First off – I want to thank Jamie and her son Bandur for giving me the inspiration to write this story. It’s about a man I knew named Kent.
I thought about changing his name as I tell this story, but no one is innocent here, and no protection is needed. Sometimes the best support a village can give, is to remember a persons name and hear a fraction of their story.
Kent changed my life in many ways. I feel I can draw a very direct line between Kent and me becoming the kind of teacher I wanted to be.
In the mid 90s, Kent showed up to a Tai Chi class where Mr. Chan was teaching. I was a front row student at the time, chomping at the bit for more, more, and more.
Kent was a very large and young man; he came in late. Kent was wearing combat boots and military camo clothing. His head was down, his fists balled up tight and he was not the sweetest smelling person in the room. If I am honest, he looked not only scared, but scary.
Mr. Chan had an immediate reaction. He pointed at me, and told me to take Kent outside. It was Mr. Chan’s way of saying, get him out of here, now!
But, Kent wanted to learn, and I wanted to teach, and we hit it off in a very odd way. Very few words were exchanged; I did all the talking and Kent would not look at me.
I don’t remember exactly how we agreed but, we made a plan to meet in the park once a week, and see what we could do. I didn’t really expect him to show up.
It was decided that on Thursday at 11:30, I would be in the park, on the basketball court and would wait for Kent, or not. He was consistently five minutes late, but he came! I’d see him finish a cigarette, crush it out with his combat boots, and mumble a willingness. His hands were so balled up in fists, I thought maybe smoking gave his fingers some relief.
We continued to meet. I was learning to teach and for the most part, he did what I asked. He gave me no feedback, no eyes, and no words. I blathered on, and on, and on.
We started with standing, progressed to walking, and slowly over time, we started a form. His moves were clunky, but I’ve seen worse! He would not lift his head, everything about him was drawn in. He lived so tight to his chest, that I thought he would crumbled in on himself — implode, if pushed wrong.
He never said anything, never looked at me, and never missed a Thursday.
One day, about 2 months into our lessons, I waited for Kent to arrive, and cleared the court of rocks and leaves. I remember picking up a worm and moving it off the court, to the near by grass.
When I looked up, Kent in front of me shaking his head.
“I’m sorry you did that.” Kent told me. “Why?” I asked. He went on to say, that no body knows the journey that worm was on, or how long it had taken, and who was I to hindered its progress?
I said, he had a good point. I silently treasured his voice, and told him I would be more mindful in the future.
One day, about six months into our work, Kent raised his head and looked at me.
A few weeks later, he opened his hands and drew a circle with his palms facing outward.
These two actions changed me forever. I still get the shivers when I think of him moving in this way.
Some people told me that mental illness is a form of protection, a way of being selfish, keeping everything inside, tightly balled up. That when Kent opened himself to me by raising his head, and opening his palms to the world, he was expressing an act of “wellness”.
I don’t know.
I know it was fucking cool. I knew teaching Tai Chi would be a way to make the world, and some people in it… better. (Myself included.)
One day, Kent asked me if we could move the lesson to Wednesday instead of Thursday. Sure, no problem. Any particular reason?
No, he was just asking.
Around the one year mark of working together, I got a phone call.
“What the hell are you teaching Kent?”
“This can not go on!”
“Exercise is one thing, but… this… NO! We can NOT have it.”
“Excuse me?” I stumbled.
The woman who was in charge of the half way house Kent lived at, was on the phone with me, and she was livid!
She went on to tell me, that last night Kent wanted to change the channel on the TV! And the week before, he had actually complained about what they were having for dinner!
No, no, no! We cannot have these disruptions!
I said it sounded like Kent was starting to participate in life.
Wasn’t that a good thing?
I mean he was now looking me in the eyes every time we met! His head was up, he was talking, asking questions. His hands almost relaxed.
No, no, no! We cannot have it! The house is hard enough to run. The clients are hard enough to take care of. Kent is making things harder on everybody!
That next week, Kent didn’t come to the park. I never saw him again.
Perhaps, he had to put his head back down in order to live where he lived. Perhaps if he was to eat, he had to eat what was served, and to stay safe, he had to watch what ever was on TV that day… perhaps, under his circumstances, this was the only way he was allowed to participate —
Then again, maybe, Kent burned the place down, and is now happily living in Bali eating and watching whatever the fuck he wants!
Participating in life is hard, and for a lot of us, it can be really hard.
And, yes, it’s hard on the care givers and the helpers. I know that to support another person on any journey, disruptions are needed, and they are messy, ugly and very inconvenient. Being uncomfortable is standard fare for all who witness or participate in change.
We know, it takes a village, and if you don’t have a village, or even a neighbour, well… a collapse is imminent.
Learning to stand inside yourself takes practice. Doing different, will change you, and most of us need another person to hold us up until we can hold our own.
Like a worm on a basketball court. We never know another persons journey, or how far they have come.
The lesson here, if we can’t or won’t help – at least try not to hinder.