His energy and infectious smile drew me in as I approached the checkout counter in a small Fresno grocery store. Slight, handsome and clearly of Hmong descent, he had eyes that were bright and full of intelligence and humor.
Our friendship started during the winter. He admired my maroon fleece zipper jacket and asked what the logo meant. I explained that M and A stood for the High School of Music and Art in New York City.
“Wow, do you teach there?” he asked. I told him I had been a student there decades ago.
No other customers approached his counter, so our conversation continued. I asked, “What do you do besides work here? Do you go to school?”
He made a wry face. “I tried to go to college for a little while, but I didn’t like it. It was too much work, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I dropped out,” he confessed.
“Well, do you have any interests now?” I asked.
He replied, “My sister is a nurse and I’m thinking about going back to school and studying nursing.”
“I think you’d be great,” I told him. “You have such a nice way with people.”
I encouraged him to consider enrolling again and he genuinely seemed interested. I told him I was going to check back with him next time I was in the store.
Two weeks later, I saw him again. He assured me he was going to go back to school this fall and get a nursing degree. In addition to the sister who was a nurse, he had another sister with a master’s degree who was becoming a nurse practitioner, and a brother who is a school psychologist.
I asked him how many siblings he had. “I’m one of 15,” he smiled. “When I was a little kid, I just thought babies came automatically once a year.”
His siblings range from age 14 to 38. At 26, he is surrounded and perhaps lost somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Soon it was spring, and in my next couple of visits to the store he wasn’t there. I wondered if he had left. But a month later, there he was again. I waited in a line longer than the others just so I could talk to him. He had grown a mustache and, for a few seconds, I thought it wasn’t he. But as he talked to the customers in front of me, his smile and friendliness assured me I had found my grocery store friend again.
Since it was now July, I asked him if he had made plans to go back to school in August.
“I have to get my transcripts from when I went to school before,” he acknowledged. “Somebody just has to sit on my butt to make sure I get everything in.”
I told him I had confidence that he would go forward.
“I don’t want to stay here forever,” he said. “I want to move on. I know now that I’m 26; it’s time to find my future.”
My next encounter was in the parking lot of the grocery store, where he was putting heavy bags into a car for someone. The new semester had just begun. To my dismay, he said that he hadn’t gotten his transcripts in time to register. He reached through my open car window and hugged me.
“I promise you I’ll do it next semester,” he said.
“Is it because of money?” I inquired. He quickly replied, “No, it’s just me. I know I have to do it.”
But I wonder what will happen. Will he go to college and stay there, or will family circumstances put pressure on him to work more and study less? He is married, but said that he and his wife have postponed starting a family until they are more stable.
“A good idea,” I said.
Is it possible that an outsider’s interest and belief in him will help spark enough motivation so he actually goes back to school and becomes a nurse? We never know what influence a few kind words will have, so it probably pays to dispense them freely.
Francine M. Farber is a retired school district administrator and a full-time community volunteer.