I remember reading this really cheesy story, probably in someone's bathroom, in Chicken Soup for the Soul or some equally drecky publication, about a young boy running along a beach. The beach was covered with starfish that had been washed onto the sand, and, stranded outside the water, the tiny creatures were doomed to perish. The boy was scooping up starfish and tossing them back into the ocean as quickly as he could.
An old man observed the boy's labor, and, approaching the child, pointed out the futility of the task. "Son," said the (apparently condescending and definitely killjoy) elder, "thousands of starfish wash up on this shore every day. How can what you're doing there possibly make a difference?"
The child didn't pause in his efforts, but lifted another starfish off the beach. "It makes a difference to this one," he said, and threw the creature back into the tide.
In spite of this story's utterly fictional nature, and the fact it was in one of those publications I tend to loathe, it stayed with me. I was reminded of it last Friday. As I climbed into my car after a visit to the doctor, I saw a smiling young man lean down next to my passenger window and wave cheerfully at me.
It took me a minute to recognize him, because a) he had gotten tall and grown up, and b) he had facial hair, but after about four and half seconds I put together who he was and leapt out of the car.
"Hey, Miss Laura," he said, as I wrapped him in a bear hug.
"Ohmygod Justin you're so TALL," I said, because he was.
This encounter requires some background information.
About a million years ago, or 15 years ago, if you like to be picky about time, I was the minister of children and youth at a small independent church in North Shelby County. They ordained me and everything, something that to this day I have trouble believing was real and happened.
I should have known that the program I was inheriting came with a series of issues, because roughly 9,000 times during the interview process for this job I was asked questions like, "What would you do if one of the kids in your program absolutely refused, under any circumstances, to cooperate with the planned activities?" and "How would you handle it if a child was relentlessly disruptive?" But I was bright-eyed and optimistic and 27, and thought I had all the answers, so I explained all the ways in which I would be gentle and thoughtful and treat all of the children with love and respect.
They did not tell me until after I had a complete come-apart, with tears and hyperventilation and everything, after my first Sunday on the job, that the reason that they'd needed to hire a paid children's minister at all, in spite of the program having just a handful of children, was that these children had successfully run off every single volunteer in the church. Volunteers with 30 years of working with kids behind their belt had thrown up their hands, said, "Nope," and walked away rather than handle the impressive set of "destroy the grown-ups" skills that these kids had cultivated.
My first Sunday with the kids included, apart from the complete meltdown after children's church was over, ice cream for lunch and a nap in the fetal position. I had absolutely none of the skills necessary to engage a half dozen kids who would rather burn the church building down than sing songs.
But, while I had no actual skills for dealing with these kids, I am blessed (cursed?) with more than my fair share of stubbornness, and in the end being a minister seemed like a better deal than waiting tables, so I was determined to make it work. I brainstormed with the minister's wife, who was both brilliant and an actual human angel, and we decided we needed to dilute the population of kids with other kids in order break up the cabal.
Ultimately, the only other kids that we were able to recruit into the program were just as troubled as the initial batch, if not more so. They upped the ante, and instead of settling for calling me fat and breaking windows by kicking soccer balls through them and lighting fireworks in the church building like my first group of kids had done, my new kids also set fires, tried flushing each others' shoes down the toilet, performed routine acts of theft not only of church attendees but also of the church itself, and began fist fights with shockingly little provocation.
Adding these additional kids to the program was like trying to solve a small kitchen fire by tossing a propane tank onto it.
The crazy thing is that I found that I ended up actually liking all of my dreadful kids. Sure, they were horrifying on a disciplinary level, but they were sort of good-natured about it, like, "Yeah, I punched Josh in the teeth, but he deserved it, and anyway can we have chocolate chip cookies?" Also, they didn't try to prevaricate when I called them out on things. When one of the kids recorded his "rap demo" on a tape that he had clearly stolen out of the church tech booth (the church's name was stamped on it), and handed it to me to play on a van ride, he didn't even attempt to push back when I said, "MICKEY YOU STOLE THIS FROM THE CHURCH WHAT IN THE NAME OF UNHOLY FLYING MONKEYS WERE YOU THINKING?"
