Stories of connection and comfort
As a 15-year-oldhigh school sophomore, I hated school. I hated riding a bus two hours a day. I hated theasphalt, the cement, the kids trying to be cool and being so far away from the hills and nature I loved. I wanted to quit school and run far away to Canada, where I could build a cabin in the wilderness and live off the land. But California law wouldn’t allow it, not until I turned 16, which was still a half a year away.
Unbeknown to my parents, I found ways of ditching school and escaping to the hills and creeks to hunt and hide out until classes were over.
That is, until a truant officer eventually caught me.
I was given two options: go to school or go to juvenile hall, a locked facility that housed rebellious kids, like me. After what seemed like a stalemate of wills, the guidance counselor asked, what it would take to keep me in school?
“I would like to take the photography class,” I offered, excitedly, explaining that I had seen the large prints on the walls of the photo room and liked taking pictures. I felt confident my enthusiasm would open the door for negotiation. It did not.
I was told I didn’t have the grades for the photography classes. Besides, they were filled with long waiting lists. What I heard was that photography was for smart kids, and I was not one of them.
I still remember my father’s face turning red with anger.
“You asked him what it would take for him to stay in school and he gave you an answer,” he challenged. “And you tell him he can’t do that?”
I wanted to hug and kiss my father, something I had never done, nor would do for another 20 years.
Each of us left the meeting frustrated. The “system” simply did not make allowance for kids like me. I would go to school or juvenile hall.
To my surprise, I was called into the office the following week and advised I would be allowed to take a photography class, after all. I wasn’t given any details but believed school officials “came to their senses” and realized putting me in a photography class was a sensible solution.
Now I had a reason to go to school. And for the next two years, I attended night classes to make up what I had missed in my sophomore year. I went from failing to a “B” average my junior and senior years, and learned so much about photography and life from Denning McArthur, a wise teacher.
But this is not where the story ends.
What I didn’t know, not until 30 years after my mother’s death in 1969 (she drowned in a flood my senior year) was that she had gone privately to Mr. McArthur and pleaded for him to let me in one of his photography classes.
While sharing memories of my first photography class during a dinner at my former photography teacher’s house, Mr. McArthur recalled, “I just couldn’t say no to your dear mother. I told her I had a long waiting list, but she begged me.”
Had a bullet exploded through the wall and struck me, I don’t think I c could have been more shocked.
“What?” I asked, tears welling. This was the first I had heard of my mother’s intervention.
“I thought you knew?” McArthur said, his grin turning serious.
“She was so worried about you, afraid you were going to get in serious trouble if you didn’t connect with something you loved.”
He looked at his hands and sighed. “I guess she knew you pretty well.”
Each of us can probably look back at pivotal moments, when without the compassionate intervention of another, we might have chosen a destructive path or even given up. Thankfully, God had blessed me with many bridges and angels, who have patiently led me over turbulent waters, at times I needed them most.
My caring mother and wise high school teacher saw value in me and potential, others did not.
I have tried to honor their memory and their examples by being a patient teacher and looking past personal appearance or selfish actions for potential and a deeper spirit. And though I often fail, I try to watch for opportunities to encourage students, to both challenge and comfort them. Like my mother and Mr. McArthur, I believe in individuals above systems.
Life is hard. And sometimes navigating this world seems impossible.
I am not good with my hands so that I am able to build a house for the homeless.
But I can build bridges.
And I can listen.
And I can help connect suffering souls with those able to bring relief.
It took me 40 years to recognize that one of the greatest gifts given to me is to be a bridge and comfort for others.
As a photographer friend once said, “God doesn’t care about pictures, he cares about people.”