The Power of the P Word [Part V]

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  11.22.2022

I wasn’t quite sure where to start. After all, I had never enrolled a kid into school and obviously had no experience as to how to go about re-enrolling a student who had dropped out.

Still not quite sure what I was seeing in front of me, and with a renewed acceptance that I didn’t have to understand, I focused on the most basic things. Justin sat holding his football watching the fish – which I admit – I took time to watch too. We’d talk about his situation and school yet as soon as one of the colorful fish flipped or pooped or darted sideways the conversation reverted to the tank. My tank. Our tank.

Every question I asked, he answered. Not once did I hear the downtrodden, “I don’t know.” He told me his name, his age, and where he had been enrolled in school.

I was being professional and my best adult self but at the same time I was keenly aware I cared about the boy on a different level – a level I’d never experienced. Finally, I asked him why he had dropped out of the 7th grade.

Staring at the zen-like movement within the fish tank that we both had come to recognize as our safe place, he said with a maturity that caught my attention, “I’m not going to say I don’t know because you’re right, I do know. But it’s hard to answer.”

Holy jesus I thought. I’m not equipped for this – I was expecting him to say he was bored or just didn’t want to go to school.

“It’s okay, Kiddo. You don’t have to tell me, that part isn’t my business. The important thing is to figure out how to get you back in class with all these people asking me about vaccinations and acting like you weren’t just there a few months ago.”  Because he had sat there with me as the pontificators and box-checkers and form-filler-outers grilled me about the same kid who had been sitting in their classrooms three months ago.

“My mom moved out and that’s when I stopped going to school.”

Good lord. We both stared at the fish tank as the heaviness of his reality blanketed the room. I don’t know how many times I thought to myself, ‘thank god for this fish tank. I’m a fucking genius for having this fish tank.’

He was 12 when she left him behind to move in with a new partner – the fact that the partner was of the same gender added to his confusion and the stigma in which this family was mired. Over the years I would make mistakes with Justin. I sometimes did and said the wrong things and notably, taught him to drive a stick shift way too fast, but I never ever, not once, disparaged Justin’s mom – not just in front of him – I just didn’t. Ever. I wasn’t a mother. I felt like I had no right to point fingers. I knew I was too afraid to have a child – afraid of repeating the dysfunction I was raised in, I wasn’t about to judge someone for something I didn’t have the courage to do.

Her name was Jackie and from the first time I talked with her over the phone, as I trudged through the bureaucracy to get him back into school, she was supportive of whatever it was I was doing and like Justin, she trusted me almost immediately. My guess is if I added up all the “thank you’s” in my life, Jackie probably delivered more to me than anyone. She was a good person, just like her son, but she struggled with addiction. I didn’t dislike her. I disliked her disease but I recognized that she was sick and that her son was somehow slipping through the cracks of society despite all the ‘no kid left behind’ bullshit rhetoric.

If I was angry, it wasn’t at Jackie or her disease but rather it was the system so rife with judgment and limits, and the kids they were claiming to hold onto were absolutely being left behind and slipping through the cracks of society – in plain sight. Fuck your slogans – they’re meaningless if you aren’t going to follow through. Leaving her 12-year-old son to fend on his own is not a healthy mother making a decision – that’s addiction making a decision. Anyone who thinks differently needs to sit and talk with people experiencing the illness. Jackie wasn’t bad, she was sick and it wasn’t Justin’s fault. Yes, I was angry, but I wasn’t angry at Justin or Jackie, I was angry on behalf of them and the system that set them up to fail.

We all started making small steps together. For something so foreign to me, it came so naturally. I didn’t judge Jackie but I asked how I could help and she embraced me every bit, if not more, as I had embraced Justin. I focused on the thing I had seen months before as I watched the skinny kid through my office window toss a football in the middle of the street. Potential – that word again.

The word was one he knew but one he had never heard in relation to him. It was the word that had been intuitively screaming at me before I made the fateful interception on that 19-degree morning. It was the word that when I used it to describe him for the first time brought him to tears. They say when you hear the truth you know it. That you can feel it in your soul. I hoped that was what was happening when I watched that afternoon as Justin covered his face with his hands. I hope he recognized the truth I was speaking because it was the truth and I believed it from the deepest part of me.

I saw how easy it would be to label Jackie and judge Justin – blame them for being poor or lazy, feeding off of society. If nothing else, I would make sure Justin understood that circumstances sometimes impact us and it’s not our fault. I would make sure he knew that he had potential and while I would never enable Jackie, I would not sit in judgment of her. In some ways, Jackie was stronger and more courageous than I could ever be.

As Justin and I walked down to the water’s edge that gray afternoon after his first day of returning to school, he told me about his classes and all he needed to do to catch up. He didn’t mention if the other kids asked where he had been or called him derogatory names for quitting. I was encouraged. He was feeling overwhelmed and lost yet he was clearly excited. Speaking words that I no longer remember because the feeling and his response were so much more powerful, I told him about all the potential he had and what you can do when you have potential. He had it and I knew it and he trusted me – he knew I was telling him the truth.

His hands went to his face as he let the tears fall behind the safety of their veil. There was a great deal of me in that kid. I innately knew what to say and what to do to motivate and get him to see the same depth of potential in himself that I saw. He had someone who believed in him.

Decades later I now realize, someone believed in me too.


Photograph by Alexei Scutari