No Excuses

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An old feature from CBS popped up on my Facebook page. It catalogued the most crime ridden cities in the United States and described what the infractions were. There were a few surprises on the list, but mostly they consisted of the usual suspects that are traditionally havens for criminals. What was more interesting was the commentary from readers that followed the article as people attempted to determine what actually causes deviant behavior and how we might find ways to curb it.

I’m not a sociologist or expert in criminology, but I spent my lifetime working to educate youngsters, and what I have found is that most of the kids who became lawbreakers shared certain commonalities that had little to do with their economic situation other than placing them in the line of temptation. In the vast majority of cases the kids were from broken homes that had become structureless, without guidance. Often they as well as their parental figures used addictive drugs and joined gangs as a way of belonging. Their lives were focused on getting from one moment to the next as easily as possible. They were not interested in school and no doubt would have simply dropped out were it not for truancy laws. Many of them were marking time until they reached the age of sixteen when they would no longer have to cope with rules that made it illegal for them to leave the world of education. They generally had few positive role models and they almost always laid the blame for their plight on society rather than themselves. They were angry and believed that they had the right to better lives, but were unwilling to do the hard work to take advantage of opportunities. It was heart breaking to watch them becoming more and more adrift and influenced by forces that would ultimately lead them into a very dark world.

As teachers we did our best to motivate them, but we were often uncertain as to how to most effectively help them to escape the bad habits that were bringing them down. We had only a few hours of influence each day and we knew with certainty that when they left us there was no telling how much trouble awaited them. There were many schools of thought as to what we needed to do.

I remember one administrator who felt that only by setting down clear rules and consequences for ignoring them would we ever rescue them. He actually encouraged us to give them after school detentions because at least in that way we would be keeping them safe just a bit longer as well as teaching them that some actions are unacceptable and will be punished by society. He often followed some of the teens home if he thought that they might get into trouble along the way. He indeed saved a large number of individuals, but others only rebelled even more. I began to realize that there was no one approach for everyone.

At the same school we had a coach who used to bring old cars and park them in front of the gym. At the end of the day he invited students to join him for lessons in repairing autos. He had quite a following and many of the youngsters who stayed might otherwise have been up to mischief. Instead they were inspired to learn a trade that would bring them the success that seemed to otherwise elude them. There were fine arts teachers and those who taught science who similarly engaged the interests of children who had once been without any kind of direction.

I also noticed that once some of our kids went to church they changed dramatically. Many of the priests and ministers in the area actively recruited our students with promises of food, fun and fellowship. When they learned Christian principles they began to think about their own lives and actions and even influenced the adults in their lives. The loving concern that they found in those churches felt even more powerful than the gangs and quite often wrought amazing changes in our students.

In my final years in education I worked with the KIPP Charter Schools and their many mantras emphasized hard work, good behavior, goal setting and a willingness to never offer excuses for bad choices. The aim of the schools was to offer students a positive pathway out of poverty and sometimes toxic lifestyles. The route to success was grounded in a focus on education and a belief that with effort anything is possible.

Every single day the students were challenged with rigorous academic work that did not allow them to fall behind. The long days kept them focused on learning with little time for frivolous or criminal pursuits. Those who broke the rules were punished quickly and according to the nature of their actions. Sometimes they were even expelled on a probationary basis until they were able to prove that they were willing to adhere to the standards.

Parents were as much a part of the design as teachers. The adults worked hand in hand to insure that the values of character and industry became an integral part of the youngsters’ lives. While not every individual made it, the majority did and overcame countless obstacles to earn degrees and certifications that lifted them out of poverty and danger.

Poverty alone is not the problem. My brothers and I grew up poor, but we had a mother who never allowed us to wallow in pity or anger. She insisted that we study and work hard. She modeled exemplary character and emphasized that with the will we might accomplish anything. She instilled optimism into our natures and taught us that lack of material wealth did not define us or make us less than even the wealthiest person that we might encounter. Mostly she showed us that sacrifice and honesty were noble qualities that would carry us far. She would have been horrified if we had become so jealous of others that we thought it was somehow our right to steal from them or harm them.

We certainly need to give the poor in our country a lift upward, but helping their children to become self sufficient producers cannot be accomplished with money alone. Instead it requires our efforts to demonstrate how they might survive in positive ways. We must show them the value of hard work and provide them with role models and inspiration. It is a daily task requiring a multitude of good people including their parents.

