About a Boy

Several years ago I became a Jewish Big Brother. The decision to do so followed fast on the heels of a breakup with my girlfriend, in one of those “search for meaning” moments of introspection that only getting tossed out of the house can provide.

After a series of interviews and background checks, I was placed with a shy 11-year old boy named Josh who lived in the San Fernando Valley. His father passed away when he was five, after a no-win battle with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The family moved to LA from Montreal a few years earlier and the young man had been growing up in an almost entirely distaff environment, with his mother, sister, aunt, great aunt and grandmother dominating the family landscape.

That’s where I came in. I was supposed to provide the male influence in his life, albeit at a rate of one day every two weeks. I freely admit that I had no idea what to do on our first outing, so I brought one of every kind of ball. I must have looked like a Little League coach when we arrived at Balboa park with an equipment bag over one shoulder. After about an hour of catch and Frisbee and basketball he said, “Can we sit down? I’m getting tired.” Not a moment too soon! I was about to collapse.

For about seven years, once every couple weeks, we pursued manly things and talked about everything together. I took him to his first hockey game, first football game, first Laker game. We went to see his beloved Expos when they came to town to play the Dodgers every year. (Sadly, I never could dissuade him from rooting for the wretched Montreal team.) I taught him how to spit like Clint Eastwood, and I read an “aliyah” at his Bar Mitzvah. We were even featured in a Documentary on Jewish Big Brothers titled “Best of Friends,” by Al Kaliss. Not bad.

While Josh was growing up, his mother was finishing her graduate work at UCLA in Psychiatry. She has since established a very successful practice, but it was a demanding program, taking classes, writing a thesis, and putting in 3000 hours of clinical work to get her doctoral degree, and it kept her away from the house quite a bit during those years.

Our official relationship ended on his 18th birthday, but we’ve remained in contact as friends while he went to college at UCLA and I moved to New York. His mother remarried, he went away to Law school, I moved back to town. He’s 26 years old now, about the same age I was when we met. We got together for lunch last month before he went back to finish up at Northwestern. He graduates next month. I’m saving all my lawyer jokes.

Over the years I wondered about how I was doing as a Big Brother. My father once said that, as a parent, “you look around and try to do the best you can. Then you hope for the best.” There are no real guideposts, no score card against which to compare your performance. We certainly had some highs and some lows. It was not always perfect, but what relationship can live up to that standard?

Then one day last fall I got an e-mail from Josh that simply blew me away:

With all that, I know for a fact that the best thing mom did for me…which helped me beyond measure…[and] if it were not for that thing I would have never made it out of high school. That one thing was bringing me to Jewish Big Brothers and putting me in contact with you.

Jeff, I don’t think I have ever been able to show you how much you mean to me. If it weren’t for you, I would have turned out a very different person from who I am now. I cherished every minute I had with you without exception! You taught me how to throw every kind of ball imaginable, you taught me how to drive, but most importantly you just let me be a kid. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have had much of an adolescence. I can now look back and see many good times. Most of these good times involved you.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart!!!

I include this excerpt, with his kind permission, not because it makes me look really, really good, but because it just goes to show that you just don’t know what kind of an impact you make on the lives around you when you set out to do good things.

I’m very proud of the man my Little Brother has become. He even took me to a Dodger game last season.

J.D. Smith tries to do good deeds @ www.lifesentence.net