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Testimony of the Greenway Hollanders

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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His name was identifiably Dutch—Tilstra, maybe . . . Kevin Tilstra. Out of two thousand high school students at a high school in Phoenix, Arizona, he was, to my knowledge, the only kid blessed, as I am, with a recognizable Dutch surname.

He was thin, I remember, his 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.

He wasn't one of my students.

My colleague, Helene, taught him, and one day I saw his name on Helene's roll. "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."

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. I was the man who'd told him the only Hollanders in this school had to stick together. I'll never forget his silence, and mine.

Today, when I think of how a few gentle nudges and a dime's worth of attention prompted that kid to seek me out for comfort, then I can't help but marvel at how fragile we are and how deeply each of us stand in need of love and dignity.

Building a team—in a classroom or office or corporation—means acknowledging each other, first of all, with the respect we all really want. Collaboration begins with giving each other the dignity we all deserve.

And it really costs so little.
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