Dr. Ben Carson often speaks of his own troubled childhood in Detroit where he lived in the midst of temptations that might have lead him into dangerous behaviors. His mother was not willing to simply allow him to waste his life, and so she became a force that changed the trajectory of the person he would become. She pushed him to use the talents that he had by being adult enough to be in charge. She devoted her life to demonstrating to her sons that they had the power within them to become better and better versions of themselves.

I suspect that they key to reduction in crime is to be found in lovingly and firmly guiding children from the time that they are very young, never allowing them to become hopeless, protecting them from forces with evil intent, and slowly showing them how to focus on learning how to use their talents for good. This is a job for parents, teachers, religious groups, and mentors who are willing to demonstrate that the world is a good and inviting place that wants to embrace them. We have much work to do.

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Who Will Hear Our Cries

pexels-photo-170840.jpegAs a mom, a grandmother, a teacher, a human being I grieve over the violence in our world. As a problem solver I wonder what we might do to lessen the number of tragedies that our society must endure. As a realist I understand that most issues are far too complex to be successfully resolved with simple solutions. As someone who prefers getting things done to continually ignoring situations, I am frustrated by the bickering among our lawmakers that seems to perennially end in stalemate. I have grown weary of being able to predict the various responses to the major concerns of our time. I find myself searching in vain for leaders who will set aside their own quests for power to become the heroes that we so desperately need. There are so few profiles in courage in our precarious times. Where is an Abraham Lincoln, a Martine Luther King Jr. or a Gandhi? What will it take for the wars of words to stop and the work to begin?

We find ourselves at a perennial impasse. We struggle to even set governmental budgets that allow us to live within our country’s means. We know that we need answers to questions about immigration, but when good souls attempt to forge compromises, the “all or nothing” crowds shoot down any possibilities of resolution. We bow to the bullying demands of the outliers rather than listening to the reason of the middle ground. We can’t even make a deal to insure that all Americans have access to rudimentary healthcare. Again and again we lower our heads in grief, shame and prayer over mass shootings that surely might be mitigated if only we were willing to set aside all of our prejudices and simply build a plan.

On the very day meant to celebrate love, a deranged shooter entered a high school at the end of an academic day and began randomly shooting. He was indeed a troubled soul whose history had alerted many who knew whom. He had been adopted by a loving family but in spite of their efforts to provide him with the nurturing that he needed, things went awry. His father died when he was still a young child. His mother did her best to raise him alone but struggled with his emotional and behavioral issues. She sought the help of therapists and even contacted the police from time to time hoping to find answers to her concerns about her son. He was different, withdrawn, violent, frightening to many who knew him. Fellow students joked that he had the mind of a mass murderer. His school expelled him. A stranger noted one of his posts on social media and even reported him to the FBI. In November, his mother contracted the flu, then pneumonia and died. He was on his own but found shelter in the home of a friend. There were so many clear indications that he needed heavy duty counseling, maybe even medication but none of it was demanded or even offered. Instead he freely purchased guns even as his online posts became more and more foreboding.

There were so many individual measures that might have been taken with this young man that were not. Whether they would have prevented the massacre that he inflicted on innocent students is debatable, but at the very least there would have been attempts to curtail the ticking of the time bomb that was exploding in his mind.

The mental health system in this country is broken. Getting needed care is costly, time consuming, and ultimately frustrating. The cards are stacked in favor of doing nothing, leaving countless individuals and their families and friends feeling alone and even betrayed. All too often it becomes easier just to give up and let the cards fall where they will. The financial and mental energy needed to ameliorate mental health issues is far more costly than it needs to be. It is difficult to find doctors willing to take  on particular cases. The cost can be prohibitive and even with insurance the coverage is spotty at best. The patients themselves more often than not fight against treatments. They can become violently opposed to any form of needed therapy, resulting in a tendency to ignore the obvious and just look away. Even when a family manages to insist on medical intervention or hospitalization the science of mental health is still almost experimental. It takes time and patience to find the right keys to health. Most mental difficulties are chronic so the difficulties become a lifelong struggle. It can be a lonely and never ending fight for both the person affected and those attempting to help him/her.

