The problem with living where you teach,
Especially, if you are there long enough to experience
A full change of hair color
Is that the kids grow up and become adults.
Rarely do they look the same or act the same
And when they say hello,
It’s such a challenge to remember their names.

I’ve been running in a park these last six weeks,
It doesn’t get enough attention from the group I run with,
But that’s nothing for this because I’ve been running solo.
Several weekends in a row, I’ve seen a beautiful brown pit bull,
Giant head, brown and white body, and a graying snout.
He sticks out because his harness is military-grade,
Befitting of his stature.

I always wave to the owner, but in keeping my space,
I’ve been keeping a distance, choosing to focus on the run,
Holding my breath as I pass, and getting on with my business,
Until today when nature called and I deviated to the port-a-potty.
As I stepped out I saw the pit which was right on my path,
His owner said, “Dr. Hancock?”
I stopped, so much for social distancing.

It turned out that my old student, now nearly thirty,
Had been living nearby all along
Working a good job, raising a family, and taking care of his elderly dog.
Funny, because one of the last times I had seen him,
More than twelve years ago, he was explaining to me
Why he had to fight a bunch of guys at school,
“If I don’t, they’ll just jump me at home.”

They never jumped him, again,
As he took care of himself that day.
He never followed into their way of life,
Putting the chollo way as far away from himself as he could
Finishing school, making a life for himself that didn’t include an affiliation.
We talked for a few minutes, mostly about pit bulls, and when we finished
I ran away with a smile. One had made it!

My first experience at James Blair was Pre-Algebra class with Jamal Oweis. I was homework adverse, but never crushed by the first year teacher. Could it have been because I played sports? High school allowed me to know Coach Oweis in the tumultuous times of whatever varsity sports was becoming. Through the madness, he treated me with respect and a careful prodding coaches must use with average kids playing in small ponds. Each year I ask Jamal if he will accept my late homework. He answers, “No,” and adds that he doesn’t want to change the grade. Thanks, Coach…

The first time I met this young man
He was an angry freshman
Having spent his first couple of years in America
Dealing with learning English
And being called a monkey by other kids
Our first conversation went about as badly as it could
Something of the order of rival gangs
Staking claim to the same turf
We yelled at each other
He accused me of hating Mexicans
A line I would not tolerate

That first year we were tough on each other
I cut him no slack
He cut me the same amount
Until one day something happened
Something that made us realize we
We’re better off
Working together

He toiled on the second lap of four
His machismo on the first lap
Running into an oxygen debt
His lungs could not repay
I simply said, “Next time go slower.”
Nothing inspiring, nothing like Mr. Holland
But enough for him

The toughness he wanted to put upon
Everyone else
Turned upon himself
And he became a really good runner
Wrestling followed
And now he is a fitness machine

He once apologized for being such a pain
I let him know I was sorry for yelling
And how proud I was of his efforts
To become the person he was becoming
Since this was all him

Today he asked me for Friday’s workout
Since he would not be in school
The buzzer went off because that usually means suspension
And I only wish it was so simple for him
He explained he would be helping his mother
Who is having her ninth surgery
To treat something with her brain
“They are going to put her cranium…,
Do you know what that is, Doc?”
I nodded.
He went on to explain she need to have
Part of her skull replaced,
But she keeps having an infection
Preventing the surgery

“She doesn’t want to do this again,” he said

For the first time I saw his real emotion
No bravado
No proving himself
Just the real compassion and fear
For his mother
A son was trying to make sense of
The more he talked, the more I nodded
Wanting only for him to get his feelings out
And when he was done I simply offered,
“No workout, just be there for your mom,”
And shook his hand

These kids facing such adversity
With grace and strength
Without the pettiness and misguided perspectives
Keep me alive
This young man keeps fighting
Never making excuses
Never whining
Only fighting while
Continuing his journey to grow up

I’m honored to be a bit part
In his growth

I’m praying for his mom.