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The Boy Under The Tree


In the summer recess between freshman and sophomore years in college, 
I was invited to be an instructor at a high school leadership camp 
hosted by a college in Michigan. I was already highly involved in most 
campus activities, and I jumped at the opportunity. 

About an hour into the first day of camp, amid the frenzy of icebreakers 
and forced interactions, I first noticed the boy under the tree. He was 
small and skinny, and his obvious discomfort and shyness made him appear 
frail and fragile. Only 50 feet away, 200 eager campers were bumping 
bodies, playing, joking and meeting each other, but the boy under the 
tree seemed to want to be anywhere other than where he was. The desperate
loneliness he radiated almost stopped me from approaching him, but I 
remembered the instructions from the senior staff to stay alert for 
campers who might feel left out. 

As I walked toward him I said, "Hi, my name is Kevin and I'm one of the 
counselors. It's nice to meet you. How are you?" In a shaky, sheepish 
voice he reluctantly answered, "Okay, I guess." I calmly asked him if 
he wanted to join the activities and meet some new people. He quietly 
replied, "No, this is not really my thing." 

I could sense that he was in a new world, that this whole experience was 
foreign to him. But I somehow knew it wouldn't be right to push him, 
either. He didn't need a pep talk, he needed a friend. After several 
silent moments, my first interaction with the boy under the tree was over. 

At lunch the next day, I found myself leading camp songs at the top of my 
lungs for 200 of my new friends. The campers eagerly participated. My 
gaze wandered over the mass of noise and movement and was caught by the 
image of the boy from under the tree, sitting alone, staring out the 
window. I nearly forgot the words to the song I was supposed to be leading. 
At my first opportunity, I tried again, with the same questions as before: 
"How are you doing? Are you okay?" To which he again replied, "Yeah, I'm 
alright. I just don't really get into this stuff". As I left the cafeteria, 
I too realized this was going to take more time and effort than I had thought
- if it was even possible to get through to him at all. 

That evening at our nightly staff meeting, I made my concerns about him 
known. I explained to my fellow staff members my impression of him and asked 
them to pay special attention and spend time with him when they could. 

The days I spend at camp each year fly by faster than any others I have 
known. Thus, before I knew it, mid-week had dissolved into the final night 
of camp and I was chaperoning the "last dance". The students were doing 
all they could to savor every last moment with their new "best friends" 
- friends they would probably never see again. 

As I watched the campers share their parting moments, I suddenly saw what 
would be one of the most vivid memories of my life. The boy from under the 
tree, who stared blankly out the kitchen window, was now a shirtless dancing 
wonder. He owned the dance floor as he and two girls danced. I watched as 
he shared meaningful, intimate time with people at whom he couldn't even 
look just days earlier. I couldn't believe it was him. 

In October of my sophomore year, a late-night phone call pulled me away 
from my chemistry book. A soft-spoken, unfamiliar voice asked politely, 
"Is Kevin there?" 

"You're talking to him. Who's this?" 

"This is Tom Johnson's mom. Do you remember Tommy from leadership camp? 

The boy under the tree. How could I not remember? 

"Yes, I do", I said. "He's a very nice young man. How is he?" 

An abnormally long pause followed, then Mrs. Johnson said, "My Tommy was 
walking home from school this week when he was hit by a car and killed." 
Shocked, I offered my condolences. 

"I just wanted to call you", she said, "because Tommy mentioned you so many 
times. I wanted you to know that he went back to school this fall with 
confidence. He made new friends. His grades went up. And he even went out 
on a few dates. I just wanted to thank you for making a difference for Tom.
The last few months were the best few months of his life." 

In that instant, I realized how easy it is to give a bit of yourself every 
day. You may never know how much each gesture may mean to someone else. I 
tell this story as often as I can, and when I do, I urge others to look out 
for their own "boy under the tree." 

By David Coleman and Kevin Randall


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