January 25, 2016.
This is less of a story about a place and more about a person. A person I’d met through Jackson Street Youth Shelter. I inquired about becoming a mentor many months ago in an effort to get re-engaged with working with youth. After leaving the teaching profession I found that I really missed being around those rascally teenagers. So I filled out my application and patiently waited for a match.
As it turned out, most of the kiddos looking for mentors were young. I was holding out for a teenager because that was the age group I was most comfortable working with. One day I got a call about a potential match. It came with a few caveats. Asperger Syndrome. Difficult kid. Difficult dad. Would be on a trial basis only. No problem, I said, I would be willing to give it a try.
We met for the first time in the office at the shelter. She wasn’t living there, but she was receiving services from the organization. She didn’t talk much, wouldn’t really answer any questions, and claimed she didn’t like to do anything or know why she was there. I wondered what brought her to the program to begin with. But again, I was willing to give it a try. We scheduled our first meet-up at a local park shortly after.
Since that first meeting, where we swung on the swingset and tried to cobble together a conversation, I learned a lot about Anna* (let’s just call her Anna). She was pretty non-communicative in every respect but one. She had an incredible imagination and could go on and on about the anime videos she watched on YouTube or stories she created in her own mind. I’d quiz her about characters and storylines, even though I couldn’t keep up. No matter, she was happy to repeat any information I didn’t know and tell elaborate tales about the characters’ adventures and relationships. It was incredible. I thought about how I could find a way to share the things I loved with her in a way that made sense in her mind.
Enter our nature walks. Anna hated it at first. But very soon we were able to establish a rapport on these walks. She’d start out talking about this or that drama occurring between her favorite characters. But it didn’t take much effort to redirect her attention to the drama we were walking through. On the trails at Fitton Green she looked for birds and squirrels. We picked up unusual rocks and admired the trees. She was curious about all the things she found on our walks. She wove creative stories about these things. It was beautiful to see how she engaged with the natural world. I admired her for it.
As we strolled up the hill to the bench in the meadow we had to stop several times to let Anna catch her breath. She was young and thin and weak. She feared exertion, thinking she was going to overdo it and get hurt. It was strange to see. A girl of her age should be running circles around me. But she wasn’t an athlete and was probably not pushed to do many physical things. I felt like these walks were good for her on so many levels.
Once we reached the bench we took off our backpacks and dug around for snacks. I taught her how to pack for a hike: food, water, jacket. Anna had a sandwich but she really wanted what I had: a bag of mixed nuts. I was happy to share. She ate ravenously, as if we’d just climbed a mountain. The breeze blew, the crows soared overhead, the tall grass undulated. It was close to a perfect moment. It was okay to sit in silence, neither of us needed to talk.
As we turned back to walk to the parking lot, she immediately returned to telling stories. I listened intently as she interpreted the world around us into a mystical fairyland. Anna, who could not connect with people in the real world, had this incredible ability to see beyond what you or I see. I struggled to see how she would be able to make a life in this world, a world that operates differently than her. I hoped that in some small way I had played a positive role in her journey, allowing her to express herself in nature.
It was bittersweet to reach the car. Sad that the hike was over, but excited to anticipate our next adventure outdoors.