23: How Mr. Hawkins Changed My Life

23: How Mr. Hawkins Changed My Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

How Mr. Hawkins Changed My Life

Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye.

~Helen Keller

When I was a child my family moved from Indiana to Texas. Already on the shy side, I quickly became the subject of ridicule in my new school. I had a strong accent and only one pair of pants. On my first day at my new school it was clear to me that I would never be given a chance to fit in. The other students referred to me by my full name, spitting it off their lips like it was foul. I accepted the fact that the best I could hope for was to be ignored. Most of my classmates lived in houses. I was one of the “apartment kids,” who were considered to be a lower life form.

There was a homeless man who all the apartment kids called Mr. Hawkins. The apartment manager would pay Mr. Hawkins to do odd jobs around the complex, such as picking up trash and cleaning the laundry rooms. It wasn’t uncommon to stumble upon him in the late afternoons passed out in the laundry room with a brown bag in his hand. The kids would poke their heads in the door to catch a glimpse of him. We all took interest in Mr. Hawkins because, as harmless as he actually was, there was an air of danger and mystery about him.

My mother had told me that under no circumstances was I to talk to Mr. Hawkins or go near him when he was passed out in the laundry room. Being what they called in those days a “latchkey kid,” I spent most of my time alone. Even when my mother was home I was still left unsupervised or ignored most of the time, and as long as I didn’t get into any trouble and was home when the street lights came on, I came and went as I pleased.

One hot, summer evening I found a quarter lying in the parking lot across from our front door. The back of my shirt was wet with sweat and my hair clung to my forehead and neck. It was nearly time for the streetlights to come on, but if I ran all the way there and back, I could make it to the soda machine in the laundry room and still be home on time. I ran around the building and down the walkway through the complex and through the doorway of the nearest laundry room to the vending machines in the back. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and put my money in. I smiled as I held the icy-cold can in my hand and popped it open, taking a long drink as I turned around.

There he was, Mr. Hawkins, standing between the door and me. I looked past him through the windows and could see that it was almost dark. “Excuse me, I have to get home. It’s almost dark.” I pointed past him out the windows.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

“I need to get home or I’ll get in trouble.”

“That’s not what I mean. What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes you do. You do know. Now answer me, what’s WRONG with you?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s right,” he said, “nothing IS wrong with you. So why do you act like it?”

“Act like what?”

“Like something’s wrong with you.”

“I don’t know.”

“There ain’t nothin’ wrong with you, but you walk around with your head down like there’s somethin’ wrong with you. Who told you there’s somethin’ wrong with you?”

“Nobody.”

“Someone did. A pretty, little girl like you don’t walk with her head down for no reason. Somebody done told you there’s somethin’ wrong with you, didn’t they? Maybe they didn’t say it with words, but they made you believe it.”

He took my chin between his thumb and his fingers and gently lifted my head as a tear ran down my cheek.

“You walk with your head up and look people in the eye so that they know there ain’t nothin’ wrong with you. You understand me? You don’t listen to what them kids say and don’t you start believin’ it. They don’t know you. They don’t even see who you are. All they see is someone they can hurt, and that makes them feel powerful. When you walk with your head down, it tells them that they’re right about you, there’s somethin’ wrong with you. Don’t you let their words matter. You know who you are. You know there ain’t nothin’ wrong with you, so act like it. You understand what I’m sayin’?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Next time I see you I don’t want to see you lookin’ down. I want to see you walk with your head up, and when someone speaks to you, look them in the eye and respond with confidence.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Alright, I’m gonna be watchin’ you to make sure. You hurry on home now so you don’t get in trouble with your mama.”

I ran home as fast as I could and quietly slipped in the back door. I couldn’t get his words out of my head that night. I felt happier than I had felt in a long time. There was nothing wrong with me, and Mr. Hawkins knew it.

The next morning I noticed the apartment manager and all the kids gathered around the laundry room. I ran over to see what was going on. Mr. Hawkins had died in that laundry room and I realized that I was probably the last person he had talked to, and he spent his last moments being kind to me, helping me. From that day on, I walked with my head held high, and when I caught myself looking down, I remembered Mr. Hawkins’ words. He’d be watching me.

My world changed after that night in the laundry room. When I went back to school in the fall the other kids looked at me differently. They commented that I had changed. One girl said, “You were such a loser last year, but now you’re really cool.” I closed my eyes and thanked God for Mr. Hawkins, and I knew that he was up there watching me and smiling. Mr. Hawkins may have seemed like “a nobody” to everyone else, but to me, he was my angel; and the lesson he taught me changed my life.

~Lisa P. Tubbs

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