Two weeks into my sophomore year of high school, I overheard a student speaking Spanish in the hallway. I was taking a Spanish class at the time and was aware of no student who actually spoke the language, so the sound of a trilled r caught my attention.
“I am here on exchange,” the stranger explained as I introduced myself. “I am called Pablo and I come from Mexico.”
And thus began a rather odd alliance. After making small talk for a few minutes, Pablo and I decided he would help me with Spanish and I would help him with English. We completed this feat by tutoring each other as we walked through the halls en route to several classes we shared.
One morning, as the school year drew to an end, Pablo said he had been talking to his father on the phone and they had a surprise for me. I was shocked—not because Pablo had a surprise for me, but because he had talked to his father. On the phone. All the way to Mexico. At the Patterson household we used long-distance services solely to report a birth or death. Even then, Dad would pace back and forth as the phone conversation unfolded and shout out numbers as if counting down a rocket launch.
“Did someone die?” I asked. “No,” Pablo explained “it was just one of our weekly chats.”
“Holly gazillionaire!” I thought to myself. “Who has international long-distance chats?” It was at this moment I first suspected that Pablo’s parents back in Mexico weren’t driving a dented 55 Chevy like the one parked in our driveway.
“As soon as this school year is over,” Pablo explained, “Papá said it would be okay for you to spend the month of July with us at our family’s hacienda in the mountains. We could continue our language education, plus it would be fun.”
“What the heck is a hacienda?” I wondered.
“I think you’ll like it there,” Pablo continued. “It has stables, tennis courts, swimming pools, boats, a private lake, a landing strip, and more. So what do you think?”
“I’ll have to ask my parents,” I explained as I tried not to look too eager while jumping up and down and squealing like a six-year-old girl.
“Good,” Pablo replied, “and while you’re talking to your parents, mention that Papá thinks it’s best if you pay for your own flight.”
Really? Would a pig be soaring alongside that flight? Because that’s what it would take to get my dad to buy me an airline ticket. And thus ended any hopes I had of spending a glorious month cavorting at a Mexican hacienda.
In an effort to save embarrassment (and not hurt Pablo’s feelings), I fabricated a conflict. “That’s the month of our big family reunion,” I lied. “Maybe you should invite somebody else from school.”
“But you’re my best friend,” Pablo said. “It would be more fun at the hacienda with my best friend.” I was his best friend? I had never even invited Pablo over to our house. We didn’t play poker on Friday nights. We didn’t hang out. We had only talked in the hall—and then mostly about grammar. We were acquaintances, at best.
I don’t remember what I said to Pablo that day as I tried to gracefully decline his generous invitation. I do remember wondering if Pablo had been lonely and I hadn’t even noticed. More importantly, what kind of a friend is someone who doesn’t even know he is a friend? Decades passed until one day our ten-year-old granddaughter Rachel once again brought to my attention the fact that making friends can be tricky. After returning with her family from a stint overseas, Rachel had entered school mid-semester and was having trouble finding a playmate. At lunch she would approach each clutch of girls her age and politely ask if she could play with them. Each said no. Rachel continued with this tactic for two weeks until she finally gave up. When my daughter told me about this, I felt sick. The image of a sweet little girl being rejected over and over tore at my heart.
“Teachers need to watch for that,” I thought, “or a kid could be scarred for life.”
“Schools aren’t staffed for that kind of monitoring,” explained my neighbor who was teaching school at the time. “Besides, you can’t force kids into friendships. They have to form naturally.”
My thoughts turned to these two events after hearing several news stories—all reporting that feelings of loneliness, isolation, and social discomfort are on the rise (and not merely with exchange students and late arrivers). Apparently electronic devices are making it difficult for some individuals to make human connections and to enjoy them once they do. Young people are particularly vulnerable. Since many of today’s youth spend a good portion of their time silently playing side-by-side at game consoles and then when they do talk, doing so via text, many are entering the workforce with an aversion to face-to-face (and group) interactions. According to one report, many Millennials appear as if they’d rather be texting their responses during a job interview than talking in person. Others are having trouble empathizing. Still others are feeling lonely.
Having watched what happened to Rachel a few years back, my own offspring are doing their best to combat the effects of both machine and human-based isolation. To begin with, they ensure that their kids belong to sports, music, academic, and/or special-interest groups where participants are required to (1) meet face-to-face, (2) talk, and (3) cooperate. Nothing else will do.
“Think about participating in band,” my daughter explained. “Band members know who they’ll sit with at lunch before they even show up at high school. That’s a big deal.”
