The Big Bonus

It’s 2003.

The boy walked into the family garage that morning to get his bike.

What he saw changed his life forever.

His father lay dead, on the floor of the garage. He had severed half of his neck with a circular saw.

About six months later, I met this kid and his mother in their home. I had been briefed before this initial home visit on the circumstances that brought me here. They told me the gruesome story of the suicide, and the hard luck life this boy had experienced.

When I first signed up, I told them, “Give me the tough one. I want the oldest, most difficult boy in your portfolio.”

They introduced me to James (not his real name).

The men in his life had failed him. 14 years of negative feedback, abandonment, and suicide. He coped by acting out. His mother was at her wit’s end.

She called for a Big Brother.

On the initial visit, the child, with a parent/guardian, sit with me, the prospective “Big”.

We get to know each other a bit. We discuss availability, schedules, school…all of the things I’ll need to know. It’s an opportunity for Mom to size me up, ask questions. I had already been background checked and cleared, but the first meetup is a way to gauge chemistry and vibe, to give Mom confidence that this looks like a good move.

The committment is a year, 2-4 times per month. You don’t even have to spend all day with them, maybe 2-4 hours, whatever you like. I saw James once a week. I was not there to be a counselor, or a therapist or a problem solver. I was there to spend time with him.

He didn’t have much to say; after all, he’s a 14-year-old boy. You know how much they communicate. We’d go out for pizza, we’d walk on the beach, we’d watch a ballgame. The rules are strict, and the follow-up is thorough. You do what you’re supposed to do- spend time with your Little, be dependable and reliable.

James was a sweet kid; you could see it in his eyes. He was getting into trouble at school and he had been picked up by the police a couple of times. It was low-level thuggery, but low-level can easily become a big deal. Remember how you were when you were 14. He was sweeter than he let on. He mumbled responses to my questions, but was never impolite or troublesome. If anything, he was beyond mellow.

I decided that I had talked enough. Months together, with me doing most of the talking, him muttering…time for a new strategy.

We went to the beach that Saturday. I was determined to NOT say a word until he did. I was going to just sit there and say nothing, and wait.

We sat down on the beach at 10am.

Fast forward to 3pm. Silence. We had both sat there for 5 hours, speechless, watching girls, gulls and surfers.

James looks at me and says, “What’s the name of the radio station you work at?”

I stretch the truth, ever so slightly, to be age-appropriate. “106 KMEL”, I replied.

“That’s my favorite station. Can you take me there sometime?” He smiled.

“Sure, kid. I know Chuy Gomez. I’ll make it happen.

Another smile.

After that day, he talked a little more. He was more engaged and he smiled more frequently. It was the art of saying nothing that caused a troubled 14-year-old boy to awaken from the blur of a sad adolescence.

I loved James, in that way that you can love someone else’s child. I hope he liked me a little. It was a good year.

I don’t talk to James any longer; Bigs are not required to keep in touch with Littles forever, although many certainly do. James survived high school and is off and rolling, living his life.

This morning, I filled out another application to volunteer with Big brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area. I’m going to ask them for the oldest, toughest, most stubborn kid they have, again. Teenagers? They don’t scare me. Bring it.

Those of us who have children of our own (and are good parents) understand the real meaning of love, even if our adult relationships have been strewn with emotional wreckage. This kind of love for a child is the ultimate unselfish act- it’s all about them. It’s not about you.

I want to be somebody’s Big Brother, again.

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