“I didn’t know it at the moment, but truly listening was priceless to young boys like myself who people saw more as trouble makers and future convicts.”
– Keith, creator of The Pillow Talk Project.
It first happened after a tussle with a guy who was a complete and total badass. He was a striking midnight black with a chip on his shoulder that could be seen from a mile away. He’d fingered girls on a/c units in the back of churches and was proud of what hung between his legs. He knew people in the neighborhood and had just returned after being away.
One day, he walked into the park when we were having a match and wanted to fight me next. It was probably one of the most exhausting fights I’d ever had and he almost whooped my ass, almost. In the end, and even to his surprise, I made him tap out in a choke-hold Afterwards, he stared at me as if I were something from another planet, screaming at the top of his lungs for a rematch..
To be honest, I expected him to try and fight me again later — most guys didn’t like losing to me, so they’d try something grimy to get their revenge. But he didn’t. Instead, he did something I would never have expected. When everyone headed home as it got dark, he pulled me aside and asked if we could talk. He admitted that he was embarrassed at losing the match earlier, but he wanted me to teach him the choke-hold I used on him. An hour later, I’d not only taught him the choke-hold, but a few other moves I knew.
He did something I would never have expected. When everyone headed home as it got dark, he pulled me aside and asked if we could talk.
We were at the park for what felt like hours as he told me his whole life story. I didn’t say much. I just listened. And not the kind of listening where you think about the next thing you want to say, but without judgment and expectations. Because of that, every time the street light flickered, signaling that I should probably head home, he would ask me another question or try to get me to teach him another move.
Eventually, I realized he simply wanted someone to talk to. No matter how many guys he beat up and girls he slept with or fingered behind the church, no one listened or asked how he was doing. Based on the fervor with which he shared his deepest secrets, it seemed like he’d felt no one cared.
Every day after that, he showed up to either play ball, chill, or wrestle. And when everyone would disperse, he’d catch me up on his latest sexual conquests, tell me about the problems going on at home, and about the things that scared him most. I’d made a friend and one hell of an ally, which proved useful when we’d wrestle guys in the tougher neighborhoods who liked to fight dirty.
But even after he was long gone and even I moved out of the neighborhood, the same thing would keep happening over and over. Guys who would probably have been afraid to speak to me or would have been my chief tormentors held me hostage on the playground or in their rooms, just so they could tell me what was on their minds.
Over the years, I realized that the reason people trusted me wasn’t because I looked innocent or anything trite like that. I didn’t have seductive bedroom eyes and it wasn’t because I looked like a girl. It was because I was genuinely interested in who they were and what they’d been through up until that point. I didn’t know it at the moment, but truly listening was priceless to young boys like myself who people saw more as trouble makers and future convicts.
Now, I make a habit of using my curiosity to connect with people across the country in hopes of just learning something new about them (and myself) in the process. As a result, I’ve learned everyone has a story, they just have to be brave enough to tell it.Will you tell yours?