I mentioned this to my fifteen-year-old neighbor and he eagerly responded, “I went to band practice the summer before high school and when I nervously walked through the high school doors the first day of school, I realized that I knew dozens of my classmates and had lots of friends! All in the band.” His brother explained that he had experienced something similarly comforting, only with the robot club.
Clubs and teams can be a great help in providing social experiences, but not without work. Make sure that as youngsters gather to build robots or shoot baskets, they also learn how to interact effectively. Blend music, sports, and science skills with tutoring in social skills. Blend physical fitness with training in social fitness. Watch to see if participants know how to carry their part of a conversation, work through differences of opinion, graciously include a new or shy member, talk comfortably in a group, and encourage teammates who are struggling. When you observe problems, teach solutions. For years we’ve helped young people study math, biology, and literature. What a blessing it would be if we started teaching them how to bond with peers, strengthen groups, and make life-long friends.
And Pablo (wherever you may be), do you still own that hacienda? I was just wondering.
8 thoughts on “Pablo, Where Are You?”
Your messages, and advice on dealing with issues, have been inspiring to me- God bless you for doing this and keep up the good work!
Thanks for this story/article. Few minutes ago, before reading your post, I was just talking to my colleagues about what I was planning to do during the next two weeks I booked for holidays. I have a 11 years old son who is in the autism spectrum. One of his biggest challenges is related with socializing with other children. I have been reading several books on the subject of “how to make and keep friends” (just re-read the famous Dale Carnegie classics, among other titles) and collected material enough to produce a kind of a course I will start to give to my son on a more structured way. The main goal is to help him to manage all the difficulties he is facing now with his social skills. I liked the idea of using clubs you have mentioned. My son is already having trumpet, performing and dancing lessons. He is also kin to learn piano, what I will definitely help him to develop. My hope is that he will be able to use those instruments for an easier integration on other activities related with bands and clubs to get more friends. But he will need to master the finesse of how to talk, when to talk, small talk versus opinion discussions, how to show interest for the others, etc. That will be also my renewed journey as a father and instructor.
I’d be very interested in any resources you have in your “collected material”. I’m thinking about facilitating a club for 6th-9th graders this summer on Social Fitness and How to Make & Keep Friends. What would you recommend?
Dear Kerry, your story brings light. How many of us fabricate what we think is an acceptable excuse, rather than being in our truth? We could ask why, but it’s obvious … facing judges, being told another’s terms and the part we need to play in their script. Thank you for sharing this experience and deep gratitude and appreciation for cracking the shell of a veil of time. I hope your friend reconnects with you. In the meantime I wonder if you know what a difference your story has made to the world of those who read this one. 😉
Hi Kerry, my husband and I have spoken recently about how we are raising a generation with no social skills! They want to text, play games, talk on the phone – how are they going to read body language if they don’t/won’t congregate. Our parents worried about us and now we worry about ours. The big difference between the two generations is, our children are always connected to the net and they don’t have to see each other in the “real” world. I have read stories of how, for example, a job applicant brought their helicopter mother to an interview! OMG!! Your books and stories are relevant and timely for the newest generation. Keep up the good work!
Thanks so much for this article, Kerry. I have an 8th grader and a 5th grader. Though they don’t overly use electronics, video games, or cell phones, they do have access to them. I have noticed this “social fitness” deficiency over the last few years with my own children and others and, I agree, it appears electronic devices ARE making it difficult for some kids to make human connections and maintain them once they do. Like math, science, reading, and writing, I think its important our schools look at adding “social fitness” to their curriculum. What will we as humans do if we lose our ability to socialize, empathize, and stop from being lonely?
“For years we’ve helped young people study math, biology, and literature. What a blessing it would be if we started teaching them how to bond with peers, strengthen groups, and make life-long friends.”
i told my buddy recently that the vitalsmarts newsletters will be required reading in the emotional/social intelligence curriculum for my children.
The author’s story about his granddaughter, Rachel, prompted me to send along an idea that our elementary school came up with in the last few years. The concept is a “buddy bench” where anyone can come sit if they are looking for a playmate. It might be a new kid or just a lonely kid. My son is sometimes the latter and has used it to good effect. The playground monitors keep an eye out for opportunities to connect kids with some friendly age-mates and this helps cultivate new friendships. I’m sure staffing is a challenge at our school as it is with others, but this visible spot makes this an easy way to spot those who are looking for a friend. I thought I would pass this idea along on the chance it could be shared more broadly.