In the summer recess between freshman and sophomore years in college, I was
invited to be an instructor at a high school leadership camp hosted by a
college in Michigan. I was already highly involved in most campus
activities, and I jumped at the opportunity.
About an hour into the first day of camp, amid the frenzy of icebreakers and
forced interactions, I first noticed the boy under the tree. He was
small and skinny, and his obvious discomfort and shyness made him appear
frail and fragile. Only 50 feet away, 200 eager campers were bumping
bodies, playing, joking and meeting each other, but the boy under the tree
seemed to want to be anywhere other than where he was. The desperate
loneliness he radiated almost stopped me from approaching him, but I
remembered the instructions from the senior staff to stay alert for campers
who might feel left out.
As I walked toward him I said, “Hi, my name is Kevin and I’m one of the
counselors. It’s nice to meet you. How are you?” In a shaky, sheepish voice
he reluctantly answered, “Okay, I guess.” I calmly asked him if he wanted to
join the activities and meet some new people. He quietly replied, “No, this
is not really my thing.”
I could sense that he was in a new world, that this whole experience was
foreign to him. But I somehow knew it wouldn’t be right to push him either.
He didn’t need a pep talk, he needed a friend. After several silent
moments, my first interaction with the boy under the tree was over.
At lunch the next day, I found myself leading camp songs at the top of my
lungs for 200 of my new friends. The campers eagerly participated. My gaze
wandered over the mass of noise and movement and was caught by the image
of the boy from under the tree, sitting alone, staring out the window. I
nearly forgot the words to the song I was supposed to be leading. At my
first opportunity, I tried again, with the same questions as before: “How
are you doing? Are you okay?” To which he again replied, “Yeah, I’m alright.
I just don’t really get into this stuff”. As I left the cafeteria, I too
realized this was going to take more time and effort than I had thought – if
it was even possible to get through to him at all.
That evening at our nightly staff meeting, I made my concerns about him
known. I explained to my fellow staff members my impression of him and
asked them to pay special attention and spend time with him when they could.
The days I spend at camp each year fly by faster than any others I have
known. Thus, before I knew it, mid-week had dissolved into the final night
of camp and I was chaperoning the “last dance”. The students were doing
all they could to savor every last moment with their new “best friends” –
friends they would probably never see again.
As I watched the campers share their parting moments, I suddenly saw what
would be one of the most vivid memories of my life. The boy from under the
tree, who stared blankly out the kitchen window, was now a shirtless
dancing wonder. He owned the dance floor as he and two girls danced. I
watched as he shared meaningful, intimate time with people at whom he
couldn’t even look at just days earlier. I couldn’t believe it was him.
In October of my sophomore year, a late-night phone call pulled me away
from my chemistry book. A soft-spoken, unfamiliar voice asked politely, “Is
“You’re talking to him. Who’s this?”
“This is Tom Johnson’s mom. Do you remember Tommy from leadership camp?
The boy under the tree. How could I not remember?
“Yes, I do”, I said. “He’s a very nice young man. How is he?”
An abnormally long pause followed, then Mrs. Johnson said, “My Tommy was
walking home from school this week when he was hit by a car and killed.”
Shocked, I offered my condolences.
“I just wanted to call you”, she said, “because Tommy mentioned you so many
times. I wanted you to know that he went back to school this fall with
confidence. He made new friends. His grades went up. And he even went out on
a few dates. I just wanted to thank you for making a difference for
Tom. The last few months were the best few months of his life.”
In that instant, I realized how easy it is to give a bit of yourself every
day. You may never know how much each gesture may mean to someone else. I
tell this story as often as I can, and when I do, I urge others to look
out for their own “Boy under the tree.”
By David Coleman and Kevin Randall