Root Beer and Potato Chips
(#Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Walls)
It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
— E. E. Cummings
I see Steve every couple of weeks. Our time is spent playing a game and talking about his accomplishments. Tonight he’s got on his best shirt and a pair of khakis.
“I dressed up for you,” he says as we shake hands and sit down at the table.
He takes the games seriously: focused, attentive, a big smile showing up when he wins or when he makes a good play. He smiles when I win too, just enjoying the company and having a good time.
“I played with my dad, too,” he says. “We had a good time.”
I nod and talk briefly about having fun playing games when I was a kid. I make light of it, not wanting to linger. A few visits back, he talked about how his dad had abandoned his mom and the kids when he was ten, then died of a drug overdose.
Life went downhill for Steve and he found himself in long-term foster care. He was adopted. The family rejected him, and he was adopted again. That family rejected him too. He ended up in some program for lost and abandoned teens, and then he ended up here, in prison.
I make sure I show up when I say I will, and I’ll play any game with him he wants to play. I buy him a coffee from the prison canteen and sometimes a cookie or a hamburger. I try to be one of the few who stick around for him, who show up and are willing to spend time with him.
I’ve known him well enough now that we can talk about most anything. He’s growing a goatee now, and it’s starting to fill in and look like a real beard. It’s growing in in two colors: patches of brown and then patches of tan, almost white. His hair grows that way too.
I say something nice about the addition to his face, trying to send a compliment his way, to notice his new manliness.
“Interesting that there’s two different colors,” I say, suddenly realizing I might be coming off as rude or obnoxious.
“Yeah, just like my hair,” he says.
“I was a failure-to-thrive baby,” he adds. “I was in the hospital for my first three months, and then my mom got special formula for me. But she sold that for drugs and fed me root beer and potato chips for six months before the caseworker finally caught on. That’s why my hair grows in patches, in two different colors: malnutrition.”
No big deal.
He goes back to the game, studying the cards in his hand. He lays down some cards, making a brilliant play in the game, racking up a bunch of points. He laughs, telling me he’s going to beat me on this hand.
Root beer and potato chips. I’m still back on that, still trying to wrap my head around a mom who would sell her baby’s formula for drug money. It’s no big deal. Just a fact in his life, just part of the craziness he’s gone through, just his story. Another matter-of-fact anecdote to tell over a game of cards.
He’s finished high school, and he’s ready to graduate. He was going to go through the graduation ceremony, the one the high school has here every June, but he got sick and had to go to the hospital for three days. He missed the ceremony.
We’re planning a special ceremony for him—a day just for him to get his high school diploma and a round of applause. He thinks his mom is coming in a couple of weeks—and his brother too. He wants them here for his graduation; he wants them to see him get his diploma.
She’s been back in his life for only the last six months. They talk on the phone, and she’s come to see him a couple of times. He says it’s a good thing, and they are starting to have a real relationship.
“But when she comes to visit, I don’t get any root beer or potato chips,” he says, breaking into a chuckle and giving me a wink. “We’re just moving ahead.