By the next evening, everyone was gone, except for Shelly, Travis and Strudel. Instead of going to see their families, they arranged for their families to come to them. Travis’ family came in from Texas and Mrs. Strudel and the little Strudels journeyed from Berlin. Each family moved into their own cottage. Reconnecting with their families lifted everyone’s spirits and they all had a great time getting to know each other. When it was time to go home at the end of the week, Shelley stayed on. She needed more time to heal and Hannah’s Home was happy to have her. She decided that for now, she’s help Gabriel with kitchen duties and maybe work with the sisters in the clinic.
For me, things finally started slowing down a few weeks later when my teaching assistant position and my accelerated Kung Fu training both ended within days of each other. The teaching position ended because the summer semester was over. The intense Kung Fu ended because Sifu Zhang showed up two weeks early. Both occurrences led to awkward situations.
On the final day of class, each of the students was supposed to present their projects to dad for evaluation. In actuality, Dad and I had been following the progress of each of the students and the evaluation had already been made and a grade decided on. While everyone had passed to one degree or another, I highly doubted that three of the students would ever do any serious blacksmithing in the future. Dad had basically given them a pity grade instead of failing them outright.
On the other hand, Tyler was getting the top grade in the class. He had put in considerable effort and made a lot of progress with his skills. I went over to congratulate him on his success.
“You’ve come a long way, Tyler. Your hard work definitely paid off.”
“Thanks, Abby. It really doesn’t feel like work. I enjoy working with the metal. You know, now that the your dad had given out the final grades, you’re not technically my teaching assistant. Can I take you out for some coffee? There’s something important I’d like to get your opinion on.”
That sounded strange. If he’d have just asked to go for coffee, I would have said no. By asking for my opinion on something, he’d piqued my curiosity. Dad had let the class out early so I still had an hour before Shauna picked me up. I graciously accepted and once we’d gathered our things, we set off for the student bookstore a few buildings away. It had a Starbucks nested inside. I liked going there because I could get hot chocolate instead of coffee.
We found an empty table and settled down with our drinks. Tyler took a few sips of his coffee but didn’t say anything. He just looked down at his hands holding the cup. I got the sense that he was building himself up and I didn’t rush him. He’d get to it eventually and he did buy me the hot chocolate. That counted for a lot.
“I wasn’t always the hard-working student that you see before you. I grew up in a rough neighborhood. Not Chicago rough, with drive-by shootings every week and gangs controlling whole areas, but we had more than our share of wannabe gangsters. My father ran out on us when I was seven and my mother had to work long hours. This left me alone after school and I mixed in with the wrong crowd. Over the years school took a back seat to my after-school activities. I found that I was good at fighting and stealing cars and I enjoyed doing both. The future wasn’t something that I thought much about.”
“My attitude used to drive my mother crazy. She’s a good woman that got knocked hard by life and my choices didn’t do anything to ease her burden. That’s my biggest regret in life and my greatest shame. The woman who gave me life and who worked herself ragged to keep me fed and clothed was the person that I respected the least. I cared more about the opinion of the street trash gang leader who never lifted a finger to help me than I did about her.”
Tyler paused to sip his coffee. I didn’t understand why he was telling me all this. I’m not a priest and the confession of his sins was making me a bit uncomfortable. It seemed like an intensely personal story and I wanted him to move the story forward.
“What finally made you turn from the dark side?”
“My mother made friends with the woman in an apartment down the hall from us. She had a son that was a few years younger than me and our mothers would send us off to school together. He was a scrawny little kid, with shaggy hair and ears that stuck out from his head like an elf. He didn’t look it, but he was incredibly smart. If he’d had the chance to be tested, I think he’d have been classified as a genius, but he lived in my neighborhood and ‘advanced placement’ wasn’t really a thing there. Anyways, I walked him to and from school everyday and kept him out of trouble. A kid like that would have gotten his lunch money beat out of him before he even got to school.”
“He was really a great kid and had the potential to get somewhere in life. I knew that I didn’t, so I figured that I might as well help the little runt. He talked the whole way to school and the whole way back. Every day. I rarely had to say anything. He was full of thoughts and ideas and plans and I had none of those, so I just listened. Sometimes someone would approach us, but I would back them off with a threat or fight them off. When we got to school, sometimes I’d go in for the day and sometimes I wouldn’t.”
