The Truth Our Stories Hide

The view from under the bush in Harvard Square where she had been living offered an indisputable perspective: she was alone and she was homeless. 

Once a suburban education professional with a doctorate, a husband and an enviable holiday home, she had – through a series of cataclysmic events – ended up living partially hidden under a shrub in Harvard Square. Despite her education and fine manners, she had been treated horribly while she was homeless and, as a result, promised herself that if she ever had the wherewithal, she was going to do a far better job helping other unhoused people, than the assistance she’d been offered.

PEOPLE magazine had asked me to write about how this woman had dusted off her homelessness, climbed out from under her bush and ultimately established a successful nonprofit staffed entirely with people who had also been – or currently were – homeless offering help to others such as themselves. She was living proof that homelessness could happen to anyone, but also that redemption is possible for everyone.

Bootstrap stories are often inspiring as, indeed, her story was. It was a bright, blue sky day outside when she took me on a tour of the nonprofit offices, staffed by one person after another who had lived on the streets and but, through a combination of perseverance and luck, had, once again, obtained a home to call their own. In the last office I entered, I found several desks and computers and a single staff occupant: a woman who greeted me with an instant look of recognition.

“I know you,” she said. “You taught me Intro to Journalism at North Shore Community College.”

I stared at her and then recognized her as a former student whom I remembered as being a bit rough around the edges but also natively quite bright. I recalled , too, that she was a mother of three young children.

“I once wrote a story about the Boston Red Sox for you and you gave me an A. You know, I carried that paper around in my backpack while I was homeless,” she said. She told me that her drug abuse had resulted in her losing both her home and children. “I have an apartment now and I’m about to get my children back.”

I, of course, never knew any of that.

That happenstance reunion reminds me still today of the ripples in life that we don’t know exist. How, for example, one A-graded paper could be worth carrying around on the streets in a backpack laden deep with troubles.

There are the narratives others proclaim about us which may or may not be our truth. There are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are which we hold onto as truth. And then there is the actual truth that may remain hidden under a bush or in a backpack, sometimes for a very long time.