I had volunteered in the library’s VITAL program (Volunteers In Tutoring Adult Learners). I held no altruistic motivations for this project. It would only be an hour each week and I thought it might be interesting. The assignment of “learners” was random. Your student might be a foreigner wanting to read English, or a school drop-out, or someone like Nathaniel. Nathaniel, or Nate for short, arrived in Bloomington after an incarceration and a stay in a 30-day addiction program in Richmond, Indiana.
Nate was amazingly charismatic, very outgoing, and friendly. Aware at first of our obvious differences, I soon became pulled into a genuine friendship by this personable individual. The brief library training suggested we initially interview our “learners” and write down the words they speak. Then we let them read their words. That turned out to be such an enjoyable exercise that we started each session by Nate telling me a story from his past which I wrote word-for-word. Soon we had the start of a book titled My Life Story by Nathaniel. Surprisingly, given his addiction and run ins with the law, Nate enjoyed a relatively wholesome early childhood in Mississippi. The following is one of Nate’s stories:
When I was little I lived with my mama and brothers and sisters in the country. Every weekend we go to my grandfather’s house where all the uncles, aunts, and cousins get together. Me and my cousin Snow would go out in the barn and play with two mules named Kate and Martin. Kate was a mean mule. When we was trying to ride her or hook her to the wagon she would fight back. But we wouldn’t stop until we got a ride or had her hooked to the wagon. I learned you must stick to something to get what you want.
It was after Nate’s family moved to Indianapolis that he started getting into trouble. Drugs and alcohol were the main problem but that led to stealing and dealing. Nate became touched by the hand of God during his last incarceration, but just touched, not committed. He reports that when sent to the Bloomington half-way house, he felt angry and regretted not getting back on the street. However, during the 30-day addiction program—detox, probation, and counseling—he pledged he’d at least try to avoid drugs and alcohol. Here are his words about the early days in Bloomington:
At the half-way house, I was told I would have to get a job and pay rent. This made me angry. I wasn’t here to work at some cheap job … but decided I would give it a try. I walked to the employment office. It was a hot day. I learned there was a job available at a restaurant as a dishwasher. I hate kitchen work. I did it once and was fired after one week. However, I thought I would at least interview for the job. I had to apply that day.
Standing outside in the hot sun waiting for the bus, I realized I didn’t have the exact change for the bus. Across the street were two places I could get change. One was a restaurant the other a liquor store. The liquor store could solve several problems for me. But something whispered in my ear, “Go to the restaurant.” So I did.
Back on the street I was still not sure I wanted to go through with all this. Just then a stranger pulled up in a car. It was a white guy dressed in a nice suit. He asked, “Can I give you a ride somewhere?”
I said, “Well, yeah man, downtown to a restaurant on Kirkwood. I’m going to apply for a job.”
The restaurant hired me that day, even though I told them I had been fired from a restaurant once before. Later, I asked why they hired me and the boss said he just thought I was honest. I’ve worked at that place for over a year now. I’ve made a lot more money in other jobs, but I pay my rent and save money each week. More importantly, I’ve learned several things:
I’ve learned that when you take responsibility for yourself (going to Bloomington) and make a genuine effort (going to the restaurant instead of the liquor store for change) that God is there to make the way a little easier for you (job opportunity, stranger in the car, a willing employer).
Nate may only have a fifth-grade education, but he is wise in so many ways. I’ve enjoyed many wonderful experiences with my friend Nate. My wife, Michele, loved getting to know him and we have celebrated several of Nate’s birthdays together. My mother, who was dying to meet my friend, fixed a lunch for us at her lakeside home in Columbus, Indiana. We rode over to her house on my motorcycle. After lunch Nate drove a speedboat. It was the first time he ever done something like that. When asked if he wanted to go swimming, he said, “Well I might as well do it all.”
Maybe I’ll tell more of those stories at another time.