friends.

Then a few weeks ago he sent a text asking if I could pick him up so he could study for the ASVAB (the military entrance exam battery) at my place. I knew he had been talking to a Navy recruiter, but didn’t know many details about what the status of that was. So I picked him up, smelling like smoke, and without his ASVAB study book that I had purchased for him back in the spring. Turned out he finally wanted to talk, and he finally let me talk to him. So we talked. But, an hour or so later, I took him back to his grandma’s place, and didn’t hear much from him for a couple days.

When I did hear from him after that, he again didn’t have a place to stay. His grandmother didn’t want him around anymore. So, I picked him up after I got out of school, and he again brought his stuff to my place. We had a conversation about what my expectations were:  absolutely no smoking or drug use, keep his stuff organized and clean, seriously look for a job near my place (there are a ton of things within a 15 minute walk from my apartment complex). As long as he showed responsibility and growth, I’d take care of groceries and he would not owe me a penny for rent. This was on a Thursday evening.

As we continued to talk, I told him I expected him to take a walk the next morning and submit some applications to as many places as he could – fast food joints, retail places, sit down restaurants, gas stations, whatever. Just apply, apply, apply and wait for something to pop. It was sort of his first test on if he was really going to commit to making a change. When I got up that morning, I had no idea if he’d just sleep all day or if he would actually get up and do what he should. I resolved to not text him through the day and would face the result when I got home.

But, around midday he sent me a text asking for my address since he was filling out applications. That was the first thing that told me it might be ok. That evening, literally less than 24 hours after he had moved in, he got an email from Amazon. There is a fulfillment center about 5 miles down the road that he had applied to a couple months ago. The email wanted him to schedule a time to go in for orientation.  That was the second thing that told me it might be ok. The third thing that told me it might be ok happened the next day.

I had a trip planned to College Station to see a Texas A&M game for several weeks, and that first full day he was at my place was the day I was supposed to head up there. And go I did. I let him know when he first moved in that I’d be out for the weekend. There was food in the fridge, and my only request is that he keep pounding the pavement Saturday to look for a job, the offer from Amazon aside. He did that, but he also sent me a text while I was away asking where the vacuum cleaner and other cleaning supplies were. May not seem like much, but that he took the initiative to do some cleaning was pretty important to me.

Since then, he has continued to have discussions with the Navy recruiter, using some of his spare time to study for the ASVAB. Last week, he dropped me at school and used my car to go take the ASVAB at Fort Sam. He didn’t exactly blow the test out of the water, but did well enough to qualify for some decent jobs. But there was one last thing that not only told me it might be ok, but really would be ok: when he was done with the ASVAB, he sent me a text saying he’d ‘be home in a little while’. Home. He called this home.

I don’t know where he would be staying or what he would be doing if he weren’t here. I asked him a week or so ago if he had heard from any of his family members asking where he was or if he was safe. He hadn’t. That made me very sad, but also very thankful that I didn’t give up on him to. And, boy howdy, did I come close to doing just that several times. I fussed at him, and I took a step back, but never gave up on him.

As I type this on Monday October 24, he is at a hotel near Fort Sam, waiting to go through MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) and officially join the Navy tomorrow afternoon. By tomorrow afternoon, he will probably have a good idea of when he’ll fly out to Basic Training, and he’ll stay here until then.

I don’t want what I’m about to say to come off sounding conceited or self-serving or, for that matter, to make any of you worry about my emotional state. But having him here for these last two-plus weeks have been remarkable for me. It’s like I have someone that is really depending on me. And he just looks content. I know some of that has to do with having the Navy thing coming to fruition, and I even told him he looks like someone that is seeing farther ahead than tomorrow for the first time in his life. But I hope some of that look is because he knows he has a home and because he knows someone cares about him. When he called his grandmother (the first one that kicked him out toward end of summer) to tell him he was officially joining the Navy, she said he could move back in with them. He told me about that offer and my heart dropped. But he told her no, that he wanted to stay here. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a tear in my eye just then.

So, for a while, at least until he ships off to the Chicago area for Basic Training, I won’t come home to just a bunch of furniture and a partially insane cat. And I really think that even when he does go to Basic that I won’t be as lonely as I was before. Because there is someone else that now calls this home. And that means something.

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