Last week a former classmate was arrested for running a chop shop. A chop shop, for those of you not running around with criminals, is where that jerk who stole your car will drive it, where it will then be stripped down, the VIN numbers scraped off, and your license plate tossed into a pile.
They’ll sell it off to some other dark and scary entity and you’re out of a car. It’s a bad day for you.
The former classmate’s mug shot indicated a very hard life. Honestly, that face scared me.
I met – let’s call him Cory – in seventh grade. He was wild even then, but not in a fun, let’s go rock and roll and laugh and be crazy in a whooeee sort of way. He was wild in an unhealthy, tough way.
My mother, Bette Straight, was Cory’s English teacher. She was five feet three, always wore heels, and was the most cheerful, kind and compassionate person I have ever known. Cory, tough guy, loved her. He used to take roll for her every day and if a kid was even a second late, he’d mark the kid as tardy. No one ever argued with him, he was too much of a hard ass. If you messed with him you could expect to get hit, your nose put in the wrong place on your face.
The hard ass would come to our house to visit my mother. Not me. My mother. He liked talking to her.
But something was seriously wrong at home for this kid. He came to school drunk one day. We were thirteen. He went to my mother’s class, took roll, did what she told him to do, and left. My mother recalled him being “extra funny” that day. The teacher in the next class smelled the beer/whiskey whatever he’d guzzled, and he was expelled for three weeks. Drunk. At thirteen.
My mother would have been so sad – and that would be the word for it – sad, that this kid grew up, became tougher, stole people’s cars, broke ’em down, and re – sold them. That wasn’t honest work. That wasn’t right. She would have remembered the kid who treated her so well, every day, even if he was a ball breaker about kids being on time to her class. She would have seen a person who could have become so much more.
On the flip side, when I was growing up there was a family next door with the last name of, well, we’ll just call them the Wengs. The oldest son, we’ll call him Jay, used to come over and visit my mother. They were Asian, and he was having the usual cultural clashes kids have had over hundreds of years with parents who have migrated from another country and want to conserve the old ways and traditions, and their kids who are growing up American.
He was upset about the conflicts with his parents, the pressure to excel, and his girlfriend who was white. The parents wanted a nice Asian girl, not a blonde American. Jay just loved my mom, and loved talking to her. My mother told me, “He needs someone to listen to him.” So, she did. She listened.
Today, Jay is within the top 60 best paid executives in this country. He founded a technology company, which will remain unnamed here. A building at an Ivy league college is named after him after a massive multi ten – million dollar donation. His net worth is over half a billion dollars. I believe he married the blonde girlfriend his parents did not approve of. They are still married.
My mother would have been so pleased for Jay. Not because of the money, she was not a materialistic woman, nor did she base someone’s worth on their income. She was a teacher, remember? No, she would have been proud of Jay because of his character. She believed in hard, honest work, she believed in family. Jay worked hard and honestly, he had a nice family.
My mother died in January, 11 years ago. Feels like yesterday that I held her hand and watched her go. It was the most heartbreaking day of my life, only equaled by my father’s death five years later, as I held his hand, too, and watched him follow my mother.
I always miss her, but January is definitely a harder month. I do, however, get a lot of peace, a lot of comfort, thinking about the wonderful impact she had on so many of her students, including future car thieves who needed some kindness when they were young, and top level executives who needed someone to listen.
Cheerfulness, kindness, and compassion sure goes a long way.