We desperately need for both our political and medical community to face the realities of the mental health epidemic that plagues us. it is real, not imagined and it is well past time for our society to embrace a well reasoned plan for insuring that nobody is left to deal with such illnesses alone. it will take money, but that is not the only resource that we need. There must be more doctors, more research, more support systems. better coverage of mental healthcare, more facilities for rehabilitation, more openness in discussing these very real illnesses.

Every school needs additional counselors devoted only to the mental health of the students. In far too many instances those designated as counselors are too busy creating class schedules, coordinating testing, and serving as college admissions advisors than actually working with the mental issues of students in conjunction with their parents and teachers. In so many cases teachers are the first to notice warning signs and these should be taken seriously. The counselors should be ready to investigate and draw up plans for addressing concerns. If a student has a history of behavioral problems the counselors should be involved in all discussions of what to do. No student should just be expelled without being also sent to therapy as an additional requirement. If indications of violence are present this may even necessitate informing law enforcement. Under no circumstances should this process be so hidden from view that the individual has the freedom to purchase guns and ammunition.

We do not allow anyone under the age of twenty one to purchase alcohol and yet we allow teenagers as young as sixteen to buy certain weapons as long as they pass a background check that most likely does not include an accounting of their emotional difficulties at home or school. This needs to be remedied immediately and parents who circumvent this law by encouraging their knowingly disturbed children to have weapons should be held accountable for such egregious transgressions. When a parent is worrying about how a child is acting to the point of calling police or seeking professional care for them, it should be apparent that giving access to guns is the last thing that should happen. Even the most stable of youngsters should be supervised and limited in their contact with weapons.

There are common sense laws that we might pass with regard to types of weapons and ammunition clips that should be allowed as well. Nobody other than law enforcement officers and the military needs an arsenal nor do they require weapons that fire rapidly. Furthermore we need to make it more difficult to purchase weapons without some form of training and a more in depth background check. We require anyone driving an automobile to receive driver’s training and pass a test in order to earn a license. That license has to be renewed periodically as well. Perhaps it is time to initiate such a program for guns. Nobody should be able to legally purchase a gun without qualifying for a license after fulfilling age, training,  mental health and testing requirements. 

I am no fool. I understand that if someone wants to kill others that person will find a way. I also know that there will always be an underground community willing to provide guns and ammunition illegally to those who can’t get what they need within the law. No plan will ever be one hundred percent perfect. Nonetheless such arguments are not reason enough to do nothing at all. We craft many laws to make untenable situations better all of the time, and yet when it comes to issues such as mass shootings we wring our hands as though frozen in fear that anything we choose to do will be so flawed that it is better to do nothing at all.

As I cry for the lost souls and the people who loved them I worry that we will just keep kicking the can down the road and responding to our fears by arming more and more people. I shutter as I listen to the snarky comments being hurled back and forth from the differing points of view that do little to instill calm and reason. I wonder when we will come to our senses all around. Surely we can get past our differences and at least try to make things better. How many more need to die before we act? Who will hear our cries and step up to lead us?

It’s Ten O’Clock

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It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” If you grew up or were a parent in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s you heard this question every night before the late newscast came on. It was a public service announcement that made sense then, but may be a bit confusing in today’s world. Back in those decades most children were what we now call “free range kids.” They played outside for hours at a time, often with little or no supervision other than a quick glance outside a window from a parent. They wandered away from home to visit with neighborhood friends, not always bothering to check in with parents before doing so. It wasn’t unusual at all for children to return outdoors after dinner to play in the dark under a street light or on someone’s front porch. It was a time of innocence when parents and kids both rarely worried about being harmed. Everyone knew everyone else and watched over one another. Perhaps the freedom that little ones enjoyed back then was fueled by naivety, but it was highly unusual for someone to be lost or harmed, there was little reason to worry.

