I took guardianship of my cousin when he was 14. He was going through a difficult time in life and had been held back to seventh grade for a second year in a row. I had just opened a middle school with a few partners, and knowing how bright and thoughtful my cousin was, I invited him to come live with me in Los Angeles where I could enroll him in my eighth grade.
Despite his terrific intelligence, he had developed a rather low academic opinion of himself in recent years. We spent much of the summer working to reverse this opinion and restore his sense of intellectual self-confidence. It was at times a rather intense and grueling process for us both. Our first four math sessions were spent sitting together, staring at a closed math book on the dining room table while he cried and trembled at the thought of opening the book.
Six months in he was beginning to thrive at school. He had become one of the leaders of his class and a hero among students in our K-8 program.
One night we were driving home together. I was quite exhausted by the overload of directing a startup charter school, teaching, and serving with 100% commitment as an ad hoc single parent.
We had begun to argue about his attitude toward homework. “Homework is stupid,” he complained. “I don’t care about it.”
“I’m sure that’s got nothing to do with why you were held back to seventh grade two years in a row,” I replied, quite agitated. The second the words came out of my mouth, I realized what I had said. I turned to him.
Tears began to stream out of his eyes. He turned away from me.
I had to pull the car over. My arms and legs had begun shaking with a rush of adrenalin. “I can’t believe I just said that,” I told him.
“It’s okay,” he said. It’s not like that was the first time anyone had ever spoken to him that way.
“It’s not okay,” I told him. Exhausted and utterly disappointed with myself, I had begun to tear up too. “What I said has little to do with you,” I added. “I’m trying so hard, but sometimes I feel like I’m failing you.”
He took off his seat belt and scooted around to face me. He seemed quite surprised to see my tears, and reached over to take my hand. He smiled, tears still running down his cheeks. “You’re doing great,” he said.
I felt ashamed for putting him in the position of needing to console me. After all, I was the adult. I felt that I was the one who was supposed to be there supporting him.
Later that night when we got home, I thought back on what I had said, and how I had said it. I winced at the mere remembrance of it. I stopped him by the front door. “I’m really sorry punk,” I told him. “I don’t ever want to speak to you like that.”
“It’s okay,” he said, and patted me on the shoulder.
A week later we were sitting down to dinner together. “Look,” I told him. “I just have to say this one more time, then I’ll let it go. You’re a really bright kid, and I see how hard you’ve been working at school. I hope you know that. I hope you know how sorry I am about being sarcastic like that last week. I don’t want to be that kind of person.”
He smiled again. “Scott,” he said. “You keep apologizing about it, but what you don’t realize is that it’s one of the best gifts you’ve ever given me.”
I raised an eyebrow, surprised to hear him say that. I had a guess where he was going with this, but I was wrong.
“That night,” he explained, “I realized that you aren’t perfect. It was this huge relief. I realized that I can still be awesome like you, even if I’m not perfect. Thanks for that.”