There’s More to The(ir) Story (August 3, 2017) 

I had a great gig this summer teaching reading to struggling 6th graders at a nearby middle school. My typical classroom is 2nd graders with profound special needs, so as you can imagine this was quite a change of pace. Loud, hilarious, confrontational and downright hostile 11-13 year olds. Most days it seemed like the best conversations we had covered topics such as: fighting, marijuana use, Donald Trump, and occasionally… a little bit about the book we were reading. They were so curious, short-fused, and fiercely themselves. It was awesome, and difficult. 

There was one boy in particular who stood a mere 4 feet 3 inches tall with his highest-heeled Michael Jordan basketball shoes on. This kid would probably start a fight with a fly on the wall if it looked at him wrong. In fact, I bet he has before. He was as “hard” as they come. But to be perfectly honest, I think even the weakest of wall flies could’ve put him in his place. He didn’t strike me as the most agile or strongest of fighters. Nevertheless, he wanted to fight. He “chested up” with kids daily. If you’ve ever been around middle school kids, you know this typically ends in fake-swinging, name-calling, and mother-dissing for about 30 seconds before it gets broken up. No punches thrown, and lots of iPhones in the peanut gallery capturing the whole thing on video. 

I couldn’t tell if this kid and I really connected much throughout the summer. We only had 19 total school days with them, after all, and he missed a few. I can tell you he absolutely LOVED the “joke of the day,” which was my icebreaker at the beginning of class in the morning. He would gladly volunteer, rattle off some nonsense punchline and be keeled over laughing so hard before he even finished his joke. I almost never understood what he was actually saying, and I don’t think he even prepared any of these jokes. But whatever walls he had built up prior to being in my class started to shed with each confusing punchline. He struck me as a kid who was guarded, you know? Didn’t quite trust anyone, enough to “let them in.” Not until the last week of class. 

We were doing a self-reflective writing about how the story we read related to our own lives. What about it stuck out the most to you? Did any struggles or situations the characters went through remind you of a challenge in your own life? The book, by the way, A Long Walk to Water, was absolutely fantastic. You just may hear more about this story at a later date, but we’ll get there. 

Most of the kids didn’t take this assignment all that seriously. I walked behind this particular student and glanced at his computer screen. In a very interesting, hard to make out font, he wrote, “I did not find out my brother died until I was nine years old but I was too young to know about it.” 

I watched him type down that sentence, slump forward a little bit, and start scratching at his eyes that were welling up with tears. “I’m good,” he said. I let him know that he didn’t have to always be “good,” and that I am a grown man who finds his eyes wet quite often. “I’m cool… just feel like I need to cry right now.” He had conceded to the tears, and it was profound and beautiful. 

I had spent a great deal of time frustratingly drilling the idea into this kid’s head that fighting didn’t really make you all that tough. I was interacting with the parts of his story that ignited anger within him because of tragic loss. Loss that he was too young to know about. 

Some days it felt like I was banging my head against the wall just to get him to pay attention in class. I was interacting with the past hurt he had gone through that was probably masked and numbed by being the class clown, getting in scuffles, and cracking himself up with incoherent jokes. 

There is more to the story. 

There is always more to the story. 

The kid who spent the majority of his summer school days getting in fights for the most trivial of reasons was sitting inches in front of me wiping tears from his eyes. I was interacting with his past pain in that moment, and so was he. It was devastating, yet deeply meaningful and sobering at the same time.  

Every time we interact with someone, we are interacting with everyone and everything from their past as well. All those fights, screaming matches, all that pre-adolescent aggression, summarized in one sentence: I did not find out my brother died until I was nine years old but I was too young to know about it. 

We are all masterpieces. Fractured ones, though. Worn down, coping, dealing, processing masterpieces. But we don’t always feel like it, and we certainly don’t act like it. We don’t get to choose the trials, the heartache, and the pains of life. A lot of times I think we are too young to know about it, whatever the “it” might be. 

The angry, fighting, cussing, shouting, aggressive 6th grader lost his brother when he was too young to know about it. 

There’s more to his story. It just took me a while to see the more. But there’s always more. 

The family member you’re angry with deals with crippling insecurity about who they are every single day. 

The friend you’re chronically frustrated by is anxious and doing their best with what they know. 

The significant other you’ve felt misunderstood by wishes they understood why they do what they do, and why they act that way… when they don’t want to. 

That person you judged walking down the street or at the store has uncomfortably walked into a party alone before, questioning their worth and whether or not they are a loveable person. 

What if we had the courage to anticipate and assume the more? We may be able to adopt the, “Ah, that’s my friend. I know that person. I love them… They didn’t mean it” philosophy. It may actually make the now make much more sense. That’s where I want to be. 

There’s more to their story. There’s always more to their story. The more doesn’t have to define us, but it may explain some things. I’m glad I know that now, and I’m glad there’s more.