Category Archives: Childhood

When You Shoved a Desk at Me as I Walked Past You . . .

I didn’t punch you, like any of the teachers in any of the viral videos punched their students.

I didn’t punch you, because . . .

I am an adult, and adults are here on this earth to nurture and mentor young people, to teach you who you should become as an adult, not to teach you who you shouldn’t become. If I had hit you, I wouldn’t be nurturing you or mentoring you. Most importantly, your decision-making skills will not be fully developed for another 10 years. I cannot expect you to make choices like a mentally-well adult, because you are a middle schooler.

I want, more than anything, for you to grow into a wonderful, smart, caring, kind, and loving man, not the sort of man I will read about in the headlines for doing something mean and heartless. I already had to read about a former student trying to murder his girlfriend, including some graphically sordid details that didn’t need to be in the newspaper. I don’t want to read something like that about you.

On most good days I actually enjoy my job, and I look forward to coming into a school where students, ready to learn or not, will get one little glimpse into the beauty of this world and into the theological concept of grace. My goal, each day, is to teach my students one thing that hadn’t ever thought about before.

I am a pacifist, and even if I wasn’t, I want for you to know that your first response shouldn’t be what can I do back to them, when they’ve done something wrong to you. I should model that a response can be forgiveness, love, and grace, not retribution.

I can control my initial reaction, and I can look you in the eye and tell you, “NEVER do that to me again, because a person’s first instinct is to hit back, or push back, and I don’t want you to get hurt.” I mean that. I really want you think through your actions, your words, your behavior, because I want for you to act with purpose, making good choices, not out of impulse, making poor choices.

You are a kid living with (probably significant) trauma in your life. You don’t need me to add onto that, and I probably didn’t think through this one hard enough when I got angry. Instead of talking through your actions with you and helping you to see how many other good and pure choices you could have made, I spoke harshly, punished you and your classmates who were laughing, and then made you work in silence.

I love you, even when you don’t love yourself. Even when your sole mission is to entertain the other kids in the class with behavior that is the opposite of what you know is right and good, I love you, and I want the best for you. At this point, it feels like I love you more and care about you more, than you love or care about yourself.

Dear Ten-Year-Old Me

When you are 40, you will look back on this day as both a pleasure and a pain.

You will remember the gentle sway of your canoe as you sit and relax in the path carved out through endless lily pads by many, many similar boats over the years. You will remember the long, long day you spent in this canoe with a girl whose mother played violin and whose father taught biology. The fickle world of middle school church camp and the fact that neither of you had a clear camp-friend forced the two of you together for the day-long canoeing adventure. You thought it would be a beautiful day, because you loved canoeing and swimming, but she talked nonstop about herself and how smart she was. You learned later, when her mother ended up substitute teaching at a school where you taught in your early twenties, that she got pregnant at 16 or 17 and that her life had been hard. You would not be sympathetic. In fact, you almost thought she got what she deserved.

But on this day, just before you entered 8th grade, you floated lazily, dragging your finger through the duckweed that coated the top of the water. You had just about mustered up the courage to break up with that jack ass boy, and you should have, but you couldn’t. You really should have, but that’s not why I am writing to you this time.

You had been a Christian for over half your life already, and you thought church camp was about the best and worst place you’d ever been. As you floated there, you thought about the spirituality of the place, the lessons, the bible study, the worship, the beauty of it. You thought about how silly some of it seemed, the cliquey girls, the boys who openly flirted with them, the contrived games at recreation time. You thought about a high school counselor from your hometown, who, when I look back on your young life, you may have been a little sweet on. Finally, though you just prayed.

You swayed back and forth as the girl tried to paddle you forward, and you dragged your finger in the water, and you prayed. Hard. You wanted answers. You had always heard God speak, and you always would hear that voice. Even when you are 40 you’ll hear God’s voice. God’s voice will never leave your body or your soul.

