Following a long day and a Board of Trustees meeting at the end of it, I finally headed home yesterday evening, a bit after eight o’clock. I walked through an empty hallway toward the Second Street exit from the building. Through the glass entrance of our administrative wing, I could see one of our students standing outside on the concrete apron that bridges from building to sidewalk. She was obviously agitated, crying and talking on her cell phone. I pushed one of the doors open and walked toward my car parked on the opposite side of the street, pretending not to have seen or noticed. Interrupting a teenager in the throes of emotion can provoke rather unpredictable responses.
Just as I was two steps away from the curb, she finished her conversation. I hesitated, debating sanity and such matters. Something of compassion intervened and I turned back toward her.
“I know it would be a dumb question to ask ‘Are you okay;’ I can see that you’re obviously not okay. Is there anything anyone could do to help you?”
Still crying, she responded in a broken but non-hysterical voice, “A very close friend of our family died. He was my father’s closest friend… he had a heart attack. I think I need to go home.”
For some of our students, “home” can be several thousand miles away and involve inter-continental travel. Even though her voice held no discernible accent other than what one would expect in southern Kansas, I asked her how far she was from home. “Two hours.”
I suppose I could have given her the old “you need to stay here so you don’t miss the first day of classes tomorrow” admonition but she didn’t seem to be quite in a place of receptivity and I certainly wasn’t in a place where I wanted to deliver such admonition. Instead, I told her I was very sorry to hear that and that it is a really tough thing to learn of such loss when you’re not with your family.
“Do you have any friends here with you? Anyone you know?”
She replied that she did and said that she thought she would call one of them. She assured me that she would be okay and so I began to turn away and head back toward the street.
“Sir,” she spoke in a slightly trembling voice. I turned back toward her. She looked at my name badge and then turned her eyes back toward mine. Eyes moist and tears still streaming down her cheeks, she paused and tilted her face slightly forward toward me, “Thank you for asking.” She spoke in a tone of tender and yet almost desperate sincerity.
I nodded and answered gently, “You’re welcome.”
Sometimes the least we can do is also the most we can do. It’s not much but it’s infinitely more than pretending we didn’t notice.