Ethan arrived on campus that September only a shade over 100 pounds, watery-eyed, trying gamely to pull off the insouciance he read in classmates’ faces. He gave away the game, though. He was nervous and uncertain, although his last name hung over the entrance to one of the school’s buildings, and Ethan had the double-whammy of wondering if he belonged and trying to live up to a legacy of family members that had attended before him. I was assigned as his advisor–a formal mentor and guide through his four years at boarding school–and I was his dorm parent, soon to be his soccer coach, and in his senior year, I taught him English. Ethan’s mother was an international art dealer and his younger brother was a soccer prodigy; he must’ve wondered for a long time before I met him: what’s my place, when will my talent manifest? Too, Ethan sailed into some pretty serious emotional headwinds over those four years. Together, we experienced a lot of living and I’m proud of the way he handled himself, the intentional changes he made in his thinking and behavior. But, in early September of that first year, he was a scared teenage boy, gripped with barely hidden anxiety, who needed a steady hand to help him.
Daniela could shoot the lights out on the links. Her entry to school was preceded by her golf coach, a colleague of mine, describing an 8th grade girl who’d been winning tournaments against competitors much her senior. She was tallish for a young girl and when you saw her tee off, she created incredible torque. Daniela could certainly out-drive me, and her short game was where she really shone. Her family was a long-time military family, tracing service members back to the first World War. Fortuitously, Daniela’s own ambitions coincided with the family’s tradition; she was driven to get recruited for her golfing prowess into a service academy, then complete her patriotic service as an officer. The Iraq War was in full swing and even as I respected such an inclination from someone so young, her fervor made me nervous. I just cared about her well-being is all. Daniela wasn’t initially a great student, so when she’d discuss her grades, an undercurrent of tension colored her speech and a look of longing came into her eyes. Such things came into my ken first when she and Ethan forged a friendship and I got to share lunches with them in the dining hall. Later, Daniela would take my course in Dystopian Literature and another called The Quest. It was in those classrooms that she and Ethan met Juan.
Juan had been “counseled out” of various schools in his first three years of high school. He saw early the tenuous claims on behavior that institutional rules asked and he had learned the double-life that such a perspective demanded from teenagers. Juan liked to party. All the same–and this happens quite frequently with gifted kids whose psyches are tinted with emotional turmoil–the academic, personal, and relationship highs are really high and the lows can be cripplingly low. Juan never needed to study much–or so he thought because his grades stayed comfortably in the Good Enough range–and thus, he relied on ingenuity (sometimes called the BS of the Talented) and the pressure of immediate deadlines to complete his work and earn his acceptable but not superlative academic marks. He’d attended massive California public schools, private ski academies, and had a disastrous stint at a Quaker school in Baltimore. Coming to a New England boarding school, his schtick played well with a certain set, but he was surprised to find that he wasn’t Jack the Lad among this crowd. Juan was searching for acceptance and guidance; he’d tried things his own way but the momentum always seemed to run out. Once Juan and Ethan met in class, Juan petitioned for a room switch to be closer to his new-found friend, then Juan and Daniela began dating.
It was one of those bone-aching cold days in February. Daniela brought Ethan his chicken soup from the dining hall, making the trip to dorm quickly to escape the sideways sleet. Two evenings before, Ethan had slipped on the ice while skating and taken a pretty bad injury. The surgery required on his fingers wouldn’t happen until later that week and he was really down about not having the use of his right hand. It would be another couple weeks before he transitioned back to complete self-sufficiency and in these initial hours he needed encouragement. I’d spent the evening with Ethan in the ER while the doctor stitched him up and it was my job to call his parents in Texas and explain that the prediction was that he wouldn’t be able to open his hand again after the operation. Daniela had taken in the information once Ethan had texted her (how is it that teens can find a way to thumb their way through all those green and blue bubbles with even those most debilitating circumstances?) and launched into action. Perhaps it was a kind of vicarious terror of what would happen if she’d been the one to hurt hurself like this. Perhaps it was that same quality that made her so dedicated to others, given her commitment to country and service. In all, though, as I knocked on Ethan’s door with Daniela after she’d come to my apartment across the hall from him, what I saw was just one good kid helping another. No adult mentorship here, just getting out of the way. I kept my door open and listened to Ethan’s quiet chuckling turn to guffaws. Two friends laughing at absurdity and bad luck.
Ethan’s underlying depression found a ready target in his situation. It was Daniela and a school counselor that brought him back to a kind of equilibrium. Maybe a check-in or two from his advisor across the hall calmed things a bit occasionally. He needed to be nurtured and allowed to undergo the dark moments in the cave of doubt and sadness that comes with maturation. Accidents happen and all of us write stories like this in our own language and actions. What stands out to me was the recuperative effect that Daniela’s ministrations had on Ethan. She’d walk to class with him when possible, leave little candies in his mailbox, pep him up once he’d removed the bandages to reveal substantial scarring. I hope you and I both have friends like this for our own kids; it was a beautiful lesson in innocence and pure compassion.
