Sometimes The Light Goes Out And My Heart Breaks
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I want to tell you about this boy I know. 

We'll call him J. 

J's a great kid. A sixth grader with an impish grin, so full of the joy and mischief that dwells inside all 12-year-old boys. 

He is also calm, quiet and soft-spoken when he does speak, not one of those boys who climb the walls every split second of the day, unable to contain their overflowing boy energy.

I met J earlier on in the school year when I was asked to become a mentor to a struggling student. 

The students in this novel program were hand selected by their teachers. They are all bright kids 
with great potential who are bordering on the edge of pass or fail.

But, it's so much more than those two finite concepts of polar opposites. 

It is for some of them, a struggle so vast and formidable that it goes far beyond the price of a grade.

J is one of those kids. 

My job in the mentorship was not really about tutoring. My job was to be there, to listen and support, to cheer and understand. 

I thought I knew what was expected of me. 

Turns out, I didn't know anything. 

We began the year with high hopes and goals. 

We worked on homework and projects together. At first, with me, he was somber and shy. But, I'm not a solemn girl. There is too much light in the world, for the heaviness that comes with austerity. So, it wasn't too long before I teased out that wily grin made up of snips and snails and dirt and the talk of cars and the first 12-year-old boy realizations of girls in the world. 

Our work was often a struggle. J did not have access to a computer at home. He had no newspapers for his current events homework. He had no construction paper for projects. He had no crayons or markers. He had trouble staying organized because his folders were old, manila file folders, crinkled and torn. His backpack was one meant for a small child and it had seen better days with its broken strap and holes in the bottom that were growing ever larger with the heavy load of 6th grade work not meant for such a small backpack.

But, even worse, J had trouble keeping up with his reading homework because there was no quiet place in his home. A home "filled with too much drama," in J's quiet words. 

Along the way, we replaced his supplies and I encouraged him to find a quiet place. 

He came in one day, full of excitement. He had talked to his mom and explained to her how important his reading goals were to him. She'd allowed him to sit in the family car, the only place peaceful enough to concentrate. A respite from the drama and the duties and obligations put upon this boy, obligations meant more for a man of the house than a 6th grade boy. 

And along the way, a papery thin ribbon of trust developed between the two of us. 

I could see him settling in to our roles. His smile came easier. I no longer had to dig the talk from 
him. There was still a guard up, but with every passing day, he let me see more and more of the real 

We were making progress. The teachers were so excited. So many of them would tell me how sweet he was, what potential he had, how there was an uncontainable light in his eyes that spoke of hope and real possibilities of accomplishment. 

And then the light went out. 

Just like that.

We had Spring Break. I went up to the mountains of Colorado with my children and my husband, a family whose love and support and care I have always taken for granted. 

J didn't really talk about what he did on Spring Break. But, something happened. Something changed in him. The mark was as distinct as if he had tattooed the inky words on his body. "I give up."

He showed up on our mentoring day with no backpack. The new backpack the school had supplied for him. The new backpack he was over the moon to receive, taking great pride in putting all his new folders and pens in certain order. It was gone. 

He mumbled something about his uncle, a high school student who lives with him, had mistaken it for his backpack and taken it to school and lost it. 

His explanation was weak at best. He didn't even try to make the story believable. 

He hadn't completed any work for the week. He'd gotten zeroes on everything. And there was no promise in his eyes, only a dismissive shrug of the shoulder. When I tried to help him on his current events homework, he only glanced around the room, looking as if he wanted to be anywhere else but in the library with me. 

It was frustrating because that J I knew, was not there anymore. 

The mentor teacher had J as one of her students and she'd noticed the difference, too. You couldn't help it. It was as if an eclipse had covered the sun. 

She encouraged me to put down the pencil and paper and just talk to him during our next mentoring session. 

And so, I did. 

And at first, he only listened his eyes still darting around the room, so disinterested in what I had to say. 

So, I just talked and talked about everything and anything. About my world and my life. And perhaps, he just wanted to stop the flow of blabbering coming from my mouth, but suddenly he began to talk and the words just came and came and came as if it was all to heavy for him to carry anymore. As if perhaps, for the first time in his life, someone cared what he had to say. 

