Is That Hat Killing Brain Cells?

If he’s not asleep, this student is doing a close approximation. He looks as he always does, with his hood pulled low over the knit cap he wears to cover the greasy strands of gravy-brown hair. He sits more like amoeba than student, his shoulders hunched, head down, hands limp as old rags. I tell him it’s time to join me in this, our fourth week together.

“Hand me your hat,” I say, after a few moments of silence. His eyes flick up without any other body part moving. Not even his expression changes.

“You have head lice?” I ask.

“No.” Irritation, there. But he flips his hood off and hands the dirty knit cap across the table. I pull it on low, till my own hair shadows my face and shields my eyes. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up over it, let my bones go slack until I resemble his form.

“You’re funny.” His voice flat and shapeless.

“Do I look like I care much what you think?” I ask without looking at him.

“I look up,” he says, with an edge of irritation.

I adjust my eyes up without moving my head, so they peer at him through streaks of hair.

“You’re funny,” he repeats.

I ignore him.

“I care.” he says louder.

I flip open a file to his transcript where yellow-highlighted Ds and Fs. “It looks like you care.”

“I care.” Assertive. Insistent.

I take off the hood, hand his hat back across the table. He takes it, turns it in his hand.

“How would we know?” I ask as gently as I can.

He meets my eyes tentatively. “I do. It’s just hard.”

“Tell me more about that,” I say. And he begins for the first time to talk about what makes school difficult for him. Fifteen minutes passes too quickly. As we wrap up, I ask, “Have you heard about couples who want to have kids, but can’t.”

He nods.

“You know what they tell those guys? To only wear boxers. No jockeys.”

“Uh-huh.” he says, which really means, ‘I’m not following.’

“Too much heat,” I say, “affects the cells’ ability to work right.”

“Is that true?”

“I don’t know.” I say. “I read it someplace. But it’s an interesting question, don’t you think?”

* * *

He seeks me out five days later to ask if we can talk. He’s wearing his knit cap, but the hood to his sweatshirt hangs loosely at his back. His face is visible.

“I went to the doctor,” he said, “and told him I think I’m depressed. And he gave me these papers. Can you help me?”

* * * *

Where does that go in the research, in the grant application, in the hopper of numbers that quantify and validate what teachers, coaches, and mentors do?

I’m reading Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle and trip over a line that reminds me about the importance of informal mentors. She writes:

“I do not think that it is naive to think that it is the tiny, particular acts of love and joy which are going to swing the balance…”

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