There was something different about that moonlit summer night in the McDonald’s parking lot. Everything was eerily silent. An unseasonably cool breeze blew past me and my friend Greg as we stood waiting for our friend Lance to get off work and join us for a night of hanging out. A dark figure started slowly walking toward us across the lot. As I saw the man move closer, a chill ran down my spine;
I had no idea who he was or what his intentions were. Soon he was facing us, and after extinguishing his cigarette and running his hands through his wiry gray hair, he asked us for money. Greg and I lied and told him we had nothing. Nervously, I turned to face the restaurant’s door, waiting for Lance to appear.
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
Prices start at $12
“I’m 50,” said the man, still standing and watching us. “But that’s arbitrary. The name’s Frank.” Greg and I stared at him. Lance finally arrived, sodas for all in hand. As we sipped our drinks, Frank told us about his life. He’d faced criminal convictions, alcoholism, unemployment, social rejection, and loneliness.
He’d lived in an old Buick for years. Many would have tried to make a timely exit; Greg, Lance, and I decided to take him out for coffee on the Massachusetts Turnpike at 1 A.M. I didn’t know what to expect from Frank’s company, but I knew he just needed someone to talk to. I knew I would have wished for the same companionship had I been in his position on a lonely August night.
Sitting in the International House of Pancakes half an hour later, Frank picked at the dessert we’d bought for him. He picked up a blueberry and showed it to us, twisting it around in his dirty fingers. My friends and I watched silently. And we did something rather unusual for us – teenage guys used to hang out in the suburbs, having fun in any way possible – we just listened. “You know what?” Frank asked quietly. “Someday I’d like to work eight hours for one blueberry, just for the heck of it.” He paused briefly and studied the blueberry, eyes glowing. For one moment, that berry was the only thing that mattered. Looking up at us, he smiled. “I like the people. Everybody has a story.”
I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences in high school. I’ve loved most of my classes, spent long hours on my extracurricular passions, and made some truly amazing friends. But that night with Frank and my friends was by far the most unique and meaningful. That summer evening I learned that sometimes one has to reserve judgment, listen, and keep an open mind. Frank reminded me of the importance of living in the moment and not always in some ill-defined future.
It’s useless to waste time fretting over the inevitable, a lesson I took to heart, as a high school student applying to college, uncertain of where – and who – I’ll be next year. Like Frank, we all have something to share with the world. Our true purposes may not seem obvious, but we can uncover them if we learn to sit quietly and pay attention.
In a way, my experience with Frank reminded me of my time spent teaching elementary school-age children how to sail. As the summer sun beats down, I take groups of 7- and 8-year-olds from my beginning sailing class on their maiden voyages. They yell with excitement, much like I did when I learned how to sail 11 years ago.
Granted, as my charges are young and excitable, I spend a fair amount of time hollering directions and making sure no one falls overboard. However, I also get the opportunity to sit and listen and watch the children learn. They talk incessantly, and I enjoy the chance to step away from my normally hectic life and listen to their fresh thoughts and perspectives.
Indeed, I’ve spent much of my high school career teaching as well. As a tutor, I’ve worked with my peers for hours poring over essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Camus’s Mersault. As a lead trumpet player in my school’s concert band and jazz ensemble, I’ve helped members of my section develop their tone and musical expression. After sitting with Frank in IHOP, I learned to value these teaching experiences as a chance to learn as well.
My tutees, section members, and even my 7-year-old sailors teach me as much as I teach them. Looking ahead, I have always been fascinated with the science of life and plan to pursue a medical career. In working with patients, a physician must always be a good listener, open and receptive to the needs of the patient and constantly learning about our own humanity from those he serves. The authority, too, is a student of the world.
Frank had come in search of a hamburger, but instead, found an audience. He said it best. “Everybody has a story.” I’m still writing my own story. But in the meantime, I’ll be listening to others, remaining open-minded and learning from their experiences.
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