Thousands of days — all those filled with clouds, rain, snow or sunshine — have passed since that time, yet the lesson sticks stubbornly to my heart.
For two years, I spent Tuesday afternoons volunteering as a mentor in an elementary school where every child was poor. An astounding 96 percent of them qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. The vast majority of them had traveled with their families from a desperate country where, though it’s hard to imagine, they had been even poorer than the life they found in America.
On a weekly basis, I headed into the second-grade class and found students who were eager for affection, time and attention. There was one little boy in particular who captured my heart. He was tiny, almost to the point of being frail, with thick, black hair and a cowlick that forced strands to stand straight up from the crown. His black eyes were huge, and those eyes, when combined with an enormous smile, covered most of his face. His name was Juan.
From the kindly teacher, I learned that Juan lived with many family members in a rundown trailer that was mostly devoid of windows. When winter’s stunning cold roared into town, the only warmth that Juan found was in that classroom, where heat was plentiful from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. One day when we were on the playground for recess, it was a particularly bitter, windy day. I watched as Juan shivered intensely, dressed only in a long-sleeved, thin, cotton shirt. Looking around, I saw that most of the children were without coats or sweaters. With the help of friends and JCPenney, which generously offered a 25 percent discount on outerwear, we distributed brand-new coats and heavy sweaters to every child in that class.
But this story goes deeper than the outside of a child’s body. It goes clear to Juan’s soul.
He was mostly smart, but well behind the schooling of a normal second-grader because his parents could speak little English and, therefore, couldn’t help him. Every Tuesday when I arrived, Juan would jump from his seat, risking the teacher’s reprimand, and fly across the room to throw his arms around my legs and hug me tightly. He would take my hand and lead me to a seat next to him, where he asked for help with his reading.
“Juan is very bright,” his teacher said. “With a little encouragement and individualized help, he could do well in life.”
I set about helping him in such a way, and he flourished. Once, I encountered him and his mother in the parking lot of Kmart. He ran to me and hugged me tightly, speaking rapidly in Spanish to his mother. She smiled broadly, hugged me and said, “Gracias. Gracias.” She reached over and patted Juan’s head, smoothing down his cowlick in the process.
Eventually, Juan disappeared. His teacher and I surmised that the family returned to a country where warmth is more plentiful than cold. But for a period in time, he had found what his soul craved — encouragement.
It had been years since I thought of Juan, until I received an email from a reader who criticized me for the column I wrote encouraging those who want to write books. He said I had cruelly given hope to people, that only one in 1,000 might be published. “Ludicrous,” said this man named Robert. It’s sad to see such harshness.
Encouragement is the milk of kindness. To give warmth to a person’s body is admirable, but to warm his soul with hope is a gift everlasting. It isn’t for us to decide what the odds are for success or who should have it, because every person has potential to accomplish in big and small ways.
Please encourage someone today. There is no greater kindness.