First published in the Wichita Eagle Thursday, November 28, 2002
A day after Immanuel Thompson's mother made him quit the Hope City boxing club, Johnny Papin called her.
"Hey," he said. "How's my boy doin'?"
"Angry," she told him. "He won't listen."
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"Let me come over and talk to him," Johnny said. "I'll help you with him."
Johnny had known Brenda Thompson for nearly 20 years. A pretty, trim woman who'd reached her late 30s but looked much younger. Single mom, working in a restaurant, trying alone to stretch dollars enough to raise Immanuel and his two younger brothers, Gary and Garrett. So poor she couldn't afford to buy coats for the boys. Broken marriage, broken heart.
When Manny first came to Johnny's fence, asking to learn to box, Johnny had sized him up as thug material.
He was a good kid, but he was also angry and resentful, the kind of kid gangs love to recruit.
With Johnny, he'd grown more disciplined as a boxer. But Manny wasn't applying himself the same way in school.
Manny had begun to sass his teachers, sass his mother, showing disrespect to everyone as he flunked classes.
His mother wanted him to work with a math tutor, but Manny turned up his nose.
Now, Manny's mother had made him quit the one thing he seemed to care deeply about.
She told Manny: You can go back to boxing in a week if you promise to try harder in school.
He had glared at her.
* * *
Johnny drove to Brenda's house.
Manny came outside. Johnny told him to get in the car.
He drove the boy around the nearby MacDonald Park and Golf Course. Johnny told him that his mother was right.
And furthermore, he said, unless Manny got his grades up at Coleman Middle School, Johnny didn't want him in the boxing club any more than his mother did.
He hated school, he told Johnny. It was hard.
"I can't do it."
"But what about this tutor your mother wants to get you?" Johnny asked. "She's trying to help you."
Manny sat silent. Then he spoke: "Tutors are for stupid people."
Johnny looked at the boy.
"Oh? Tutors are for stupid people?"
The boy nodded.
Johnny didn't know whether to yell or laugh out loud.
He stared at Manny.
"Is that what you think?" Johnny asked him.
"Well, I'm close to 50 years old now, and I couldn't read until I was 40," Johnny said.
Then the boy turned to look at him.
"I couldn't read until I was 40," Johnny repeated. "And I finally learned because I got me a tutor. And it was hard, and I was embarrassed, but I stuck with it.
"And you can do the same."
He didn't tell Manny he'd almost quit the tutoring himself, that he stuck with it only because Bill and Mary, two friends from a different part of town and a different way of life, had encouraged him to do it, to believe in himself.
Instead, he told Manny that he must do what his mama said.