Mike Yost (not his real name) has been on my mind for well over forty years and I have often wondered what became of him. He’s the first person I have written about whose name I could not use, for reasons that will become obvious. This mystery has been bouncing around in my head and one day I hope to solve it.
Early in my career Mike was a freshman in one of my high school agriculture classes in an area that is in the suburban fringe southwest of Chicago. His hometown, an orderly middle-class town, was among the larger ones in our school district. Back then a good amount of agricultural land lay among numerous small towns. A few years ago a leading magazine designated the town “the best place to raise a family in America.”
Mike, a short and skinny kid, was a gifted cartoonist with a vivid imagination. He created his own cartoon superhero whose name escapes me. If he wasn’t doing schoolwork, he drew cartoons in any spare time he found. He was quick-witted, alert, bright-eyed, and always pleasant. He seemed to be a happy child.
But something was sad and odd about him, and everyone noticed it. He always wore a long-sleeved shirt, even on the hottest of days, buttoned tightly at his neck and wrists. His demeanor was as if he was trying to withdraw his head and hands into his shirts. He sat in class drawn up, like he wanted to be invisible. His clothing showed signs of poverty, being heavily worn before the era when “heavily worn” became fashionable, but he always appeared to be clean.
One day I asked our lead school counselor about Mike Yost. Her response was, “Oh, my,” and a deep look of concern and sadness came across her face.
Mike and about five siblings lived with their parents in a house that had been condemned by the health department. A few years earlier, Mike was walking with two of his siblings along the shoulder of a busy highway when a car struck and killed one of his sisters right in front of him and the other sibling.
One of our school’s physical education teachers had great difficulty getting Mike to dress in gym shorts and a T-shirt. When he had to dress out for gym, he tried to stand behind other students, tried to stay out of others’ line of sight as much as he possibly could.
Relevant school personnel had held a conference to discuss Mike’s situation. They discussed the background information the counselor shared with me. There was speculation within the group that perhaps Mike had been the victim of abuse, or had inadvertently seen his parents having sex, perhaps making him ashamed of his body. Or perhaps it was some other event or situation that caused Mike to want to keep his body covered as much as possible. Perhaps it was witnessing his sister’s tragic death by the roadside that caused his behavior. They did not know for sure, maybe no one knew for sure, but they were deeply concerned about Mike.
As an agriculture teacher I often made supervisory visits to my students at their homes to check on their various projects. A few students had livestock or crops, similar to more rural portions of the Midwest. Other students raised rabbits, or had a horse, or raised a garden, or were doing landscape projects to beautify their homes.
I made a point of discussing these visits with my classes, what was learned from the visits, and how they related to what we were studying as a group. Often I met parents and other family members on these after-school or Saturday visits. Every visit provided insights into the life of my students, and they helped me learn more about what made them tick.
So Mike Yost was not surprised when I told him I’d like to visit him at home and take a look at his garden. From what I knew of Mike’s home situation, I had expected a timid, reluctant reaction from him. To my surprise, he seemed delighted that I would visit him. He appeared to be energized by the idea.
On the scheduled date, on a warm and sunny day, I arrived at the Yost house and was shocked by what I encountered. Most of the windows in the house were broken out and the wood siding was almost completely devoid of paint. The place had been in neglect for many years. The house was a terrible eyesore in an otherwise neat, orderly, and well-maintained neighborhood.
Mike led me inside the house. His mother sat in a broken down upholstered chair, surrounded completely by abject poverty, and greeted me with a big smile and a firm handshake. Two of Mike’s young siblings sat on a tattered sofa near their mom with a bowl of potato chips between them. Three or four large flies crawled over their chips as they ate. One of the children offered me some potato chips, which I politely declined. No father was present.
There was no running water in the house. The mother told me matter of factly that the family used the basement as their bathroom. There was nowhere else they could go. The smell of urine and feces was diminished somewhat during my visit by the breeze blowing through where windows used to be. They bathed from small amounts of bottled drinking water.
I have the vaguest recollection of Mike’s garden. Everything else about this particular home visit overshadowed my stated purpose for visiting Mike.
Mike Yost was such a good kid. I liked him very much. After seeing his home situation, I was amazed at how well adjusted he seemed—except for his manner of dress to avoid exposing his skin and his tendency to strive to be invisible.
At the end of Mike’s freshman year, I moved to Ohio to continue my education. I lost track of Mike.
More than any other former student, I wonder what became of him. Was he able to build a normal, productive life? Did he marry and have a family? Did he continue to draw cartoons as an adult? Or did his home situation defeat him, drag him down, and trample on his dreams?
What did he become? I don’t know and likely will never find out, but this does not stop me from wondering.