In that moment, when you were floating there suspended between your middle school world, the natural world, and the spiritual world, you heard the words that will disturb you for the rest of your life: “I want you to do my work. I want you to speak. I want you to minister to those around you. I have called you to this.”

Those words will both shape and destroy you. You will always wrestle with what this means for your life. You will always wonder if you are, in fact, ministering. You will always wonder why you heard these words and then a few years later figured out your sexuality which wasn’t compliant with your chosen denomination’s perception of your calling. Hell, your gender is barely compliant with your chosen denomination’s perception of a call to ministry. You will always wonder why you can preach, why you can counsel, why you can minister in all situations. You will always have people who want your counsel. You will always feel like you could do more to uphold and fulfill this call, this vision. You will always feel unsettled.

You will go to seminary for three years, and you’ll work in a church for five. You’ll preach sermons, you’ll mentor teenagers, you’ll make an impact on countless lives. You’ll leave all that behind to do the same in the public school system. You’ll go to graduate school and you’ll read books that make you feel whole, that will lead you to putting your bifurcated self back together, because all your life you’ve been taught that you can’t be gay and a Christian, let alone be a pastor. You’ll always feel a bit of that push and pull. You’ll be 35 before you finally figure out that living a call and ministering is a process of putting all your pieces back together. Of accepting those things about yourself that seem to be in opposition.

While you sit there in that canoe, think long and hard about what you’re hearing, what it means, and how you’ll follow that longing, that call. Make some different choices. Give yourself some grace. And revel in who God has called you to be.

Dear Claude Monet

If I could actually talk with you, I am not sure what I would say. I might just stand in your presence and weep. And then, hopefully without making you feel awkward, I’d reach over and hold your hands and look into your eyes, because I want to see and feel exactly from where those beautiful paintings came.

From a young age, when I saw your paintings in an art history book I checked out from the library, I was mesmerized. I knew I was in love with those colors, those subtle changes in light, those lilies, the Japanese bridge, the steam from the trains, even the boats floating in the harbor. I couldn’t keep myself from running my fingers across the pages of the book trying to feel you and your spirit through a print of a print of a painting that was done a hundred years before I was even born. I could sit for hours looking at one painting in particular. It drew me in. It made me queasy with familiarity and love.

As I grew older and continued taking art classes, I learned to appreciate other Impressionists, but I kept coming back to you and Mary Cassatt, as my two greatest loves in the art world. Don’t get me wrong, Claude, there are other artists I love, some that you, no doubt, would despise, but you are the one who most frequently steals my heart. You see, every time I think I know everything there is to know about you, or every time I think I’ve seen all of your paintings, I’m surprised by another variation, another subtle difference, another interesting fact about your life. I’d venture to say I’m slightly obsessed with you.

In 1995 the Chicago Art Institute exhibited a collection of your paintings called “Claude Monet: 1840-1926.” I was 21. I made sure I was there to see this collection, and here is where my first surprise about you came to fruition. I’d seen several of your paintings before at the Art Institute, but I was totally unprepared for what I was about see. I’d always read about how large-scale you worked, but it wasn’t until I was in a room, in a familiar art gallery, with several of your painting looming over me, that I realized just how large your paintings really are. They are huge, Claude, HUGE! I was overwhelmed and began to cry right there with all of touristy, artsy companions. I knew this was the largest collection of your works ever assembled in the United States, and I was absolutely overwhelmed.

I had seen everything in the exhibit, and was getting ready to leave it when I decided that I’d just walk back through one more time. As I salmoned my way back through the crowd, sort of nonchalantly, so I wouldn’t appear conspicuous to one of the many, many guards who had been employed for this occasion, I realized I hadn’t seen anything even resembling my favorite painting, the one I’d run my fingers across so many times in a book I’d checked out so frequently for so many years. I began to feel a bit sad for myself, even in the midst of all your great works. My painting, the one that touched the very core of me, wasn’t there.

