I had a really great childhood.
I grew up in a wonderful home with both of my parents, and they gave me every single thing I could ever imagine. There were elaborate holidays, and just about anything else they could do to expose me to the world. They had me out there riding horses when I was ten-years-old (I was the only brother at the stable out there riding a horse.)
Basically, they wanted to make sure that I knew the world was my oyster and that I could be or do anything I wanted. It was a really, really nice – a perfect upbringing. And they had a plan in mind when they gave me this upbringing. That plan was for me to attend college, then law school, and then go off and get a really good job.
A really good job in my parents’ minds was for me to be President of the United States. That’s right. The guy who was Barack Obama before he was Barack Obama. I was supposed to be the first black president of the United States. That was the plan, and I bought into this plan. It was a good plan, right? Who doesn’t want to be president?
I went to college where I majored in international affairs, and then I attended law school. After I graduated, I was offered the opportunity to run an inner city school in Chicago. While being an educator or taking that role wasn’t exactly part of the plan, I realised that it could really help me when I started pursuing my political career. Who isn’t going to vote for the guy who stands there in the ad with his hands on his hips, looking like Superman in front of the classroom of kids? ‘Vote Tim King. He changes the world. He educates kids.’
So I figured, okay, I’ll take this job and maybe it’ll lead me to some other things that follow along with the plan. One day, I was walking into the school, it was pretty early, around 7:30 in the morning. I unlocked the door and there was a kid sitting outside waiting to get in. His name was Keith.
I said, “What are you doing?”
He said, “Oh, I’m working here painting during the summer.”
“Okay, so come on in.”
He would stay really late, then the next day, show up very early, and then stay really late again. The summer eventually melted into the school year, and Keith was still coming to school really, really early and staying at school until really, really late.
And I just figured, okay, this guy just likes school – although I didn’t understand how anyone could like school that much. But I started kind of keeping an eye on him because there was something up with this young man. Eventually, he started talking to me throughout the course of the day, stopping by my office to say ‘what’s up’. Then he started doing things like asking me if he could borrow a couple bucks and I’d give him the money. I really didn’t pay much attention to the reasons he needed the money. In fact, I really wasn’t all that interested in knowing because I didn’t really want to know that much ― you stay in your world, it’s cool. I’m in mine. You go right ahead with your business.
Step by step though, he started asking for more money, more frequently. He started hanging out in my office a bit more. He started talking to me more, coming out of his shell and I was coming out of my shell a bit with him.
One day, I asked him what he needed this money for, and he said, “Oh, I’ve got to go do my laundry.” And I thought, “This kid’s lying.” I mean, what 15-year-old has to go and do his laundry? But I gave him the money anyway and just said, “Okay, you know, go do what you have to do.”
One night, I got a call from Keith and he was hysterical. He asked me if I would help him ― if I’d come get him from his house. I said, “Sure, what’s going on, what’s wrong?” And he said, “My mom just died.” So, I go over to his house and it’s not a house, it’s an apartment over a liquor store. I walk in, and it’s pitch black in the apartment. Just the light from the street lamps coming in through the window. From that light, I see garbage bags ― some bags with garbage in them and other bags with his stuff in them. No lights. Not because he had turned off the lights, but because the electricity was off. There was no power and it was cold. And he was in hysterics because his mother had just died. She had been battling, unbeknownst to me, drug addiction and she lost that battle. The drugs won and she died.
So, we grabbed Keith’s stuff in the garbage bags, put them in my car. And then I was faced with, well, where do we go? So I said to him, “You got a friend you can stay with?” And he says, “Sure.” And we drop him off at a friend’s house. And I went back home to my house. The next day, Keith was at school. And we talked and tried to work through where he was going to live. We found another place for him to stay temporarily.
I started getting closer to Keith. We started talking more, obviously this kind of experience brings people together.
We would go out. I’d take him to eat after school; we would go to the movies, a basketball game, or something like that. Every time after we’d go to dinner or go to the game, I would drop him off at someone else’s house and I would go home to mine.
One day, Keith and I were sitting in the car after we had gone out, and we were trying to work through where he was going to stay. And he just looked at me and he said, “Why can’t I just live with you? Why can’t you be my dad?” And in that moment I thought, “Are you crazy? Of course you can’t live with me. Of course I can’t be your dad. You don’t fit into this plan. I’m going to be the first black President of the United States. You can’t move in with me.”
I had put Keith in this box, this box that said ‘poor black boy inside, handle with care’. And, I put that box far away from me. I didn’t allow myself to get close to that box, to get close to Keith. All of that went through my head and a matter of seconds, quite literally.
When I came out of this kind of fog, he was still sitting there in the car looking at me, asking if he could live with me, asking if I could be his dad. And I looked at him and I said, “Yes. Yes, you can live with me. Yes I will be your dad.” And at that moment, I changed. I felt right. I just felt right.
What I should’ve felt was terrified, because when Keith moved into my house, it wasn’t like one elephant coming through. It was a herd of elephants. He took over! When I met Keith and he moved in, I had a full head of hair ― We’re talking giant Afro from the 60s, 70s Afro. You know what I’m saying? The stress from living with him changed that! It was really, really, really hard living with him. He had been used to living by himself, living on his own. I had been used to living by myself, living on my own. He had been living the life of an adult, but he was just a child. Now, all of a sudden, he had an opportunity to be a kid again. I lived this life like a kid with a bank account, and now, all of a sudden, I had to be an adult.
Keith and I managed to make it through our time living together. He calls me Dad. I refer to him as my son. He graduated from high school and he went on to Georgetown University, my Alma Mater. He graduated from Georgetown, moved back home to Chicago, and right now, this very moment, he works with me in a network of charter public high schools that I started called Urban Prep. He’s a teacher.
I started Urban Prep because I wanted to make sure that all the Keiths in the world were taken care of; He works at Urban Prep because he wants to be a part of changing lives, just like his life was changed. When Keith and I lived together, to this very day, what I wanted to do was make sure that he had a life that was filled with love, like the life I had when I was growing up. People always say to me, “Tim, you changed Keith’s life.” And I say to them, “He changed mine.” As we walked down that road of him going from being a boy to becoming a man, he was also helping me grow. He was helping me become a better man.
A little while ago, I got a text message from Keith and the text message read, “Our family is at the basketball game. Where are you? You should be here.” And I smiled, because Keith was berating me. And then I got a little teary because as I looked down at that text message, I realised that Keith had written “our family.”
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