“Anyways, one day we were walking back from school and five older guys from one of the street gangs ambushed us and demanded he give them his shoes. He took one look at them and started getting ready to hand them over. See he was smart. His mother had saved for months to buy them for him and he loved those shoes, but he saw a beating heading our way and figured that it is better to be barefoot than to be bleeding. He made a smart, calculated decision. Only it wasn’t the street-smart decision. Giving in would mark the both of us for life. We’d never have a moment of peace from the second that he gave up those shoes. If these guys knew they could take what they wanted without consequences, they’d be back again and again. So, I stopped him and told him to run while I held them off. I managed to put three of them down before the other last two took me down. On the ground I still fought hard and I know I hurt them. In the end, though, the police showed up a few minutes later and found me lying on the ground with a broken arm and leg and covered in blood.”
“I spent a month in the hospital and the kid came by on the first day to thank me. I never saw him again. His mother moved them down to Florida somewhere to live with her sister before I got out of the hospital. It was a safer area. When I finally got back to the neighborhood, the kids uncle was waiting for me. He was a Raleigh PD officer and he explained to me that from now on he was going to protect me the way that I’d protected his nephew and for the next year and half, he made sure that I got to school and back. With him always watching and asking about school, I couldn’t skip class anymore. I also couldn’t hang out with the street gangs. Having the police always hanging around meant that they didn’t want anything to do with me. So my grades improved and I graduated. The kid’s uncle used to work in a local community center and was on very good terms with the guy that used to run it. Turns out that guy left the center and went on to become the dean of Galt University. The uncle wrote a recommendation for me and I got in on a working scholarship.”
“My mother used to work with Dean Kronin at that community center. The dean is the reason we moved here years ago. He offered my dad his teaching position.”
Tyler smiled. “All roads lead back to the dean. It’s a small world, Abby. Getting back to the story, I’ve worked hard at my studies over the last three years and I’ll be graduating at the end of this year. I’m a business major and it’s ok. I can leave here and get a good job and build a career. That was the plan. Only last summer I took a blacksmithing course that was recommended to me by the dean and everything changed. For the first time in years, I found something else that I loved doing. Even more than fighting and stealing cars. The idea that I could picture something in my head and then create it was incredible to me. I started looking into everything about blacksmithing and decided to take every course in it that I could. I’m signed up for two more courses this fall and another two in the spring.”
“That’s great Tyler. I’m really glad that you’ve found your calling, but why are you telling me all this?”
“I’m telling you all this because I want you to know who I am and why this is so important to me. I want to ask your dad to take me on as his second apprentice when I finish school.”
Ok. I wasn’t expecting that. It did get leave me with a question though. “Uhm, who’s this first apprentice?”
“Nope. I’m his daughter. As far as I know, he’s never taken on an apprentice.”
“But you know so much and you’re very good. I’ve seen some of pieces that you’ve created.”
“My dad is really into his work and so the best way to spend time with him is at the forge. I guess if you look at it from another angle, you could say that I was his apprentice, but that’s not how it seems to me. We just hung out and made stuff and I learned over the years. I enjoy making things, but it’s not a calling. I just love hanging out with my dad.”
“Oh. I guess I’m still making wrong assumptions about you. Do you think that he hasn’t taken on an apprentice because he doesn’t want one?”
“I don’t know. It’s never come up. I doubt it though. He really enjoys teaching and I know that he respects the hell out his own mentor. He’s a big believer in ‘paying it back’, so I think you have a good shot of him saying yes. You should definitely ask him. Worst comes to worse, he says no and you find another teacher. I’ve gotten to know a few blacksmiths over the years and I can recommend one or two to try. You’ll have to ask him yourself, but if you want, I can speak to dad and put in a good word for you.”
“That would be great, Abby. I can’t thank you enough. I’m still nervous around him because of the way I treated you at the start of that first course.”
“You made a mistake and apologized for it. You’ve been great ever since. That shows character and he sees that. You shouldn’t worry about it. There is however something that you should be asking yourself.”
“If you’ve enjoyed fighting so much, why did you give it up? I happen to know a place where you’re encouraged to fight.”