He was fifteen and crying. No. He was sobbing. And I couldn’t help.
The frustration of that situation has haunted me for a decade. The images and sounds of that pained boy have flickered and echoed through my soul since I stumbled upon him. Those visions and sounds, however, became clearer and louder, recently, as I imagined a scene in a novel I am writing. In the scene, a teenage boy, drowning in difficult decisions, has an emotional breakdown. My fictional character’s path through his traumatic journey is inspired by that real boy.
It was at the beginning of fifth period, just after lunch, at the high school at which I served as a special education assistant. The teacher with whom I worked and I had taken our class to collect recyclables from the school’s classrooms and offices. As we stepped into Senior Hall with our wheeled plastic garbage cans, I discovered a boy sitting on the floor, slumped against a locker. He was crying. A girl was crouched next to him, trying to comfort him. Neither looked to be seniors. They were freshmen, sophomores at best.
I recognized that although they should have been in class, that boy, for whatever reason, could not, in that condition, concentrate on classwork. As I passed the duo, I leaned in and whispered, “Do you want me to get help?”
“No,” the girl said without looking at me.
“Do you want me to tell your teachers what’s going on so they won’t think your cutting?”
“They know,” the girl snapped.
“OK,” I replied, unconvinced, and rejoined my group.
The recycling crew finished its first-floor loop perhaps forty minutes later and was headed to the Dumpster, when we found the distressed couple where we had left them. Only now, the boy was standing, facing the lockers, his arms forming a pillow for his face, and sobbing so hard, I could see his shoulders bob. When we returned from tossing our recycling, the girl was holding the boy who had buried his face into the crook of her neck.
I said nothing. But I wondered why this young man was so distraught. Had a grandparent just died? Had he been fired from an after-school job? Was his family moving, separating him from his girlfriend? Had poor grades disqualified him from participating in a sport? Had he been bullied or bashed during lunch?
The couple was gone when we returned from the second-floor recyclables. But that boy did not leave my thoughts. Days, perhaps weeks passed before I saw him again. He was exiting a classroom. I rushed in and asked the teacher who the boy was.
“That’s Mo.” She smiled with pride. “He’s an incredible soccer player. Like the star of the team. And he’s only a sophomore,” the teacher told me. “Why?”
“Just curious,” was my evasive answer. I was conflicted about the boy’s need for help versus his right to privacy. “I’ve seen him around and he seems like a nice kid,” I lied and left. But I continued to wonder about the boy’s emotional well-being.
Sometime later, as my teaching partner and I jogged with our students on the school’s track, we noticed a woman briskly walking on the oval. We saw her on subsequent walks, too. Eventually, we began acknowledging each other’s presence, nodding, smiling, even saying hi. Then, one Saturday while the teacher, who lived near the school, walked his dog on the track, the woman appeared and instigated a conversation.
“It was obvious,” my teaching partner told me, “she was taking advantage of our being alone and was flirting with me. She made it clear she was recently separated and was getting a divorce. I faked interest in her story, but kept thinking, ‘Lady, do you not see my wedding ring?’ And then she mentioned that her son, who attended our school, was struggling with the situation.” The teacher asked her son’s name, although he was certain he would not know him since we, as special ed staff, were often unfamiliar with most mainstream students.
“Mo,” the woman answered.
The synapses in my brain crackled. “Mo is the kid we saw crying in the hall,” I yelled. We realized in an instant why Mo had been so upset that day. He had just been told his parents were divorcing, that his family, and life as he knew it, was being torn apart.
I saw Mo many times between that day in his sophomore year and his graduation. He never acknowledged me, but instead made a point to avoid eye-contact. His actions made it clear that I could not ask the question aching in my heart, “Dude, are you OK?”
Mo probably has long forgotten me. But he, his pain, and my helplessness, have stayed with me through all these years. And now a piece of Mo has found its way into a novel I am writing, a book he likely never will read or know about. But maybe, through my fictional character, I finally will be able to let go of that haunting painful memory.