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An assignment

GAYS MILLS - The place: Anywhere USA

The setting: a High School Freshman History class

The time: first day of the semester

Mr. Roberts welcomed the students, gave them an overview of the course, and laid out a semester-long assignment that each student would be required to complete. The assignment was to do a report on a local senior citizen, someone that they didn’t currently know, about their personal history. The report should cover their life from when they were the age of the student (or earlier) and tell of their education, work experience, family life, and life lessons. A key part of the report was to include any advice to young people from the senior’s perspective. A written paper as well as an oral report to the class would be due from each student by the end of the semester.

Young Zack Brown, 14, was intrigued. He assumed high school would be a lot more rigorous and by-the-book than school had been up to this point. There would be plenty of that here, of course, but this project sounded interesting.

Zack thought immediately of a man who lived three doors down the street from him and his mom. He was definitely a ‘senior’ and retired, but kept to himself and was only seen taking out the garbage and mowing his lawn. He seemed friendly enough to others on those rare occasions when he was outside. Zack decided to go meet him.

Zack knocked on Jim Douglas’s door the following Saturday morning and told him about the class project. He asked Jim if he would be willing to help him out with it. Zack was surprised when Jim said OK. They went inside and Zack explained the assignment to Jim and they talked about how it might work. They talked for 20 minutes about Zack’s school and his interests. Jim told Zack about where he was from originally and mentioned that he was an Army veteran. He gave a capsule summary of his varied work life, and told where he had lived before recently moving to ‘Anywhere.’ They set up a time to meet the following Saturday for a more detailed interview.

Thus began a series of Saturday morning meetings that went way beyond the basic assignment. Zack and Jim hit it off very well and Zack soon had more than enough information for his report. They became friends; they watched sports together; Zack helped Jim with some things around his house. The 60-year difference in age didn’t seem to matter between the two neighbors. Jim felt younger in the boy’s company and Zack gained in maturity as they spent time together every week. 

Zack’s mom invited Jim over for supper as she saw the relationship develop. The single mom was grateful to Jim for providing some valuable adult male influence in Zack’s life. Jim helped Zack set up and organize a workshop in his garage like the one he and Zack worked in three doors down.

At the end of the semester, Zack, who was usually nervous and shy about speaking in front of a group, proudly went to the front of the room and said, “I want to tell you about my friend, Jim Douglas,” and Jim stepped into the classroom.