Here in New England, the winter of 2015 has been a blessing or a curse, depending upon how one feels about large piles of snow and about not seeing one’s driveway until May. Earlier this week, a group of teenagers shoveled snow from their neighbors’ walkways, and it made national news. It’s always refreshing to hear something positive to dilute all of the strife and sadness that accosts us whenever we push the power button. The young man who led the group was interviewed, and he was quite humble and unassuming. I would’ve been very proud to be his parent.
But, what intrigued me was the fact that a handful of teens doing something neighborly is considered uncommon enough to make national news. National news is typically reserved for things out of the ordinary—wild, “break the mold” kind of happenings, things so exceptional that it’s likely no one else has observed the same phenomena in their own hometown. If the news didn’t report the atypical, viewers would just click the remote, yawn, and say to themselves, “So, what else is new?”
So, by giving this so much attention, are we saying that we don’t expect much out of today’s teens? Or, that we believe good teens are unusual?
I think the story of the shoveling teens struck me most because, after the last snowstorm, my own sixteen-year-old son set out by himself to do the same thing. The next school day was cancelled for snow, and he went to bed with a plan to get up early and walk around the neighborhood with a shovel looking for snowed-in neighbors who needed his help.
“I want to get out there and talk to people,” he said. “We’re neighbors. We should be helping each other out.”
My son is particularly skinny for his almost seventeen years, but his heart is full. He wanted to talk to neighbors and to help them shovel out, no charge. He wanted to use the snow to spread neighborly love.
Morning came, and he actually set his phone alarm and was downstairs by 8 a.m. I overlooked the fact that he could have been getting ahead on his upcoming paper and some long-term projects and made him a big breakfast to fuel him up. Despite frigid temperatures, with a wind chill below zero, he was intent on a morning of shoveling. Roads were closed for icy conditions, and Rhode Islanders were advised to stay inside.
Outside, the wind twisted everything into a white swirl, threatening bone chill and frostbite. Still, he put on full ski gear, facemask and all, and set out, shovel over his shoulder. I said a prayer that he would be safe, after warning him about jumping out of the way of snowplows.
He tolerated me kindly, keeping his sixteen-year-old I can’t stand it when my parents tell me too much under wraps. “I know, Mom, I’ll be careful. I don’t want you to have to worry about me.”
Perhaps, as he disappeared down the driveway into the frozen tundra of my neighborhood, I worried more about his tender spirit being hurt by misunderstanding neighbors who might reject his outreach. We live in a neighborhood that has seen a lot of turnover, and my son doesn’t attend the local public school. So we don’t know many of our neighbors, and I didn’t know what to expect from them.
I waited for his return all morning inside my warm kitchen, every so often peering through the puffs and swirls to look for his narrow silhouette down the road. Not a soul was anywhere in sight. Two cups of tea, and probably no more than ten typed words later, I texted him just to confirm that he was okay. He didn’t answer. Another prayer. Another hour.
Finally, hearing no word, and not seeing a tall icicle dressed in black making its way down the street, I called him. I truly didn’t expect him to pull his gloves off to answer me amidst the blizzard, but I thought I’d try. I was just looking for some sign that he hadn’t been swept up and blown away by the wind.
The day was so silent, so devoid of anything but snow and bluster. I alternated between worry and trust. At what point should I get in the car and see if he’s okay? Don’t be overbearing—he’s almost seventeen. But, even grown men can freeze in a blizzard.
Soon after, as I sat at my computer trying to work, emails began to stack themselves into my inbox, one by one. I could see that they were from the neighborhood email group. I don’t typically follow this group email trail about block parties and trick-or-treating warnings because my children are old enough now to be busy with their own social lives. But, that morning I decided to open them. Perhaps I was looking for some news about icy roads or downed power lines or my lone shoveler.
The first email was from a mother who lives down the street. She wrote about how a young boy from the neighborhood had just shoveled her driveway. She said he was courteous and generous and that his kindness had made her day. She was going to take the opportunity to talk to her own young children about the example of service he was setting.
I felt like I had received a message from far away family during the pioneer days when messages were carried by travelers who could report back about a family member’s condition when they last saw them.
The next note was from a father who commented that seeing a teen in this “day and age” willing to go out into a storm to help a neighbor the boy didn’t even know, without looking for payment, gave the man new hope for a crumbling world. While a sob brewed somewhere deep within, I continued to read.
Still other neighbors wrote that my son was a kind boy who surprised them when he would not take any pay for the work he did. In fact, he wouldn’t even accept a cup of hot chocolate—just genuinely seemed to want to help. It felt so strange to be hearing about his journey this way. This house-by-house travel journal kept me with him through the rest of his day as he left his boot prints in the snow.
When I was done reading, I printed the emails just to have the words. I wanted to savor them and to show him what his kindness had accomplished.
When he finally arrived home a couple of hours later, he was wet and cold, but his face burned warm with the joy of community. He told stories of spending an hour with a man, together shoveling the long driveway while talking about their respective churches. He talked about kind mothers who offered him hot chocolate, while their small children peered through the windows at him. And he chuckled about driveways that he had cleared in secret, hoping the neighbors would be relieved and surprised when they finally came out and wishing he could see their faces. His words overflowed with the energy of sharing others’ burdens and making them light.
Then, I told him that I had been following his journey through the neighborhood email trail that had found my desk.
“What?” he said, brows peaking. “People sent emails about me?’ He stepped backward, tossing his boots on the mudroom floor. “I didn’t want any attention for it. I wasn’t doing this for the praise.” His float sank, as if the entire thing had been for nothing. Immediately his mood changed, and his stories dried up.
We stood silent for a moment; me struggling to assess what went wrong.
But, I refused to let it fall apart that way, to become unimportant, less than it was. I searched for the words to explain.
“Don’t you see?” I said. “You did what you set out to do. You gave people hope for a better world. When people see a teenager doing something for his community, it makes people think the world can be better. If you wanted to make people happy, you succeeded.”
His face softened. I held out the printed emails to him. He shook his head. He didn’t want to read the emails, but he understood.
I, too, understand. The national news reports, that is. It’s not that it’s so surprising that a group of teenagers would shovel for their neighbors. There are lots of great teenagers who continue to show charity, service, and love without expectation of reward.
It’s that we need to hear about it as much as we can, every time it happens, so that we can feel hope for our future as a society. We need reassurance that, in spite of all of the suffering in the world, the next generation always offers hope that things can be better. They are the leaders among our nation’s teens, young people with honor and courage, who exhibit self-sacrifice and strive to do what’s right. Just as we need reassurance that, in spite of the endless snowflakes and the acres of immovable snow, we are about to receive a lovely New England spring.
Julianne Palumbo is a poet and essayist and the founder/editor of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers by mother writers. She is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers.
Photo credit:”Shoveled” by Phil Roeder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.