Written in July, 1998, at the Pennsylvania Writing Project
He's tall for his age, but with a gangling awkwardness frequent to adolescents, his arms and legs sometimes refusing to obey his brain's commands. Every morning, he hesitates just a moment before boarding the school bus, giving a quick glance back towards his house and taking a deep breath. He's been pushed on the steps, both getting on and off the bus, and there's still a bruise on his knee from last week's shove. But he steadies himself, adjusts the book bag, and marches to his seat. He sits alone. It is rare for another adolescent to sit with or talk to him. The bus driver smiles encouragement. She never has to yell at him for being out of his seat or throwing things. As she pulls the bus away from the curb, she sees him give a tentative wave to a passing car. Mom always waits until he is safely on the bus before leaving for work.
At school, he will find some camaraderie with others similar to himself. There is the small classroom in the corner by the library, he will struggle to read and write and learn. He will hold himself close to the wall as he passes in the hallway, memories still fresh of books being pushed out of his arms and scattered across the floor and trampled. In the cafeteria, he sill sit with Norman or Robby or Justin, other outcasts in the middle school ruckus. He will eat his lunch quietly and nearly, never having to be told to pick up his trash or put away his tray.
And when he gets home and finishes his homework and chores, he will run out to his basketball court and spend hours making free throws and dunk shots. Here, his IQ and reading ability do not matter.
Tomorrow, he will do it all again, not complaining, simply accepting that for him it is all a little harder and will take a little longer. But he will do it again because he is a hero.
Maybe he's the student in your class that seems to be a loner, or the boy down the street who can't quite keep up with the others. Perhaps you've seen him riding his old bike up and down the streets alone. Or he might be the boy who held the door open for you at the WaWa and looked down at his shoes when you thanked him.
This boy's name is Allen. He's my son.
"Hero: One who shows great courage," says Webster's Dictionary. To our family, Allen has always been a hero. He has fought no wars, saved no lives. His name may never appear in a newspaper story or on a college degree. It doesn't matter. Those of us who love him know he shows "great courage" every day of his life.
New experiences come hard to him. Dr. Purcell says that kids like Allen need "practice before performance." He is the youngest by a half-dozen years. Everything he does, his older brother and sister have done before him. But both Dennis and Bonnie have helped Allen to cope with life, letting their experiences guide him through unfamiliar terrain.
He conquered his fears in Youth Group this year. At first, he followed Bonnie around the room but she sill not be there next year. He developed his own routine.
He is quiet and attentive during the Bible lesson. He doesn't interrupt, but now and then a question will pop into his head and he will struggle to hang onto it. Often it is gone by the end of the lesson, but sometimes he can remember. the teacher always thanks him for contributing to the class. Once in a while, the young teacher is surprised by Allen's question and cannot answer. If people can see the sunset, why don't they believe in God?
After the lesson is over, Allen runs to the gym. He puts his Bible on the table by the wall and deposits his offering in the basket. This is the time he likes best and least; it is easy to get a basketball and make free-throw shots from half court but a lot of nights he plays alone. He will not ask another to play and others most often do not ask him. He is good at basketball, his height and quickness making him a worthy opponent on the court but he will not go to basketball camp this summer. The Youth Pastor has tried to encourage him, but Allen is still too afraid of new people and of being hollered at. He works hard not to cry when he feels unsafe.
He leaves the way he came, with his sister driving Dad's car. He knows that next year will be different. Bonnie will be at college and he will be on his own. There is still the Summer to go, though. Perhaps by September he will be ready for her to leave. She has been his companion on this trek to adulthood. She remembers.
The Summer has finally arrived. Allen counted off the days on the calendar and marked them with a red "X". his "Student of the Month" certificate sits on the dining room buffet along with his brother's college degree and his sister's high school diploma. We are proud of all three. He needed a new suit for the two graduations, he has grown so fast since Christmas. I am always a little startled when I see him; I expect a shorter child.
But he's not really a child anymore. Every so often, his voice deepens and cracks and he sounds like his brother. He is asserting his independence and has negotiated for the right to ride his bike to the park alone. The new watch on his wrist beeps to remind him to "touch base" every hour. One time be forgot, but he will not do so again. He doesn't want to lose his freedom.
He's alone a lot, except for his friend Jonathan. Dennis is in the city. Bonnie works afternoons and I am at West Chester with the Writing Project. The lady down the street was supposed to "keep an eye" on Allen but he hated it there with the little kids. He doesn't need a babysitter, he told me. He is old enough to watch himself. We came to a compromise; when Bonnie goes to work, Jonathan is allowed over for company. Allen gets $5 a week for "watching himself." He is saving for a new ten-speed bike.
His sister complained. Shouldn't she be paid for the mornings she is home with Allen?
Allen answered her. "No. You have a job and get paid. This is MY job."
It's not easy being the hero and the baby. Everyone is going in their own directions, hurrying towards their destinations. Allen, too, rides to his (perhaps on a new ten-speed bike?). His road has a few more bumps than some, but it's what you expect when you're a hero.
You just keep riding.