A 19-year-old who is finishing his freshman year in college is the subject of this piece. I'll call him Mel. Mel was among high school students whom I met to help on their college application essays. If that task appeals to few high school kids, it's doubly so for those in Mel's school who emigrated from Latin America and have to write in English, a mountainous challenge.
My job as a volunteer in Mel's school is to help seniors over the initial bumps in writing the essay and keep them plow on until they've turned out their best. Likewise, a challenge.
Mel was one boy not discouraged by work. And he had a story he needed to write. When very young in his native Ecuador, he suffered a speech impediment so serious that he could hardly talk, and he was held back a year from starting school. "They assigned me to Professor Gonzalez," he wrote, "and every day I had to meet to speak, you know, slowly, every syllable. Again and again. And they sent me to Professor Soledad who taught me how to read and write. A lot of days I went home crying." He still did not speak perfectly, but he entered school after a year.
At age 12, Mel moved to New York with his parents. He wrote: "It was like starting over with Professor Soledad. Learning the English language was overwhelming." When he was 14, his parents divorced after a 30-year marriage. There were nights when he found his mother crying, but he helped her to apply for a job, and in translating for her, his English improved.
At 19, Mel is a handsome, trim, dark-complexioned boy whose reluctance to tell his story faded as he grew more comfortable putting his thoughts on paper. Today there are the barest remnants of his difficulty with speech. He works part-time in a fashionable clothing store that attracts foreign customers. His bilingual fluency helped him to cope the job.
With a good essay and his work finished, Mel was accepted into a fine four-year college in New York City.
His parents remain separated, and I wanted to lend Mel a hand financially, so we met for lunch the summer of his graduation. I explained that the check I was writing was to help in his first college semester, though I expected him to do well and show me some of his work. The money could be renewed for the second semester and the next year of college.
Though I imagined that Mel would want to maintain periodic contact -- at least it was what I hoped -- I was wrong. It took more than one email to set a date around Christmas. Still, we had an enjoyable evening over dinner. He showed me work he had done, and I gave him a new check for the spring semester. (These gifts are not meant to cover all his expenses, but to supplement the financial aid coming from the college.)
At that Christmas meeting I voiced a request that he stay in touch during the spring, but there has been no contact. Recently I wrote Mel and invited him to a party on the publication of a new book. There was no answer, even to a second message. Nor since then.
Now I face a question. I gave help on the way; do I still? I've been tempted to preach a lesson in courtesy and let the young man know to expect no further help. Is that the right plan? I'm reminded of "tzedakah," a Hebrew word usually translated as charity, and it's caused me to question what to do. Even the swinging door Jew, like myself, knows the value our religion places on doing good to ensure that the needs of others are met. It's so a part of Jewish culture that some families have a "tzedakah" box in which they deposit loose coins for some charitable cause. For several days I've questioned whether or not this is a moment to put aside disappointment and help, even modestly, to ensure that the needs of this young man are met.
I will let Mel know that I plan to renew my help, but it goes again with the need for him to show evidence of good work in college.
I won't say, but I plan to extend similar help to a couple of this year's graduates from the same school who, like Mel, worked hard to produce a good essay. Maybe they will show appreciation without the need for instruction. But in any case, I thus try to do something important to me as well as to the students, hoping that doesn't stray too far from what the sages had in mind for "tzedakah."
Stanley Ely raises some moral questions worth considering in his new book "Life Up Close," available in paperback and ebook.