1: Two Dollars’ Worth of Trust

1: Two Dollars’ Worth of Trust

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Two Dollars’ Worth of Trust

Wherever there is a human in need, there is an opportunity for kindness and to make a difference.

~Kevin Heath

The game was over, the 49ers had beaten the Denver Broncos, and now Micheal and I were roaming the darkened streets of San Francisco in my little red Honda. We were lost, and Micheal was trying his best to keep calm.

This was 2000, before GPS was in every car — or at least every cell phone. Micheal, then ten years old, knew I had a terrible sense of direction. Whenever the two of us went on an outing together, it usually involved me taking a few wrong turns. I always needed to reassure him that even if we got lost we would make it to our destination.

I was matched with Micheal by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Sacramento when he was eight and I was in my mid-twenties. There had been a surplus of women willing to be Big Sisters, and a deficit of men willing to be Big Brothers. The organization decided to try “cross-gender” matches, setting up women to be mentors to young boys.

Many of the mothers who had enrolled their sons in the program chose to hold out for a male mentor, but Micheal’s mother wanted another adult in his life who could guide him through what was shaping up to be a tough childhood. She didn’t mind that it was me. Donna — a bright, warm woman not much older than I — was working full-time as a dental assistant while raising Micheal and his older sister. Donna’s ex-husband (Micheal’s dad) was in prison.

When I first met Micheal, he looked like a child painted by Norman Rockwell for a 1950s cover of The Saturday Evening Post. His light brown hair was cut short, with a cowlick on the back of his head. His enormous, sky-blue eyes were framed by long lashes, aptly conveying his bashful nature. A smattering of freckles covered his upturned nose and rosy cheeks.

The folks at Big Brothers Big Sisters had warned us during our weeks of training that it was not unusual for “Littles,” as they’re called, to be wary of the adults with whom they’re matched. The Littles figure the “Bigs” will eventually disappoint them, like most of the grown-ups in their lives already have. The Littles usually asked for material possessions; they figured as long as another adult was going to bail on them, they might as well get a video game or toy out of the deal first.

This was true of my relationship with Micheal, at least for the first few months. When we went to the zoo, he always begged me to buy him a stuffed animal at the gift shop. Then, after I bought the stuffed animal, he wanted me to buy him a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. When I said no, he’d turn gloomy and give me the silent treatment.

The dynamic changed when I left my job as a substitute teacher. My dreams of becoming a journalist had started to materialize in dribs and drabs — with a Saturday morning gig reading the news at a country music radio station, a job as overnight producer on Monday and Tuesday at Sacramento’s public radio station, and a paid internship for a television news service during the daylight hours of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

That left Thursday night as the one free block of time I had to spend with Micheal. No more visits to the zoo or McDonald’s or miniature golf.

Instead, I would visit Micheal after work and help him with his homework. We even built a model of one of California’s missions from sugar cubes. Each subsequent Thursday, Micheal seemed more and more excited to see me when I’d arrive for an evening of long division and sentence diagramming.

Several months later, I got hired full-time at the television news service and resumed normal working hours. I now had the time (and financial resources) to take Micheal somewhere fun again.

I soon discovered it wasn’t just our schedule that had changed, but the dynamic between us. Micheal now trusted I wasn’t going to flake on him. He rewarded my consistency by believing in me. Every outing to the movies or mini golf was appreciated just as it was. He never again asked for extras.

That trust was tested when the two of us made our way out to San Francisco to watch a preseason football game.

Micheal had won the tickets (and VIP parking) in a raffle at the annual Big Brothers Big Sisters picnic. I picked him up early from school on the day of the game and we made the drive from Sacramento to San Francisco, crossing a few toll bridges along the way. Micheal watched with great interest each time we pulled up to the tollbooth to pay.

The game itself was uneventful. We stuffed ourselves with hot dogs and Sprite and licorice. We bundled up to stay warm in the wind tunnel that was Candlestick Park. When it was clear the 49ers would take the game, we strolled back to the VIP parking lot.

Making our way from the stadium back to the road that would lead us over the bay and onto the freeway to Sacramento was tricky. Micheal and I usually didn’t plan our outings for after dark, and I think this fact, combined with my disorientation, worried him.

Yet he asked me only once if I knew where we were going.

“Not just yet,” I answered. “But I promise you I will.”

And I did. We were soon crossing the Bay Bridge, and the tension in the car eased.

I then heard a rip of Velcro. Michael was opening up his wallet. He removed two crisp $1 bills from his wallet. He put the seat back a few notches and prepared himself for a snooze, but not before carefully sticking the bills in his clenched left fist, as if he were placing flowers in a vase.

“This is for the toll on the bridge on the way back. You paid for all the food, so I want to pay for this.” He yawned. “But I’m too tired to stay awake until then. Just take them from my hand when it’s time.

*  *  *

It’s been fifteen years since that night. I saw Micheal just a few months ago, when he flew down from Northern California with his girlfriend to visit my husband and me in San Diego.

I was excited to meet Amanda, Micheal’s girlfriend, and to show her a framed picture I kept on our mantelpiece. The photo was taken on the floor of the State Assembly at the Capitol in Sacramento on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” Micheal was at least a foot shorter than I was in the picture — very different from the tall, handsome young man he is now.

Amanda and Micheal came for dinner, managing our three hyper dogs as we welcomed them into our home. I took Amanda aside with the photo in hand.

“Isn’t this adorable?” I asked. “Can you believe it’s the same person?”

Amanda smiled. “Oh, I’ve seen this picture before. Micheal has it framed in his house.”

~Beth Ford Roth

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