The closest thing to a dangerous experience that I recall came when my youngest brother was playing a game of football in his bare feet in an overgrown field of grass. Hidden in the tall weeds was a broken bottle with its ragged edge pointing upward. When he stepped back to catch a pass he placed his unprotected foot on the shard of glass which immediately severed his achilles tendon. He bled profusely, but my mom and I miraculously got him to the doctor’s office in time to get it stitched back in place. I remember my mother instructing me in how to apply pressure to the wound to keep the bleeding to a minimum while she drove the car. I was quite frightened but didn’t let my mom see my fears. Of course at that time none of us were wearing a seatbelt and my mother did not carry health insurance either. The former was not yet invented and the latter was too expensive. The doctor did all of the surgery in his office proclaiming again and again that it was a miracle that my sibling didn’t bleed to death on the way over. I suspect that our final bill was little more than around twenty dollars and that even included pain medication that the doc threw in for good measure.

Needless to say times have changed so very much. Parents who allow their children to roam freely today run the risk of being reported to CPS. Few doctors would meet a patient at the office and take care of such a serious situation, especially if the family was uninsured. The world often feels far more dangerous than it ever did back then. Most of the time there are very few children playing outside for hours, and never all alone. They are busy with more carefully planned activities. Play dates have become the norm rather than random knocks at the door from friends seeking adventure. Children spend hours involved with computer games and surfing online. The real dangers lie in encounters with child predators masquerading in anonymity. Bullying either online or with texts has become epidemic. It’s no longer a matter of wondering where your kids are, but of whom they may be encountering on the worldwide web. The simplicity and innocence that marked my childhood and that of my own children seems to be a relic of the past. Parents have to be more careful than ever, even as they hover nervously.

I’m  not certain when everything began to change. Perhaps my experiences come from living in a city that had fewer than a million people when I was young and then somehow became a behemoth of over four million in a short period of time. Being in a place that large certainly makes a huge difference in how willing parents are to allow their children the freedom to interact without their watchful eyes. The dangers seem to grow exponentially in a major urban area. Still it just seems that over the years we have become more worried as a whole society. Maybe our twenty four hour news cycle has made us more aware of what might happen if we ride a bicycle without a helmet or drink from a water hose. I still wonder nonetheless why we no longer see children roller skating down the sidewalk or climbing the tree in the front yard even when their parents are around to guard them. Where are the street basketball games? When did our kids stop playing hop scotch on the driveway? Are they missing something wonderful, or is their world actually just an improved version of ours?

Children today certainly appear to be happy enough. I’ve always known youngsters to be quite adaptable. They tend to accept whatever reality is theirs. They don’t feel that they are missing something that they have never experienced. The child who lives in a high rise building in New York City learns to play in different ways from a counterpart growing up on a farm in Iowa. Both of them will tend to be perfectly happy as long as they are nurtured and loved. Perhaps the nostalgia that old folks like me have is thought to be quaint or even strange by the children of today. They would think it unwise, perhaps even crazy to ride down a highway in the bed of a pickup truck. They might easily bore of lying on their backs staring up at clouds searching for shapes of animals.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if things are getting better or if we have lost something special that we once had. I suppose that the reality is that we will always move ever forward, and while it may feel pleasant to lose ourselves in memories we are better served by joining in the forward progress. We have surely learned a great deal about how to be healthier and safer than ever before. We understand what smoking will do to our overall health. We realize that wearing seat belts and engineering safer cars has truly saved lives. We have used our common sense and our inventiveness to prevent harm and injuries to our most vulnerable. I suppose that it is a very good thing that we no longer have to ask where are children are when the clock strikes ten. 

Bogey Men Under The Bed

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Not long ago I awoke in the morning to find that we had left the garage door open all night long and forgotten to lock the door into the house as well. I flew into a state of panic considering what might have happened to us had we not been very lucky, and I began to think about my experiences as a child. Back then our windows were wide open all summer long, all night long. We didn’t own an air conditioner, so we relied on the breeze from our attic fan to keep us relatively cool. It never occurred to us to be frightened that someone might enter our home quite easily, but it would have required little effort to pop out the screen and climb right inside. In fact, we had done just that a few times when we didn’t want our mom to know that we had been out and about a bit too late. She no doubt wasn’t fooled by our antics, but we thought ourselves quite adventurous. At no time did we imagine that someone with criminal intent might one day use the same route as ours to invade our home. We always felt quite safe whether we should have or not, and nothing ever happened to change our beliefs.

During the day we kept the doors to our home ajar as well. Friends and neighbors came and went with little more than a quick knock and a shouted “hello” to warn us that they were incoming. It was as though we were just one great big happy family in our community with nary a thought of home invasions or such. Perhaps we were naive, or maybe it really was as secure as we assumed.

