A Troubled Boy

October 13, 2012
Max arrived as the air had just begun to lose the cool stillness of morning. Whirling around in frantic circles, he grabbed everything in arm’s distance— hats, dolls, books— leaving them strewn about the grass and reducing his peers to teary wrecks. As I contemplated the task of disciplining this child for the next six weeks, an inevitable part of my role as camp counselor, the initial beats of a headache throbbed behind my eyes like the slow, steady rhythm of a snare drum. I kept my voice gentle and controlled as I chided him, but he merely looked on with flat, grey eyes of stone.

Max was ice and fire; one moment he was ignoring the other children, staring through them as they spoke as if their voices were no more substantial than the wind, and the next minute he was screaming, face twisted into a demonic maroon mask of childhood wrath. When Max lost his lunchbox, he insisted, spittle flecking from his furious mouth, that another boy must have stolen it. In art class, he sat in torpid isolation, refusing to pick up a single crayon. Any attempts to break his shell of defiance and anger were met with narrowed eyes and silence, and both the counselors and campers quickly learned that letting Max detach himself from everyone else was the easiest approach.

Every morning, I was entrusted with the job of shepherding the kids to swimming class in a single-file line, and every day Max would deliberately fall far behind, testing the fragile limits of my patience. By the beginning of the second week, he lagged twenty feet behind the last camper at all times. Urging the boy to walk faster, pleading, and threatening him with a trip to the office had no effect on him. He merely stuck out his bottom lip at the prospect of consequences and shouted, “Take me to the office! I don’t care! I hate this place!”

The exasperation I felt was growing ever-stronger, but showing my anger would be akin to surrender. In his frigid eyes I saw an awareness of my true lack of power, and the implication of a threat--”I could run away if I wanted to, and it would be your fault.” Choking with desperation, I said,, “Max! Whatever you do, don’t catch up to Emily!” He gazed back at me, his grey-black eyes shining with all of the calculated hostility of an eight-year-old in the face of authority, and with cold rebelliousness, he began to march forward. He never took his eyes from mine, mouth forming a hard line of concentration as the distance between him and Emily grew ever smaller.

“Oh no, Max! Don’t catch up to Emily!” I shouted, feeling a glorious sense of relief. His sharp eyes still bearing into mine, he inched closer until he was directly behind her. A fleeting hint of confusion flickered across his face, and then his expression silently twisting up as if he were sucking on a lemon slice.

“You…you said the opposite of what you wanted me to do!” He protested.

“But now you’re in line,” I said, and with a touch of insincerity I added, “Like a good camper. I know you can follow the rules today. You are a good camper.”
He paused, contemplating the only praise he had received thus far with a suspicious expression. After a long silence and for the first time since camp started, a flicker of genuine warmth showed beneath his icy eyes. Gazing at his scabbed, skinny knees as if his head had suddenly become leaden, he reluctantly nodded and asked, “Will you hold my hand?”

That morning, I saw the humanity of Max. Little by little, he began to let go of his harsh facade. One afternoon at lunch, the other campers were gleefully shouting about their favorite foods. I turned to Max and asked, “What’s your favorite food?”
With an emotionless face, he asked, “What?”

“What do you like to eat, Max? Cookies, maybe? Or pizza?” I suggested.

“I like both.”

“Oh yeah? What else?” I encouraged.

“I... I like ice cream, and... chocolate? I like a lot of things,” he breathed, his voice unsure and full of wonder, “Nobody ever asks me that.”

Slowly, Max’s ice began to thaw and his fire was tamed. His metamorphosis was not entirely sudden-- small disagreements could send him into a fiery rage, and he still treated those who were kind to him with the suspicion of a stray animal accepting food from a stranger. But all the while, he was becoming more trusting. He would speak to me even when I did not address him first, greeting me in the mornings with a shy smile, and when I asked him about himself he seemed shocked and elated that I showed any interest at all. When he spoke of the things he loved, those dark eyes took on a new depth, a greater life.

His most profound change did not become evident until the last week of camp; he began to express empathy for the other children. On one hazy afternoon during the fourth week, little Sophia tripped on the way to Nature class. She fell face-forward, scraping both of her palms raw. Max stooped down and looked right into the girl’s watery eyes with paternal concern. He asked her, “Are you alright? I’ll carry your backpack to class until you feel better.” Sophia’s face lit up with warm appreciation and the two children chattered all the way to class, Max carrying his own Transformers backpack on one shoulder and Sophia’s pink Hannah Montana bag on his other.

On the last day of camp, Max said his gloomy goodbyes to the other children as they were picked up by doting parents until, finally, he was the only camper left. At last, Max’s father emerged from a polished sports car, donning dark sunglasses and a well-tailored blazer. He sauntered over to the Max with a sleek phone secured to his ear, his speech a rapid, almost unintelligible prattling littered with trite corporate jargon like “paradigm shift” and “synergy”. Sparing Max a millisecond-long smile, he simultaneously shouted into his phone and beckoned for his son to follow him.
Instead, Max ran to me and wrapped his thin arms around my waist. As I stooped down to say farewell to my unlikely friend, he pressed a mess of colored strings into my hand: a friendship bracelet. Voice small and tremulous, he whispered in my ear, “I’ll miss you”. With no more fanfare than that, he allowed himself to be led away like an animal by a man who neither looked at him nor spoke to him. Max spared one last fleeting glance, and as the distance between he and I grew larger, his face displayed the pure, childlike vulnerability that he had spent the entirety of his young life so desperately trying to disguise.





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