22: Just Twenty Hours

22: Just Twenty Hours

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Just Twenty Hours

I don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers…. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.

~Maya Angelou

Freshman year of college. World History class. My professor has just dropped a bombshell on the class. Thirty percent of our final grade will be based on an assignment that is going to take, at minimum, twenty hours to complete. The assignment? Community service.

“We are all part of a community. Whether or not a community succeeds is largely dependent on how citizens treat each other. So go out into your communities — get involved, but do it in a way that you don’t get paid. Making cookies and taking them to your neighbor doesn’t count. It has to be something that is actually going to take some time, and I can assure you there are plenty of ways to help out in your community. It is my belief that this assignment will change your life. It is only for twenty hours, but you might be surprised what can happen in those twenty hours.”

Some people in my class grumbled. I wasn’t particularly irritated by the assignment, but I was trying to figure out how I would find the time. I was going to school only part-time because I was working full-time to pay for college. I eventually just shrugged my shoulders and thought, “I’m just going to have to make it work.”

After doing some research, I found an after-school tutoring program for kids held in a former elementary school. I filled out my paperwork, paid the fee for a background check, and a week later got a phone call saying that I had been paired with a fourth-grade boy named Steven.

He was small for his age, wore glasses and was a Harry Potter fan. He was a little on the quiet side for the first few weeks, but it was obvious he was a very bright boy. He didn’t need a tutor as much as he needed a friend. I don’t think he was bullied at school or anything like that; it seemed that his classmates mostly ignored him.

We met twice a week for two hours, so it only took me five weeks to complete the necessary hours for my class. When I started, I only intended to complete the required hours for my assignment. But when the hours were done, I realized how small a sacrifice it had been for me to tutor Steven. I still had sufficient time to do my schoolwork, my full-time job, and even spend time with family and friends. But most importantly, I liked Steven. And I could tell that he had already grown attached to me. There was no way I was going to back out on that kid.

Most days, Steven finished his homework in half an hour if he even had any. That meant we could do other things. We played Jenga and air hockey. He mentioned he was a Star Wars fan, so I brought my sister’s Star Wars Monopoly game so that we could practice math skills and play a nerdy game at the same time. We read the fourth Harry Potter book together and wondered what was going to happen in the final three and argued over whether or not Snape was a bad guy. In the winter, we had snowball fights. When the second Star Wars movie came out, I got permission from his grandparents to take him to the movie. We were both totally disappointed by it, but we still had fun. I got him an R2-D2 keychain. He called me a dork, but that keychain was quickly attached to the zipper on his backpack.

As the end of the school year approached, Steven started to get a little depressed. I finally asked him one day what was wrong. He said, “I don’t want the school year to end.”

“But, Steven, I thought you didn’t like school.” He had told me on numerous occasions that he didn’t.

“I don’t.”

“Then why don’t you want the school year to end?”

He was quiet for a second, and then said, “Because when the school year is over, I won’t see you anymore. We won’t come here and you will forget all about me.”

I felt like crying. “Steven, I will never forget you.”

“But we still won’t get to see each other like we do.”

“No, we won’t.” I had signed an agreement stating that at the end of the school year I wouldn’t seek to have a relationship with the child I tutored. It hadn’t seemed like a big deal nine months before and I understood the reasons behind it. But now that the school year was coming to a close, I realized it really did stink that I wasn’t going to be able to hang out with this awesome young man anymore. He had become so much more than just a kid I spent time with to fulfill a class requirement. He was like a little brother. “I’m going to miss you, too, Steven, but I promise I will never, ever forget you.” I don’t think I really made him feel any better, but I knew that I couldn’t lie to him and say that we were still going to see each other on a regular basis.

We were supposed to have one last day together, but on that day, the supervisor of the tutoring program called to tell me that he had been offered a new job and was leaving, so never mind, no tutoring today. I called Steven to tell him the news and he was heartbroken. “But I got you a present!” So I got on the phone with his grandpa and he told me to come over so that Steven could say goodbye.

I ended up staying for about an hour. He had gotten me a teddy bear with a pink bow tied around its neck. I handed him paperback copies of the first two Harry Potter books. Then Steven gave me a school picture and a note. The note read, “I will never forget you. You were my best friend this year. I will remember you always.” It was probably the most heartfelt note that I have ever received.

It took me some time to get used to not heading over to that old elementary school and seeing that sweet, smiling boy waiting for me. But then I realized I had a young boy in my life about the same age, with a sweet smile of his own, a boy I didn’t see enough: my own brother.

I had been so busy being an adult that I really didn’t pay him any attention at all. And then I realized I hadn’t been spending any time with my younger sister, either. I had a brother and a sister who I loved and cared about, but when I actually took the time to think about it, I realized I wasn’t really friends with them. Other than the obligatory nightly dinner routine and going to their various school functions, I didn’t spend any time with them. I had just spent nine months getting to know a kid, but I couldn’t say the same thing about my own brother and sister.

It was time to change that. I started going on weekly dates with my brother, even letting him pick what we did. Sometimes that meant playing Pokémon games, something I abhorred, but the look of excitement on my brother’s face made it worth it. I started inviting my sister to do things with my friends and me. Sure enough, in less than a year my siblings became much more than just my siblings. They are my best friends. I don’t know if I would have ever become as close to them as I am now if it hadn’t been for that assignment from my history professor.

I still think about Steven. He’s at least twenty years old now. I wonder what he’s up to. I wonder if he even remembers me. But mostly I am grateful that even though we didn’t get to continue our friendship, it was because of that friendship that I realized I was missing out on having relationships with my siblings. My professor was right: A lot can happen in just twenty hours.

~Nicole Webster

More stories from our partners