Once an editor asked me if I usually wrote about people I had actually met and things I had actually seen… and I said, “Yes.”
And he said, “Oh. Well, I was just wondering because if you only write about people you have actually met and things you have actually seen, sooner or later you will run out of interesting things to write.”
And I said, “That depends.”
And he said,”Oh?”
And I said, “That depends on who you meet … and what you see when you meet them.”
And he said… “Oh.”
I once had an experience when the copier in my office broke down, and I desperately needed some copies of a report I was working on. I walked out of my church office and across our campus into our Christian school office to see if I might use that copier.
The office was a hive of activity; school would begin in just a few days. A steady stream of teachers walked in and out of the office. They were already preparing lesson plans and bulletin boards, readying their classrooms for the noise of new students fresh from a summer of relaxation. There were two lines of people in that room. One was a line of teachers standing in front of the copy machine. The other was a line of parents of new students to the school, moms and dads waiting their turns for mandatory interviews with the principal. I watched all of the scurrying. I listened to the secretary answer the phone (which never seemed to stop ringing). And I took my place at the end of the line of teachers waiting to use the copier.
While I waited, I poured myself a cup of stale coffee from the nearby pot and noticed a young man who looked to be about ten or so. He stood at the end of a worktable and stapled papers. It was apparent that he wanted to do a good job of stapling and collating. I watched him carefully count each set of papers before he stapled them. He stuck his tongue out and moved it side to side as he worked—an obvious aid to his counting. The cowlick in the back of his blond head stuck straight up. (Cowlicks are supposed to stick up, you know.) I could not help myself. His countenance beckoned me to speak to him, this helper so intent on doing a good job.
I left my place in the line for a moment and walked toward him to introduce myself. “I’m Ken,” I said as I extended my hand for a shake. He looked somewhat surprised that an adult would be interested in talking to him, but he sheepishly shook my hand.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Benjamin.” He looked me in the eye when he spoke, and I returned the honor of addressing him.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Benjamin. How’d your summer go? Did you get to do any swimmin’?” I sat down next to the worktable in one of those short chairs made for little people that often show up in a school office. Now, my eyes were on his level, and as he stopped his stapling and turned toward me, I could tell a longer conversation was about to begin.
“Yeah,” he said. “My neighbor has a pool, and me and my sister go swim there sometimes.”
I thought I should let Benjamin know how my summer was going, too. “I haven’t been swimmin’ all summer,” I said. “I’ve been a little too busy, I guess, but my boys go swimmin’. They love it.”
The door to Benjamin’s life had cracked open a bit. I had sons. He didn’t know them, but now that he knew I had boys, he seemed to want to talk about them. “How many boys do you have?” he asked, as he left his stack of stapled papers and walked over to where I was.
“Three. I have three sons,” I replied.
“Any girls?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “The only girl in our family is momma, and we try to take real good care of her.”
I was enjoying my conversation with my new friend, Benjamin, but the copy machine was free, now. It was time to start copying my report. I excused myself and began my short project. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I noticed Benjamin still looking at me. As I worked, he watched. He studied me and watched for an opportunity to say something else. When I had finished my stacking and collating, just before I turned to leave, Benjamin spoke again.
But this time, there was an earnest quality in his voice, as if he wanted to talk about something more serious than sisters or swimming.
“Know what?” he asked.
I stopped my leaving the room. I turned to face this young boy, and I listened. “No. Tell me, Benjamin. What?” And then … he told me. Softly as if he were telling me a secret, a private disclosure between just the two of us, something that he must have thought I needed to know.
“I’m suppose to be in the fourth grade, but I’m only in second.” As he finished his sentence, he looked away, trying to seem nonchalant. But there was a quality to his little voice that indicated otherwise; disappointment or confusion or hurt that was easy to notice, but difficult to put my finger on.
I interrupted my routine, then. I sat back down in that same little green chair next to the table where he worked. “Who told you you’re supposed to be in the fourth grade, Benjamin?” I looked into his eyes. I listened; hard, and intent and important was my listening.
“I don’t read good. I’m in the slow reading group, and I have been for two times now. That’s why. I’m s’pose to be in fourth grade, but I’m only in second. I been practicin’ reading, though. Maybe next year I can get in the faster group so I can go on.”
While I sipped a cup of stale coffee, a blond-headed, blue-eyed boy stood at the end of a worktable and told what he had learned in school. He told he didn’t measure up. He told me—in ten-year-old, muted, veiled, innocent honesty—that he had already learned that he was someone he wasn’t supposed to be, watching life from a place he ought not to be. He had already learned to define his identity by how many times he had failed.
All around me, adult-types worked feverishly to get ready for school to start. In just a few days, the students would be here, and classes would begin. But I couldn’t wait. I just couldn’t wait for school to start. I had to begin to teach Benjamin … now.
I didn’t get permission from the principal.
I didn’t have the blessing of the State Board of Education.
I didn’t ask any of the teachers who scurried in and out of the office that day: “Is it alright if I teach Benjamin something? It is alright is if tell Benjamin he’s alright?”
I just did it.
I sat for the next several minutes and talked and visited with my new friend, and I told him what I thought Jesus would say if He were there. I told Benjamin I thought Jesus was really pleased with the way he had collated and stapled those papers. I told him that if Jesus were there, He would have admired the way Benjamin had given up one of his summer vacation days just to come in and help the teachers get ready. I told him that when Jesus walked the earth, He used to love to gather boys and girls around Him. He’d have them come up close and crowd around, and He’d listen to those boys and girls tell Him all about some of the things they really liked to do, stuff like swimming and bike-riding and soccer … only different.
And I told Benjamin that I didn’t know for sure, but I believed that never once—never once in His entire life—did Jesus ever ask a boy what reading group he was in. Not once did He ever tell a child he didn’t read fast enough. Never once in His whole life did He ever hold a boy like Benjamin on His lap and look into his eyes and say, “You’re supposed to be somebody else; you’re supposed to be … some place else.”
“And He took (the children) up in His arms,
laid His hands on them,
and blessed them.”