*name has been changed to protect privacy
For ten years I thought of him every day, but yet I never thought to look him up. The only former students of mine that I happened to hear from were the ones that had looked me up.
Then all of a sudden, it was important to how Kyle* “turned out.” Reader’s Digest was going to publish our story and the editors wanted to know what Kyle was doing now. It had been ten years since I last saw Kyle, and I had moved several times since then. I told the editors I was sorry, but I did not know where or what Kyle was doing now.
Then just before the article went to print, I was asked Kyle’s actual name. Over the last decade, I thought of him only by his first name – which happens to be very unique. But for verification purposes, the editors at Reader’s Digest needed to know his real name.
I typed his first name in the reply email, and then embarrassingly, I drew a blank. After several minutes of racking my brain, I realized his last name would more likely come to me if I stopped thinking about it. I set the email inquiry aside and went back to a piece I was writing.
Minutes later, like a neon sign suddenly switched ON, Kyle’s last name vividly displayed in my mind.
But before I responded to the editor, I knew there was something I must do.
With shaking hands, my fingers hovered over the keyboard; I was finally going to know what had become of Kyle. For a brief moment, I hesitated and imagined what I hoped might appear—maybe an employee of the month recognition, a game-winning touchdown, or a third place finish in a pie-eating contest. Any of those achievements be quite grand for the boy with intermittent explosive disorder – the child who didn’t know how to accept or express love until I entered his life.
But alas, none of those achievements happened for precious Kyle. Instead, three clicks of the mouse brought me to Kyle’s recent mug shot.
“No! No! No!” I cried at the sight of the heartbreaking photo. Never did I believe any of my beloved students, no matter how tragic the circumstances of their lives, would ever be incarcerated. I quickly closed out the Internet window and slammed my laptop shut.
Make it go away. Make it go away.
But I knew that particular image, no matter how hard I tried to forget, was now a permanent memory. The grown-man version of the boy I used to know with sad eyes and broad shoulders was now even more lost, even more broken than before.
With my face still wet with tears, I abruptly stood up. I couldn’t just sit there. I had the overwhelming urge to make the two-day drive to his city, walk straight into that jail and shake the answers out of Kyle. “Why? Why would you do something so foolish? Why would you throw away your life?”
And then like a butterfly that rests upon your sleeve for only a moment, the anger lifted. Suddenly I was hit by a wave of regret that made my stomach ache. I wrapped my arms around my mid-section as the “if only’s” pelted me like gravel being kicked up by an unstoppable force.
If only I had tried …
If only I had more time …
If only I had stayed …
And in those agonizing minutes of regret, I allowed myself to undo every good thing I had done for Kyle. Seeing his mug shot surely meant I failed him.
But that was wrong. I knew it was wrong.
Before I let myself go too far down the damaging path of regret, my loving inner voice reminded me of the power of presence:
You showed up when you didn’t know if he was going to spit on you, destroy the classroom, or run into the busy intersection. You showed up when he never smiled, when he told to you F off, when he told you he didn’t care if he lived or died. You were Kyle’s one constant, the first person in his life he could count on. Just because Kyle made a bad choice with his life does not mean the love you gave Kyle didn’t make a difference.
I had to believe that the unconditional love I offered Kyle was not a waste, that my belief in him was still with him somewhere deep inside. But yet, the outcome of his life perplexed me. This was not the way the story was supposed to end. Kyle was sitting in a jail cell while other students that once had equally troubling issues were fixing cars, writing books, and acting as mentors in a youth group. What had been the difference? Why not Kyle? The question hung on me like a heavy drape, weighing down my spirit until I could find a resolution.
A few days later, my daughters and I had the opportunity to help a dear friend who was going to take supplies to a shelter for homeless women and children. My children and I volunteered to make goody bags with hygiene items and treats for the residents. My oldest daughter used the shelter’s online “wish list” to choose appropriate gift items at Wal-Mart. My youngest child chose five types of candy to include. Together we stuffed the colorful bags one Sunday afternoon.
