From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Conversation with a Wise Guy

The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

Dorothy Nevill

As a sixty-eight-year-old, bored retiree, I was dissatisfied with just about everything. This wasn’t what I envisioned. Commercials touting the “golden years” made me laugh. I had plenty of time, but my income was about a quarter of what I earned at the top of my profession.

So when my neighbors heard I was going to be a Foster Grandparent in an old inner-city elementary school, many felt I was taking on too much. They asked, “Why would anyone want to tie themselves down to that kind of schedule and responsibility?”

A spokesperson for the Foster Grandparent Program came to our senior citizen meeting to give a presentation. The speaker reminded us that the kids we would be working with had learning and behavioral problems resulting from a chaotic childhood. Most were poor minority students who came from single-parent homes or had no parent at all. The free lunch program provided them with, in all probability, the only nutritious meal of the day.

I envisioned myself in the role of kindly grandma, guiding small children through the intricacies of multiplication tables, reading, writing and everyday skills they would need to develop into “productive” citizens. I had a feeling my days of boredom were over and so began my volunteer career.

What a perfect day, I thought, as I walked briskly to the portable classroom in the old elementary school. I was eager, as always, to see “my kids.” They made such a difference in my life. Although it was exhausting, I felt good at the end of a long, hard day. For the first time in years, I was sleeping soundly, and without idle time to sit around and snack all day, I was slimming down.

After greeting the kids, I went to my table at the back of the room and waited for the teacher to send me a student who was struggling with reading, spelling or math. Suddenly, the classroom door opened with a thundering crash. I watched in dismay as an angry young man was escorted to my table. I thought to myself, Why do I always get the tough ones?

The teacher handed the newcomer a worksheet and pencil, both of which he sent flying across the room. With jaw firmly set, the teacher placed the items on his desk again and asked me, “Would you work with him?”

Pulling my chair up to his desk, I greeted him calmly, “Good morning, may I help you with your math?”

“I ain’t doin’ nothin’!” he growled, throwing the paper to the floor. He crossed his arms in protest and stuck his chin out.

“Well,” I said, retrieving the worksheet, “if this paper gets any dirtier, we won’t be able to see the problems. Let’s see now.”

“I said, I ain’t doin’ nothin’!” he repeated vehemently with more volume. Only this time the paper and the pencil remained on the desk.

Pinning the paper down with my elbow, I picked up the pencil and began to look over the problems. “Looks like I’m going to need a little help.”

“Why do I have to do this stuff?”

“When you get older, and you have to make choices about what you want to do with your life, the more information you have, the easier it will be to choose the path you want to follow.”

He mumbled, “I ain’t gonna get older,” and slumped down under his desk.

I maintained a calm, even demeanor and smiled as he scowled at me and promptly looked away.

“Why does there have to be police?” he shouted in a sudden outburst. “Why can’t they mind their own business?”

“When we stop hurting one another and ourselves, we won’t need the police,” I responded, curious about his question.

“These police came and stopped me from shooting myself. I had the gun pointed at my chest and was going to kill myself. They took my gun away and then they took me away.” He stared at me, as if to see whether or not I was shocked.

“You must have been very sad if you wanted to kill yourself,” I replied, choosing my words carefully.

He was clearly in pain. I didn’t ask questions. Should I tell his teacher about the incident? I wondered. I placed my hand on his and was saddened when he tried to reject my touch. Then, as I continued to maintain contact, the bravado seemed to leave him like air from a balloon.

“You know what?” he said. “People should mind their own business. They say they love children, and they only want to help. Why can’t they just stay home and love their own children instead of messin’ around with other people’s children?”

“Maybe we’re not all fortunate enough to have our own children,” I said softly, praying that I didn’t say the wrong thing.

“What you talkin’ about? You’re a grandma. You got children, “ he argued.

“Well,” I answered, “I’m not a real grandma. I’m a foster grandma. See, it says so right here on my badge.” As he looked closely at the badge I wore so proudly, I continued, “I’ve never had any children, so I know what it feels like to be sad.”

He laughed scornfully, “You’re sad because you have no kids?”

“I’m not as sad as I used to be,” I replied.

“Are you happy? I mean, about not having kids?”

I thought for a moment before answering. “I’m not happy about having no kids, but, yes, I am happy.”

“When you were sad, did you want to die?”

Careful now, I said to myself. How can I expect him to talk about his pain if I couldn’t be honest with mine? I prayed for the wisdom to say the right words, without being maudlin, or worse, sounding like a phony. “Yes, there were times when I was that sad.”

“Did you ever try to kill yourself?” he probed.


“Why didn’t you?”

I knew I had to continue. Please God, help me! I prayed. “Well, a little voice inside my head said not to do it.”

“What did the voice say?”

“It said I was being saved for something very special.

“You were?” he asked in amazement. “Did you ever find out what that special thing was?”

Tears filled his eyes and mine as we continued to hold hands. I could barely get the words out, “Well now, what do you think?”

Elizabeth T. Verbaas

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on the Corporation for National and Community Service, visit their Web site: The Foster Grandparent Program can be reached at 800-424-8867.]

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