“There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
When we finished our banana splits, Trent rose from the bed, grabbed the three empty boxes and announced, “I’m going down the hall to get you a blanket.” He turned to Evan and asked, “Do you want Matt to stay with you tonight?” I smiled when he said he would like that.
When Trent left, I told Evan that he should lie down and get some sleep. “It’s getting late, and you’ve had a busy day.”
He smiled and replied, “Busy? I think it has been more than that.” I patted his hand and assured him that things were going to be alright. I helped him cover himself with the blanket. It seemed like it only took a few seconds for him to fall asleep.
I looked up when the door opened. I was surprised to see Mr. London holding a couple of blankets and a pillow. He quietly placed them on the other bed and moved toward the door. He signaled that he would like to see me in the hall.
He smiled when I walked out and closed the door. “Matt,” he said as he held out his hand for me to shake. “I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate what you have done today. I thought we were looking at a worst-case scenario.” He added sadly, “Evan wouldn’t have been the first boy we lost here.”
“I’m happy I could help, Sir,” I replied humbly.
“No,” responded Mr. London as he studied me. “It’s more than just helping. There is something special about you. Yesterday you bonded with Hayden, and today you saved Evan’s life.” He reached out and gently placed his hand on my shoulder. “You have a mission to fulfill. You truly are blessed.”
Tears welled up in my eyes, and I was overcome with emotion. It was the first time in my life that anyone saw anything of value in me. I had always been a reject and worthless person. Even though I once believed that I was filled with virtue and righteousness, I had grown to believe that there was nothing redeemable about me. I had lived a hard life, and I was prepared to die unknown.
I broke down and cried. Mr. London tried to catch me when I slid down to the floor and curled myself into a ball. “Matt?” he pleaded, “What is wrong?”
“You’d never understand,” I cried.
Suddenly, Hayden came running down the hall and sat down beside me. He didn’t say anything as he reached over and held me in his arms. I felt another pair of arms hold me, and I didn’t have to look over to know that it was Trent.
Trent rose and pulled me up. He and Hayden helped me into the room and placed me on the bed. Evan turned and asked, “What’s wrong?” He got out of bed and rushed over to me. He, Hayden and Trent held me tightly as I cried. Mr. London watched on for a minute, and then he quietly left the room.
“I’m alright,” I finally managed to say. I looked into their teary eyes and smiled. “I love you, Guys,” I said as I kissed each of them on the cheek. “I love you,” I said again.
Trent laughed and said, “Look at us. We must look like a bunch of babies sitting here crying.”
It surprised me when Evan responded, “Yeah, but they’re happy tears.” I reached out and hugged him tightly.
Hayden looked worriedly at me, and I grabbed him and pulled him into a hug. “I’m okay, don’t worry.”
Trent was the first to break away. He looked at his watch and announced, “It is getting late.” He told Hayden that he should go back to his room. Hayden grumbled, but he rose, hugged me and left.
“I’m heading home,” he said. He yawned and added, “It’s been a long day.” When he looked at Evan, he said he was sorry. “You have nothing to be sorry about,” Trent reassured him. “Once in a while stuff gets a little too much for us, and we have trouble dealing with it. Today you learned something.”
He gave Trent a puzzled look and asked, “What?”
“You learned that you don’t have to deal with it alone.” He looked at me and smiled. “You have people who care about you who can help.”
Evan grinned at me and replied, “Right.”
Trent turned and headed for the door. Before leaving, he looked at me and said, “I’ll see you first thing in the morning.” He winked and left the room.
When he left, Evan started laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked.
“That guy has some serious hots for you,” he grinned.
“Shut up,” I laughed. “You’re crazy. Besides, I’m not sure if he’s gay.” Even though Trent had told me he had a boyfriend in high school, I still didn’t want to out him to Evan.
“Oh, he’s gay,” replied Evan. “And he is really into you.”
“Go to sleep,” I laughed. I quickly made my bed. I was exhausted. It had probably been one of the most emotional days of my life, and I had experienced many. When I finished, I walked over to Evan’s bed and sat down. “Are you okay now?” I asked as I gently gripped his arm.
“Yeah, Matt,” he smiled. “I’m really glad you were here today, or I might not be laying here now.”
“I’m glad you are,” I replied as I pulled him into a hug.
“Me, too,” he whispered in my ear.
I rose from his bed, walked across the room and fell into mine. Within seconds, I was sound asleep.
I awoke late in the morning. When I looked over at Evan’s bed, he was gone. I looked at the clock and noticed it was after 8, I jumped from the bed. “Shit,” I hissed as I quickly put on my shoes. “Mrs. Thatcher is going to fire me for being late.” She expected me to be in the kitchen at 6:30 to help her prepare breakfast for the students before they attended their first class. As I hurried down the hall and into the lobby on my way to the kitchen, Mr. London stepped out of an office, and I ran into him.