Looking back on this, I have no idea why I didn't give up in the first year. In fact, the things that slowly became normal strike me as completely ridiculous now. Like, I knew Carissa was a kleptomaniac - she literally would steal anything that was left lying around, and some things that weren't. So I just got in the habit of checking her pockets and bag whenever we went anywhere. And Dusty responded to every potential problem with violence, so I got in the habit of having him next to me all of the time. Like, ALL of the time. I also had to break up trysts that weren't so much romantic as they were sexual on the church playground, which led me to implement a comprehensive sex ed program in lieu of spiritual classes on Wednesday nights.
The truth was, every single one of these kids was dealing with a train wreck of a personal life. Whether it was parents in prison, uncertain housing that might occasionally slide into homelessness, extreme economic uncertainty that meant that regular meals weren't an option, or abusive family members, every last one of these children was carrying a burden too heavy for even an adult to bear. One of my boys had an older brother commit suicide while he was in my program; another had her custodial grandfather pass away. So it wasn't super surprising that on more than one Wednesday night church elders were leaping across entire tables to break up a spontaneous fist-fight.
Every summer I would take the kids who earned the privilege to summer church camp, all expenses paid. This is how you earned it: for the two months leading up to church camp, you had to 1) attend church regularly; 2) not steal anything; 3) not start any fights. End of list. And then I would take them to church camp and get used to being called out of the leader's group because one of my kids was throwing rocks at cars in the parking lot or stabbed another kid with a pencil. And this was my life, and this was my job, and I loved it slightly more than I hated it.
I have never worked so hard to come up with ideas of how to do something well. I spent sleepless nights trying to figure out how to help the kids avoid teenage parenthood and jail. I started a theatre program at the church (which included me writing a complete musical for them to perform), and a dance program because most of the kids liked to dance. In addition to the comprehensive sex ed program I mentioned before, we all completed "Where there's a will there's an A" to help them with study skills, and I taught a comprehensive etiquette course so they could order at restaurants and then eat their food without embarrassing me. We went for hikes; we went to the Civil Rights Institute; I took each of them out to dinner one on one. My house became the after-school hangout for kids with nowhere else to go. When the mother of two of the boys in my program was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in her 36th year, I went to doctor's appointments and chemo infusions, and I was at the hospital at 2 am on a December morning when she died just weeks before the 38th birthday she'd been hoping to reach.
I did this for six years, not because I am a good person (if you have known me for any length of time you know I am not, in fact, a good person), but because each one of these kids had a little spark of magic and I was so hoping that it would ignite. Then something happened, something that was related to church administration and not to the kids at all, and I found that I needed to resign my job as minister. If I'm honest, I was also incredibly burned out by then. I'd spent 6 years continuously on call, and after standing with these kids through unbelievable crises, my faith, what little there was left of it, was on very rocky terrain.
I kept in touch with the kids pretty well at first, and then less well as time went on. Their phone numbers changed regularly, as did their addresses. One of the girls in my program got pregnant at 16. Then another girl, one of the brightest of the bunch whom I'd helped get admitted to Shades Valley High School on her newly-discovered theatre chops, got pregnant her sophomore year and dropped out of school. One of my boys was arrested for possession. 18 months after I resigned, the church closed its doors for good, unable to financially sustain operations.
Sometimes, my kids would reach out when they needed money, and if I could, I would help. I meant to keep up with them, but the best of intentions were eroded a little at a time and then months passed and then years and I wasn't sure what had become of these kids.
But now, here in the doctor's office parking lot, was Justin, smiling and looking like the 23-year-old young man he now was. He seemed as happy to see me as I was to see him.
"Tell me everything!" I said. "I want to hear all of the things about how you are doing!"
He is doing incredibly well, as it turns out. He graduated last year from the University of Alabama and is now at UAB working on a Master's degree in counseling. He is also working at a nonprofit that helps women in recovery from substance abuse find housing. I was really impressed with him, and I told him that. Then I asked about the other kids, with whom he'd grown up, as he was most likely to know what had become of them.
