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Sunday, May 23, 2010

THE BOY UNDER THE TREE

In the summer recess between freshman and sophomore
years in college, I was invited to be an instructor at a high
school leadership camp hosted by a college in Michigan. I
was already highly involved in most campus activities, and I
jumped at the opportunity.

About an hour into the first day of camp, amid the frenzy
of icebreakers and forced interactions, I first noticed the
boy under the tree. He was small and skinny, and his
obvious discomfort and shyness made him appear frail and
fragile. Only 50 feet away, 200 eager campers were
bumping bodies, playing, joking and meeting each other,
but the boy under the tree seemed to want to be
anywhere other than where he was. The desperate
loneliness he radiated almost stopped me from approaching
him, but I remembered the instructions from the senior
staff to stay alert for campers who might feel left out.

As I walked toward him I said, "Hi, my name is Kevin and
I'm one of the counselors. It's nice to meet you. How are
you?" In a shaky, sheepish voice he reluctantly answered,
"Okay, I guess." I calmly asked him if he wanted to join the
activities and meet some new people. He quietly replied,
"No, this is not really my thing."

I could sense that he was in a new world, that this whole
experience was foreign to him. But I somehow knew it
wouldn't be right to push him, either. He didn't need a
pep talk, he needed a friend. After several silent moments,
my first interaction with the boy under the tree was over.

At lunch the next day, I found myself leading camp songs
at the top of my lungs for 200 of my new friends. The
campers were eagerly participated. My gaze wandered over
the mass of noise and movement and was caught by the
image of the boy from under the tree, sitting alone, staring
out the window. I nearly forgot the words to the song I
was supposed to be leading. At my first opportunity, I tried
again, with the same questions as before: "How are you
doing? Are you okay?" To which he again replied, "Yeah,
I'm alright. I just don't really get into this stuff". As I left
the cafeteria, I too realized this was going to take more time
and effort than I had thought - if it was even possible to
get through to him at all.

That evening at our nightly staff meeting, I made my
concerns about him known. I explained to my fellow staff
members my impression of him and asked them to pay
special attention and spend time with him when they could.

The days I spend at camp each year fly by faster than any
others I have known. Thus, before I knew it, mid-week had
dissolved into the final night of camp and I was
chaperoning the "last dance". The students were doing all
they could to savor every last moment with their new
"best friends" - friends they would probably never see
again.

As I watched the campers share their parting moments, I
suddenly saw what would be one of the most vivid
memories of my life. The boy from under the tree, who
stared blankly out the kitchen window, was now a shirtless
dancing wonder. He owned the dance floor as he and two
girls proceeded to cut up a rug. I watched as he shared
meaningful, intimate time with people at whom he couldn't
even look just days earlier. I couldn't believe it was him.

In October of my sophomore year, a late-night phone call
pulled me away from my chemistry book. A soft-spoken,
unfamiliar voice asked politely, "Is Kevin there?"

"You're talking to him. Who's this?"

"This is Tom Johnson's mom. Do you remember Tommy
from leadership camp?

The boy under the tree. How could I not remember?

"Yes, I do", I said. "He's a very nice young man. How is
he?"

An abnormally long pause followed, then Mrs. Johnson
said, "My Tommy was walking home from school this week
when he was hit by a car and killed." Shocked, I offered my
condolences.

"I just wanted to call you", she said, "because Tommy
mentioned you so many times. I wanted you to know that
he went back to school this fall with confidence. He made
new friends. His grades went up. And he even went out on
a few dates. I just wanted to thank you for making a
difference for Tom. The last few months were the best few
months of his life."

In that instant, I realized how easy it is to give a bit of
yourself every day. You may never know how much each
gesture may mean to someone else. I tell this story as
often as I can, and when I do, I urge others to look out for
their own "boy under the tree."

David Coleman and Kevin Randall

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