“You know what’s funny?” says A., coming up to me while we practice Bok Pai Chuan and grinning painfully. “How you’re so much better at that form, even though I’ve been coming here for longer!”

“Aw, but you don’t get to come here as often as I do!” I say, hoping my grin is less transparent than his. He really wants me to think he thinks it’s funny, but he doesn’t think it’s funny, any more than he thinks that time he threw up in class is funny, or the time he lost his balance and crashed into the weapons rack.

But he’s always joking about those things, too, long after everybody else would have forgotten them. It’s a scab he can’t stop picking at.

A. is a gangly blond kid with a high voice, a bad haircut, and glasses that fall off a lot. He’s 15 or 16. Everything he does is a bid for affection. He tells dirty jokes, like he’s heard the other kids do, but gets the rhythm wrong or takes it too far and just ends up sounding like a pervert. He butts into conversations and pretends to know things. He told me that he practices Kung Fu six hours a day.

His wounds couldn’t be more gaping if he were actually bleeding all over the practice mat. I wonder when I look at him: Who did this to you? Who’s responsible? And what can anybody do about it?

I pray for him occasionally, greet him loudly when I see him, laugh at his terrible jokes when there’s anything possible to laugh at. That stuff is easy, and it doesn’t cost anything. I hate the way some of the kids his age treat him — I want to say: Don’t you have any coolness to spare, can’t you spend some of it on him? Are you all so poor that you can’t spare a few pennies of your coolness?

But I remember being that age, and I know what I would have done. I would have been scared that some of his social poverty would rub off on me. God help me, I still do it sometimes, when the stakes are higher. It’s hard to realize that, especially at that age, almost everybody thinks of himself as the odd man out; almost everybody’s a pauper, scrabbling for the riches of confidence, affection, respect.

Good Lord, A., I hope you find somebody to love you besides me. I’m nowhere near enough.

9 Comments on “Paupers”

  1. Babs says:

    I’d be damned lucky if my son grows up to be the kind of man you are. I’ve said that before, but you should hear it often. You are a good man!

  2. Sarah says:

    As someone who was a little like A in middle school, I can tell you how much your acknowledgment means to him.

    I was way uncool. My hair was cut in an unflattering, frizzy bob, I was a little chubbier than the other girls, I wore thrift store clothes that didn’t fit me, and I said socially awkward things. I was alternately teased and ignored by the other kids, and that time is still painful for me to think about years later.

    I don’t think I made it quite so obvious how desperate I was for love and acceptance. I always tried to give the impression that I didn’t give a damn what they thought. But I did, and I wanted so, so badly to be included and wanted.

    And those things stick to you… even now, the love and attention I am so lucky to have in my life is something that’s hard for me to accept. Recently, at a camp for my church’s youth, my priest had to take me aside and tell me to LET myself be part of the group, without holding back with the worry that I’m intruding and unwanted.

    But I did grow up, and I did grow into a (basically :P) normal, happy person, with a lot of love, and better friends than anyone, especially me, deserves. I hope the same thing happens for A. I read this post earlier today, and it stuck with me, so I included A in my rosary.

    Please continue to be there for him until he grows into his own skin. He appreciates it, and he needs you.

  3. Gillian says:

    Oh Steve,
    Thank you for this, so many kids need that positive attention at that age. Will be praying for ‘A’ in my holy hour.

  4. Joe says:

    Thanks, Steve, this is just what God wanted me to read. How socially self-serving I have been.

  5. j says:

    thanks for the morning tears…God Bless A and God Bless you for being his friend…

  6. George02 says:

    Nice view:
    Are you all so poor that you can’t spare a few pennies of your coolness? It sounds in a certain way, like something for all of us. Probably we are many times indeed “so poor” and need to borrow these pennies from the good God.

  7. Eliot says:

    I was an A when I was a kid, until my martial arts training gave me the confidence to believe in myself, right around the same age A is. Over time, my training slowly transformed the way I perceived myself, and by proxy, the way other perceived me, and I was smart enough to be extremely grateful to people like you who gave me the time of day; they changed my life for the better and I am good friends with many of them to this day.

    That is why I have a huge soft spot for A, and I continue to entertain his awful jokes, painful social interactions, and accidental rudeness…I know there is hope for him because of people like you!

  8. lori says:

    This is still one of my favorite posts. I think of it sometimes, and say a new prayer for A.

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