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Two Gold Necklaces

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I noticed him the first week of junior year.

I was sitting in a seat along the wall of Mrs. Chandra Willix’s Native Spanish class, looking for a pen, when I was startled by his loud presence. There was a giddiness in his attitude. A casual ease to his posture. Gold necklaces hanging from his neck. There was a hint of mischief in his smile that I couldn’t place.

It wasn’t until he was told by administration that he had to leave our class at semester and complete his credits to graduate that I noticed the trust between him and our teacher. He was failing his senior year, and she kept him in check as best she could.

“Wipe that smile off your face, that is not an accomplishment,” I heard her say when he pranced into third period, announcing his latest fight.

“You’re smarter than that,” she assured him time after time.

I saw a bond there that I knew he needed, but I didn’t know why. There were days when his posture sagged just slightly, or he didn’t laugh as loudly, and I always wondered. There was something mysterious there. A vulnerability that had a history.

But now I know Xavier Rivas. Eighteen-year-old, Honduran American, worker, son, brother and friend.

He once was a nine-year-old living a small Benton home with 14 others. Now he has turned into an adult, paying his own bills and becoming a manager at David’s Burgers. What he thought was the most obnoxious Spanish I teacher he had ever encountered became his family friend and supporter.

I sat across from him, our lukewarm drinks seemingly forgotten, when I realized that the person I once thought was indifferent to his surroundings turned out to be a man with musical passion and some of the most powerful stories.

His hands fidgeted with his Starbucks cup as he told me the frequent physical fights he has with his older brother. His eyes narrowed angrily at the wall behind me when he described the harsh conditions and treatment he received at the Colorado electrical job he fled this past summer. He nodded sadly at me, confirming the abusive relationship he was in for over a year. Story after story, no matter how heavy or traumatic, Xavier never failed to end it with a reassuring smile and an, “it is what it is.”

Wisdom isn’t in someone’s appearance. It comes with experience, memories, relationships and pain. Xavier’s wisdom is in his stories and his unbelievable ability to laugh through the most heart-wrenching parts of them. We encounter people like Xavier every day. People whose stories we don’t know. People with personalities much more complex than their appearance.s. There is power in the echoes of his laugh.

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