Mentorship June 19, 2017
Sometimes all you have to do is listen.
Freshman year of high school, they cordoned off a wing to keep all the ninth graders in. They said it was to keep us from being messed with by the older students. The fact that a few rival middle schools were coming together also made students fighting an issue.
We shuffled into homeroom on the first day to our assigned seats. I sat next to this kid named Jackson.
Jackson had a scar that took up a third of his cheek and spidered along the rest of the right side of his face. He didn’t know any of the kids in homeroom either, even though, unlike myself, he was from West Virginia. I was drawing something in my notebook, and Jackson said he thought it was cool. Then we went on to the rest of our day, during which we didn’t have any classes together.
Over time going to homeroom after homeroom, Jackson and I struck up a friendship. I looked forward to seeing Jackson and talking about TV shows and video games. One day I gave him the number to my Razr cell phone. (R.I.P. Razr. You survived two weeks in the dead of winter buried two feet deep in West Virginia snow.)
So Jackson started calling me and we talked about the same dumb stuff we talked about in homeroom. Eventually I worked up the nerve to ask him how he got his scar. He kind of shuffled it off with a murmur about his dad. I didn’t ask him again.
Then one day at lunch Jackson got in a fight. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t beyond anything that a lot of students get in to. Some shirt pulling, a couple of punches. But Jackson was so riled up that he took a few swings at the Vice Principal who broke the fight up. So when he wasn’t at school the next day I wasn’t surprised.
I went home and sat in the back at the dinosaur of a computer we had, looking through old CD-ROMs of Ocean Explorers and the Madeline Game. Then the phone rang. Jackson. So I picked it up.
He told me that he was getting sent to an alternative school because of the fight. And he apologized to me for a reason I didn’t really understand. Then he asked if we could stay friends. I said yes, of course. But the next time Jackson called me, I didn’t pick up the phone.
Senior year of high school was full of a lot of things. I was applying to colleges and playing Yente in our school’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” taking my last AP classes and guitar and drumming for the fun of it. There was a kid in my history class who sat beside me on the right.
He chewed tobacco and brought the water bottle full of his spit from room to room. He wore T-shirts emblazoned with the Confederate flag and swore at the teacher in class. I steered clear of him in the hallways. Until one day, he passed by me on the left, and I saw his scar.
Jackson. He’d been in the alternative school for so long that when he got back he was tall and lanky. The scar seemed smaller. But he still had the same haircut. I felt responsible somehow. The same sort of confusion that I had felt when he’d apologized. I think he was saying he was sorry that he wasn’t going to be there anymore. No more homeroom small talk to help each other get through the day ahead. Just an ear.
I think if I’d known freshman year that an ear could save a life then I would’ve picked up the phone every time that Jackson called. Especially after seeing the confederate flag on his shirts. Harmful ideologies take hold much more easily when people aren’t there to intervene. And it might’ve been better for me, too.
High school wasn’t a walk in the park for me. But maybe if I had taken an ear when it was offered, I wouldn’t have worn a leather jacket at school all day to serve as some type of security blanket. Maybe I would’ve stood up to the kid who slapped my ass in Driver’s Ed instead of letting him tell the teacher I was his girlfriend. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so sad.
So it’s my turn to apologize to Jackson, whose name I have changed, and who will never read this article. Today when someone needs an ear, I will give it to them.
I’m sorry. Even if you don’t understand why.
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