Passing the peace on the street


(Christian Courier column, August 22nd, 2011)

Today a handsome, twenty-one year old guy hugged me on the street. Not something that happens every day, mind you.

I went for a walk after supper. Headphones on, head down, watching the sidewalk because I invariably trip when I get moving too fast for my varicose veins to keep up. I almost ran into the guy on the bike with his dog on a leash. He smiled at me and I knew who it was . . . a former student I hadn’t seen in years.

He grinned at me. “Hi, Mrs. Smith. How are ya?” I gave him a wide smile, genuinely pleased to see him. Dustin*. So many memories. He’d been a handful in my classroom, to put it tactfully. Athletic, charismatic. The girls all liked him. A wiseacre and not above bullying others. Back then I walked a tightrope with him, trying to keep him focused on achievement, when he could have everything he wanted based on good looks and charm. But he had potential as a student, and, deep down, he was a sensitive and gifted artist. He could draw. He could envision a project and execute it perfectly. He had imagination and patience. In art class, a different student emerged, focused and self-motivated. I could praise him without reservation for his originality and effort. And I did. I entered his work in some student exhibitions. I asked if I could keep some of his pieces for future displays and workshops. I still have some of them.
Dustin had his reasons for volatility. A few years later, his parents went through a bitter divorce. His life became overshadowed by conflict. Eventually, he left town.
So it was a surprise to see him on the main street. I asked him how he was doing. He told me that he was excited because he had been accepted into an apprenticeship program. He was only in town temporarily, and would be moving again soon. Didn’t see much of his younger brother anymore.
He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was retired. Walking to lose weight and stay fit. He told me that he had lost forty pounds. He had gotten “really huge” for a while, but that it felt good to be back at a normal weight. One of the reasons he goes biking every day. He told me I looked good. Ever the charmer.
I asked him if he was doing any art. Not much, he replied, but he still had a sketch pad. Keep it up, I told him. You know you’ve got it. It’ll be there when you have time to work on it again. I told him I still had some of his work in my files.

Was he seeing anyone? I asked. Yeah, he was seeing a girl, but taking it slow. That’s good, I said. You probably know better than most, how important that is.

A bit more small talk. He straightened up and pulled his dog in. I wished him well in his apprenticeship. I was about to say goodbye. He looked directly at me with a frank and honest gaze, spread open his arms, and invited a hug. So I hugged him. Then I gave him a light punch on his shoulder and said, “If you’re ever talking to your brother, tell him hello from me. And, hey, I’ll pray for you guys.” And, as I walked on, I did.

Because I think I know what that hug was about. It was “thanks.” Thanks for putting up with my shenanigans and liking me even though I was a disturber in your class. Thanks for recognizing that I was good at something beyond the crash and dash of male puberty. Thanks for not judging me based on what happened in my family. Thanks for remembering me a decade or more later and smiling at me like you still care.

I hope he had a sense of what the hug was about from my side: Yes, I still care. Just doing my best to pay it forward because, once upon a time, I was rather a disturber myself. Just passing on the peace of Christ.

* This story was shared with permission, and Dustin’s name has been changed.



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