When I met him, he was a bulky linebacker. Tall and broad, with dreadlocks, a gold-capped front tooth, and intricate tattoos embroidered on both of his forearms. He had been raised by two old school grandparents who’d raised him to say, “Yes, Ma’am” whenever he was spoken to by older white women like me.
It became clear fairly soon after we met that getting a college education hadn’t entirely been his idea. He was a good high school football player. The tantalizing lure of playing one more year of football had been dangled in front of him and he’d taken the bait without understanding that in college, the word student comes before the word athlete for a reason. By the time he realized that he’d chosen the right path for all the wrong reasons, trouble had already found him.
However, what he lacked in college preparedness, he made up for in manners. Before he left, he came to my office to say goodbye and we spent some time talking about how to know what matters. We talked about how the choices we make when we’re young determine how we’ll live when we’re older. He said, “Yes, Ma’am, but you know me. Trouble has a way of finding me wherever I go.” And then he smiled in the sad, nineteen year old way that some students do when they’ve realized that they’ve screwed up and can’t quite figure out how to make things okay with people who are invested in them.
He had been on my mind a lot throughout the winter. And then, I heard from him last week. It’s funny how often that happens in the life of a teacher. He is in his late twenties now, a father of three. He has also collected a parole officer and a criminal record for petty crimes that follow him, like trouble. I knew about the jail time. He was calling to tell me that he is looking for a fresh start. Fresh starts are good, I told him. “Yes, Ma’am. I know, but I’m having a hard time. There are no jobs down here. I am trying to do right and I’m staying off the street. But I’m scared. You know me. Trouble always finds me.” We talk a little longer and I listen as he tells me about his kids, I worry that he will become the next one who is in the wrong place at the absolutely wrong time either by choice or chance. The next one that brings out the protests, the signs, and the slogans about who matters.
But see…here’s the thing. I know without a single doubt that he mattered to his grandparents and that he mattered to his teachers and his coaches. That wasn’t enough to keep Trouble from knocking on his door and pretending to be his friend. He matters to three small children. He matters to his village. He matters to mine.
Fresh starts are good, I tell him again.
Yes, Ma’am, I know, Ma’am , he says.
And for that moment, we both actually believe that he matters enough for the possibility of one to exist.