Saturday, November 08, 2008

Lost Opportunities

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.


y-intercept said...

I used to wander around aimlessly and annoy adults.

Wait a second, I am wandering around aimlessly in cyberspace annoying people at this moment.

When my gentile family first moved to Salt Lake, I found the lack of other kids wandering around really spooky. I thought everyone all uptight and put offish. The second day we were here. I went off to find something to do. I walked a mile and a half before I found any kids. They punched me a couple of times. I walked home thinking it odd.

It was summer. School was out. Streets are supposed to be filled with kids wandering around. I had to walk almost two miles to find kids and they punched me.

About a month after moving to Salt Lake, I remember having a crying fit by a telephone pole. I couldn't take the inhospitality of the region any longer.

A few years ago, I was standing in line to get some slop from a fast food joint. A young lady from the South started weeping when the person at the counter handed her the bag full of fast food slop.

I talked to the Southern Belle and her mother to find out what was wrong. They had relocated from a place in the South where people spent a lot more time practicing hospitality with strangers than they do in these here parts.

She found Utahans to be closed in and stand-offish.

I am saying this because I suspect that your story had nothing to do with alcohol. I suspect that the kid was from a place where wandering around talking to people was part of childhood.

It is in part modern society. We are all scared of each other. Kids aren't allowed to talk to strange adults.

To me this is terrible. The American experience used to be a thing where kids spent most of their time wandering around like the kid you described.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Actually, Jake's parents are both native to this area. One is a member of the predominant religion and the other descends from people that were.

Our neighborhood is constantly filled with kids wandering around. It's one of the things that has kept us here for 20 years. For years we have had a constant parade of our kids' friends and acquaintances wandering in and out of our home.

Jake is far from the only one whose parents occasionally imbibe around here. But I later discovered from overhearing a conversation between Jake and another boy that the liquored up adults drove Jake away from his own party that night.

I'm sorry for the hostilities you have encountered in Utah. I do not deny that such behaviors exist. But I wonder if they are regionalized or have much to do with experiences prior to coming here.

I have a friend (not LDS) from New Jersey that put in for a job in this area kind of on a whim. To his surprise, he got the job and moved his family out here. Unlike the Southern gal you mentioned, my friend found an openness in northern Utah that he had never experienced in NJ and PA, where he had lived.

He said that where he was from, almost every interaction with other people was a confrontation and that everyone had was constantly in battle mode. Just going through a grocery checkout line was a harsh experience, he said. He was amazed at how friendly workers at grocery stores around here were. I must admit that I found his description odd, but then, I've never lived in NJ.

My friend was amazed that people in his neighborhood would smile and wave, even though, he hardly knew them. His kids had no problems developing new friendships after moving here.

It's interesting that different people can come here and have such diverse experiences with and opinions of the 'natives.'

Anonymous said...


I don't know where you came from before you got to Utah, but my experience would seem to corroborate what Scott suggested about regionalism. I think there is a lot we can do to be more open and sociable in Utah - I have no intention of excusing us on that issue, but some places are even less inviting while many areas in the south and the midwest are just much more open in the way people interact with each other. Expectations definitely go along way in coloring the perceptions of a new culture when we move.