One at a Time, Man

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I’m not sure why, but going to church makes me hungry. Attending a 60 minute mass makes me want to consume the same amount of calories as Sir Edmund Hillary scaling Everest. So, after church a few weeks ago, my family and I went through a convenience store drive-thru. We were greeted by a young man who seemed less than enthusiastic about taking our order. I smiled and said, ” I need a root beer, a Sprite, and a…”
“Whoa, man,” he interrupted. “One at a time.”

I was a little annoyed. I mean, this guy didn’t smile or offer a greeting, and then he interrupted me. But, he looked familiar, and I realized he was a former student of mine. He had long hair, lines on his face, and tattoos all over his body, including his chest, visible because his shirt was wrinkled and unbuttoned at the top.  It had only been ten years since I last saw him, but he looked much older.

“Hey, man. What’s your name?” I inquired. “You went to Jackson, right?”

He gave me his name, and I told him I knew him. I remembered him for several reasons. He was a frequent flyer in my office, but most prevalent in my mind was the last time I saw him. I was exercising in a local gym, and I noticed him working with a physical therapist. I walked over to say hello, but it was apparent he didn’t remember me. He looked vacant, and out of touch with his surroundings as he worked on climbing a set of steps.  The task was fitting because he had a long and arduous climb to recovery.

I asked him how he was doing, and he told me, ” I don’t remember you, but don’t worry about it. I don’t remember much from the past ten years. I was in a bad car wreck, and I  had to relearn everything..” He then smiled and told me he was doing well and had a three-year-old son. He pulled out his phone and showed me pictures of a beautiful kid with curly hair.

As I drove off, it occurred to me he wasn’t trying to be rude when I placed my order. He simply struggles to remember things. “One at a time, man.”  I no longer saw the unbuttoned shirt or tattoos, I saw a guy working to support his son, and doing the best he could to deal with more adversity than most of us will encounter.

I had another run-in with a former student at a local restaurant. I stopped in to pick up dinner (after church, when else?) when I made eye contact with a guy behind the counter. I instantly recognized him, but he looked different from his high-school years. When he was a student, he looked delicate, almost fragile. He was skinny, all elbows and knees, and he would sit in the corner of my office when I met with him. He avoided eye contact, and it was as if he was absent even when he was present. This kid never wanted to come to school, and he almost didn’t graduate.

The man in front of me looked different-  his face was full, and he seemed sure of himself. We greeted each other, and then he surprised me by saying, “It was paranoid schizophrenia.”

“What?” I replied.

“I didn’t come to school because I was schizophrenic. I just wanted you to know because you tried to help me. I was diagnosed after high school.”

He told me there were good days and bad days, but overall, he was doing well. We talked for a few minutes before I wished him well and left.

I reflected on both encounters on the drive home. Some scars are visible, but so many are hidden. It’s easy to become agitated and impatient with others, but there is so much we don’t know about the people we encounter.  What is certain is we all have problems, obstacles, and challenges in our lives.  We are all in this together, taking each day “one at a time, man.”

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