It had been a long and exhausting day at the School With No Name, where I have taught for the past eight years. I was more than ready to be on my way home once I got a last bit of paperwork out of the way. Then I heard a familiar voice - not a child's voice anymore, but one I knew from some time ago.
''Do you think Karl Malone still thinks I'm way bad?'' the voice said.
The voice belonged to Alex, who made it a point to let me know soon after we met that he'd had his problems with schoolteachers in the past.
Alex had been laying it on thick, buttering me up as we walked up the stairs. Then when we got to top, he looked at me with large brown eyes through a mop of dark brown hair and said matter-of-factly, ''You know what? I been kicked out of school lots of times for not following the rules.'' His tone let me know that he expected this time would be no different.
''Really?'' I responded. ''What kind of rules?''
''Oh, stupid ones like 'don't talk,' 'sit still,' 'don't bug your neighbor.' You know, all the 'don't be a kid' rules.''
I knew. I had been teaching at the School With No Name located in Salt Lake City's community homeless shelter for almost two years, and I was learning about the behavior that sometimes seemed to accompany poverty.
Alex had a temper; he had a problem with stealing food for a while; he could be a nuisance; and he tended to fly completely off the handle if somebody invaded his space. It was his temper we were working on when the subject of Karl Malone first came up.
Alex had come in that morning with an attitude dark as a thundercloud. He explained how his older brother had hit him hard for no reason, and how sometimes he felt like just killing someone, so I shouldn't be surprised if he did. We agreed that if things got too bad, we'd head for the hall for a soda, and if he made it through the day, we would plan a special reward. He made it, and as soon as we sat down, he started up.
''I know exactly what I want, and if anyone can do it, you can.'' The master manipulator was at work. ''I was thinking, I'd really like to meet Karl Malone. He's an All-Star basketball player for the Utah Jazz.''
''Yes, I know,'' I answered, feeling myself grow a little frantic.
''I heard he loves kids,'' Alex said hopefully. ''Well, that's what I'd like best.'' I promised to do my best, but inwardly my heart sank. How could I let Alex down when he was finally learning that kids are important people? But how could I approach an NBA all-star?
A volunteer group wrote the letter asking Mr. Malone if he would be willing to visit the School With No Name and speak to inspire the children to stay in school and work toward their dreams. He agreed to come.
As soon as I felt Karl Malone's warmth, I let him know that we wouldn't hold him to his commitment for a ''stay in school'' speech. Karl was thrilled. He just wanted to sit down on the floor and play with the children, who bombarded him with questions. But I could see that the children brought him as much joy as he brought them. Alex would never forget this reward.
Meanwhile, Karl kept saying to the kids, ''Hey, you guys, I want you to come and watch me play ball. You can come to any game you want to.''
They all quickly decided on the next night, to give them just enough time to get permission from their parents.
We went to the game early and had time to go down on the court to meet the other players and shake hands. Karl introduced the children as his friends, and the kids went wild in the stands all night. All we heard for the next week at school was Karl Malone and basketball.
To both Alex's and my surprise, the rewards and sharing of love were just beginning. Christmas was approaching. Christmas at the shelter is different from the Christmas many families know.
''Karl wants to take you all to a toy store,'' I announced to the kids one day. ''He wants to get you something for Christmas.''
As the kids finished shrieking with delight, Alex gasped, ''He cares about us, don't he?''
The day of the shopping trip, the children were running around the store, jumping and grabbing and looking all at once. I heard myself endlessly repeating phrases like ''Be polite,'' ''Remember the budget we discussed,'' ''Say 'thank you.' '' I wanted this to be a ''teaching moment.'' Finally, Karl had had enough.
''Leave them alone,'' he said. ''You stand over there and just enjoy this.'' He grinned at me, and I grinned back.
Christmas passed, and Alex's family was able to get into a home through his father's efforts with a program that taught men and women construction skills. Alex attended his neighborhood school, but every once in a while he would come to the shelter to say hi.
''Karl been back?'' he would always ask.
''No,'' I told him one day in early May. ''I did speak to him on the phone, though, and he wants you to come to his basketball camp.''
''For reals?'' Alex screamed. ''He must have thought I was real bad.''
''For real,'' I assured him.
