Sometimes the universe whispers, barely allowing you time to discern the deeper meaning in a fleeting moment. Sometimes the universe teases and taunts you with what are, to it, glaringly obvious signals for an equally obvious course of action – obvious to anyone and everyone but you.
Other times, the universe reaches out and slaps you across the face.
Many different, seemingly innocuous events led up to my awkward 20 or so minutes this evening. I didn’t have a car so I was relying on public transit. I left the office a few minutes after my colleagues while I finished up the proverbial “one last thing” on the computer. I chose a particular spot to stand and wait because I wasn’t sure where the (long) line of waiting passengers ended.
That’s where I met Alfred. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what his name was. It might have been Albert. Ashamedly, I’ve forgotten.
Albert, as I’ll call him, was a friendly young man waiting for the bus like so many of his fellow students. He seemed a bit chilled against the cold, and a bit restless, like most of us, for the long wait. Unlike the rest of us, he was friendly.
He walked right up to me, stuck out his hand, and introduced himself. He immediately surmised that we were friends, asking me if I was a student (I’ll admit I’m still just a little bit flattered when I’m mistaken for a student – a perk of the profession and where we work perhaps) and if I was waiting for the bus. He told me all about his program (Computer Science) and how he was in the process of completing assignment number 2. He asked if we could sit next to each other on the bus and sought me out once we boarded.
He reached out to shake my hand again once we had settled in our seats, and didn’t let go. Almost childlike in his mannerisms, he held onto my hand as we chatted, eventually placing his hand on my shoulder, and awkwardly leaving it there. For the entire bus ride.
He never once broke physical contact with me. At one point near the end of our journey, he said he was tired and laid his head on my arm. He asked me repeatedly if he was bothering me and, quite earnestly, asked me if I thought he was friendly.
Tonight, I rode the bus with that ‘weird’ student that is oblivious to the stares, the eye rolls, and the snickering. I rode the bus with the student so enamoured with people and with life that it can be just as heartening as it is uncomfortable and scary.
Tonight, I rode the bus with a young man who could have been my brother. Who, in my mind now, was my brother.
It baffles me and scares me that we live in a world where a hello from a stranger is treated with hostility or cruel amusement. It breaks my heart that this young man in his apparent naive attempt to connect with his fellow human beings could have just as easily been shunned, or worse, for reaching out.
I will admit that the physical contact was uncomfortable and, at times, scary. No one welcomes a touch from a stranger, and I will absolutely admit to being afraid. In the same breath, I was relived and grateful that Albert had chosen me as his travel companion. I’m not sure someone else in my position would have been so accommodating. This is not to say that I did the “right” or “best” thing for him. His parents or whomever else has the privilege of caring for him may have spent days, months, or years teaching him not to do the very thing I let him do tonight. I may have undone a life’s work in one conversation.
Regardless, Albert was the universe’s way of speaking to (shouting at) me this evening. He was my brother. He reminded me of his beautiful innocence and the ever present danger Sean will continue to face. While I may bemoan the lack of authentic connection and conversation in today’s world, it would be remiss of me to ignore the very real and dangerous repercussions of Albert’s attempts at connection. Sean too has needed to be told, repeatedly, that simply reaching out to hug someone is not always welcome. My parents and I often joke about his (very) overt friendliness with female waitresses but, as with most humour, there lies a real and festering kernel of truth. What will happen on the day Sean’s friendliness becomes unwanted advances? What will happen to Albert the next time he tries to reach out, and touch, someone else?
While still working through my newly (re)surfaced fears for my brother and his future, I can’t help but to be struck by Albert. Dangerous and, yes, as awkward as he may be, he gifted me with a truly authentic, unselfish and genuine need for connection. How many of us warp our own needs for connection around other vices, pushing away the very people we need most. Of course, Albert may very well be doing the same thing by “coming on too strong”, but as my heart shattered when he asked “Do you think I’m friendly?” I wondered how many of us would be brave enough to ask anyone, let alone a complete stranger, the same thing.
Is there an Albert in your life? Is there a Sean? Someone you want to protect from others and want to be protected from, all at once? The world is a breathtakingly beautiful, wonderful and cruel place. How do we teach our students to navigate it? Where do we push them to embrace all life has to offer … and when do we pull them back from that very same thing?