What to Say

Knowing what to say is an envious quality.

My Saturday morning was spent as it usually is, volunteering with homeless youth at the center off Skid Row. The students were many and tutors few, so I had to come up with an educational game that could handle many kids. A game show was settled upon where I was the host and the points don’t matter.

The points aren’t supposed to matter, but these were all pre-teen boys playing, at that age, everything is a competition.  Sneezing can be made in to a competition of  loudest noise and furthest snot-rocket.

The game is going well, but we’re nearing the end and it’s becoming clear how the podium will shake out. The boy in last place is slowly becoming more and more despondent as he sees his inevitable rank.

The game is over (without any sort of a climax) and the other kids run off for free time to play at computers and video game counsels. Oscar (relax, I change his name) sits there, head in his hands, not moving to leave the room for play time.

“Oscar. You okay”?

No verbal response. “What’s up man”, I implore again. He wipes a tear from his eye.

My first honest thought was, Oh fuck. Not exactly something you can say to a kid.

I pull up a stool across from his and get on his level, “Hey man, what’s wrong? It’s just a game.

“You don’t understand. I never win at anything. I’m not good at anything. I’m always last, I’m always losing, I can’t do anything. I’m too weak. I’m too nice of a person”, he’s spiraling. It’s bad. He goes on about how weak he feels, how he’s not doing well in any school subject, how kids make fun of him–listing off the names they call him…

My brain is searching archives for something useful, but the only advice I ever remember my father giving me while crying was, “Life’s a bitch and then you die”. I was fourteen and at a funeral, a few years older than Oscar, but again, not exactly what psychologists call comforting.

I have to move on the fly.

I’d met Oscar only once before, a few weeks ago when I chaperoned a field trip to a nature center. The kids and I were talking about the bones we’d broken in the past, and Oscar had broken an arm.

“Oscar, do you remember when you broker your arm”, he nods. “Do you remember the pain you felt”, he nods again. “You don’t feel that pain now though do you? Right now, you’re going through some pain, but remember, that pain won’t last forever. When you broke your arm, did you spend every day smashing it against a wall? No. You took care of it, and let it heal.

“You need to take care of yourself. Don’t beat yourself up, calling yourself names others gave you. That’s their labels, their voices, that’s not your own. You are still so young, and who you are now, isn’t who you’ll be in a year, two years, ten years from now. If you’re not doing good in a subject, let one of us tutors know, we’re here to help. If you’re feeling weak, let’s do some push-ups together. Every time we see each other we’ll do them. And every time you wake up you’ll do 10 to start your day, so you can start your day feeling strong.

“Remember though, not to confuse goodness and weakness. You said you’re weak because you’re too good. Being a good person takes strength. I’m not talking Superman, lift a car over your head strength, I’m talking doing the thing no one else wants to do strength; standing up to that bully, defending those weaker than you, giving something of yourself so others can feel better. That’s why good people often feel weak, they’ve given up a part of themselves for others, but that’s not a weakness, that’s a by product of goodness”.

My Oscar winning moment was over, and I asked if he’d do some push ups with me. He said he couldn’t do any, then we did seven. “You lied to me”, I said, “You said you couldn’t do any then you pumped out seven. You underestimate yourself. If you care about justice, start by treating yourself fairly”.

A little girl walks in, “What are you doing on the ground”?

“Push-ups”, I say.

“You’re weird”, and she scampers off.

Oscar and I get up off the ground. He starts to walk out, “Oscar”. He turns around, waiting.

I give him a hug.

“I feel guilty”, he says, “I don’t even know your name”.

“It’s Peter”, I say, “Mr. Peter”.

Roll credits.