One other kid from the program, a girl, had finished college as well with a degree in biology.
That was the end of the happy news.
One of my boys, who had been a very sweet kid (my oldest daughter had a crush on him when she was in 3rd grade and he was in 5th), had started college on a football scholarship only to be kicked out when campus cops stopped him and found him in possession of both drugs and a gun. Another young man, now in his early twenties, has already fathered four children. Nearly all of the girls ended up teenage mothers.
Worst of all, Dusty, he with the extreme anger issues, was in jail awaiting trial on charges of possession with intent to distribute. If he is convicted, which seems likely, he will serve 3-5 years.
"You know, Miss Laura, Dusty still talks about how much he loved church," Justin said. "He talks about how that was such a happy time, how much he loved summer camp. He said he was always happy there."
I felt tears pricking at my eyes. Dusty was always shorter than the other boys his age, and a little confused by the way life had dealt with him, and had made up for this with a bottomless anger. But behind that anger was a heart that wanted what we all want: to love and be loved.
Listening to Justin talk, I heard a catalogue of my failures. Maybe if I'd been able to keep up the pace of being a minister, if I'd been able to help the church administration fix itself instead of collapsing inward, if I'd been able to continue to minister to the kids even after resigning in spite of having another job and biological children of my own to raise, I could have helped them have more of a chance. Maybe what I'd done was worse that nothing, because I'd given these kids a glimpse into what life could be, but not done enough to help them find that path.
I had nothing to do with Justin's success, or that of his female counterpart; Justin has a very committed, involved mother who did everything in her power to make sure he had the opportunities she was robbed of, and Ella (the girl) had a grandmother who would have moved heaven and earth for her. Because my work with the kids had taught me that, in order to succeed, a child needs just one parent figure who loves them unconditionally and provides them safety, Justin and Ella were going to make it regardless of what I did.
But there seemed to be no doubt that I was complicit in the disasters that had befallen the other kids.
I asked Justin to let me know if he could find out where Dusty was incarcerated, so I could visit. I made lunch plans with him. And then I hugged Justin, got in my car, actively disliked myself, and wondered if those six years had been worse than wasted. I wondered if I had done more harm than good by coming into the lives of these kids, introducing them to a bunch of ideas and hopes, doing my best to love them, and then losing touch. I wondered if I had been part of the disaster of their lives, instead of a bright spot.
And then - and I swear this is not a thought I would have had on my own, so it must have been from somewhere else in the Universe - I thought, "Love is never a waste."
It breaks my heart to think of Dusty in jail, thinking fondly of a church summer camp nearly 10 years in the past now. It makes me ache to think of Jacinda, with no support from a partner or parent plus three kids, working at McDonald's for minimum wage. I am floored by this sense of desolation, this notion that in the end maybe there was no difference that could have been made.
But, then again.
Maybe some day Dusty will wake up, maybe in prison, and wonder if he might not be lovable after all because after all he was loved as a child and a tween. Maybe Jacinda will think of learning study skills all those years ago, and decide that her children are going to grow up taking school seriously. Maybe Mickey will remember something that was said to him once on a Wednesday night or Sunday morning, and it will help him through a difficult week.
But maybe yes.
In the end, we never really know if any of our actions, for good or evil, make any sort of difference.
But if we want to live in a loving universe, we have to keep doing loving things anyway. We do them imperfectly, we do them clumsily, and sometimes we do them resentfully or stingily. But apathy is never the answer - it can't be. Apathy is defeat, and despair, and resignation, and these are never acceptable answers when lives and hearts are in the balance.
We can't control outcomes, we can only control whether we love or not.
Maybe that same starfish you saved from slow asphyxiation on the beach gets washed up on the shore again tomorrow, when you aren't there to see.
But maybe, just maybe, it finds its way into the riptide and back out to sea, where it's surrounded by the quiet, dark abundance it needs in order to thrive.