“Whoa, Matt!” he laughed as he grabbed the wall to stop himself from falling. “What’s the rush?”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” I apologized. “I overslept, and I’m late helping Mrs. Thatcher in the kitchen.”
“It’s okay,” he assured me. “When I didn’t see you up this morning, I asked one of our volunteers to assist her.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. London,” I insisted, “It won’t happen again.”
He smiled and gripped my arm. “Come into my office, Matt.” I followed nervously behind him, afraid he might fire me.
He pointed to a chair and told me to sit down. He sat at his desk and smiled at me. “I want you to relax, Matt,” he said. “You’ve been through a lot in your life, and I want you to feel safe at New Morning. I assigned you kitchen duty to get you better familiar with the students and staff here. I’m working with Trent and a few of our other staff members in figuring out what is the best fit for you. What I have seen the past couple of days has impressed me.”
“But, Sir, you don’t know nothing about me,” I responded.
“No, I don’t,” he agreed. “However, we have people involved with our young men and women who have all sorts of degrees behind their names. They can’t begin to relate to our students as well as you do.”
I replied sadly, “I’m nobody, Sir.”
He rose and stood before me. “I know that is how you see yourself right now. But I’m a good judge of character. You haven’t begun to see the potential in you.” He put out his hand and helped me from my chair. “Now, go see if there is anything you can do to help Mrs. Thatcher.”
I smiled and replied, “Thank you, Mr. London.” I hurried from the room before he changed his mind.
I entered the kitchen and headed over and helped the volunteer wash and dry the dishes. If Mrs. Thatcher was upset with me, she didn’t say anything. The volunteer, a young woman in her thirties, seemed happy that I was helping. When we finished, we began chopping vegetables for lunch. When we finished, Mrs. Thatcher excused me, but she warned me to be back at four to help with dinner.
I left the kitchen, but I was unsure what I should do. I peeked into Trent’s office, but he was gone. I went outside to see if I could help the maintenance staff work on mowing or landscaping, but again, no one was around. I headed back into the building.
I found the supply room, and I grabbed a handful of trash bags. I figured I could at least change the bags in the wastebaskets located throughout the building. I passed by a door, and noticed Hayden, Evan and three other boys sitting inside a classroom. A teacher was at the board pointing at a map. I assumed they must be taking a social studies class.
Hayden grinned widely and waved when he saw me. I stopped at the door and waved back. The teacher looked over and asked if he could help me. Again, I was afraid that I had made a mistake.
“Um, no, Sir,” I responded. “I…I’m changing the wastebaskets. Do you have anything that needs a new bag?”
He pointed to the one beside his desk. “Why yes,” he said. “This one is almost full.” When I entered the room, Hayden and Evan spoke to me. I was becoming embarrassed because I was afraid I was disrupting the class.
“What is your name?” The teacher asked. “I’m Lloyd Bell.” He held out his hand for me to shake. He looked to be about fifty years old. He was medium build with a receding hairline. He was dressed casually, wearing a pair of khaki pants, a floral shirt and sandals. He looked nothing like the teachers I had in high school.
“I’m Matt Stevens,” I replied nervously.
“I haven’t seen you around here before,” he stated as he looked intently at me.
“He’s new here,” volunteered Hayden. He rose and came over to me and hugged me. “He’s my new best friend.”
Evan rose and hugged me. “Mine, too,” he said.
Mr. Bell laughed and said, “You seem to be a popular guy around here.”
My face reddened as I said, “Yeah.” I smiled at Hayden and Evan and told them they should sit down. “I don’t want you to get in any trouble.”
“Don’t worry, Matt,” smiled Mr. Bell. “This isn’t like a regular school. The only class rule I have is that everyone treat each other with respect.” He looked at the group of boys and asked, “Isn’t that right, Boys?” They nodded and agreed with him.
“Have a seat, Matt, and join us,” he said. “I was just explaining how different religions view gays around the world.”
I couldn’t believe what he had said. When I was in school, discussing a topic like that would be considered taboo. The only place it was ever talked about was in church when Pastor Simpson denounced homosexuality in his sermons.
I asked nervously, “You talk about things like that in class?”
“Well sure, Matt,” he responded. “We talk about everything in here.” He looked over at Evan and continued, “Evan asked why so many people hate gays, so we were discussing it.”
I took a seat between Hayden and Evan and said, “I’d like to hear what you have to say.” I never knew anything about religion since I had stopped going to church when I was twelve. I never understood why Pastor Simpson hated me and Charles so much.”
Mr. Bell paced around the room trying to justify why Christians are taught to think that homosexuality is a sin. He started to quote verses from the Bible. I looked over at Hayden, and he looked upset and on the verge of tears.
“But don’t you think it’s wrong to teach that,” I interrupted. “A person doesn’t decide if they are gay or not. They are born that way. Aren’t we supposed to be created by God? Therefore, it can’t be wrong to be gay.”
“Good point, Matt,” said Bell. “I’m not trying to say that being gay is right or wrong. I’m just explaining how other religions view it.”