He spoke of his mother who dropped out of school when she had J at 15 years old. He spoke of 
her brushes with the law and jail times. He spoke of his younger brothers and sisters who lived 
with his stepfather, away from him, so that his mother could concentrate on her tech school degree. When I teased him, asking him if it was a relief to be the only one with his mom without all those 
pesky little kids around, he only shook his head and said he missed them very much. He spoke of 
the never-ending flow of relatives who lived with them. And he spoke of the gangs, a constant blight of a presence in the impoverished Latino communities of our area. He vowed to me he would never get caught up in all of that even though most of the men in his family were or had been in gangs. 

He knew the rules of the gangs implicitly, schooling me on initiations and the only way to get out of 
a gang. It's called getting beaten out and trust me, you don't want to know the details. I will tell you 
it involves lead pipes. 

The details shocked me, not so much because of their violence and ungodliness, but because a 12-
year-old boy knew all these things. 12-year-old boys are supposed to know about video games and baseball and crappy music and muscle cars. Not murder and drugs and arrest records and the best 
places to illegally drag race. 

And as our time together unwound, J told me that if he is successful, he will be the first one in his 
entire family to graduate from high school. 

I pinpointed that as the place to begin a dream. 

He returned the next week, a shade of the old J back in place, a shadow of light back in his eyes.

Yesterday, our mentor teacher emailed me ahead of time to ask me to bring in my digital camera. I was going to help J with his geometry project. It entailed taking pictures of J next to certain shapes we found. 

No problem, I thought. We snap a few pictures of some circles and a few Isosceles triangles and we've got this thing in the bag.

Sometimes, I'm wrong on the thing in the bag. Oftentimes, I don't even have the right bag. 

The circle and the triangle were the first objects on our list.  

After that, Geometry kicked my ass. 

We had to find parallel lines with a non-perpendicular transversal. We had to find a license plate that was a palindrome. We had to find bilateral and rotational symmetry. We had to find a tetrahedron and an octahedron. 

I almost cried.

Now if you, Internet, know of these things that I speak of, Hippy, Hip, Hap, Hooray for you. 

But, see, when I took Geometry, the boy I was madly in love with, who didn't yet love me back, sat right next to me. He passed me notes. He played footsies with me under the desk. He would take my hand and draw silly faces all over it. And I could not concentrate on concentric circles and Pi. I could only focus on the warmth of his hand holding mine. His soft brown eyes always teasing me. The silent plea in my brain that thundered out all other thoughts, whispering, "Please walk me to my next class. Please."

That boy didn't love me back that year. He only teased me and broke my heart as he swept through legions of girlfriends. 

I kept my love for that boy steady in my heart throughout all my high school years, even though both of us found vast and varied romances along the way. 

That boy took me to prom and it wasn't until after the drama of high school that he discovered he loved me back. And he loved me with all his heart, until I took that heart and soundly broke it, which is a story for another day. 

For today, I will only say that the only awful grade in all of my academic years belonged to Geometry because true love always wins over parallelograms and right angles. 

And so, I was of no use to J in our geometry hunt. And of course, J just shrugged his shoulders when I asked him what this strange language meant. 

Luckily, I found a mom walking around with an Iphone. Thank God for technology. 

And J and I laughed as we ran through the school, snapping pictures. Me teasing him not to look so mean and as his 12-year-old boy smile erupted, I would snap away. Pictures of J and Geometry. 

It was a good day. 

As I was leaving, the mentor teacher took me aside to tell me that J will not be going on into the 7th grade. His failing grades could not merit a promotion.

I am defeated. I don't know what this will mean for J. I don't know if he will have the resolve to pick himself up, dust off the cloud of failure and begin again. 

There is so much adversity in his young world, I don't know if this is the one thing that will shove him backwards into a life of no promise. 

It is not only J that failed. I have failed him. And that, I feel, is far worse. 

My job in these final days with him now changes. I will be the cheerleader, the tough talker, the one who dusts him off, the one who hopes and prays for a resurrection of sorts, a second chance. 

And if he decides he'll take it, I vow here in this space and time, to be by his side, bad Geometry skills and all. 

Today's Dooo Itttt Download: I haven't spoken of American Idol at all this season because truthfully, American Idol has been lame. 

There have been very few bright spots and for me, the bright spots have belonged to Crystal, the dreds girl who has a gritty, powerhouse voice and a grace like no other contestant. And Lee, who from the get-go, I pointed out and said, "That boy, I like." 

