I knew attempting to persuade Howie Smith to do anything was a lot like playing poker with a professional gambler. Before being sent to our camp in Hedley, he’d been in foster homes and group homes. Although only 15, he had decided that every worker’s goal was to change him. He had become adept at resisting change. His goal was to one day be sentenced to Matsqui Institution, a federal penitentiary where he’d heard his Dad was doing time.
On this July day, with the temperature in the high 30’s, a one inch thick steak placed on the hood of a car would have broiled in minutes. As I walked toward the Lodge where our students ate lunch, I felt certain Howie would be waiting. His group was planning to swim in the Similkameen River. Howie though, was assigned to kitchen duty in the Lodge today and I knew he’d resist this tenaciously. I knew also the others would be keen observers as he argued his case. If Howie contrived to avoid kitchen duty they would employ his tactics when they wished to avoid an assignment. As program coordinator, the weight of this fell on me.
The Probation Officer’s background notes indicated no one had been able to control Howie to this time – not his mother, the school
system, the probation officer, or the police.
He was too smart, focused and stubborn to be bribed. Too tough to feel threatened. And seemingly too insulated, at least to this time, to respond to love.
Walking briskly along the path to the Lodge, Howie and the others came into view. They had finished lunch and were lounging languidly around the picnic tables under the tall pines, trying to escape the intense Hedley heat. Their equally over-heated leaders were talking quietly at another table.
Howie’s white kitchen garb contrasted sharply with his shiny black hair and dark skin. I plunked myself down on a table top and, as I had anticipated, he detached himself from the little group and parked himself resolutely in front of me. Feet spread apart and arms folded across his chest, it seemed he wanted to intimidate me. Like most students, he had arrived here already a committed smoker. Without shifting his intent gaze from my face, he inhaled deeply from his cigarette, gathering courage. He knew I wouldn’t roll over easily.
“I need to talk to ya!” he said, a distinct note of challenge already in his voice.
“Yes Howie, that’s why l came.”
For a moment my response disconcerted him. Then, jerking his head toward the Lodge, he said “I don’t want to go back in there. Everyone’s going swimming in the river.”
Aware an attempt to persuade him would be frustrating and a waste of time for us both, I decided to take a calculated risk.
“Howie,” I said.
“If your dad was here, I think there’s something he’d really want to say to you.”
His eyes widened perceptibly. I was playing an unexpected card.
I had his attention, but, not wanting to be conned, he silently scrutinized me with great intensity. After an uncomfortable silence, I said quietly, “Howie, do you want to know what your dad would say?”
Brushing a fly from his arm, he relented. “Ya,” he said, “I do.”
Placing a hand on his shoulder, I lowered my voice and spoke as though to my own son. “Howie, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. The one I regret most is walking away from the family. If I had been there when you needed me, your life would have been better.’’
A single tear trickled down Howie’s cheek. I continued, “Son, I always turned from the hard things. Never got strong. When I grew up, I was afraid. Don’t be like me. The hard stuff will make you strong. For you there’s still time.” I paused, then said, “Howie, I haven’t told you this before, but I really do love you.”
Howie’s shoulder’s twitched involuntarily, as though the words had touched his soul. There was a straightening of the shoulders, an almost imperceptible nod.
“Thanks,” he said, then turned and walked back into the Lodge.
You could say Howie lost the poker game, but I’m pretty sure if you’d asked him, he would have said, “I won big.”