A 17-year-old student found himself ‘on a path no one should be forced to walk’
By George Valadie
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a whole lot better at keeping my Lenten promise this year. So much better than last year, that’s for sure.
Yes, I know, whatever we choose to do should be a personal matter. “Pray in private; fast in secret; don’t do what you do the way the hypocrites do.”
But after last year’s utter failure, I’m feeling good about myself. Not there yet by any means, but closer.
Like most, I always begin with good intentions. But what do they say about the road to hell and how it’s paved? A good strip of last year’s path was mine.
Not only is it embarrassing to admit when we can’t hold it together— whatever “it” is—for 40 days, but it’s also humbling. Especially when we imagine the 40 days that started this whole thing. Christ wandering in the desert, literally, having faced all that’s out there. I don’t really want to imagine all that’s out there. I mean I’ve never been in a desert—but I’ve seen movies.
Throw in what’s likely not out there—like food and water—and my own 40 days of self-imposed desert wandering are more aptly described as a casual stroll through the land of milk and honey and Captain D’s on Fridays.
But on occasion, some journeys through the modern-day desert of life are not only more challenging, they’re not of our choosing. Some find themselves on a path no one should be forced to walk.
I remember one such trip. The kid—we’ll call him Austin—knocked on my office door and asked if he could come in for a minute.
He was a senior, and though not quite 18, he was just six weeks from graduating. He sat down with a facial expression I don’t see every day. It was a combination of emotions, somewhere between stress and sadness, both mixed with a huge dose of please-tell-me-you-can-help-me.
Turns out he’d been wandering in his own desert for quite a while. And hadn’t told anyone.
So we sat there through most of fourth period and all of fifth as he poured out his soul. The little that was left of it.
He was a smart kid, popular with his peers, but a teenager who didn’t need to tally them up as a measure of his self-worth. And like too many young people these days, his parents were no longer together.
His mom had been a drug addict, and you could tell he hated her for it. And how their lives had changed because of it. Though he would have gladly preferred it, she wasn’t entirely out of their lives, which kept his wounds forever fresh.
Sadly, he wasn’t all that close to his father either. He recognized the man had been trying as best he could to hold it all together, but he sensed his dad was losing control. Of everything.
He needed a superhero for a dad but realized he got a human being instead. So his emotions wavered back and forth between being disappointed in and feeling sorry for the man of the family that was left.
He told me about their incessant arguing that never failed to turn ugly. His dad would spew at him about no longer wanting to be the father of four. The boy admitted firing back about how he wasn’t any good at it anyway.
They didn’t just hurt each other. They tried to.
As if that weren’t enough, what prompted the visit to my office was actually worse.
His dad had found a new girlfriend and was spending most of his nights at her house. He’d arrive home somewhere in the wee hours to get the younger ones to school. But for that, Austin was on his own.
Most recently though, his younger siblings had moved from dad’s house to mom’s. Austin refused to go, so for all practical purposes he’d been living on his own.
Remarkably, the boy had a job, but no car. He had a house but no one in it. He had a family, but it didn’t feel like it.
And as some sort of cruel and final insult, only days before his father informed him the only house he had ever known was soon to be foreclosed. See if you can find a place to live.
Seventeen years old? See if you can find a place to live?
Are you kidding me?
Seriously! Are you kidding me?
In between the serious stuff, I was also curious about the not-so-serious stuff. Did you order any graduation invitations? Do you have money for a tux and the prom? How are your grades holding up? Though not as much, those things matter, too, if you’re clinging to normal as tightly as you can.
In spite of all that he shared— amazingly, truly amazingly—he could still manage to laugh a little. And as you might expect, he cried a little, too. I tried not to.
Soon thereafter, I set out to see how much of his tale was true. I had to. I’ve known a manipulative teenager or two.
More amazing than Austin’s story was the fact that it turned out to be true. Pretty much all of it.
Thankfully, things got a little bit better. We helped where we could. We found others to help where we couldn’t.
His healing’s not finished; I’m not sure it ever will be, not entirely, not for a long time.
Some wander in the desert far longer than 40 days.
George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.