The funny thing is that my mother was quite relaxed inside our little haven, but she was quite guarded whenever we were traveling through the city, especially at night. She was distrustful of strangers and instructed us over and over again in the necessity of avoiding any kind of contact with people that we did not know. She freaked out royally when I once accepted a ride from a man that I only minimally new. She raised such a ruckus that I found myself almost running if a stranger even looked my way. I suppose that I was more afraid of her anger than I was of someone that I did not know. Luckily it was quite rare for unknown persons to come our way.

I watched our little world change over time. My brothers and I moved away from home and my mom purchased a new house in a different neighborhood where she never felt quite as relaxed as she had in the home where I had grown up. She put chains and extra bolts on the doors and screwed her windows permanently shut. She installed peepholes and kept her blinds and drapes tightly shut. There was little wonder for her caution for not only was she living alone, but  she had also been burglarized multiple times by then. Fortunately the robbers only came when she was not home, but her fears grew nonetheless, as did my own.

I was living in a very nice apartment project where I had many good friends when i learned that one of them had been raped upon returning from the laundry room one day. A man had followed her back into her place and threatened her with a knife. She silently submitted to his demands because she had a sleeping child in another room, and she feared what might happen if the baby awakened. I recall the horror that all of us felt along with the unadulterated fear. My husband often worked an evening shift during that time and I grew more and more uncomfortable living in that place. I was somewhat relieved when we finally moved, but my sense of complacency was forever gone. Never again would I be lax in protecting myself, even when I lived in a neighborhood where I knew everyone and felt quite secure.

As a society we have become very afraid, sadly often with good reason. Virtually everyone that I know has been the victim of some kind of crime, from the somewhat trivial to horrific incidents. One of my husband’s uncles was bound and gagged in his home while thieves ransacked his belongings. But for the grace of God they chose to keep him alive. The worst of the terrifying situations were the murders of two of my former students in unrelated incidents.

Our streets and our homes have seemingly become unsafe, and so we install cameras and alarm systems in addition to heavy metal doors and locks, even when we have few possessions that would be of much worth to home invaders. The idea of sleeping with the windows open is unimaginable.

I sometimes wonder if those who speak of “making America great again” are thinking less about issues of equality and more about a time when crimes against strangers were unusual rather than as frequent as they now appear to be. Given the ages of the supporters of the MAGA idea I suspect that they remember an era when everyone felt incredibly safe without walls or locks or loaded guns. Maybe they actually believe that given the right circumstances we might once again return to less fright filled lifestyles. My guess is that they long for the serenity that once felt so commonplace.

The saying goes that you can’t go home again. I suppose that we are long past the days of openness to the extent that we enjoyed fifty or sixty years ago. We have to adapt to the new ways, but we needn’t become overly afraid either. The fact is that in spite of rising crime rates and the need to exercise caution, we mostly enjoy our lives without incident. The reason that hearing of terrible events is so shocking is because they are still mostly rare. We don’t have to lock ourselves away as long as we have a bit of common sense, which includes checking doors and such before going to sleep. We don’t need to be so lax as to leave ourselves wide open for trouble like my husband and I accidentally did, but we don’t have to be constantly worrying either because given the odds most of us will blessedly never encounter trouble.

I’d truly enjoy having the same peace of mind that I experienced as a child, but in reality it came mostly because I was too innocent to even imagine that I would be touched by violence. Bad people were out there even back in the day, but I paid little attention to them chiefly because my mom sheltered me from such things. We had a neighbor who was murdered by her husband, and my sweet mother explained that the man had just been very sick and we did not need to worry. Our response was to avoid walking near the house where the crime had occurred, but otherwise having little concern that something similar might one day happen to any of us. Our innocence was in actuality not that far off of the mark, and we would be wise to carry on with our lives without overthinking our possibilities of being harmed.

Humans have worried about boogeymen under the bed for centuries. Sometimes they are real, but mostly we are just as safe as we have ever been as long as we take care not to place ourselves in harms way.

