How a Plastic Toy Cemented Their Relationship

She feared she would lose touch with the boy she had mentored. But an Iron Man figurine kept them connected.

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- Posted on Sep 25, 2020

An illustration of Iron Man. Illustration by Marcelo Baez

It was the week of my last visit with my 10-year-old mentee, Sam. After four years together, he felt like family, and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing touch with him. But how could I make sure he remembered me, even after our time together ended?

Sam and I had been paired up through a mentoring program at my church when he was a first grader. As a former teacher, I missed making an impact on young people, so as soon as I heard of this program for at-risk school kids, I signed up.

At first, it didn’t seem as if the two of us were a good match. Sam hardly looked at me; he barely spoke or smiled. I tried everything to engage him. Nothing worked. Week after week, I’d drive 30 minutes to the school, only to sit with a little boy who didn’t seem to care whether I was there or not. I even began to dread our lunches together. It felt like such a waste of time and effort. Was I helping him at all?

One day, I noticed Sam wearing a Pokémon shirt. The next week, I brought a board game featuring Pokémon characters. When I opened the box, Sam grinned from ear to ear. He dove right in and played the game with me. As I was leaving that day, he looked up at me and said, “See you next week.”

He and I built our relationship from there. I would spend his Friday lunch period with him, talking, playing games and just being a friend. Little by little, he opened up to me about his home life. His dad wasn’t around. His mother supported the family by working nights at a local factory, so Sam’s older sibling took care of him most of the time.

He also confided that school was hard for him both academically and socially.

“I don’t have any friends except you,” he’d told me. “And you’re more like a mom than a friend.”

Right then and there, I vowed to make sure the two of us always kept in touch—even after the mentorship ended. Now we were down to our last Friday lunch together. The program was only for elementary school students, and Sam would be going to middle school next year. How could I make sure he knew I’d be there if he needed me, just a text or phone call away?

I’d prayed for Sam’s well-being. Now I asked God for some inspiration for the perfect gift for him. A memento Sam would enjoy holding on to.

On Wednesday, I was watching TV and a fast-food restaurant commercial came on, advertising the toy that came in the kids’ meals—a small Pokémon figurine. Suddenly it hit me: Here was the idea I’d prayed for! I could purchase the food as a treat for our final lunch and give him a gift that he could cherish.

That Friday, I left my house early and stopped by the fast-food place to buy Sam’s kids’ meal with the Pokémon toy.

I placed my order. The clerk shook his head. The restaurant had no Pokémon toys. He would have to replace it with another. My heart sank as I paid for the food. Well, at least Sam would have a special lunch for our last visit.

At the school, I sat down with Sam and handed him the bag. “Honey, don’t get too excited,” I said. “They were out of Pokémon toys.”

Sam opened the bag, pulled out the food and then the toy—an Iron Man figure. His eyes lit up.

“Iron Man is Tony Stark,” he said. “Stark like your last name! You got me this so I would always remember you.” He hugged me and added, “I’m going to keep this forever!”

And I know he has. It’s been more than a year since that day, and Sam still texts me every week.

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