Angry Young Man
He was a lost soul and I knew it. He had great potential and I knew it. He had everything going for him, and I knew it. The problem was, he didn’t. He hadn’t a clue.
This young man was a time-bomb waiting to explode. He would fight ANYone for ANY reason – whether real or imagined, it mattered not. He refused the help of anyone, especially teachers, but even the help of his peers. I believe he felt so pathetic and helpless inside that he couldn’t bear for anyone – anyone at all – to perceive him as weak in any way. He had to appear strong, “manly”, impervious to the myriad little things that hurt/confuse/destroy normal teenagers. He would punch you in the face and beat your head into the ground as soon as look at you. “Strike first (before they do) and they’ll all leave you alone” – that was his motto.
I watched him for some time; watched his interactions with teachers and peers. He gave the appearance of joviality with his friends, the stance of a delinquent to his teachers. He came across as proud, strong and willing to accept you – until he felt you had crossed him. Then…I saw young men, some much bigger, much tougher, cower before the rage that could burn in his eyes, bow before the sarcastic whip of his tongue. I watched other adults sidle past him, afraid to be the recipient of his penetrating stare and freezing indifference. He exuded power and rage when needed but could also affect the most amazing calm. One never knew when he would snap – or what would make him do so. Except for a small number of intimates, everyone approached him tentatively, delicately, waiting to see in what mood he appeared to be.
He was a natural born leader with no confidence in himself or knowledge of how to lead. A bright, inquisitive mind with no idea of how to channel his intellect. A compassionate, sensitive, loving young boy, afraid to be any of those things for fear he would appear soft, a wussy (or even worse, in the mind of a young man, a pussy).
He was angry at the world, especially at himself. Why? I’m not sure that really matters anymore. What does matter is the effect his anger and self-loathing, his pain and depression, could have on the rest of his life if allowed to continue unchecked. I wasn’t sure how to help him at first…then one day it came to me: books.
Books? Yes, books.
It occurred to me one day as I observed him in lunch. He was sitting at a table surrounded by friends, laughing, interacting, running the group instinctively as if he were a king. I was startled to realize, in some blinding flash of intuition, that he wasn’t really there with those people. He was projecting himself into the group while his real, true self sat back alone. In a cafeteria full of four hundred students, sitting with ten of his close friends, he was entirely alone and miserable. A wave of empathy – and sympathy – rolled over me and I decided I had to act. So, I did.
For whatever reason, he was never rude to me. Occasionally I would see rage flare up in his eyes, feel the edges of his sarcasm, his impertinence and disrespect of authority; but primarily he was carefully polite around me. He would often do the things I asked him to do. Actually, he would do just about any task I set before him except read.
“I don’t want to read. Books are…I don’t have time. I’d rather surf or hang out or play music. Fuck books.”
I would shake my head at him and try again. “My dear, if you would just try one or two I’ve suggested. I honestly believe you will find friends, if you will, in the pages of books; friends you can relate to, friends on whom you can rely for honesty and clear guidance. Won’t you try ONE of them?”
“Shit. Friends in books. That is lame! I mean, I’m sorry, but no, I really can’t do that. It’s pointless. Besides, I’m too stupid to read the books you talk about. I wouldn’t understand them anyway, and I already feel stupid enough, okay, so please stop asking me to read.” He looked at me almost pleadingly. “Please?”
“Okay,” I replied. “I’ll lay off for now.”
We’d go back to working on other things, harmony restored, until I brought it up again.
“Oh come on!! Please? The Chronicles of Narnia. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings?? The Secret Garden? The Catcher in the Rye?” All were books replete with characters isolated or outcast in some way – characters with whom I truly believed he would have an affinity and help him to realize that he was not alone in whatever it was that tortured his mind…Stories that also contained wise men, noble men, good men – as well as one good lion – who could perhaps help guide him.
“The Catcher in the Rye? What the hell kind of title is that? That sounds stupid. No. I won’t read any of them. Really. Again, I’m sorry, I’ll do other things you ask – look, I even write more now! – but I’m not gonna read. Sorry.”
After one of these discussions he was always embarrassed and avoided me for a while – almost as if he was ashamed to say no to me. If that makes any sense…
This went on for nearly two years, and then he moved away. I always wondered what happened to him. He and I kept in touch for a while but then I supposed he forgot his old teacher and moved on. I only hoped he was happy and that he had somehow found a way to realize his promise, his intrinsic capabilities. I often wondered what had become of him.
A few years later I heard from him. He wrote to me, his spelling much improved I was happy to note, and asked how I was. We spoke off and on for several months and never had I been so proud of a student. He read those books I mentioned, and many, many more. In doing so he truly did find friends, people with whom he could identify. He no longer felt so poorly about himself. He had acquired, finally, the unquenchable thirst for knowledge that I had always known lived inside him. And I was so very proud that he said he had done it to impress me, because I was the one teacher he ever had who had not given up on him, no matter what.
I cried over that compliment more than any other I have ever received.
Over the years we corresponded off and on. He continued to read and learn – took college classes and all manner of self-teaching courses. He began writing, for real. And the vocabulary he had developed was amazing. Finally, in his writing, he exposed all the feelings he had been afraid to show his entire life. He had become a leader in his community and had a family. At last, all his powers were being used for good instead of evil – as the saying goes.
To this day, he is my favorite student and the one whose memory I cherish the most. He is the reason I kept teaching when I lost faith in myself…So, see, he taught me a thing or two as well.