I Believe

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What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.—-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Long ago I was teaching some rather rough and tough characters. Many of my students belonged to gangs and had parents who were in prison. It would be an understatement to say that their lives were difficult. There was one young man who had a checkered history both academically and behaviorally, but for some reason he and I hit it off. I had a sense that there was way more to him than met the eye or was capable of being recorded on paper. Before long the two of us were often conversing and I learned that he was a naturally gifted artist. He often spoke of his dreams for the future and I did everything possible to encourage him. He did well in my mathematics class, but failed so many of his other courses that he had to repeat the entire grade. It seemed a bit unfair that he was not allowed to take the next level of mathematics because he had made a strong “B”  from me and I knew that he understood all of the concepts quite well. The only positive aspect of his retention was that he was placed in my class once again because his reputation as a trouble maker made the other teachers leery of  having to deal with him.

I began the new school year by making him a tutor for the other students, telling them that he was a bright fellow who would be able to help them whenever they became confused. He enjoyed his role and took it very seriously. I decided to do something special for him, and so I purchased a portfolio for his artwork from an art supply store. He had never seen such a thing, and got super excited when I explained that it was designed to store his best pieces safely. Before long he was filling it with impressive works that excited both of us.

One day I learned that one of my female students had been sexually abused by her uncle. He had been living with her family but when her parents learned that he had impregnated her they went to the police. The uncle was furious and sent word that he was going to kill the young lady even if he had to stalk her to get an opportunity to do so. The principal of the school instructed me to be observant and immediately let him know if the uncle showed up at my classroom. Together we agreed on a code word that would alert him when I pushed the panic button. It made me sad and quite nervous because I wanted to be certain that the child would be protected from further harm.

I decided to rearrange the seating in my classroom so that the girl would always be close to me and as far from the doorway as possible. While I was in the process of attempting to design a safe place for her the young man whom I had made my assistant walked in and asked me what I was doing. Of course I was not at liberty to tell him what was happening. I simply mentioned that it was time for a change, and so he began helping me move the furniture and place stickers on the tables to let the students know where I had decided they would be sitting. Somehow he almost seemed to figure out what was really happening because as soon as I placed the label for the young lady he suggested that he should sit at the same table, and he even sat down in one of the chairs as though he was determining whether or not he had a clear line of sight for the door. He pushed the furniture around until it was just right, and then looked knowingly at me as if to reassure me that he was taking responsibility for the girl’s safety.

It would not have been too difficult for this young man to know what was going on even though I had said nothing. He was the leader of a powerful gang in the neighborhood, and very little information got past him. I don’t know how much talking the girl was doing, but her growing belly made it clear that she was pregnant, and the fear in her eyes gave away her state of mind. She literally looked like the very image of a madonna on a Christmas card, so lovely and pure, but she was also anxious and filled with a kind of pain.

Nothing ever happened to the sweet young mother. Her uncle eventually fled to Mexico and never came back, but before the coast was clear my young man watched over her easing all of our fears.

Eventually they both moved on to eighth grade and then high school. I never saw either of them again and hoped with all of my heart that they were happy and doing well, but my good thoughts were not to be. I one day learned that the young man was an inmate at Huntsville prison. He had been found guilty of armed robbery and would be in jail for a very long time. Learning of his fate was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life for I knew all too well that in spite of what he had done and what his future fate would be, he was a truly good person inside. It pained me that he had made choices that so damaged all of the possibilities that most certainly might have been his. My heart hurt for him and for his family. I was angry that he had succumbed to the evil temptations of his lifestyle rather than finding a way out as so many of his friends had managed to do. At the same time I still loved him, and so I still often think of him and wonder how he is doing.

Perhaps if his behavior improved he may have been released from prison by now. I hope that maybe he continued his education and worked toward a positive goal. I know that he has the heart for such things but I worry that he may not have had the will. His story is one of those that haunts me, because it is not all that unusual. There were few who were surprised by his fate. He had not impressed many of my colleagues with his talents and his sweetness, because he had rarely shown them to anyone. He seemed to have become victim to a self fulfilling prophecy rather than realizing how much greatness there was inside his soul.

I’d like to think that maybe he matured and somehow found himself. It comforts me to believe so. Not to believe that he was ever able to rise above his circumstances is too depressing to bear, so I allow myself to have a glimmer of hope whenever I think of him. If my thoughts were somehow able to travel through time and space and reach his mind he would understand that I believe in him and pray that he has been able to believe in himself.