A Street Kid Named Mike

A Street Kid Named Mike

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

A Street Kid Named Mike

The greatest good we can do for others is not to share our riches, but to assist in revealing their own.

Benjamin Disraeli

Mike was a street kid. He never knew his father, his mother was a “lady of the night” and he lived with a feeble and indifferent grandmother. His clothing was in constant need of repair, as ripped pants were not yet the thing. He was ten years old, undernourished and unkempt. Compared to the other kids around him, he was at a distinct disadvantage.

It was September 1966, and I was twenty years old, facing my first class of kids as a new teacher. Like most new, young teachers, I was full of enthusiasm and determined to make a difference. My grade 4/5 class in an elementary school in downtown Toronto was made up of thirty-eight angels, and one street kid named Mike. Being so young, I knew very little about parenting. I did however recognize a child in need, and decided that this was as good a place as any to reach out and see if I could make a difference. And so it was that early in September, my special “foster father” relationship with Mike began. Astonishing as it may seem, I became the only parent figure he ever had.

Each day as I arrived at school around 7:30 A.M., Mike would already be in the parking lot waiting for me. Because he was usually hungry, I’d take him out for breakfast. I showed him how to sew, and together we began mending his ripped and torn clothes.

Each noon hour as I shared my lunch with him, I taught him a host of new skills—for a while we worked on the proper method of using a microscope. On another day we constructed a pinhole camera, then we classified rocks and minerals. Still later, we did some archaeology. Mike would then “help” me teach these skills to the rest of the class. We all had a lot of fun, and a kind of unspoken trust began to build up between us. Surprisingly, he appeared eager, perhaps even hungry, to participate in this new father-son relationship.

One day near the end of September, on a Monday, I taught Mike to play chess. By Friday of that same week, he was giving me a really good game. That year, and for several years thereafter, Mike was the chess champion of the Toronto Board of Education.

Early in our special relationship, Mike told me of his dream. Most of the kids in the class wanted to be doctors, musicians, teachers or some such thing, but not Mike! His ultimate desire in life was to be a gangster! This was no joke—this was his wish, and he was most serious about it.

I believed then, and after thirty-four years of teaching I still believe, that all children have a gift. Everyone has the same opportunity to be the best person they can be. I realized this boy was brilliant, and that with a little love, attention, understanding, guidance and encouragement, he could probably accomplish whatever he put his mind to. I figured if he wanted to be a gangster, I would do all I could to help him become the very best gangster he could be.

I got permission from his grandmother to call on him every Saturday morning. You see, I had a plan. First, I took him for breakfast. Afterwards (after making special arrangements through a friend), I took him to the Osgoode Law Library, attached to the University of Toronto.

He was awed by its impressiveness. I explained to him that a good gangster had to know something about criminal law, and reading up on law was the only way to learn. His young mind was eager and interested, and he dove right in.

That was how we spent each Saturday morning that year. I’d drop him off at the law library, and three hours later, I would return and pick him up and we’d go get a burger at Harvey’s. After lunch together, and a recap of his morning’s work, I’d take him home. He wasn’t my son, but I sure felt like a father. There were numerous Saturdays I felt like sleeping in, but a commitment had been forged between us, and I was not going to let him, or myself, down.

The following year I was transferred to another school some distance away. Sadly, this prevented me from continuing to participate physically with him on those Saturday mornings. But I was determined to follow through with what I had begun, so I continued to provide him with public transportation tickets so he could keep up his regular study at the law library. Every so often I’d get together with him and take him out for lunch, so I was able to keep up with his life.

Some time after that, I met a wonderful young woman named Carol. Soon afterwards we were married, and we started a new life together in London—about two hours west of Toronto. The unfortunate part of this love story is that somehow, sadly and to my great regret, I lost contact with Mike.

The years passed, and I often thought of him, wondering how his life turned out and what had become of him. Then, one day in 1995, I was in Toronto on business and decided to look up the number of a former colleague. I flipped open the telephone directory, and there on the page, as if it were in twinkling neon lights and lit up just for me, I saw Mike’s surname as part of a title of “Barristers and Solicitors!”

I wondered, Could it be? Naw!—What are the odds?

On a whim, I dialed the number, gave my name to a secretary and was put on hold. A very long fifteen seconds later, I was talking with a husky voiced gentleman. His opening statement was, “Mr. Kowalchuk, I’ve really . . . missed you.” Then there was silence.

Somehow I managed to answer. “Mike, I’m really proud of you. I only wish that I had managed to keep in touch with you all these years.” My eyes welled up with tears, and I blurted out again (between sobs), “Mike, I’m really proud of you.”

In a quivering voice on the other side, Mike answered, “I wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for you.”

I was so very proud of him! If he had been my own son, I couldn’t have been more proud of him.

When we were able to get together, I learned that Mike had risen to be one of the most successful criminal lawyers in Canada! A far cry from the street kid I once knew, who dreamed of becoming a gangster. He repeated that I was the only parent figure he had ever had, and that he owed it all to me. Had it not been for me, he said, he wouldn’t be where he was today.

Ernest Kowalchuk
Ailsa Craig, Ontario

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