I am walking fast with purpose. Today as every day I am battling between getting to his Montessori in time to join the queue of parents before the door opens at 1230 and doing all the things on my ‘to do list’ for that morning. My ‘to do list’ is never ending. I’m a little behind schedule but I’m a fast walker and happy to break into a run if needs be. This usually happens 200 metres before the entrance to the school.
Today is a crisp sunny autumnal day and my walk cleverly doubles up as ‘me time’ and exercise. I can think or goof off or make lists in my head but I need to keep going as I have planned my arrival at the gates to the milli second. But today I stop. I stop outside the Train Station.
Someone has called my name. I see no one at first and then no one I recognise, so I continue walking. Again I hear my name and this time when I turn on my heels I do see someone. I am now confused. He has called my name, is walking towards me smiling, yet I have no idea who he is. “It’s me”, he says. “Paul”. Now I am even more confused. He evidently knows me and I should know him. I curse myself silently.
He is by now beaming at me from the other side of the street as if we were long lost friends. He rushes over, skipping past a cyclist and a truck. I force a smile and wait for him to come up to where I have stopped. He can see I am still utterly confused so he helps me out. “We were in school together”. I frantically search his face for signs and then it hits me. Yes, we were in primary school together for a few years but we were never friends. That was 30 years ago and we haven’t crossed paths since. I do remember, as a 9 year old being asked by the Teacher to help him with his times tables. This was possibly the only time we ever interacted with each other. He was considered to be a remedial student. A child that was a ‘slow’ learner. He came from a tough background, was absent a lot and when he was there, he was disruptive in the class. He never had time for me, nor I for him. I was probably just ambivalent towards him. There was a huge number of children in our class so it was easy not to know him. I was at a loss at what to say. Even small talk eluded me as I knew next to nothing about him, nor him me.
I stumbled through an “Gosh, yes, of course, Paul. How are you?”
I hadn’t factored this delay into my journey-time and I would most definitely be late now. “Ah, I’m ok you know. Well to be honest I’ve had a tough few years. Been in trouble with the Police an’ that, but you know, trying to keep my nose clean. How are you? Are you living here?”. I replied I was good and yes I was living back here again. He wanted to know where abouts and was I married and was I working and had I children. The clock keeps ticking and I’m conscious now that I don’t have time for this and so I explain I was in a hurry to collect my youngest from pre-school. “Right, of course, you look like you are in a hurry. To be honest I just need some money. I’m having trouble with my folks so I’m homeless and I need some cash. Could you help me out?”. Then the penny dropped. He was a drug addict. I had heard stories years before that he was on heroin and his eagerness to search me out on a busy street rammed this fact home to me with urgency. He was clean and his clothes looked new but he had that unmistakeable drive and focus a junkie gets when they need to score. I frantically searched my bag already knowing I had no cash just a cash card. I felt so sorry for him but a little anxious too. He never had a reputation for being a nice bloke yet this smiling pleading face belied what little I knew of him. I made my apologies and left him standing by the train station desperately looking for another familiar face.
This encounter stayed with me for a long time after. How different our worlds were, yet we grew up in the same small village and went to the same schools. His struggle in school was apparent very early on ( even as a 9 yr old I knew this) but he was allowed to struggle, either by the Teachers or his Parents, or both. He was failed as a child by an educational system that couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate a child from a challenging background. How different might his life be now if someone somewhere along his educational path had taken the time to figure him out. Maybe he was always doomed to have this life but as I walked home holding my 4 year old’s hand I thought how circumstance and some luck have given me a life in it’s full meaning.