One of my students last semester told me he was working 50 hours a week to support himself and go to school. Adding 13 hours of coursework on to that, which means an ideal 39 hours of homework, I calculated he would be working 92 hours a week. Plus transportation to and from. Which is a life without relief or rest or relaxation. It is nothing but work and work and work and sleep. There are some people that can handle that, but productivity studies snort at that. All it does is wear you out.

I did the math with him and told him most people can’t handle that pace. Can you find a better job, or make do on fewer hours?

My student indicated his parents weren’t helping with college expenses. I can smell a story in things like that. I’m from a dysfunctional family that was threatening to cut me off while I was in college. Family crap is hard to take, and he sounded like he had a truckload full.

Now I’m a busybody and a meddler, but there are boundaries that you have to really watch with current students. I kept a weather eye on that one, considering my next move. I thought about asking him (and an adult male friend/colleague who is also dedicated to the well-being of our local college students) out to lunch sometime over the holidays, but I bailed on that idea at seeing some lack of effort reflected in the grades in my class. Maybe that was unfair considering the pressures he was under. I have a principle to hold back a little until I see the effort going in.

But, he showed up in my office earlier this spring semester. I extended the invitation to lunch. I brought my friend along, someone comfortable with uncomfortable truths, who also comes from a background of dysfunction. I allowed myself to pry a little.

Fair is fair, if you are going to pry, you better give the other person a way out, and agree that they can ask you to answer first. My friend and I answered first. Then we got a long story that I am sure wasn’t even the half of it.

It is amazing the things that 15, 16, 19 year-olds have dumped on them by their parents. We know there’s nothing we can do to fix it, but we try our best to provide this one with two functioning (if imperfect) adults who are willing to help watch his back and who are willing to receive that phone call when things are tough. “There’s a lot we can’t solve, but one thing we can do is make sure you get a warm meal and someone to listen.” And if there are bigger problems that seem overwhelming, we’d like you to call us rather than taking on the world alone. Every young person needs an older adult person at their back to help navigate. Every young person needs an older adult person who thinks they are worthy and worthwhile.

That was one part of my work today. Probably the most important part. I can look back at my past, and I can’t help the younger me-that-was. I can help this one. This is how we make peace with our past and all the darkness we’ve gone through. You can’t pay yourself back for those times. You can only pay it forward to some one else, and let those you help do the same.