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
were 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
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
proceeded to cut up a rug. 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
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
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."