Little A loves police cars. When she turned three, she said that all her birthday wishes had been filled except for her dearest wish: to drive a police car down the interstate, alone. She suggested that this year, perhaps she would get that wish. (Or, barring that, her own backhoe so she could help demolish a building) She sleeps with her Tonka police car on her pillow.
Yesterday, there was a police officer near her soccer class. She was wildly excited it to see, and doubly so when the officer waved to her and greeted her. Once the excitement wore off, she was a little nervous that maybe there “was a bad guy” at soccer, but then resolved that if the officer was there to keep her safe, then it was okay.
All though soccer, I was thinking about an officer I met before, one of those memories that stays with you forever.
When I was teaching, one of my schools was in a high crime area, mostly gang activity and drugs. I tried to never stay past sundown, because it wasn’t safe. My students had that wary, exhausted look of children who’ve seen more than a child ever should. Police were common in the school, and several stayed in the vicinity, so we knew them by name.
During career week, the teachers brought in everyone we could think of to talk to the children. The police station sent us an officer to speak to them, a very young man with a gentle voice and a big smile. Many of my students were afraid of men and strangers, but would warm up after time. At first, they watched the officer with trepidation, but gradually slid closer and started to smile a little, but refrained from getting very close. Throughout it all, the officer stayed cheerful, and then when he was done, he stepped out into the hall. I set my class up with another teacher and followed him to thank him.
I was surprised to see him leaning against the wall, hands on his knees, looking down at the floor. We had this conversation:
Me: “Thank you for coming today. Are you okay?”
He raised his head slowly, and said, “Yeah. I just…I know those kids. I’ve seen them before. I see them when I go to their houses and I have to arrest their parents. It’s hard because I know they’re afraid of me, and I know some of their parents tell them to hate me. And I know they can’t understand why I’m there.” He looked so sad; it broke my heart.
Me: “This is a rough place. I do think it meant a lot to them to have you here today.”
Him: “I’m in medical school now. I just can’t do it. I went into this because I wanted to help, but I don’t have the tools or enough people.” He smiled a little and said, “I think you probably feel the same way.”
Of course I did. Even paper was at a premium in my classroom, and I knew what it was like to try to work miracles out of nothing. “Definitely. But for what it’s worth, thank you. I couldn’t do your job, and I really respect that you do.”
He smiled more, and replied, “Likewise. I couldn’t do your job either! I’m glad someone is here to care about those kids.”
We chatted awhile longer, and then went back to work. I saw him a few more times over the years, and then I left the school. I always wondered what happened to him. I hope he found a place where he felt valued, where ever that was. He was such a kind soul; I felt bad that he wanted a different job, because he was good at the one he had. But having been in that area and felt that helplessness, I get it.
Yesterday, I was sitting there, picturing his face. I know I only talked to him for a few minutes, but I never forgot.