A few years ago, I spoke at this camp on the Oregon Coast. There were lots of kids there whose parents I knew. But most of the kids didn’t really know me. And they had plenty of friends at camp. And I was one of the old people.
Except at the end of the week, one of those kids got left at camp. His parents didn’t show up to take him home. I saw him sitting in the gravel next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.
I decided I’d wait there with him. I walked over to where he was sitting. Sat down in the gravel. And we talked. About his best friend at camp. About his cabin. About whether his parents loved him (that was a joke on my part, but he took the statement seriously). About his sisters. And life the way an elementary-school kid thinks about life.
I think I told him that because of who his dad was, he was growing up with a lot of expectations. I think I told him that his ability to be honest was going to be pretty important, especially when he made mistakes. I think I told him that effort mattered more than ability. And that I thought his parents actually did love him. A lot.
He told me a lot of things as well. But I kept trying to read between the lines and didn’t end up hearing much. I got the feeling, though, that he enjoyed talking, maybe even needed to talk. That walking over and sitting down in the gravel was a quality decision.
Later that year, I ended up on a planning team with that kid’s dad. We had meetings in Newberg, and on at least one occasion, I stayed at their house. They put me in what one of their daughters called “The Pimp Room.” The kid was playing percussion. Showed me some things he’d learned. Talked about the school he’d missed (quite a bit of school as it turned out). And whether he’d be at camp the next summer.
For a few years, this was the pattern. We’d run into each other during a week of camp or at Yearly Meeting. Maybe sit down once or twice. Not for long, though. Too much happens at camp. I had responsibilities. He had lots of friends. We’d talk about school. About his family. About a book he’d been reading but hadn’t finished. About a theory he had. About religion. About people’s expectations. About whether I thought he could learn how to be happy. Or how to care about someone (not just for them). Or how to let people care for him.
Every year his questions got a little more serious. He was smart enough to know he couldn’t get answers to most of his questions. Which was part of the problem. He really, really wanted answers.
As far as he could tell, other kids either hadn’t figured out how to ask important questions. Or their answers had shown up. Right on time. At the end of camp. And he was still sitting here in the gravel, next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.
A few years ago, I moved back to Newberg. The kid had really grown up. He’d developed into a first-rate high school musician. He was a decent athlete. He had a gift for bringing people together, for creating community, for making people feel safe and accepted. He made mistakes, and those were bigger than they’d been when he was in grade school. And we talked more. About music. About poetry. About his dreams. About his questions. About his relationships. About his mistakes. About God.
I told him that he had value. I told him that he was doing good work (in spite of the mistakes). I told him that the questions might be a lot more important than the answers. I told him that it wouldn’t hurt to listen to his parents. Or to catch up on his schoolwork. Or to be patient with people. And I told him that no matter what he did, I’d still want to be his friend. That no matter what he believed, I’d always be up for a cup of coffee and a talk. That no matter what I heard, I knew the truth of who he was and of who he’d always be.
Someone who cared deeply about how. Someone who cared deeply about why. Someone willing to sit down in the gravel when the rest of the world was driving home. Someone who was willing to look out at the highway and wait.
As far as he could tell, other kids either hadn’t figured out how to ask important questions. Or their answers had shown up. Right on time.