I kept walking back against the flow of traffic until I was near the beginning of the exhibit again. I even walked back through what seemed like a million haystacks. (Can I pause here and ask you a question, Claude, what was the deal with the haystacks anyway?) So, as I make my way a second time through the exhibit, more leisurely, more carefully, focusing on those paintings I’d really loved the first time around, I realized that I’d not walked all the way through the Waterlilies display. I’d been taken by a painting I hadn’t seen before and then exited out of the waterlilies prematurely. I decided to take a slow walk all the way to the end of continuum, which is what it felt like. I could watch you move from a young vibrant man, painting with attention to every detail, to an older more gentle man, painting with attention to an entirely different set of details that were found in the bigger picture. I was lost in this progression of your life, of your loss of vision, of your further experimentation. I was daydreaming and just floating along in waterlilies, when I turned the corner and saw this:

the-japanese-bridge-at-giverny-1926Your work brought me to my knees right there in the middle of hundreds of people in the middle of the busiest exhibition to run at the Institute. I fell to the floor in awe and just wept, or more ugly cried, breaking into sobs. I’m can’t control my visceral reactions, which is embarrassing sometimes. I was moved beyond moved. When I finally stood up, my knees were weak, and I looked a mess. I had to resist walking up the painting and reaching out to try to touch you through it. I wanted to feel the textures, smell the paint. I wanted to reach back in time and feel what you felt when you were painting this beautiful work that had been speaking to me for years.

So, Claude, there you have it. I’m in love with you through this one painting. Thanks for making my life more beautiful with your art.

Dear Little Girl Who Was New in Second Grade

We sat together at lunch, in music class, and in the classroom. We played together for five recesses, then we sat under the birch tree, then you were gone. I don’t even remember your name. How I want to know your name. How I want to unpunch you.

My seven-year-old brain thought that if I was nice to you, people would say about me what they said about you: you dressed funny, you smelled bad, you brought your weird lunch in a brown paper bag, your teeth were all capped with silver, you were no doubt poor, and you lived at one of the less-desirable trailer courts in our district.

For all of these reasons I punched you in the face under the birch tree at recess that day. Every one was watching, the girls and the boys, so I had to save face. They said I loved you. They said I was a n—– lover, even though you were pale, pale skinned with blonde hair and blue eyes, and not African American at all. So I kept punching you in the face, in the sides, just like on TV, but when the teacher came over, I lied and said nothing happened. Even then I didn’t have the heart to face what I had done, and it was a good thing I wasn’t very strong because you only had a faint red patch on one cheek. You were too stunned to cry, and too scared to tattle.

You were different and a little bit weird. I was too, but my second-grade brain didn’t think about that. Our mutual oddities were evidenced by the fact that you and I had been having a lovely time sitting under the tree, watching the ants crawl on the blades of grass, talking about what they might be doing or where they might be going. We had previously broken off small bits of the birch bark and pretended we were pioneers taking notes with our charcoal pencils on those fragile pieces of bark, oblivious to the fact that our fantasy was so historically inaccurate.

The day before, which was your first day, we held hands while running through the field next to the playground and fell down laughing when you tripped on your long skirt. You didn’t make fun of my jeans that had to be rolled up because I was rounder than I was tall, and I didn’t ask about your beautiful, shiny, silver teeth. I was transfixed by how pale you were, the opposite of my darkness. Your long blonde braids were the perfect complement to my short black bob. I knew we’d be friends forever.

But then there was that horrible moment under the birch tree.

I need you to know that I’ve learned a lot since then, and I haven’t learned a lot since then. I would like to think that I’d not hit you today. I’d like to think I’d embrace you in the face of adversity. I’d like to think that given a challenge by my peers to chose someone who needs me over them, I’d chose you. I’d like to think I’d let people call me names for being friends with you.

But I am not sure I can promise you that. All the time. With complete assurance.

I strive every day to be the person I wish I would have been that day under the birch tree, but I still miss the mark sometimes. I strive to stand with those who need me, to recognize that my freedom is bound up with the freedom of those who have been oppressed, to be kind, to show grace, to be the person I know I need to be.

