It has been a while since I sat down with my books to study for an exam. Last night, I put my head down and focused, feeling alive again as I studied.
After what seemed like a long time, a teenage boy walked into the lounge. His t-shirt said ‘Virginia Tech’. With his cell phone in his hand, ear phones plugged into his ears, he sat on the couch as if it was broad daylight. It was almost midnight.
I was aware of his presence and a little scared instinctively. After a few minutes, he walked to the kitchenette behind me to get a glass of water. As he walked past me, he looked curiously at my books.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked me.
I said I’m studying for an exam.
‘What do you do?’ his second question.
I’m a software engineer, I said.
‘What does that mean?’
Its someone who helps build software programs, I replied.
‘Like Photoshop?’ came the response
Yes, I smiled and explained how I helped teams put together programs like Photoshop.
‘Why are you studying, is it for work?’, he asked
I’m studying for a certification that teaches me how to help teams put together programs.
A few seconds into the conversation, I realized that he wasn’t looking me in the eye and didn’t seem to understand me.
‘What about you? Do you study at Virginia Tech?’ – I asked
He told me how his sister went to school and how he had finished special ed school and wasn’t sure if college was right for him. Then he asked me if he could sit next to me on the bar stools.
‘I’ll just continue to study and make notes while we talk, is that fine?’, I asked.
He smiled and nodded.
What followed after that was a revelation.
He was here visiting his step-father who had a corporate apartment from his job in the UK. His father was an alcoholic, been to jail and now working on his own business. His mother was a paralegal and met him only twice a month because of her commute to work. He lived with his sisters, a niece and nephew and his service dog. His sister had been on drugs in school and got pregnant when she was 17. His nephew suffered from cerebral palsy which ran in the family. A gene from his mother was somehow passed on to his nephew too.
He told me how he had Aspergers, Autism and Psychosis and knew exactly what each of them meant. He knew why he would get violent at times and how he got distracted with the slightest sound or light in his bedroom.
His service dog, Wolfy, was his only friend at home. His pass time was playing music. He could play any song he heard, on any instrument. When he showed me pictures of his drawings, I was shocked at the professional caricature in front of my eyes. An artist with an eye for detail.
‘You should study art and music – there you go, that’s what you can do in college’, I told him.
He mentioned how difficult it was for him to study anything.
‘When I approach people, they just walk away thinking I’m weird’. He confessed. ‘It takes a lot of courage for me to approach someone and talk to them’.
As I sat there, making my study notes and talking to this new friend I had made, I hid my disbelief, shock and awe from him.
‘There isn’t much space in our studio for the three of us so I sleep in the closet. Its nice and quiet’. I continued to smile and make notes.
Next to me sat a boy who had everything going wrong for him. His sisters weren’t the best role models, his parents were divorced and he was visiting his step-father who didn’t seem like the best caretaker. He took several medicines daily to keep him sane and normal.
His only friend in our community was the dog-walker lady who fed him and took care of him like her own.
In this plush, luxury apartment building, the last thing I had expected around midnight was to meet a child with such adversities.
At home, it was music and art all day and then playing with ‘Wolfy’ and sometimes entertaining the children at home. No friends, some family and definitely not much else going well.
‘I played music in a bar once and after I finished, the manager called for me. Now every time I play, I get paid. I don’t want to earn too much money, just enough to get things done. Its not that important to me. Its important to be happy and enjoy life.’
‘What about your future?’ I asked him.
‘I don’t think about the future, just live each day as it comes. There’s no use thinking what will happen in the future and waste time. There’s so much to do in a day.’
As he smiled and walked me through his life story, his words were blatantly honest and beautifully blissful. Tragedies or not, his voice and expressions didn’t seem to phase in an out. A constant smile lit his face as he shared his pictures, the story about his YouTube music channel with 20,000 hits, his art work and how he had to cut his hair because he was chased by people who mistook him from Justin Bieber.
There is nothing ordinary about this special person and yet, he is midst hundreds of twinkling young stars that may go unnoticed in this crazy, ambitious world.
‘You’re so talented and gifted’ I told Kennedy. With your skills, you can teach at college. He was honest and told me how he couldn’t teach anyone.
‘Art is just a lot of lines coming together.’, he explained.
My mind was opened by his amazingly, refreshing perspective and yet I was sad for how life had treated this innocent soul.
As I walked back home, I stared at my own life. Almost ashamed of all the luxury, privilege and blessings I had. How was this fair? I wondered.
Someone with so little was so happy and cheerful. A peaceful state of mind with a sharp focus on the present. And there I was, with so much. A house, a degree, a great job, family support and everything I could ask for and yet, there was something amiss. That need for something more, that constant hunger for appreciation, love and success had kept me from feeling the gratitude, kept me from sharing.
Lying awake in my soft, comforting bed, I could visualize Kennedy curled up in his closet, sleeping on the air mattress that his step-father gave him, sleeping on the closet floor because the mattress had a tiny hole. As I kept watching in awe, I could see him sleeping like a baby without a care in the world.