On the way home from InterPlay San Francisco, I swerved into the local convenience store parking lot,  Ben & Jerry’s calling my name.

The cashier was puzzling over a photocopied handout.

“Whatcha readin’?” I asked, as I handed him my icy cold pint of Banana Split.

Sad eyes greeted me. “Just something for English class. I hate English. I don’t speak it well. I don’t read it well. I don’t even want to graduate anymore.”

My heart went out to this big, burly Asian guy. Lucky for him, I’m an academic coach with a penchant for meddling. And encouraging.

“Your English is great! I understand you perfectly,” I reassured.

A darker shadow crossed his face. “Tell that to my roommates. They complain they can’t hear what I have to say. I guess I talk too rough, they say. Like I’m mean. I know I should be more gentle, but I just don’t know how!”

He went on to explain that he’s 37 years old and going back to school. This prerequisite class feels hard and useless.

Turns out that the reading in question was a Langston Hughes story. “What you need to do, ” I finally suggested, “is figure out what you have in common with the characters. Then maybe you’ll know what to write. What’s the story about?”

“A guy who keeps on trying to be friends with folks, but then can’t find ways to connect with them.”

My eyes lit up. “But that’s exactly your problem with your roommates! You’re trying to communicate to them, but for some reason you can’t. You feel stuck! Just like the character in this story.”

“That’s true,” he said incredulously, as another customer approached the counter. “I can write about that?!”

“Sure,” I replied as I hustled out the door. “Compare and contrast your stuckness to the character’s stuckness. You’ll do great.”

Who knows whether this convenience store clerk will take my advice when he writes this paper. But I saw hope in his eyes when I left, and hope counts for a lot. Tomorrow night I might just have to buy another pint, just to check in and see how the paper is going.