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“The boy is hopeless,” the teacher said, shaking her head. “He just doesn’t care.” This wasn’t the first time Neil had heard this. Teachers everywhere from the lowest public school to most prestigious private school had tried, but none had been able to ignite the spark in Neil White. His parents sighed and his dad put a hand over his eyes. It looked as though his mom was about to cry. He didn’t mean to hurt them, but it seemed as though he couldn’t stop giving them pain.
Mrs. Nickels stood up and so did his parents, but Neil remained sitting for a few seconds more, staring vacantly out the window as he had been for the past hour. Then, slowly, he rose to his feet, still watching a small child who sat outside, laughing with her big sister as they shared an ice cream cone.
There was a time when he had been like that, carefree, happy. He had been the smartest in his class, even skipped a grade, all the way up to fourth grade. One night he had woken up screaming with the realization that the world was coming to an end and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He had known about it for a long time: deforestation, global warming, world hunger, war in the Middle East. But never before was he hit with the sudden and udder realization that there was nothing he could do to stop it. The earth was sliding into death and oblivion, and he was just along for the ride.
His grades started slipping immediately. Plummeting, actually, would be a better word. It was suddenly and inescapably clear to Neil that his life had no meaning. And thus there was no reason to work, for in the end it would not matter. No one could change the downward trend that the human populace had taken.
So, sometime in mid fourth-grade, the meaning had gone out of Neil’s life. His parents had been horrified to see their child’s grades evaporate. They had taken him to all sorts of doctors and psychiatrists, even priests, but no one could light the fire that used to burn so brightly inside Neil White. He simply did not care. The conference was over.
The next day, after school, Neil was walking home, alone as always, when a cracked whisper broke through his empty thoughts.
“Spare some change, son?” The voice came from an old man, laying in the gutter. Cars whizzed past, covering the ancient in exhaust and whipping his white hair around his face. Neil dug a five out of his jacket’s pocket, and handed it to the old man. For a second the man just stared quietly, his long hair covering his expression. When he looked up Neil saw that the man’s eyes were filled with tears.
“Thank you, son,” the man whispered, voice full of emotion. “No one has had change to spare in nearly a week. I was wondering if I’d make it until tomorrow, and wondering if I wanted to.” He paused, looking back at the ground. “Are you an angel?” The man looked straight up into Neil’s eyes. Startled with the man’s question, Neil shifted uncomfortably.
“Nope, I’m not an angel. Uh, I’ve got a granola bar in my backpack you can have, too. I don’t have to get home for a bit--mind if I stay and talk a while?” The old man smiled and it looked as though he was going to cry again.
“If you wouldn’t mind sparing some time for an ancient old man.” Neil grinned and dug into his backpack for the granola bar, giving it to the man, who dug into it ferociously.
It was nearly getting dark when Neil stepped into his front door and shouted a greeting. He had talked with the old man all afternoon, and left only when he knew that if much more time passed he would be late for dinner.
“Honey, where were you?” asked Neil’s mom, glancing up from her work when Neil came in the door.
“I’d tell you,” Neil said, “but I have two years worth of homework to get caught up on. Call me when dinner’s ready, ok?” Then he turned and left the room, leaving his mom, mouth hanging slightly open, staring after him.
That night as he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, Neil replayed the afternoon’s events in his mind. Right after he’d stood up and said he had to go, the man had also stood and shook his hand.
“You saved my life today, Neil.”
“No, sir. You saved mine.”