Willie’s Home by Conlee Ricketts

This is an essay I wrote a few years ago. As I muddle through holidays, a sick child, bad attitudes, laughter, and chaos, I needed to post this to remind myself and others how it’s the little things we do that teach our children about poverty, mental illness, and compassion in a way that they can see the world with their own eyes and learn the tough lessons about our world in a gentle and loving way.

The first time my friend took my daughter and me to try to find Willie I was nervous and hesitant about what we might find. My daughter had so many questions, as any eight year old might.

“Why are we going there?” Skye asked.

“Because I need to see him,” I responded.

“How does he get food?” she continued.

“I honestly don’t know, Skye. Maybe he looks in dumpsters, maybe the neighborhood looks out for him, maybe he asks for help.”  I had no real answers. Skye and I have seen difficult times together—cereal dinners and Ramen Noodle lunches; I’ve sold my belongings on the front lawn just to pay bills, but we have never seen the truest of hard times. Then possibly her hardest question,

“Why doesn’t he just get a job?”

“It’s hard to answer, Skye. Some people just can’t work. Their life has become so difficult that they just can’t work,” Honestly I would never be able to answer that question. It is impossible to truly understand the life of another; the path they’ve walked, or the choices they’ve made. “All I do know is that we all make the best choices we can under the circumstances we’re in.”

We turned onto the street that we had been directed to find, and found the abandoned brick building at the dead end. I stepped out of the car and yelled to the building. No answer. Neighbors at the house next to the building said the man that lived there left an hour ago and walked up the street. I asked if they could give him a note from me. I wrote that we would be back the next morning and that I had been thinking about him over the past twenty years and now that I knew where to find him I would be back. It was a paper promise, but I had been told that the only thing Willie needed from me was for me to keep my word. “Don’t give him empty promises. If you see him and he asks when you will be back, don’t say ‘maybe’. If you say will be there, then you had better show up.” This was the virtual advice via Facebook that I had been given from a former student who had been to see Willie. I took it.

I was twenty-four years old when I was Willie’s math teacher. I worked at a residential facility for children placed there by the court system for various and typically very sad reasons. I taught there for three years and probably learned more about teaching than I think my students learned about math. All of those “Home Kids” have remained in my thoughts ever since. The pranks they played on me—like reversing my entire classroom for April Fool’s while I was in the office, the teasing they did about my naïveté of the “real world”, and the way they could make me take a good look at myself and laugh at my mistakes and continue to learn better ways to handle their emotional scars. It’s wild the memories that have stuck with me for decades. Willie, like so many others, was one of those memories.

The next morning I woke at 2:00 A.M. I had dreamed that I yelled for Willie and he looked out from an opening in the building where a window had once been. His face was as it had been at sixteen, and he smiled. I woke with a smile on my face but my body was shaking as if I had just had a nightmare. I lay awake for a bit wondering why something that made me smile also gave my body the sensation of a nightmare.

Skye’s demeanor was different this morning. She knew we had a trip to make and she seemed less hesitant and even more curious.

“You aren’t going to hug him are you?” she asked out of her possessive nature of her Mommy.

“Well, that’s probably exactly what I’m going to do.” I answered

“Why? I’m not sure you should” even more protective.

“He’s one of my old students, Skye. He’s had a rough life, and sometimes another person simply needs to know that they are respected, remembered, and are deserving of a hug.”

“Oh, okay.”

The second time we drove to Willie’s I watched more closely as the streets and buildings slowly deteriorated with bars on the windows of homes and shut down, abandoned businesses.

“We should have brought him a pillow Mommy,” Skye said from the back seat.

“A pillow is just one more thing for Willie to keep up with if he decides to leave. I will ask him today what he needs. Chances are that he will ask for nothing.”

We arrived a little after 9:30 A.M. I was afraid that Willie didn’t get my note. As I got out of the car I said “Hi” to a man crossing the street looking at us with a concerned expression. I felt awkward and unsure. One of those crazy memories came back from Willie’s old math class when another student had teased me, “Dang Miss Ricketts! You’re so white you must glow in the dark!” The whole class started laughing. So did I.

