He Has a Name, He Has a Story
He’s a senior in high school, he’s black, and he works at Chipotle four evenings a week. He chops lettuce and tomatoes, grills steak.
He rides the bus home after work, sometimes carrying dinner, and there’s enough for his mother, father, and younger sister. He’s tired, and he’s got more homework. He eats with his family, then edits an essay for English class.
His laugh is full and hardly ever fake. He makes eye contact. He’s tall, a bit overweight, and he doesn’t exercise all that often, to be honest. He and his dad sometimes make a pact to drop some pounds, maybe go over to the track. But they don’t often go to the track.
Every time he steps outside, unless he’s walking to the grocery store or pet store with his younger sister, a part of him is scared. He hates that a part of him is scared, and he knows he often compensates for this feeling by frowning.
He’s eighteen, he’ll graduate this month, and in the fall he plans to enroll at the community college and keep working at Chipotle part-time.
He loves and admires his parents. Loves his sister. He loves his friends and he loves a few of his teachers, actually. He tries to carry himself with pride and confidence, no matter how he’s feeling or what’s going on. His parents taught him this.
He’d like to study engineering at a four-year college, because he likes math and he’s good at it. He likes figuring out how things work. Electrical circuits, pieces of furniture. His favorite activity, when he was little, besides throwing the whiffle ball with his dad in the backyard, was pouring out his Tinkertoys on the front room carpet and trying to build something, anything.
He reads news stories each day on his phone. He texts his friends.
When his homework is done, and when he’s done talking or typing on his phone, he lies in his bed and eventually closes his eyes.
Will tomorrow be any different? What will it bring?
All he knows is, when he wakes up, his dad will already be gone to work installing DSL lines, and his mom will be about to leave for her job at the hospital. He’ll rise and go into the kitchen to pour some cereal, and she’ll be getting her coat and purse. At the back door she’ll turn and look at him with that look that can about break his heart sometimes if he lets it. Stay safe, her eyes say. Because at this point she doesn’t even have to say the words. Please stay safe. I love you.
I’m a white man.
For twenty-five years I’ve taught creative writing in classrooms all around Portland, the city where I was born and raised. Each semester I work with many students of color, including young black men like the guy I’ve written about here.
I care about them. And I care about their stories.
The guy I’ve written about here is a fictional character, yet most of his life’s details are drawn from details that students of color have shared with me over the years.
Compassion began with empathy. Empathy began with imaginative effort.