He sits by himself at a small table in the back of the lunchroom. Chin in his hand, eyes, down. His fingers flick at discarded bits of the day’s pepperoni pizza that were missed by the lunch lady’s dishrag. The afternoon sun filters through tiny handprints on the windows, making the grass stains on his too-short jeans glow a deep emerald.
He sees me as I walk in—there’s something about a door opening that makes even the meekest of us look up in reflex—and turns aside. Today is Friday, and I told him I would need an answer by the end of the week. But his back is turned away and his body is folded in upon himself to make him as small as possible, and I think no. No, he still doesn’t know.
Waiting for my kids in the school cafeteria gives me a sense of connectedness to a part of their lives I mostly miss. I get to see where they eat, how they interact with others, what kinds of people surround them. And I get to see other kids, too.
Kids like Kevin. The one alone at the small table in the back.
He’s there every day, waiting for someone to pick him up and trying to stay hidden until they do. I said hello to him Monday afternoon. I was a bit early that day, and there was no one else to talk to. I was counting on a one-sided conversation. Kids like Kevin—and there seems to be many of them today, yes?—desire nothing but the next moment, to continue on, regardless of the unnamable weight they bear. I didn’t know what Kevin’s was (and I still don’t), but I knew it was there. I could feel it.
So I said hello. Sat down beside him at the small table and flicked a bit of food away—it was French fries that day—and waited for him to talk. It took prodding, but he did. General stuff. Nothing of home. Kids like Kevin, with their unnamable weights and downcast eyes, don’t talk much of home.
He’d been in trouble that day. Kevin showed me the white slip of paper his mama had to sign. Daydreaming, the note said. I told him I daydreamed a lot and that daydreaming was fun, but school was important.
“No it isn’t,” he said.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked him.
“Come on,” I said. “You have to want to do something.”
“When I was your age, I wanted to be an astronaut. Didn’t work out, but I still look at the stars a lot.”
Kevin said nothing.
“Tell you what, I’ll be back on Friday. You think about it and let me know then. Deal?”
He said he’d try. The kids came and we left. I waved to Kevin as we went out the door. He didn’t wave back.
And now, he’s ignoring me.
“Hey Kevin,” I say.
“Been doing any thinking about what I asked?”
His eyes said yes. I pulled a chair up to the table and sat. My mind tried to think of something little Kevin wanted to be. Maybe an astronaut, like I wanted once upon a time. Or President, though I figured there weren’t many kids nowadays who wanted to grow up to be that. Maybe a scientist.
“I guess I’m going to work at Little Caesar’s like my mom.”
“That’s all you want to do?” I ask him. “I mean, that’s great if that’s all you want to do. But…that’s all you want to do?”
He lowers his head to find something to flick on the table. “That’s all I can do,” he says.
“I don’t believe that,” I tell him, and Kevin shrugs.
The kids are on their way. I say goodbye to Kevin and leave him at the table. I don’t know when someone will pick him up, don’t know when I’ll see him again. But I know I’ll worry about him. A boy like that, a boy that young, should see this world as one of possibility and magic. His sights should be set higher than where they are. He should believe in himself more.
But I wonder if we’ve reached that point where we no longer inspire our children to become more than ourselves. If we see them as mere carbon copies, destined to make our own mistakes and suffer through our own failures.
And if we’ve accepted the lie that says greatness in life is reserved for all but shy boys in too-small jeans who sit alone at the lunchroom table.