Our neighborhood recycling center is a favorite destination in the regular loop of stops that constitutes the ordinary weekly errands routine. Odd, I’ll admit, but there’s something so satisfying about hurling trash into a giant bin, standing aside the various weekend-attired neighbors with the same mission, knowing it is one small thing that is easily done in the effort to live more responsibly. Even in the current tumult in the global recycling economy, we can remain optimistic it is still the right thing to do. Besides, hurling a wine bottle into the huge metal bin for glass collection and anticipating the explosive sound of shattering glass begets a perversely wicked thrill. Like smashing things does for toddlers.

Chances for good works stack on themselves at our center, which sits adjacent to our local high school. The center is regularly commandeered by various activity groups from the school, who recruit participating teenagers to offer to help unload your detritus in exchange for a donation to their activity—the marching band, the chess club, the debate team—one easily understands that ticket revenue is unlikely to sustain the earnest efforts of these who labor outside the spotlight of high-profile sports. At first, I was annoyed by this freeloading, preferring to hurl my trash in peace and for free, but over time I came to see it differently. If the kids are motivated enough to get up on Saturday morning and haul boxes of old catalogues, endless water bottles, and smelly pizza boxes, why not help them out? So, I began to arrive with a few bucks of cash in the car, determined to go with the flow.

Last Saturday I emerged from the car and was instantly set upon by a group of four high-school males, sporting green and gold team shirts and spewing energy like Vesuvius in full tilt. What’s happening, guys? I asked as they danced forward on tiptoes, sniffing opportunity. “Can we help you unload?” they bubbled. What are you raising money for? I asked. “Soccer team!” one of them declared energetically, punching the air for emphasis, while another demonstrated a small kick. Well, my stuff is not sorted yet, and it’s really easier for me to sort it, but I’m happy to support your team, I added, handing a few bucks to the nearest toe-bouncer.

“Cool, thanks!” shouted the toe-bouncer who collected my small gift, soon echoed by his green-shirted conspirators, and away they bounced toward another target who had just pulled in.

Shifting my attention back to the overflowing bags in my open car hatch, I reached to begin my sorting and was surprised to hear a quiet voice from behind. “I can help you sort it,” the voice said shyly, as I turned and realized that one of the toe-bouncers had stayed behind. He was the smallest in stature of the four, dark-haired and dark-eyed with a thick moustache, keeping his eyes on the trash in my car, avoiding my surprised gaze. His friends were content to accept my offer on face value and bound off elsewhere, cash tallied and nothing required, but for some intriguing reason, this young man was not. He planted his feet and waited for instructions, ready to earn what he gained.

Well, sure, I said, beginning to move things this way and that. These boxes and bags can all go over there to the cardboard bin. Is your soccer team good?

“Yes,” he affirmed, without embellishment, arms full and away to unload.

This bag is all plastic and tin, I instructed, pointing toward that bin, still unable to abandon efforts at conversation. Have you guys made some money today?

“Yes,” he nodded seriously, as he whisked away that bag and a second one while I finished sorting. He returned again, and a third time, staring into the hatch each time, as if any escaped bottle or can would weigh on his young shoulders.

That’s the last of it, I confirmed, slamming the hatch shut, turning back in his direction a final time. Good luck to you guys, I added. He lingered briefly, never meeting my eyes but nodding his thanks again. “Okay, then,” he concluded, turning at last to sprint off and join his friends.

I drove on to my next stop, thinking of him then and several times since. What makes one young person claim personal responsibility when his friends do not? What gives him the motivation to stay behind, to stick with the job, when others take the easy way? Strict parents, younger siblings to look after, a conscience that weighs heavily over some task left undone?

I thought I should have praised him more, wished I had honored his mature sense of responsibility more than his obvious shyness. I hoped others will encourage him more directly, will tell him straight-up that his instincts will serve him well in this life. I hoped there is someone close to him to keep encouraging him, keep noticing when he goes against the tide to do the right thing.

I kept thinking I missed a chance to do a little more, a little better, for someone else, as he had done. I hope I do better next time at responding in kind.

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