07/29/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Power Behind a Gesture


He never said a word, simply nodded. My heart sank.

I imagine, on a daily basis, most people come in contact with (unless you are a writer) hundreds of others. Not to say that these interactions become instant besties that will withstand the test of time, hardly. These are the people you smile at while in line for your double mocha mambo. Others are familiar strangers in elevators, the occasional self-absorbed motorist, or the zen warrior from your local yoga class. There are, however, those rare people who speak volumes without ever uttering a peep and whose meaning can be felt across continents.

Professionally I have had the good fortune to conjure these moments out of expert pretenders whose job is to summon emotion by doing less. Yes, it is true, for the skilled actor, silence speaks volumes. Interacting with teens in the classroom from challenged communities, this stillness has another meaning altogether as too many retreat into the safety of their psyche, a place where they can control their audience and their pain.

Idealistically, I imagine every classroom volunteer is fueled with the passion to work magic, especially when engaged with students in need. Yet kids, regardless of their age, can innately see right through inauthenticity. To mentor comes with a priceless responsibility laden with an assortment of tasks. Sometimes your role is overt, other times it is to be a sensitive ear that simply listens.

What comes first is trust.

Kids are born to love. Fifteen years in various classrooms and I have yet to meet a student that hasn't had that inherent desire to laugh, smile and play. That is until the bond of trust is destroyed. It typically doesn't occur all at once; it is a gradual fracturing that chips away at their fragility. My experience is that for those caught in the whirlwind of destructiveness, vulnerable young people innately provide an exorbitant number of second chances. These are fueled by the desire and hope that the next time will be different. Dysfunctional parents, abusive siblings, verbal and physical harm, community quarrels, gang violence; that's okay, here is a second chance; I know you don't really mean it; I'm a nice person. Yet, this repetition creates a festering blister that, over time, turns into a callus, a seemingly impenetrable body of armor that redefines the child into a hardened soldier. These souls are always the most difficult to reach; not only are they ultra-reluctant to lower their defenses but they often have forgotten how.

When one of our rising stars passed away last week it devastated the community. He was the second brother in his family to lose his life in a car accident. This young scholar, high school graduate, college student, recent father, community organizer, friend and mentor, left this world with a legacy enviable to most adults. A young man of color born into a family with an extraordinary amount of hardship, Alberto Cazarez, flourished amidst the uncertainty of living in a Section 8 housing complex. Where others crumbled, Alberto persevered. He became a beacon of motivation. With credits as an advocate and youth organizer you might expect him to be a loud and brash extrovert, a go-getter, a dynamic presence that would dominate a room without an introduction. The latter was certainly true but not because of his vocal prowess or authoritative posturing. Instead, Alberto was genuine. His smile was infectious and disarming, his intellect and determination enormously admirable. Just a few of Alberto's passions involved: Street Poets, Youth Justice Coalition, Dignity in Schools Campaign, Labor Community Strategy Center's Community Rights Campaign, The Story Project, Chiapas Support Committee, Public Allies, Dignity and Power Now and The Can't Build Peace With a Piece Campaign. Yes, this is a person from the projects, a government urban housing community of families where one is not expected nor encouraged to find their voice and especially not use that voice to empower others. Leaving behind family, friends and a young daughter, the immediate loss is obvious, the future void unimaginable.

While attending his funeral I greeted his family, former students and colleagues, all of whom were connected by this shared heartache. As one of the few native English speakers at this ceremony, the meaning behind the sermons needed no translation, Alberto was a remarkable human being who will be missed by all who embraced his commitment to change the world.

Leaving the funeral grounds, I shook hands with his brother, another young man with the kindest of faces somewhat hardened by these and other difficult circumstances. He and I have known one another for over four years, a lifetime to a teen. We looked at each other yet said nothing. He nodded, a silent utterance reserved for only the wisest of souls.