Sometimes the steel bonds of friendship are forged in loss. Daniela’s aunt died the next spring. Her namesake and her godmother. The cancer was fast-acting, so the trajectory from diagnosis to funeral was only months long. By this time the three kids were fast friends–Juan and Ethan connected because the latter was a prefect assigned to help kids new to the school, while Daniela was already organizing study sessions in my literature course for herself and Ethan and it made natural sense to include someone like Juan, a witty and an insightful reader with a sharp mind for detail. The boys earned disciplinary demerits when they cut a mandatory dinner and study hall to be with Daniela the night she found out. They cried with her, bound up in the chaos and emptiness their friend inhabited. Daniela’s aunt was a captain in the Navy and an inspiration for her to pursue her goals. She was nearly scratch on the golf course and was one of the first to put a club in the girl’s hands. Grief is cruel that way. I wonder if any of us would negotiate it without friends like hers. Daniela flew home for the funeral and was away from school for a few days. Juan and Ethan insisted I drive them the two hours back and forth to Logan to pick her up; they wanted to be the first ones she saw when she stepped off the plane after such a thing. Ethan by this time had a kind of solidity about him, an understanding of himself as a competent, kind, and savvy individual. It was a far cry from that long ago September evening when he’d knocked on my apartment door and told me he couldn’t sleep because he missed his family back in Texas and was thinking about going home. Now, he’d found a sort of new family in his peers and his confidantes; different and separate, but nonetheless sustaining and true.
Juan won the school award for best science student when the three friends graduated that spring. It was all the more impressive, given he’d started later at school than his peers and especially in light of his earlier academic apathy. But he had that inquisitive streak in him that Ethan and Daniela heightened and fed with their nightly library trips and their commitment to classroom prowess. Juan took an extra class in computer science and completed an independent project in marine biology. He earned top grades in AP Physics. It’s amazing what kids do when they power up their reluctant academic generators. His teachers called Juan a success story borne of their ministrations and exhortations–I’d say he was just waiting to find inspiration, support, and reinforcement in his mentoring friends. There’s a scene that sticks in my mind of an evening when Juan, Daniela, and Ethan were sharing a couple of couches after dinner, slowly opening the books and getting ready for homework hours. Juan flicked a bit of rolled up paper at Daniela to flirt. She gave him a look and pointed at his unread textbook. Ethan smirked. I went to grab a cup of coffee and looked in on the kids twenty minutes later. The room was littered with paper, faces were red from laughing, the homework was all done. Juan had finished his Calculus in record time–naturally–and organized an impromptu snowball fight with crumpled notes from who knows where. Once a joker, always a joker…but this time, well it was a different thing than his previous incarnations.
All of these memories rise to my consciousness because, while the kids orbited my roles at school and I invested so much of my time and efforts in them, the unique nature of their shared friendship taught me the incredible value of teens’ healthy relationships with one another. I like to think that I’ve done right by kids over the years, but it’s humbling and fulfilling in equal measure to consider that my influence on the Triple Threat, the Crew, the Trifecta was one of fostering and quietly guiding; I was playing chess since I knew that the powerful intercessions would come amongst the trio, not from any top-down sort of direction. The kids studied together, they walked to and from afternoon practices together, Ethan would normally host chillouts in his room, Juan would push the wallflowers to attend dances and football games, Daniela would cajole them to knuckle down during Study Hall and praise the others when they’d scored academic victories.
Kids live so many different lives during their teenage years. Adults like me think of that time as mainly linear, owing to the fact that our present seems to lead inexorably back to the straight line of adolescence and childhood. It’s not so, not really. The Trifecta possessed the special alchemy that comes from broad and diverse backgrounds matched with the serendipity of Right Place/Right Time. The Crew needed one another, happenstance brought them together, a mentor who relied more on perception than direction reinforced their community of three, and that dynamic created the tears of goodbye on Graduation Day that underscored just how powerfully children can bring out the best in one another.
Perhaps these musings have been a crystallization of something we parents, teachers, and professional mentors all know: there’s no fundamental change that happens without human sincerity, levity, and empathy. The adults in the room sometimes delude ourselves into thinking those qualities need to be taught like a lesson or a course. But sometimes it’s just setting the conditions and letting the kids do the rest. Often, kids in need gravitate towards each other with an unerring pull that comes to look like fate. Tutors, guardians, teachers take note: perception, subtlety, and quiet support enable the best in our students to manifest. It’s a bit like turning on the light. A quick flick at the right time and then the whole room glows.