Monday, March 1, 2010

"A Friend Like Ben"

Ben was thirteen when I knew him. He was much taller and built heavier than me. He always wore the same grey and navy blue shirts, rotating between the few that he owned. His hair was short and he wore a serious expression, pausing rarely to smile or laugh. He looked tough, but inside I knew he had a soft heart. His angry exterior melted away as I got to know him. The preschoolers looked up to him and when he thought no one was looking, he would return a hug or hold Dezirae's hand. Dezirae was four and always scared. She needed a big brother and Ben was hers.

Every morning when I arrived at the school, Ben would already be there, sitting on the play structure or playing basketball with DaShawn. When he would see me, he'd come over to talk. At first I didn't know what to say to him. We had virtually nothing in common: I was raised in a middle-class, immigrant family, attending one of the best private schools that my dad sacrificed everything for. He was homeless, sleeping by the levy and wearing the same pair of tennis shoes he's worn since he was eleven.

Occasionally his mom would stop by the school at lunchtime and the two would go to the soup kitchen down the street together. Ben would always come back afterwards, and I wouldn't see his mom again for the rest of the day. I don't know where she went or where she stayed, but at the end of everyday, Ben would wait, unsure of whether she would come by or not. Once in awhile she returned, but most days, Ben would still be waiting by the time I left for the day.

"You don't stay with your parents?" I asked once, early in our interaction.

"No. I stay by the levy. We move cuz the cops don't want us there."

"Us?"

"Me and the others," he said, referencing the other homeless who slept there too.

"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

"I have everyone here." He motioned around the school and the Loaves & Fishes complex.

I started to see more than just a place after that. It was a community, a home, much like I felt at Loretto and surrounded by people who were like family to me.

We weren't supposed to play favorites, but Ben held a special place in my heart. Over the course of my time at the school, I never had to discipline Ben or talk to him about his conduct like I had to with the other kids.

"So what are you gonna do when you get outta here?" Ben asked one Friday afternoon while I cleaned up the lunch area where the preschoolers had effectively made a mess. (My love-hate relationship with Fridays stemmed from lunch duty with the preschoolers because of this.)

"Out of school?" I asked, thinking he meant for the day.

"No. Like, the city."

"You mean college?"

"Yeah. You're gonna do that?" He meant to ask if I was going to college. I told him I was and he nodded. "What's for snack today?"

I told him we were having a cake at the end of the day to say goodbye to Miss Elizabeth. The conversation ended there.

Ben wasn't going to be able to go to college. At his age, I was preparing for a college prep high school. He wasn't even thinking that far ahead.

Throughout the summer we took the kids to pools, kayaking trips at Natomas and afternoon treats at Coldstones. We went to San Francisco to the Exploratorium and we would picnic at McKinley or visit the Sacramento Zoo. It was the summer I never got to have as a child, and I got the chance to experience it all with the same newness that the rest of the kids felt.

When I left at the end of the summer, I knew I would never see those kids again. Phillip, Dezirae, Ashley, Sekina, Traci (another kid who remained dear to me, and not just because we shared a name), Amir, Ben - I would move on, but where would they be?

I returned the following year, but none of them were there. I went back, searching for familiarity, but they had already moved on. When I left Sacramento, it was my time to move on too. Ben would be 18 now. I don't know where his life has brought him to but I hope wherever that place is, he's still returning hugs and holding hands of children as lost and scared as he once was.

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