I yelled for Willie, “Willie! Are you home? It’s Miss Ricketts!”

“Miss Ricketts? Oh my God!” Willie’s head appeared from an old doorway behind weeds taller than he. He slowly crossed a weedy brick area to the fence line where we stood. His feet looked sore.

The brick building—maybe an abandoned warehouse— was surrounded by fencing with a barbed wire top strand. It suddenly became someone’s home—Willie’s home. I asked if he had received my note and he hadn’t so my visit was a surprise. When he had stepped out of the building to greet us he said that his world was coming to an end, but that we were welcome to come visit. He apologized for his appearance, wiped his hand onto his shorts, shook my friend’s hand, and then I gave him a big hug and introduced him to my daughter. He smiled.

“She looks just like you, Miss Ricketts”

The first thing he did after we entered his home was to take a large jug of water and a bar of soap, walk over to the other half of the large room and wash up a bit, he then pulled a towel from a bag and began drying off. The towel looked cleaner than I had expected. At my feet were a large open jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers, a few stacks of quarters on a piece of door frame, and a few dollar bills folded neatly. He had two dirty blankets near some old tires. There was an open book quoting the Tao Te Ching, and some papers with various pictures and writing that Willie said were the Ten Commandments.

Willie talked and we listened. He shared his plans, his goals, and he rambled aimlessly at times. I could tell that my visit had taken him back about twenty years. He was not speaking entirely of things in the present day. He would stop mid-sentence often and look directly at a phantom in the room, listen intently, nod, then change the subject. A pair of barn swallows lived in a nest attached to a ceiling beam way above our heads. The swallows eventually became comfortable with the new visitors and began to circle Willie’s head and do figure eights above him; they got so close I thought they were going to land on him. Willie said they were yelling at him because they don’t like it that his place is so dirty. Skye was catching and poking the dust pieces that floated in the air glistening from the sunlight shining through he broken doorway. Willie’s home did not smell. I had anticipated all sorts of horrors that might greet us if he invited us in, but none of my fears came true.

I expected Willie to be confused, depressed, and schizophrenic even, but I found the picture of peace, calm, and contentment, standing barefoot in front of me. Willie had money, he had plans, and he had a purpose. His physical life was none of the things that I would have chosen for him, and his purpose didn’t match what I might think it ‘should be’, but his emotional life was almost enviable. I’ve seen folks with far more than Willie be much less content or at peace like Willie was.

I’m not sure what I wanted my daughter to learn from meeting Willie. I guess I wanted her to know a piece of my past, and I wanted her to understand parts of her world that most people shy away from or ignore completely. I also wanted to work on an aspect of myself that needed more attention; that part of me that felt compelled to take care of Willie but was scared to death to reach out.

An hour and a half later we gave Willie a case of water, a small journal with my phone number in it, and he walked us out to our car. I hugged him goodbye and he had a moment of presence where he leaned into the car and told Skye that her mom had been a really good teacher to him, and he wanted her to know how lucky she was to have me. Willie probably didn’t even realize the gift he had just given me.

“I like his home,” Skye said as we drove away, “I wish he had shown us around. I wanted to go upstairs.”

In my mind I was conflicted—thinking “how in the world could anyone in their right mind like his home” contrasted with the appreciation of a child having absolutely no judgment, accepting Willie exactly as he is—the beauty of the man and his home. And there was beauty—a giant tree grows up through the center of Willie’s home—he told us he goes up there in the evening to learn about God, night, and day.

You know what? Maybe I do know what I wanted my daughter to learn—what I hope everyone can learn. To me Willie is that part of our world, our country, our own city, that we fear. We choose to avoid eye contact; we refuse to help; we don’t engage in conversation, because we really don’t want to hear what they might have to say. We turn away from humanity because it scares us. I want the world to know that the “Willie’s” of our life were once outrageously funny, creative, easy going, and artistic children sitting in someone’s math class making the teacher smile and laugh.

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