Laughing Caucasian boy laying on floorI watched him from across the campus early that morning when he arrived. A thin, cringing child of about six with pale hair and paler skin as he slowly emerged from the police car that had delivered him to the residential treatment center where I was the CEO. While he was greeted with warmth and concern by my staff that would be his caretakers, his head was down, his gait hesitant, and his message clear: “Stay away from me!”

When I went to the cafeteria for lunch, I watched him walk in with the other seven children who shared his treatment cottage. Same hesitancy, same gait, same posture—but now in addition, he had added clenched fists. His table was not far from mine at the back of the room. Sitting with other staff, I ate my lunch but with one eye on Ryan.

A scuffle broke out between two older boys at the front of the room and staff moved to intervene. Ryan saw his chance and bolted out the back door of the dining room. Since all of my staff were occupied, I bolted after him and down the hall. Ryan was nowhere in sight. I took a chance, turned to the first right and caught him darting into an empty office. I followed.

There, under a huge antique roll top desk that had been donated, I spotted him on the floor hunched over and shaking. I dived in after him. Now, I am a very tall woman and not exactly used to diving anywhere but it never occurred to me to do anything else. So there we were, Ryan and this lady who is old enough to be his grandmother crouching awkwardly talking to his back.

“Hi,” I said.

Silence.

“Guess you don’t feel like talking right now?” I asked.

Silence. I let three to four minutes go by, and then I said, “Knock, knock.”

More silence, then “Knock, knock, who?”

“Wanna?” I said.

Silence. Then, “Wanna who?” he said, so quietly I had to strain to hear.

“Wanna be your friend,” I said.

“Don’t have any friends,” he said, followed by more silence.

“Leaf,” Ryan said, after several more minutes.

“Leaf who?” I asked.

“Leaf me alone!”

“Dwanna,” I said.

(Pause) “Dwanna who?”

“Dwanna leaf you alone. I wanna be your friend,” I said.

Pause.

Ryan looked at me and said, “That’s the dumbest knock-knock joke I’ve ever heard!” Then he fell into my arms, where we both laughed and cried all at the same time.

From then on, every time Ryan saw me, he’d say, “Knock, knock!” and we’d break into hysterics.

During his stay, we organized a comedy day for the children. Local comedians came in to teach the kids about improvisation and other forms of comedy. One of the categories for competition was knock-knock jokes. Ryan won hands down. When the ceremony was over, he walked over to me and handed me his trophy. “You deserve this more than me.”

A few weeks later, Ryan found loving foster parents who later adopted him.