Lee has grown from this meek, unconfident singer into a rock n roll dude with a righteous swagger. 

There have been very few shining moments this year. 

Until last night. 

With three left, the judges choose a song that they think will fit a contestant. 

Simon chose Leonard Cohen's, "Hallelujah" for Lee. 

And anyone who knows me, knows that is in my top 10 of favorite songs. In fact, I'm too lazy busy studying up on Geometry to look it up, but I think I've already suggested this song in my downloads earlier on in my blog. 

Lee stood out there with his guitar and filled himself with the heavenly words of that beautiful song. He let Hallelujah carry him away as a choir of gospel singers marched in, joining him and his guitar on that stage. He isn't a singer with a huge voice or an amazing range, but he took that song and filled it with such a passion, the crowd was on its feet and for the first time this year, I got a little goose pimply. I do believe, he won the crown with that song. 

Here's a link if you want to get all goose pimply. 

"Hallelujah" for J. I'm sorry. But, if you'll let me, we can try again. 

I did my best, it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah


Liz Mays said...

Your story of J was absolutely amazing, truly. You have a gift.

And Lee, omg, I got chills from his rendition of Hallelujah last night. That boy is something else. I hope he wins!!!

Noelle said...

I'm sitting in my office at work with tears in my eyes...for so many reasons.

One is because life is not fair and sometimes I get really angry about that...and the little guys like J...they deserve a break somewhere.

Another is because I'm sad you think you failed...because you didn't. You love him, and you were there for him, and you brought him light, and happiness, and you showed him that he was loveable...and everything else you gave him.

And I'm crying because I would have felt that I failed too...but I LOVED the promise you made to be there for him.

And I whole heartedly agree about Lee's song. I looked at Jason during his song and said, "Look, I have goosebumps." It was by far the best part of AI this season.

You're a good woman Joann...and J is lucky to have you in his corner.

duffylou said...

How could you feel like a failure? You showed this little boy the one on one love and attention he obviously was lacking in his home life.

No matter how hard it is to accept, they can't all be success stories. But you are there for him. I am assuming the school will still let you be his mentor as he will still be in sixth grade. You two have a rapport.

Every child should be as lucky as J to have someone like you Joann, pulling for them.

I feel like such a putz for not volunteering for something like this.

I'm going to check into it for the next school year. (Sorry for the long post).

SurferWife said...

I was wondering if you were going to blog about this. I'm glad you did.

Why do you feel like you failed J? He is so incredibly lucky to have you in his corner.

Mrs. Ohtobe said...

Dang Jo - you made me cry!!! Stop that!

Tiffaney said...

You should be extremely proud, Joann. We can't control outcomes, especially when it comes to people. J has tragic circumstances, but you have made an indelible difference in this kid's life. I guarantee there will be a day in the future when he will look back and feel gratitude for your kindness. Because kindness is the only thing we can really offer in life and is what endures.

Heather said...

You didn't fail this child. I wish there was some way they could help him over the summer. Seems like if he is failing they are REQUIRED to try to catch him up.

I hope you continue on with him.

One Photo said...

Where there is a will there is a way - as Heather says, maybe the school can be persuaded to let J play catch up over summer, which would give him a purpose for the summer, an objective and goals to work on and prevent the big slump happening again. Maybe it is worth a try, asking the school to consider this can do no harm.

I admire you Joann for getting so involved with J and you tell this story so beautifully. It is just so sad that so many children get such a poor start at life, and anything anyone can do to help as you have done is a significant step for such a child

Katie's Dailies said...

Is there aaannnyyy way that you could request to have J again? He is so close, I can feel it. My heart goes out to those kids, they want to learn sooo badly. And I wish with everything inside me that all kids had the opportunities that the "good" kids have, the kids who don't live in bad neighborhoods, who have the right size back packs and supplies. If only this was a perfect world then that wish would come true. But you know what, Joann? That time you spent with him gave him hope, I think, it helped him see that SOMEone believed in him and cared about him. I bet he looked forward to those sessions as much as you did.

cheri said...

my hearts breaks for j. and lee made me cry with his song :)

The Bipolar Diva said...

You've done so much more for him that you'll ever know. That could be the one thing that he'll hold on to and may very well carry him through his life.

liz said...

