Few things make me more uncomfortable than someone giving me an idea for a column. I don’t mean that to sound as horrible as it does. God knows, with one of these things hanging over my head like a sword of Damocles 52 weeks a year, I should welcome any suggestions I could get.
And I do, sort of. It’s just that I hate to disappoint anyone, and when I hear a well-meant “You know what you should write about?” my first thought is usually “Thanks, but how am I going to get 800 words out of it?”
Yet, when one of my students at the community college suggested something about a month ago, my initial reaction was completely different. I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to pull off what he had in mind but I knew I wanted to.
At 29 years old, this fella is what in higher education we term a non-traditional student. My experience over the past 23 years of teaching is that the non-traditionals are frequently the best students in the class. It has a lot to do with motivation.
Such is the case with Jason, a culinary arts major and a star pupil.
I don’t often teach speech at the college but something compelled me to volunteer for a section this past semester and, who knows, maybe it was the hand of God putting me into Jason’s life and him into mine.
You learn a lot about students in a speech class and so it wasn’t long before I grew to admire this young man who is determined to make a good life for his son and his son’s mother. Jason has one of those faces that can light up as though you flipped a switch and nothing makes that face light up more than when he talks about Jake and/or Erin.
Jake is two-and-a-half years old and Jason and Erin have been together going on four years. They are not originally from this area but moved here when Erin, a medical lab supervisor, landed a job with a local hospital.
Jake’s full name is Jacob Elias, the Jacob after Jason’s favorite character on the TV show “Lost” and the Elias after Walt Disney’s middle name. Jason says both the fictional Jacob and the real Disney have had a profound influence on his life.
That life, as revealed in his speeches, has not been easy.
Jason was born in upstate New York to a 16-year-old mom who fell head over heels for a long-haired, 22-year-old guitar player in a local band. “He wasn’t much of a dad, although I love him dearly today, and she was just too young to be a mom,” Jason says.
When Jason was 6 months old, the three of them moved to Las Vegas. Then his mom left and returned home with him where he wound up living with his grandmother until he was about six.
Declared a “problem child” (yes, at only 6 years old), he was removed from his grandma’s home and institutionalized and that began a 10-year stretch of being bounced from institutions to foster homes and back, sometimes behaving, most of the time not.
He ran away when he was 10 taking along his 6-year-old brother by the hand, but they were soon caught when they stole a bag of Jolly Ranchers at a convenient store. “We were hungry,” Jason says.
“I was always wishing for that day like in the movies when someone would knock on the door and say ‘I’m your mom,” or ‘I’m your dad,’ and take me to live in some fabulous house where everything would be perfect,” he says.
Jason does recall one marvelous childhood memory. He was about 9 and his grandfather rescued him from a foster home after he got into a fight with a 15-year-old in the family.
“My grandfather was not in a position to take me in,” Jason says, “but he is the one person from whom I experienced unconditional love. I can still picture him sitting in the corner at this little store that he hung out at scratching off lottery tickets and eating Slim Jims.”
It was near Christmas and Jason, in a mall with his grandfather, pointed to a Guns ‘n’ Roses CD in a music store. His grandfather shrugged it off but on Christmas morning, wrapped in a big box to throw him off, Jason found the CD. “It was the best Christmas of my life,” Jason recalls.
At 18, Jason joined the U.S. Navy and that’s when things began to turn around. He served most of his three-plus years participating in various operations in Iraq.
After his discharge, he was working at a Denny’s restaurant back in New York where he’d often flirt with a redhead who came in frequently with her friend Erin.
Yes, that Erin. Four years later Jason cannot even remember the redhead’s name.
Not long after speech class began in January, Jason started reading this column regularly. And he got Erin reading it too.
Which brings us to Jason’s request.
What he asked of me seemed just perfect for Mother’s Day and he agreed.
So here goes:
Erin, this last part is directed at you.
As you reach this point in today’s column, please put the paper aside and look at your son.
Jake is holding a gift for you.
It’s an engagement ring.
Jason would like you to marry him.
You and I have never met, Erin, but I get the feeling you’re going to say “yes”.
And, man, will Jason’s face light up then.