February nudged March, which gave way to April. “You’re almost there,” I told Askar. “Only a few weeks to go.” “I’m so tired, SuzyAnnde” he said frequently, the weariness like a sad mask on his face.
One day in May he got a backache that wouldn’t go away. He started missing school and work. I would text him, “Are you working today?” “No, am not in school too.” He complained that he was way behind on his work. “You have to take something for the pain,” I said. “I have some pills but don’t want to take them.” The doctor at a clinic downtown told him it was strain and he needed to rest. I worried that he wouldn’t have the money to make his rent, but when I asked he said he was okay.
On my regular tutoring day he was back at school but he could barely sit – he was like a board leaning against the chair – his legs straight out under the table and his back rigid. After school I took him home. “Let’s get you some food before I drop you off,” I said. “Then you can rest your back all evening.”
He wanted to stop at an African restaurant near his house to get take-out. “You should try the food too,” he said. “You will like it.” I wasn’t too sure about that, but it smelled so good when we went in the door that I ordered meals for my husband and I to go. We ended up waiting forever for the food to be done, and sat at a table watching Aljazeera news on TV, which I’d never seen before. It was all subtitled in English, and I found it fascinating. Most of the news was about America and Europe, with some Middle East stories as well. “Can you understand the language they’re talking in?” I asked. The sound was turned down but I assumed it was in Arabic or whatever language they speak over there. Askar laughed. “It’s in English!” he said. “It’s not a Middle East station?” I asked, thinking it was some satellite station from across the world. He thought that was the funniest thing ever and laughed in spite of his pain. “They have Aljazeera in many languages” he said, shaking his head. ”It’s like CNN.” How was I supposed to know?
The food finally came and I tried to pay with my Discover card but they didn’t take it, so I handed over my VISA. It got rejected. “That’s nuts,” I said. “I always have a zero balance.” Then I remembered the new card had come in and I hadn’t bothered to replace the old one yet. I looked at the card and it had expired. “I will pay for it.” Askar said, and handed his credit card to the cashier. “I could write a check,” I protested, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “You do so much for me,” he said, and pushed my hand away as I tried to hand over my debit card. I took the food home and my husband and I had a feast. I felt bad taking his money, but I quickly repaid him by buying a yearbook for him since he couldn’t afford it. There was a big picture of him in one place and other pictures elsewhere. He was very happy.
One night he told me his friends wanted him to meet them downtown at a teen club. I felt odd taking him there. I wondered about liability if anything happened. But he had very little social life, and I thought, “What the heck?” He told me later that someone at the club told that his shirt looked like a gang shirt and he had to take it off. He tried to hide it but later, when he was ready to leave, it wasn’t there. I suspected the person who told him to take it off and just wear his undershirt had his eye on it and thought this gullible kid would be easy prey. “It was my favorite shirt and I had just gotten it a few days before,” he said.
As graduation drew near, I asked if he was going to the all-night grad party. “Too expensive,” he said. “I think they have scholarships, and I know the mom in charge. I’ll give her a call.” When I told her the circumstances, she said, “We can give him a full scholarship.” He neglected to get his paperwork in on time, but they were lenient and he ended up being able to go after several moms helped the process along for him.
At the senior awards, he got to go up on stage and accept an award for being, “Mr. Perseverance.” The principal told the students and parents in the auditorium about his story and how he overcame so many odds to finish his education. He was very proud.
On graduation night, the principal again talked about a couple of the students because her theme was “never give in.” One was Askar. She dragged the story out, and I knew she was trying to make the point that life can be hard, but you can press through the bad times and reach your goals. Askar was a perfect example. “I was so afraid she was going to say my name,” Askar said afterward. “I had my head in my hands I was so embarrassed.” “Everyone is very proud of you,” I said. I didn’t tell him that he was an example to so many of those kids who’ve had everything given to them and still whine about their miserable lives.
After graduation I looked for him for a long time in the sea of square green hats and graduation gowns. Finally we spotted each other. He ran over and gave me a long hug. It was the first time we had touched. I thought it might be against his religion so I avoided contact. He took me to meet his aunt and uncle, and his uncle, who could not speak much English, kept smiling and shaking my hand. “You are very kind,” he said, “you are part of this family.” He was very kind.
Askar’s brother was supposed to bring him a change of clothes but did not arrive on time. Askar got on the grad night bus wearing a long sleeved white dress shirt, suit pants, and wing-tip shoes. I felt sad for him because all the other kids were in jeans and tennis shoes. Luckily I’d packed a swimsuit and towel for him – an old one of my son’s – because they were going to a pool and he’d told me he didn’t have a swimsuit.
The next morning at 6:00 am I picked him up after the all-night party. “You don’t have to come,” he had told me. But I knew he’d be so tired, and the thought of him walking all the way to the bus stop and riding in the morning rush hour traffic for an hour and a half was too much.
While I was waiting to pick him up, I thumbed through the pages of a handout made by Portland Public Schools to give to parents along with the graduation program. They had students from all over the city, and I saw Askar’s picture. It had a long paragraph about everything he’d overcome to graduate, “while working two jobs and living by himself, he still managed to get a 3.78 GPA.” I was flabbergasted! He must have never slept to end up with that high of a GPA. When he got in the car I said, “I didn’t know your grades were so high.” “It was because of you,” he answered. “You gave me extra time to study or I would have had all C’s and D’s.” I don’t think that was true, but it was a nice thing to say.
Why have I written about Askar in a humor column? I guess because I will always think of him when I’m ready to give up. And I hope that anyone reading this will find an opportunity to help a kid. Even a little makes your heart swell, and you’d be surprised how many kids there are out there fending for themselves.
And though you’ve probably not laughed reading this, I hope you at least ended up with a smile.