If you’re anywhere near my age, you may remember the days when people had traditional snail mail Pen Pal relationships. Nowadays, with the expansion of the Internet, Pen Pals are pretty much a thing of the past. (There are some online clubs, and prisoners still develop Pen Pal-type relationships.)
When I was in fifth grade, my teacher, at Cedar Grove Elementary, collaborated with a teacher from one of our sister schools, Laurelwood Elementary, to put together a Pen Pal program. Each student in my class was randomly paired with another student from Laurelwood.
My Pen Pal was named Hank.
He and I corresponded for about month. From what I remember, we exchanged only two- or three letters during that time. After our last correspondence, the Pen Pal program culminated with a field trip to Laurelwood to meet our pals, have lunch, and play games. None of us knew what our counterparts looked like. In fact, not knowing was part of the fun.
When our bus pulled into the parking lot, there was one overly jubilant kid jumping up and down and waving. He was what I would describe as the “lookout.” In a matter of seconds, the “cool” kids — on our bus — were saying some pretty mean things about him. Stuff like: nerd, goof, pansy, dork, and the like. And then one of them said, “That dude is probably your Pen Pal, Rigo!” Everyone laughed. A second later, another student shouted this out of the bus window: “What’s your name?”
By the time we disembarked, Hank was gone. Presumably to let everyone know that their Pals had arrived. Moments later all of us filed into the classroom to meet our Pen Pals. The mood was replete with stares, giggles, and awkward silence. Eventually, we walked with our Pals to the cafeteria to eat lunch; games followed on the blacktop.
Shamefully, I ate my lunch as fast as I could, and made an excuse to get up so that I could join my friends. A few minutes later Hank walked up to my circle of friends to ask if I was going to join him for the games. I made another excuse.
He walked away.
By the time we were ready to leave Laurelwood, Hank — in a last ditch effort — asked if he could walk me to the bus. I acquiesced.
Hank was nerdy, socially awkward, and not the type of kid that I hung out with during that time. But he DESERVED better, and I certainly KNEW better.
For hours I attempted to internally rationalize my foolish behavior. By the evening I was pensive, reflective, and ashamed. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my dad. I knew he would be thoroughly disappointed.
I never thought I’d see Hank again, but about two years later I ran into him at the mall. I was walking out; he was walking in. I held the door open for him and an older woman he was pushing in a wheelchair. I recognized him immediately, but I didn’t think he would recognize me.
“Hi Rigo.” It’s the first and only time that the sound of my name stung. I politely smiled back. (I don’t remember if I said anything.)
In that brief and final moment, I remember walking away hoping that he saw — in the smallest gesture of holding the door open — a better person than the one he met two years before.by