“There are people whom we do not fully know, and yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, when they lose their bodies and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
There was a time when I didn’t want to be here anymore. I felt like I didn’t belong, like I didn’t matter. Teenage adolescence clouded my judgment, making it impossible for me to accept that there was value in being myself. Someone helped me find that value, but I never got the chance to say ‘thank you.’ Here’s the story:
For many reasons, my mother thought that the promise of a safer education from a Catholic high school was best for me. Never-mind that I had been accepted to a more academically well-off public school, one that I had researched and where most of my friends from middle school were to attend. I was to go to Catholic school, like she and my aunts and uncles had done before me.
Compounding the issue, pretty much everything I owned was off the clearance rack. I may have been the first victim of the “What’re thoooosee?!” phenomenon but thank God social media wasn’t where it is today. At home I’d cry to my mother, pleading for her to let me transfer out of my teenage hell but she wouldn’t budge. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t fit in and no one liked me for who I was. Hell, I was beginning to not like me for who I was as well.
But then one afternoon at football practice I was approached by someone interested in trying out for the team. He wanted to carry my helmet to the practice field to show that he was a good team player. Befuddled I told him no, trying to hide my confusion. Carry my helmet?
He found someone else’s helmet and shoulder pads to take to the practice field, and we exchanged small talk along the way. The next day he spotted me in the hallway, called out to me over the chatter of the other students, made his way over, then proceeded to stretch his hand. And later when he made the team, immediately becoming a starter at a position I was sorta kinda hoping to take, he’d still put his arms around my shoulder in the hallways and call me his friend.
I always admired him. I admired how comfortable he appeared donning a cardigan when no one else dared to. How that cardigan often matched his tie, neatly knotted in the perfect windsor. The waves in his hair he’d tend to at his locker each morning while I was sprinting to homeroom, trying to avoid yet another stint in after-school detention for tardiness.
He was cool. But not the type of cool that gets you talked about around school. He was the type of cool that made others wonder how a young man his age could be so firmly put together.
He invited me to join his group of friends because … well, I don’t know. We were friends, brothers, at times it felt like. I admired how he carried himself and wanted to emulate him at times.
He would hold my hand as we walked down the hallway together just to confuse the nuns. He was notorious for Honeybuns and Arizonas, sure to have one or the other on him at all times. Senior year of high school he orchestrated a Nintendo Gameboy resurgence in the cafeteria. He marched to the beat of his own drum. And we loved him for it.
Years later, a co-worker inquired on why I am so “weird,” why I have cartoons on my socks, why I have quirky sayings, and where I found the courage to march to the beat of my own drum. That day I decided I’d give Donald a call on my way home to thank him. Because, at thirteen years old I needed someone to help me realize that being true to myself was something to be proud of. My call failed due to bad cell reception.
“I’ll call him this weekend,” I said. “Maybe next weekend,” a few days later. The call never happened. A few weeks later I got the call that Donald Jean had passed. I never got a chance to say thank you.
There are a select few people I’ve met in my life thus far who I can definitively say have had a hand in making me the man I am today. I just wish I could go back and say that to my friend, who was like my brother at times.
Looking ahead, I promise to pass on the spirit of the man who showed me it was OK to be who I am. I promise he will be remembered in the spirit of the goodness that he exuded and the lasting impact he’s made on myself, countless others, and ultimately this platform. Happy Birthday, my friend. And, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.