How to Save a Boy

One of my high school classmates passed away this week. Joey Makar was one of those kids who was a friend in elementary school but drifted apart in middle and high school.

The kid you walk by in the hallway between classes and think, "We used to collect toads by the stream and race Pinewood derby cars together, but damn that seems like forever ago."

Joey was sadly the last of the Makar boys. Stephen, a few years older than me, was a fellow Boy Scout and one of the kindest people I have ever known. He tragically passed away during my childhood. Brian, the middle brother who I didn't know well, has also passed away. 

I knew the Makar boy's father well. He was one of my Scout leaders. I spent many a day in his basement wood shop, in the back of his van, and hiking through the forest with him. He is still alive today, and I can't imagine the pain he must feel having lost his three sons.

My heart goes out to him.

As human beings, we are the sum of our lives. A complex combination of the our words and deeds. We know ourselves through our history, and those closest to us - parents, spouses, children, and dearest friends - know us this way as well. The sum of a thousand moments spread out over years and decades. 

But for many other people, we are also defined by a moment. A brief snapshot encounter that will remain as our singular defining characteristic in their hearts forever.

Joey was one of those people to me. 

Our Scout troop was camping on a hot summer day. Tents had been pitched. Firewood collected. Hacky sacks deployed. A couple of boys were sitting on a log, whittling and laughing. A couple more were tossing a football. I was standing alone, feeling a little left out, when a few of the older boys walked over and began picking on me. It wasn't especially cruel or malicious, but they were older and bigger than me, and for whatever reason, I was feeling especially vulnerable. I felt alone. Helpless. 

The worst thing I could've done in that moment was cried. The rest of the weekend would've been spent listening to boys make fun of me for balling. Acting like a baby. But as their insults continued, I felt the tears coming and didn't see any way of stopping them.

Then Joey, a boy who I had once collected toads with by the stream and raced Pinewood derby cars, appeared. We hadn't been friends for a couple years, and we almost never spoke, but Joey stepped over and said, "C'mon. We're doing stuff."

That was it. He wasn't looking for someone to round out a football game or didn't need someone to hold a log steady while he sawed. He was doing stuff, which was his way of saving my life. 

We walked away from those older boys without saying a word,. Once well clear of them, he asked if I wanted to hacky sack with the guys. I did, and I stayed in that hacky sack circle all weekend, feeling like I belonged. 

That is how I remember Joey Makar. He was a boy who saved a boy who he didn't need to save. He saw me, recognized my pain, and pulled me back from the precipice of shame and ruin. 

I tell this story to my students every year, in hopes that Joey's actions will inspire others to commit similar acts of random kindness. I tell them to save kids like me by saying, "C'mon. We're doing stuff." 

I don't know what became of Joey Maker after high school. i don't know the sum of his life. I don't know the complex combination of his words and deeds. But I have a singular defining moment that has remained in my heart for the last 35 years. 

This was Joey Makar for me. A moment of kindness and bravery that I will never forget and will keep on sharing with children for all the days of my life.

Rest in peace, Joey. And thank you.