How Does One Encourage the Discouraged?

"What can one do to turn around troubled kids?" I am often asked.

Experience tells me that there’s no formula. Take recovering alcoholics. Experts say that their recovery usually starts after they "hit bottom," and something or someone causes the alcoholic to take a hard look at his or her life. And what constitutes "bottom" varies from person to person.

Delinquents, drug addicts and other miscreants can attend group therapy sessions, sit for motivational speeches and engage in one-on-one counseling — often with little or no positive result. Still, some hear or see something that provokes or inspires them, and they begin to reassess their lives and change their behavior.

I don’t know the answer. But when I’m asked this question, I think of Mr. Gordon.

Growing up in my inner-city neighborhood, my friends and I used to play football and baseball in the street. Our ball would often land on Mr. Gordon’s front lawn. We’d chase the ball, sometimes stomping on Mr. Gordon’s flowers. Mr. Gordon attended to his lawn far more meticulously than anyone else in the neighborhood. He carefully trimmed his shrubbery, lovingly fertilized his grass and watered religiously, producing a stand-out patch of lawn, shrubbery and flowers.

 "Get off of my lawn!" Mr. Gordon would shout through his window when we ran on his lawn or the ball rolled through his flowerbed. The yelling simply made us run and stomp on his lawn all the more. Then Mr. Gordon came out of the house to yell louder and lecture us. "Respect my yard," he said, "and respect the yard of everybody else in this neighborhood. You can go down the street several blocks to the schoolyard and play there. Why do you have to run on my lawn?" On other occasions he would bark, "What have I done to you? Why do you keep doing this?" This resulted in us bopping through his yard all the more, while we fiendishly enjoyed provoking him.

Once, while cutting my own lawn with our old gasoline-powered lawn mower, I inadvertently spilled some gas on the grass. Soon the gas turned that patch of lawn completely brown. Eureka, what a discovery! So after yet another yelling session with Mr. Gordon, I told some kids about what gasoline does to lawns. After nightfall, we sneaked into Mr. Gordon’s yard and splashed a can of gasoline on his lawn. After a day or so, Mr. Gordon’s golf-club-like lawn featured a big, brown, dead patch right in the middle. He knew we did it. This, of course, prompted yet another lecturing and yelling session about decency and respect.

I’d heard it all before — many times — but for some reason, on that day, I listened. Really listened. Maybe because he seemed so hurt. Maybe because I knew what I had done was horribly wrong. So this time I stood and I listened. I apologized, and promised to make sure that none of the other kids ever walked on his lawn or messed with his flowerbed.

The war ended.

After that, Mr. Gordon and I would stand in front of his house and talk. We talked about hard work. We talked about education. He told me about his life, growing up poor in the Jim Crow South and moving to Los Angeles for a better life. He and his wife lived quietly in their house. He never had children. I never asked why, but I could tell he really wanted them.

I went away to college. When I came back during summers and holidays, I’d see Mr. Gordon watering his lawn. I’d walk up to him and we would talk. For the next several years, as I went from college to law school to working as a lawyer, we talked — always standing in front of his house.

Mr. Gordon told me how much he liked and admired me, and that he took pleasure in my "growth as a man." The last time we talked, I looked into his graying eyes, and for some reason I knew I would never see him again. Several months later, my mother phoned me and said, "Remember the man who lived up the street?" She never knew his name, and didn’t know about our conversations. "He died."

So what do you say to bad actors, delinquents, those indifferent toward education, miscreants? Sometimes it takes a suggestion from the right person at the right time, but it also takes a willingness to be receptive to that message. What does it take for an alcoholic or a gang-banger to get them to see the light, if they ever do? I wish I could offer a five-step formula. But I still don’t know.

I do know this. The answer is not to quit. For a word, a gesture, a pat on the back, a well-timed admonition may cause someone to rethink. Remember the old line — when the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Mr. Gordon never stopped trying, and became a teacher.