Wow, Joann. I can tell you defeated and upset you are just with this post. I'm sure you are dreading the challenges ahead with J. Best of luck when you try to dust him off and get him to keep going.

Jen said...

My heart goes out to J. Is there anyway he can be tutored during the summer so that he can go on to 7th grade? I agree, this might be the straw, I hope his teachers can find a way to move him up with his class. My son has a friend who was in a similar situation, he was told he wouldn't be moving on with his class, he has not gone to school since then. Sadly he has no support at home, he didn't stand a chance.

I don't watch Idol but I did watch the video. That Lee is too cute! I wish I was 20 years younger. Oh, he can sing too.

LisaPie said...

The scariest thing of all this is that whenever you see a dramatic change in a child for the worse, it usually means something horrible has happened to him. Someone has hurt, beat, abused, molested or in some other way squashed his spirit.

You, my friend, need to not feel like you have failed this child. You are the one he is trusting and counting on. You are his shining light and his example of what goodness looks like.

I love that song too. and I can't remember ever hearing it and not crying.

Maybe if you assign a geometry question to each of us we could find out everything about that particular shape and then give you the Cliff notes version to help you?

Melissa said...

Yep, crying. You didn't fail. You loved and you provided. You guided when no one else was. You showed confidence in him when no one else does.

Obama proposed lengthening the school day to 5pm. One of the reasons he named was that for many kids, school is the safest place they have. It makes me so incredibly sad that this exists. I hate to see the innocence of a child taken prematurely. For a lot of people, myself included, the American dream is attainable by anyone and everyone. And it is, in theory. But, for so many kids, their environments make it nearly impossible to even attend school.

Will you keep in touch with J?

Paula said...

You did not fail him. I admire you tremendously for being able to do this sort of thing. It's the kind of thing I want to do but can't, so it makes people who can do it that much more special to me.

Katherine said...

You certainly did not fail J. His family failed him. The "system" failed him. It is so discouraging. But people like YOU make this world better. He will remember you, and I bet one day when he is just about to give up, he will remember one tiny thing you said that will make all the difference to him. THANK YOU for being so amazing to him!

Ally said...

My heart aches for poor J. My heart aches for you to have worked so hard emotionally to help him. I could just cry. This is why I could never teach the way my folks did. If you have a heart, you get way too attached and involved. My mother would make lunches for high school boys my father taught who didn't have food to eat. My dad would help his students fix their cars and count it as auto shop credits. J will remember you forever. Trust me.

Anonymous said...

God, it is so unfair sometimes. You didn't fail J though. I'm sure he was glad for the help and also relieved to finally unload everything. You are like the guy tossing the Starfish back into the water. I'm sure you know the story. You made a difference. Good for you.

Anonymous said...

That song is one of my husband and mine favorite songs. You're right, he nailed it and with so much passion. Thanks for sharing it!

pieters said...

My dear Internet friend. Your story is incredibly touching and as others have said you have not failed him although I can certainly understand why it feels that way. Maybe a miracle will happen and he'll make it. Keep doing what you are doing and may the Lrod grace your way. Hallelujah is a magnificent song and I will link you later to a piece of art work I did during a very rough time between me and my youngest. Lauren

Sheila Sultani said...

I am so sad for all the kids out there that don't have what a lot of people take for granted. You have to know that you have changed that kids life forever. He will never forget the crazy lady who talked too much who listened to him when no one else would.

Anonymous said...

You didn't fail J. You are a light in his rather dark world. It must feel mighty good to him to have a person to trust, someone to cheer him on, someone to tell him he can do anything he sets his mind to.

Hold him up, shine the light on him, remind him he can do anything. Absolutely anything he sets his mind to.

Bossy Betty said...

Oh Joanne,

I deal with J's more than I wish. I can't believe hat some kids have to deal with, just to survive. There have been some kids I just wanted to take home with me. You were a bright light in his life. Hang in there with him!!

This story really got to me.

middle child said...

The best gift you can and have already given this boy is your attention. The fact that you listen. He knows that someone cares and that he matters. Peace.

Renee said...

It's unfair for a little boy to carry the weight of so much. Unfortunately, I'm afraid he'll carry the hurt & anger of it all around with him his whole life. But when he looks back he'll remember at least one very bright spot in all the darkness, & you are to thank for that.

