“I don’t know” [Part I]

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  11.14.2022

He had just turned 13 the day before. Of course, I had no way of knowing that. It’s hard to tell how old anyone is, including kids. I would have guessed 10 but I’m a horrible guesser. He was tall and lanky but he was skinny, too skinny, in that underfed way. I soon learned that his heart was underfed too.

It was the first week of January in our small, coastal town of Maine. To say it is cold is just part of what winter is like in Maine. The moisture off the ocean makes it feel like the perpetually gray, cloudy days have somehow seeped into your bone marrow. There’s no other cold quite like it. It makes you feel cold from the inside out.

The boy was out there again. He didn’t seem to be aware that it was 19 degrees. He was there, just as he had been weeks before, in the middle of the street with a light jacket on – no gloves, no hat. Tossing that damn football straight up in the air and catching it again. Toss, catch, and repeat. Why is he out there? What the hell is happening with this kid? Where is his coat? Why isn’t he in school? What the fuck?

It was 10:30 in the morning and the working-class neighborhood, quickly becoming gentrified by people like me who buy old houses and run businesses from them, was quiet. People were at work. The school busses had finished their predictable, methodical routes hours ago.

I’d been watching the kid tossing that damn football for two months. When I closed my office for the Christmas holiday, I told my then-husband, if that kid is still out there when I re-open in the new year, I’m going to walk out there and ask him what he’s doing.

I’ve always been that person. You know, the one who calls the police about a dog barking for hours and hours, the one who steps in and interrupts an argument between two strangers. I was the one who yelled at the cop who pulled me over for speeding in the winter because he wasn’t wearing a coat. I’m not sure what that says about me. Mostly I think it says it’s not about me. It’s about the neglected dog or the woman who is trying not to get hit, or the cop, so ambitious that he forgot to put on his coat. My then-husband was the opposite of that. He would have struggled to yell if his hair was on fire. He told me it wasn’t any of my business and to stay out of it. I thought the opposite.

That ‘save the world’ part of me was bothered to the core. I thought about that kid when I drove home, when I took a bubble bath and when I went to bed. It didn’t make sense – a kid not in school who clearly wasn’t drunk or on drugs – he was playing football. By himself. I was angry and questioned why the kid wasn’t in school. I was angry with my gentrifying neighbors for not seeing what I was seeing or perhaps like my then-husband, not wanting to intervene. Was that being respectful of others’ choices or was that choosing to look the other way?

To me, it was a no-brainer. I’m not one who can look away from suffering or injustices. Whether or not I’m sure of the suffering or injustice has never been part of my internal dialog. How would I feel if I later learned the barking dog starved to death because his owner’s moved away and left him chained to a tree? I’m just not that person who looks away. When it comes to something like that, I’d rather be wrong than safe. I knew I wasn’t going to ignore what I was seeing literally playing out in front of me.

In the new year, I returned to my office, and instead of getting back to work, I stood at the door watching the skinny kid with a light jacket playing catch with himself. No hat, no gloves, no school. I decided it was time.

Despite the 19-degree temperature, I opened the door and walked out to the middle of the street. He had just tossed the ball. And that’s when I stepped in and what was to become the most significant interception of my life – and his – I caught the ball.

Thinking to myself, what am I doing here? as I held the kid’s ball, I looked at him, part angry, part afraid that I had crossed the line, part social-something-advocate, I asked, “What are you doing? Why aren’t you in school?”

And that’s when Justin said the three words to me that we would eventually work hard to successfully, irradicate from his vocabulary: “I don’t know.”

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