Later that night when I looked at the mound of cheerful packages, I realized something was missing. I felt there needed to be an inspirational note attached that could be posted next to the resident’s bed after the treats were eaten and the hygiene items were used up. I envisioned the encouraging note traveling from place to place in the pocket of its recipient. Perhaps it would become worn from too much handling—a go-to phrase to cling to times of doubt and uncertainty.
I couldn’t settle on just one empowering phrase for the notes, so I wrote several. I felt certain the right message would providentially find its intended owner.
My six-year-old daughter came into the room while I was securing the uplifting messages to bright paper. Thanks to her new proficient reader status, she felt compelled to read all the messages aloud:
“You are important.”
“You are beautiful.”
“You are strong.”
“You are a beautiful light.”
“There is hope.”
I must admit, there was something profoundly moving about hearing my child declare such empowering statements. With great joy, I realized these phrases were not foreign to my child’s lips or her heart. She had grown up hearing these words and now they were a part of her fiber—affirmations that were as familiar as her own name.
My oldest daughter was beckoned from her room by her little sister’s uplifting proclamations. Curiously she asked what we were doing to the goody bags because she thought they were finished. I explained that I thought the bags needed an inspirational note.
My older daughter quietly examined each small sign. After thinking for a moment she explained, “These people need these words now because they never heard them when they were kids.” She then cradled one pink bag in her palm and spoke in a soothing, quiet voice as if talking directly to its recipient. “But it’s like not too late to hear these words. It’s never too late to believe you are worth something,” she whispered.
Suddenly, Kyle’s mother flashed before my eyes. She only came to school once, but I would never forget her face. Without saying a word, her eyes bore through me with intense anger. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, that explains Kyle.” I had no empathy, no compassion for this woman, only contempt for the way she neglected her son.
But I wasn’t a mother then.
I didn’t know how hard parenting could be.
Especially when your child has many needs … when you have other children to care for … when money’s tight … when you have few skills and little knowledge … when it’s been one bad turn after another … when you grew up hearing, “You’re worthless. You’re stupid. You’ll never amount to anything. You should have never been born. ”
Kyle’s mother needed compassion, guidance, love, and encouragement just as much as her son did.
I didn’t see it then.
But thank God, I do now.
So when I see a parent with that haggard, hopeless look in her eyes … or I run into a neighbor with that look of sheer frustration because it’s been ‘one of those days’ … or I see a parent brusquely snap at his children in the parking lot then look away in embarrassment, I will offer a smile of understanding … an “I’ve been there” expression … an extended hand … a helpful offer … a word of encouragement.
I will do these things in honor of the mother who once looked at me with anger.
But it was really fear.
Because she didn’t know how to help the boy she loved so much.
What I wouldn’t do to go back and time and say,
You are important.
You are a beautiful light.
How can I help ease your burdens, dear one?
Because now I know: Reaching out to help a parent means helping a child. When love is given at the top, it eventually trickles down and has the potential to lift them both up from the depths of despair.
And it just might be enough to change the way the story ends.
The day we were shopping at Wal-Mart for the residents at the homeless shelter, my husband approached my daughters and me at the checkout line. Displayed in his hands was my family’s first glimpse of Kyle’s story in Reader’s Digest. The expression of awe and pride on my children’s faces when they saw their mother’s photo in a magazine is one I will never forget. That moment was the start of many wonderful experiences that have come from being published in such a widely-read publication. Many people who have their own “Kyle” have reached out to me and inspired me greatly. It has been a true blessing to know that Kyle’s story brought hope and compassion to those who love and teach children with challenges. It was difficult for me to share what I recently learned about Kyle, but I still believe the patience, effort, and love I poured into him was not wasted. And through this experience, I now know how I want to react when I cross paths with a parent in need of encouragement and compassion.
If you have any thing to add on this topic, I cherish each and every comment written here. Thank you for allowing me to share my journey with you, dear friends of The Hands Free Revolution. You matter. You are important. You are a beautiful light. Together, there is hope.