The only way I knew he was ready to talk was when I heard ''Hey, it's Sandy,'' over the speaker of the apartment intercom. The voice of this teenage boy-man was always a mix of almost polite hesitancy and insistent demand. Whatever I was doing stopped until I walked with Sandy the mile or two that was needed for his anger to subside and for him to feel like himself again.
The concerns he had been bringing to me over the year and a half were not selfish ones. His family needed him to be the best he could be. And growing up in Boston's Back Bay wasn't easy in the 1970s.
Our trust and respect for each other had come slowly. I had been assigned to his new Sunday School class, and he wasn't happy about giving up his old teacher. Why did this white lady think she had anything to say to a bunch of streetwise blacks and Hispanics? When he found out I lived on Massachusetts Avenue he asked me if I worked the street at night. Most of the women he had known weren't Sunday School teachers.
The turning point in our friendship came one day when I was busy doing errands. Just around the corner from the laundromat, I stumbled across two little girls hunched over on the sidewalk, their tears full of terror. Something was very wrong, and nobody was around to help. Their fear made them reject my help, so I sat down as close to them as they would allow. There had to be an answer. This end of St. Stephen Street was no place for little girls to be on their own.
Suddenly I saw Sandy striding down the sidewalk, his attention focused on the children. He started to run toward us when he realized who they were. As he called their names, their crying turned into howls of eagerness. They rushed toward him like baby chicks to the wings of the mother hen. He hugged and cooed over them, but soon he started looking around to find the missing person.
In spite of the love and protectiveness he was showing, his face was full of disappointment. Under his breath, I heard, ''She promised me. She told me she'd be here when they got off the bus.'' He must have remembered that the first day of kindergarten was hard enough without forgetting the way home from the bus stop.
As the girls relaxed in his arms, he asked them about their day. It didn't matter that cars were whizzing past and people were stepping around them. He was oblivious to everything but their comfort.
I tried to slip away unnoticed, but when I moved he looked surprised to see me; our smiles to each other had a new-found respect. Shortly after that, he started coming to the lobby of our apartment building, never wanting to come in, just expecting that, no matter what the weather, I would come out and walk with him.
It was several months later when he told me I could visit his family's place - the place he shared with his mother and the little girls. Initially, he hadn't wanted me to come, but suddenly it was as if the visit was the only way I could understand.
As we climbed the crumbling steps to the fourth-floor apartment, the whole staircase shifted, and the banister didn't give much support. I heard the TV blaring through the door panels, which had been kicked out by someone's foot. The little sister and niece Sandy had rescued were sitting in front of the TV. His mom, who was in her nightgown, was having trouble balancing on the edge of the double bed that dominated the living room - her bottle only half covered by her pillow.
I did most of the talking, telling her what a fine boy Sandy was. I told her how much he contributed to the Sunday School class and how good it was that he came so regularly. Sandy didn't walk me downstairs; talking was too hard.
It's been almost 20 years since my last walk with Sandy. That day he was peaceful enough to sit down on a park bench. The place his mom lived was being sold cheap for condos, and he told me he thought it was time to go to Cleveland to find his dad.
When I read about the Million Man March, I wondered if Sandy and his dad were in Washington. When I knew Sandy, he was already living the power of that pledge the men said together there: ''I pledge that from this day forward I will strive ... to improve myself spiritually, morally, mentally, ... for the benefit of myself, my family, and my people.''
My memory of Sandy gives me hope that, in spite of all the reasons to conform to the craziness that we find in our inner cities, there's something in the heart of man that won't give in. Sandy's example of persistence, courage, and the power of innocence hasn't been forgotten.