He was thin, I remember, is face, long and pallid, almost emaciated, and his hair, a dry clump of erratic, colorless brush that was always too long. He will never slip from my memory, even though I never poured over his essays, like I did so many other high school kids’ work that year.
That I knew him at all was an accident of educational theory. The English Department had its own building, eight classroom areas separated only (if desired) by curtains.
We “team taught” quite a bit, and Kevin belonged to Helene, my colleague. But during his class, he sat at the far edge of hers, adjacent to my students.
One day I stumbled on his name on Helene’s rolls. "He's Dutch," I told her, pointing to the name. "The kid is Dutch."
She didn’t find the fact much more than amusing.
So the next day when I saw him, I walked over and nudged him.
“Hey, Tilstra,” I said. "I’m Dutch." He looked at me strangely. "Schaap—it’s Dutch. You know?--Hollander?"
From the look on his face, I knew I could have been speaking another language.
"You’re Dutch too," I told him. "You know that? You’re Dutch—I’m Dutch," I said. "We’re the only Hollanders around here. We got to stick together, see?—a couple of wooden shoes."
He smiled, shrugged his shoulders.
I never knew much more about Kevin Tilstra. Occasionally, I’d bump into him, nudge him like I had that first day, call him a "Hollander." And he’d smile, laugh. He seemed to have few friends.
He had a brother, a freshman I never knew or saw, a brother who was overweight and depressed.
One day, I remember, I heard horrible news. “Kevin, you know?—your Kevin?” Helene said. “Did you hear about his brother?”
I had no idea.
“He hung himself—Miller told me this morning," she said, referring to a counselor. “Kevin's not going to be back here for awhile—maybe a week.”
Suicide is always shocking, but that day I wasn't haunted deeply by the boy's death. I didn't know him, and his brother Kevin really wasn't my student.
A week later, that long, gangly kid came walking in through the door on my side of the building and headed straight for my desk, coming to me for wisdom or comfort or whatever his shattered soul needed, something he evidently felt I could give him.
He never said a word. He just stood there and waited for understanding from the man who'd told him a half dozen times or so, just kiddingly, that the only Hollanders in this school had to stick together. I’ll never forget his silence, and mine. He wanted me to say something, to help. A few gentle nudges and a dime’s worth of attention prompted that kid to seek me out for comfort.
The depth of our need for love and dignity is immense, but not infinite. Sometimes, it seems, just a word, graced with God's blessing, can fill the emptiness. We're odd creatures really--even though our need for love is immense, our ability to give it away is almost miserly. "Do unto others. . ." It's as simple as that.
And as difficult.