Fifteen years ago I was serving as a scoutmaster. It was a very busy time in my life. I was trying to advance in my career, I had two little kids, I was grappling with Multiple Sclerosis, and I had a very large troop of boys.
Like many new homeowners, I had been working steadily to improve our property. As summer drew to a close I began building a cedar fence around my backyard. I could only work on it in what little spare time I had, so the project took weeks and weeks. Autumn evenings often found me working outside with the benefit of artificial lighting. I was trying to get the fence finished before winter set in.
A boy in my troop named Jake was excited about his upcoming birthday. His family was going to hold a special gathering. He told the other boys all about it at troop meeting.
Jake lived close to my house, but I wasn’t any closer to him than any of the other boys. Since he didn’t attend our church meetings, I had less opportunity to interact with him than with some of the other youth. Jake acted like your average boy his age. Any that have interacted much with this age group of boys will know what I mean.
One night I was busily working on my fence. Down the street I saw various friends and family members arriving at Jake’s home, and then I remembered that it was his birthday. I knew his parents somewhat. They seemed like decent people.
Later as I was hurrying to get a certain part of my project finished before having to wrap up for the night, I saw Jake kind of lazily riding his bike in the road in front of our house. He came into the driveway and started talking with me. I talked with him, but I went on about my work. He was rattling on about something that seemed totally inane to me.
I wondered why the heck Jake was bothering me when his house was full of people that were there to celebrate his birthday. Having not been around alcohol much in my life, I didn’t understand the dynamic of the adults at the party drinking and acting like people do when they get oiled up, eventually making Jake want to get out of the house.
As Jake jabbered, I increasingly tried to give signals that I was too busy for idle chit-chat. His blathering seemed to be pointless. Eventually my messages were successful, and Jake wandered off into the neighborhood.
Later, as I wrapped up for the night, I was satisfied with what I had accomplished on the fence. I groused to my wife about Jake bothering me, taking precious time away from my project. I can’t remember the mild comment she said in response, but sometime later it sank in.
I was so intent on my work that I was oblivious to the fact that Jake was reaching out to me for help. He had come to one of the adults that he thought he could trust and that cared about him. Being an adolescent boy, he didn’t directly approach the issue. Perhaps he didn’t even understand why he was there himself. But I had spurned his appeal. I had showed Jake by my actions that I cared more about a fence than I did about him.
After I realized my error, I watched for an opportunity to redeem myself. That opportunity never came. Jake went on into the next age group of boys and I didn’t have much of an opportunity to interact with him after that. Nor, I’m sure, did he feel any urge to approach me about matters of importance to him.
I’m still a very task oriented person. I still find myself brushing off people that should be important in my life so that I can focus on getting a task done. The other evening my 11-year-old asked me to work with him to learn how to build fires without using matches. Although I wanted to do something else, I remembered Jake. I dropped what I was doing and spent time working with my son in the backyard.
Although Jake has grown up and become a man, in my mind’s eye, I still see him as a somewhat forlorn boy sitting on his bicycle in my driveway on a dark autumn evening. And I see an opportunity forever lost.