You didn't fail him, the world did. But you're the only one who was brave enough to try to pick up the pieces, & that is something to get goose pimply about.

Cupcake Murphy said...

I loved reading this story and I loved that it ended with that song that's always make me confused about whether I should smile or cry. Like how I feel on so many days of my life. Thanks for being a good writer.

Cheeseboy said...

This is insanely terrific.

I need more parent volunteers like you at my school. J is so lucky to have you as a mentor.

Rae said...

My heart goes out to both you and J. I pray he will continue on the right path and rise above his environment and family issues. You are a good person for helping him. Big points in heaven, Lady!
I don't watch Idol, but my daughter made me watch Lee on YouTube. I got goose pimply, too!

Dawn in D.C. said...

What a great story. Let J know that there are others in his corner, cheering him on!

Natalie said...

You didn't fail! This is not the end of the story! J still has a chance! What an amazing woman you are. Thank you for sharing this story.

Brandie said...

Stopping by from SITS...I'm a teacher and know all about that light. Beautiful story. Thank you!

Joann Mannix said...


You are the only one I cannot reach through email or blog, which by the way, I love your blog very much. Thank you always for your kind words and comments.

jayayceeblog said...

That was a powerful post. Sadly, when the root of trouble starts at home, yet is not bad enough for removal of the child - just constant toxicity, all you can do is keep pulling from the positive side and hope it's enough. I am familiar with a situation like J's and it is heartbreaking. You've done a wonderful job of showing him that there are good, positive people out there who he can associate with. Keep up the good work!!!

I have liked Lee since the beginning. His rendition of Hallelujah was so great, I think I actually like it better than the original by Jeff Buckley.

Renee said...

You are always welcome! Thank you for doing such a great thing.


I forgot to mention, I'm also on the Lee train this season.

Sadako said...

I agree--it sounds like J is lucky to have you! Anyone would be, based on how much you seem to care. You sound like an awesome mentor.

The Furry Godmother said...

The world needs more people like you, Joann. You didn't fail him. It's tough to push back the world when you only have two small hands. You're teaching him grace. He will remember it.

Shell said...

Wow, you are such a fantastic writer and you have a sweet heart to try to help.

Do they HAVE to hold him back? When I taught middle school, we sometimes passed these kids on anyway- because we knew they knew the material, they just hadn't done the work to show it. (I do NOT agree with doing this in younger grades, but in middle school, it rarely, if ever, benefits a child to be held back)

I love that song, too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joann,

Hi am here from Noelle's blog. I am so grateful she recommended you.

You are such an amazing woman! I've read ONE post and i can tell what a beautiful heart you have and vouch for it.

You are surely the ONLY light bulb in his life. Maybe you'll always be the only one. That little guy is so fortunate to have you there.

I have a feeling. I have a feeling that he will continue with you. He will because the thought of giving up, that may come to him often, will make no sense when all he can think of is his dream of being the first to graduate. And YOU, my girl, are the ONLY bright spot on his journey to that dream.

Light up.

Lula Lola said...

So much unfairness. Why are some kids born into homes that surround them with love and opportunity while kids like J have to struggle for every victory?
Sometimes, I wish the schools could look beyond the averages and the "pass/fail" and see the child behind those numbers. So sorry he's not going to be promoted. That's going to do a number on his fragile spirit. Thankfully, he's got you as a cheerleader! Sometimes, everyone needs a little push to make it across the finish line. And then someone clapping and whistling when they get there. Glad you're there for him!

Thursday, the first graders had awards day. It was really cute and my little fellow got some really good awards. We were really proud of him. But, more than that, when he was in kindergarten, I helped do some one on one work with some of his classmates who started school not knowing their alphabet, numbers, shapes and in some cases colors. I was shocked at how little these kids knew. When I'd volunteer, I'd wonder what kind of home they came from that didn't write letters or point out shapes.
By the end of kindergarten, they'd made progress, but were still way behind the other kids. Well, at awards day, they are given medals if they read a certain number of books, take computer tests on them and answer 80% of the questions correctly. I saw some of the kids that couldn't tell you the difference between A and Z awarded these medals. No parent there to see them, but they stood there proudly with their teacher's arms around them. I prayed a little prayer that they'd catch a break. Glad you're providing that break for J. Don't get discouraged! Hang in there!

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