“But isn’t religion harmful to gays and lesbians? Isn’t that why so many try to kill themselves?” I looked over at Evan as he nodded his head.
“What do you mean, Matt?” Bell sat in a chair and faced me and the boys. For some reason, I had a feeling he wanted me to say more. I think he saw how Hayden and Evan were reacting to the discussion, and he felt I could help them.
I looked over at the door, and Mr. London and Stephanie entered. They quietly took a seat in the back of the room. Mr. Bell nodded at them, then he turned back to me. “Why is religion harmful to someone who is gay?”
“I don’t know,” I responded nervously. “It’s just wrong. It messed me up when I was sixteen, and I’ve never gotten over it.” I looked at Hayden, and tears were running down his cheeks. He reached out and gripped my hand.
“How, Matt?” Bell asked softly. I wasn’t sure how I should respond. I didn’t know if he thought I could say something that could help Hayden and Evan. I wasn’t even sure if he knew they were gay. Besides, Mr. London and Stephanie were sitting behind us. If I said something wrong, I could get into a lot of trouble.
“Matt?” asked Bell. “Is there anything you would like to tell the boys?” I looked into the expectant faces of Hayden and Evan. The other boys appeared to be about the same age. One was rather small. He appeared to be the type of boy who might be bullied and victimized. The other two were normal in appearance. They could have been sitting in any high school classroom. I wondered what had brought them to New Morning.
I cleared my throat and began to talk. “There is nothing wrong with being religious,” I said, “but a lot of people interpret the Bible to harm others.” Hayden squeezed my hand tightly.
Evan asked worriedly, “Did you get hurt?” I looked over at the door, and noticed Trent quietly walk to the back of the room and sit beside Mr. London.
I spent the next fifteen minutes telling the group what happened to me at sixteen. I told them how my parents suspected that I was gay, and they sent me to Pastor Simpson for gay conversion therapy. I told them how Charles and I had escaped, and then later taken into custody. When I finished, the boys were staring wide-eyed at me.
The smaller boy raised his hand and asked, “What happened after that, Matt? Did you go back home?”
“No,” I replied. “I didn’t. My parents didn’t want me anymore.” Tears filled my eyes.
Evan leaned toward me and asked, “What did you do?” This was my chance to save someone from going through what I went through. Deep inside, I felt this was my moment. Mr. London said I had a mission to serve. This was it.
“I don’t want you to turn out like me, Evan,” I said as I leaned over and hugged him. “You’re taking the wrong path. I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I made.”
I then started talking about my what happened to me since I left Pastor Simpson’s house the second time. I told them about the old man who had taken me in for a year and a half. I then discussed how I had to survive on the streets the past few years. I didn’t mention the sexual stuff I did to survive. Besides, Evan already knew a few details.
When I finished, Hayden said excitedly, “Show them where Pastor Simpson shot you, Matt!” The boys started getting excited. I pulled back my shirt, and they let out a few gasps. Even Mr. Bell seemed stunned.
One of the boys asked, “How did that happen?”
I then told them about wanting to go to the church to confront Pastor Simpson. I left out how I had been stripping in a club, and he tried to grab me. I simply told them that I had found out that he a secret life he led, and everyone seemed to accept that. I told them how I confronted him in church, and how he had pulled out a gun and shot me. Their eyes were wide with excitement when I finished. I think it was the first time that any of them had ever thought about getting hurt.
“I’m telling you this today,” I said solemnly, “because I don’t want any of you to ever experience what I went through.” Tears filled my eyes. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” I looked at Hayden and Evan. Tears were falling down their cheeks. “When I was sixteen, I didn’t know who to turn to. If there had been a place like this, maybe I could have saved myself from a lot of trouble. I know I’m just a bum on the street, but I love you guys. I want to help you.” I broke down and started crying. Hayden and Evan reached over and hugged me. They too were overcome with emotion.
Evan wiped the tears from his eyes, and hollered out, “Group hug!” Everyone stood and the boys surrounded me and hugged each other tightly. Mr. Bell and Trent joined us. I glanced over at the door and noticed Mr. London and Stephanie slip out the door. She was crying, and Mr. London appeared to be comforting her.
“I mean it, Guys,” I said as I hugged each boy. “I’m here for you. If you need to talk about anything, I’ll listen.”
“Me, too,” said Trent as he hugged me and the others.
Bell added, “That makes three of us.” The boys gave him a hug. He then reached out and pulled me into a hug. He turned to the boys and told them that class was dismissed. After a few more hugs, they left the room.
Mr. Bell turned to me and smiled. “I’ve been teaching here for twelve years, and I have never seen anything like that,” he said. “I think you changed each of these boys’ lives today. I know you did mine.”
Trent put his arm around my back and started leading me from the room. “I’m proud of you, Matt. I had no idea all the things you’ve been through. You’re a survivor.” I felt comfortable in his arms as he led me from the room.