In my mind’s eye, I stand with you. I chose to be that person. I stop making excuses and I hold your hand under that birch tree, and tell every one else to just piss off. I give you grace, and I unload my shame.

Dear Librarians

You are the unsung heroes of intellectual development. You are the guardians of the word. You are the harbingers of hope and grace. You foster the light in a dark world.

From a very early age, when my mom would pack up the wagon with me and my brother and our bag of books and walk the nice two mile haul to the Hartford City Carnegie Public Library, I was in love with reading and books. I read everything. No, literally, I read everything the children’s section of our tiny library had to offer. From the easiest picture books through Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, I read it all. I absorbed the nonfiction like a sponge and could spout off random facts at whim, and I relished the fantastic realities I found between the covers of every mystery, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, or fiction text I read. I tried without success to write poetry modeled after the poets I’d read. I escaped from whatever chore I was supposed to do, from whatever small inconvenience of real life I had to endure, and I loved every word. Even the books I thought were boring, I read with fervor, just to say I had read the whole thing. To this day, I have only ever not finished four or five books. One of those was Shades of Grey. Please tell me how that got published and became a best seller. Ashamedly, one of those is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I just can’t make it through, though I know it’s a beautiful piece of literature and a blessing to those who read it. Maybe I’ll try that one again.

I remember C G helping me each week to find books I hadn’t read. She taught me how to look at the cards to find my number to see if I had read a book and just forgotten it. I remember how she would hold back brand new books, so I could read them first, if they were ones she thought I would particularly like. Mostly, from my childhood, I remember the summer reading program. The year when we did bookworms was my favorite, because for each book I read, I got a section to add to my bookworm. By the end of the summer my bookworm was the longest in the library and I chose the colors so it made rainbow after rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. I just loved reading.

As I got older, I used books to escape the things I couldn’t tell my parents about. I read my way into dealing with grown-up things that happened too soon. I was proud the day when I walked up the stairs and asked B M to help me locate the young adult books, which were reserved for students 13 years old and older. I was little (I still am) and I looked younger than I was (I still do), so she called downstairs to see if I had approval to read those books. I did. So at the age of ten, I read a highly banned book that is still one of my favorites, To Take A Dare by Crescent Dragonwagon and Paul Zindel. I lived vicariously through the protagonist, and when I, too, lost my virginity at a young age, I reread the book, giving myself hope that if a fictional character could live through all that then so could I.

At school, I was fortunate enough to have two librarians, R H and B A, who guided me and continued to nourish my love for literature. We were fortunate enough to have, as part of our language arts curriculum, education in how to use the library and research with the resources found there. I found myself spending as much time as possible hanging out in the library, sometimes even leaving class to go the bathroom, but ending up in the library reading. During high school, my first job was working at the public library where I had grown up, and I was also a media center volunteer during the few times when I had a study hall in my schedule.

Throughout college, my strong quality education in library science came in handy, as I had no problems transferring the skills I’d learned with the Dewey decimal system to the newly arranged Library of Congress system used by most college libraries. Because of my work at my small public library, I had trouble using Microfilm or Microfiche, and I had problem getting a job working for the circulation desk, where I promptly got fired for sleeping in a stairwell with my coworker. We were simply taking a little nap, which was apparently highly frowned upon. Still I remember everything about libraries in my life with a fondness that I can’t accurately capture in words.

I write to you, librarians, to let you know how important you are! Your work is perhaps some of the most important work to keep our culture thriving and filled with imagination. Sure the authors who write the texts are necessary, but I would bet that so many of them spent so much of their formative time with so many of you, that you are in fact to blame for their greatness. Libraries, and you, librarians, will save us. I am sure of it.

What is that Ray Bradbury says, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture, just get people to stop reading them”? Well, you are the fine folks who keep us reading, who guard our culture, who inspire us to keep pursuing knowledge.