June couldn't come quickly enough for Alex that year. He became a regular at the shelter in the weeks before the camp, checking to make sure I remembered the date and that I had volunteered to take him. I picked him up at 7:15 on the first morning of the camp. He talked my ear off all the way there and forgot to unbuckle his seat belt before trying to get out of the car.
As I sat on the bleachers representing Alex's ''mom,'' I couldn't help but compare Alex with the other children. Most of them were well-dressed, right down to their name-brand basketball shoes. Alex's hair hung in his eyes, and his clothes and tennis shoes were hand-me-downs from his older brothers.
The vision broke my heart. Was this a dreadful mistake? As I sat there in sudden despair, Karl began to sternly read the rules of the camp, which did nothing to soothe my already anxious mind.
The first rule: Your shirt must be clean every day without fail.
Now who's going to take care of that, I wondered. The family didn't have the money for extra washing at the laundromat.
The second rule: When addressed, you will respond with ''yes, sir'' or ''no, sir.'' Players who forget will run laps.
As the rules were read, Alex looked at me. He had struggled with rules ever since I had known him, especially if he didn't understand their purpose. To him, this would be another case of ''big people'' handing down ''don't be a kid'' rules.
The next morning, Alex was petrified. He had to wear a shirt with a big chocolate stain on the front - it was that or none at all - and he knew he was going to have to run laps.
''Don't worry,'' I told him.
As we arrived at the camp, I steeled my nerve, found Karl, and took him aside. ''Alex may not always have a clean shirt,'' I told him. ''And he hasn't had the background that many of the other children have. Respect for rules is harder for him than for others.'' I asked him not to single out Alex and humiliate him.
By the end of the day, Alex had a new shirt that Karl had provided.
Every morning of the camp, I drove Alex there, determined to help him work with the rules. For every minute you were late, you ran a lap in front of the other children. If your shirt was dirty or untucked, that was another lap.
Alex faced other difficulties as well. It soon became apparent that the other kids were more competent at handling the ball. Even though he tried his best, the other kids didn't trust him to carry it down the court. This frustrated Alex, who understood that he wasn't as skilled as they were. But Alex was a survivor. He didn't have the finesse or polish of some of the other kids, but he made his presence known and demanded to participate. His hands flew all over the place as he yelled for the ball. At first the other kids ignored him and played around him. But he kept it up the entire week of camp.
One day, halfway through the camp, I came early to pick Alex up so I could watch him play a bit before I took him home, and his coach approached me.
Alex had gotten a little ''too aggressive,'' his coach said. I explained Alex's territory problem when it came to uninvited touching or bumping.
''What can I do?'' his coach asked.
''He really hasn't been talked to enough,'' I offered. ''Just yelled at. If you get down at his level to explain things, he's a good listener.'' The coach nodded and returned to the court. I looked over later to see him on one knee beside Alex, talking to him, listening, and nodding his head. That night Alex told me he thought his coach was one of the coolest people he'd ever met.
On Thursday, the second to the last day of camp, I stood in the doorway of the gym feeling like a proud mom. Karl came up to me. ''How's he doing out there?'' he said.
''He's a fighter,'' I told him. Then Karl quietly handed me several bills and asked me to see that Alex got some new shoes and a haircut, so he could look sharp for the awards ceremony the next day.
When I dropped Alex off at home, I gave his father $10 to get Alex a haircut.
The next morning, I was surprised to see Alex walk toward the car, his head hanging in shame. His father had shaved his head himself to save the $10.
Alex's coach was waiting for him inside the door as we walked in. Alex followed him into the locker room where his coach showed him a set of brand-new clothes. Alex quickly showered and came out beaming in his new clothes, his problem haircut forgotten.
''I look good, don't I?'' he declared.
''You certainly do,'' I agreed.
At the ceremony, awards were given to kids who showed the most improvement, who had the best attitude, who showed the greatest hustle on the court, etc. I know that Alex wasn't expecting to receive an award, because he was bugging the kid next to him. When his name was called out as the child who had shown exemplary skills in learning, improving, and in not giving up, he looked at me in complete astonishment.
He pointed to himself, and I motioned, ''Yes, you, Alex. Get up.'' He ran up to the podium to accept his certificate, beaming at the sound of applause.