Monday, December 27, 2010

Through the Eyes of a Boy - The Giver

My old, brown Oldsmobile Cutlass was loaded as the warm, August sun beat down on the gravel driveway. It was strangely quiet as I stood there…looking, thinking, wondering. Geoff was still asleep in his room and dad was off somewhere, maybe at work. Mom was in the kitchen or perhaps sitting in on the couch doing a crossword or some other type of puzzle. Frank was married now and had already moved away. Debbie had been out of the house several years and was now living in Portland where she worked. Today was the beginning of a new season in my life…I was going off to college at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

I’m not sure what I was expecting as I stood there, but I’m sure it was more than was taking place. I was leaving home and going somewhere I had never gone before. There had been no college visitation. I had received the scholarship late…during mid-summer and had scrambled to get all of my paperwork in. If it hadn’t been for a couple of kids I’d graduated with, I would have had no idea where to look for a place to live but a couple of friends had given me the name of the dorm they had been accepted to and it still had rooms available when I sent in my application. The truth was, I didn’t even exactly know where the college campus was located. I’d never been there. But after all, Moscow wasn’t “that” big, so it shouldn’t be that difficult to find.

And so, I walked back into the house and told mom I was leaving. She came over and gave me a kiss and watched from the doorway as I got in my car and drove out of the driveway. I don’t know what was going through her mind…I never asked and she never said.

About two hours later, I found myself in Moscow driving down the main street looking right and left for any sign that indicated where the campus might be. I took a left where I should have taken a right and ended up on the outskirts of town in what was definitely NOT a college neighborhood. I turned around and by sheer luck eventually found the campus with the old, turn of the century buildings about an hour later. I drove up and down streets until I finally found the housing complex that I would soon be calling home.

College life wasn’t easy for me. I was attending on a NROTC scholarship which meant that I had to have a military appearance. When I arrived, my hair was thick and long…and was soon laying on the floor of Frank and Deb’s trailer where I got a haircut. This was the mid-seventies and “buzz cuts” were not the style of the day. The Vietnam War had only ended a short while before and there was still great anger and animosity directed at anything military.

The dorm that I moved into had a few friends from high school who spent most of their time in their rooms smoking pot or getting drunk. The drinking I could get away with…after all I’d been drinking quite regularly for the past five years. But for me, I just wasn’t interested in the drug culture. My new associates in the Navy were…well, the kindest word I can probably use is “different”. I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Most of the men that were in the NROTC program would have been called “geeks” or “nerds” in their respective high schools that they came from.

It is because of these strange new surroundings that “they” became so meaningful to me. Each day shortly before we began to make our way to the cafeteria for lunch, the mail came. There was pushing and shoving from the guys as they would look into their mail “cubby” to see if anyone had remembered that they went off to college. I’d been at the University for about three weeks when “they” started to arrive. Usually an envelope with a Portland, OR return address with the familiar handwriting. But on some occasions, there would be a note in my mail box to see the R.A. I knew what that meant…there was a package!

As I sit and write these words today, I can still remember the love and joy I would feel as I received those letters and the “care packages” that would be filled with home baked goodies. It wasn’t because the fresh, chocolate chip cookies were the best I’ve ever eaten (although they may well be), or because I was getting something in the mail that most of the other guys in the dorm wasn’t…it was because receiving these gifts helped me to know that I wasn’t forgotten and that I was loved.

But that’s who my sister is. For as long as I can remember, Debbie (it’s so hard to call her Deb) has been generous to me. I think she was to Frank and Geoff as well, but for some reason it just takes on a special significance to me. I remember the Christmas before I entered college…my senior year in high school, when as a family we didn’t have much money. So we decided not to really do any gifts…or if we did, it would be very small.

I remember her talking to me about an idea for mom and dad – to make a photo album. I loved to take pictures and had accumulated quite a collection of family photos. Debbie suggested that we “go together” on the gift…we would use my photos and she would put together an album that would be from both of us. So she took the box of my pictures and “borrowed” one of my poetry books and off she went.

I really didn’t know what to expect as a final product. If I had been putting it together, it probably would have been pictures symmetrically arranged on each page with perhaps the names of whoever was in the photo. But Debbie has the gift of writing as well as the gift of giving. The “product” of this venture together has become a bit of a legend. One each page were artistically placed photos with a short poem, or a descriptive phrase. Each page was a masterpiece in itself. Resting now in a drawer at Geoff and Lynn’s, we will occasionally pull it out and relive through memories the experiences that are recorded in that album. A gift for mom and dad at the time… but a gift for the family forever.

Growing up, my memories of Debbie are filled with her smiles and her “bigger than life” presence. The first to get a job away from the farm at the optometrist’s office in downtown Sandpoint. The first to go off to college at Whitworth. The first to move away to the “big city”…and always having a place stay if I wanted to visit. The “big sister” who never treated me like a “little brother” in the negative sense of the word. The pride and the angst that come from sitting in a high school classroom and having the teacher say, “You’re Debbie’s brother, right? I’ll expect the same quality of work from you that she gave me.”

Whether she recognizes it or not, Debbie has given me a legacy that I’ve aspired to come close to. Being human, there are some things that aren’t on my “to do” list…but I hope that I will be remembered as someone to gives, and loves as much as she does.

This is one of a series of stories written for my family - Christmas, 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Blink of an Eye

I could feel my stomach tighten as I read the subject line in the e-mail: “Urgent Prayer Request!” The e-mail was from Jean, my former administrative assistant who is now retired. Each year, she and Twila, a retired high school English teacher/Harley “mama” who used to work for me come over and we spend a wonderful lunch to celebrate my birthday and catch up on everything going on in my old stomping grounds. So as I read those words, so many possibilities leapt to my mind.

“Had Twila’s cancer returned?”

“Had something happened to Rich, the former superintendent we had both worked for and respected so much?”

“Was there a dire need in Jean’s life that she was requesting prayer for?”

I continued to read the short message.

“I just got a text message from Linda Thomas that John Repp is unconscious and has been air lifted to Seattle with bleeding in his brain. I don't know what happened. Please add him to your prayers.”

John was also a retired teacher who had worked for me when I was a high school principal. Sadly, he wasn’t a very good teacher and not very effective in the classroom. A former soldier, he continued to maintain a military bearing with short, cropped hair and a hardened attitude toward performance. As a result, it seemed that we were often times at odds with one another as I would work to try to help him improve and then not have that advice carried over into the classroom. But while John was not the greatest teacher, he had turned out to be an amazing friend.

When I was first arrested, I felt like the most alone person on earth. Paula, my wife was gone…trying to make sense of all that happened and helping our kids cope with all of the changes that were coming as well. I had pretty much removed myself from any relationship with my own family over the past several years and didn’t reach out in that direction for advice or comfort. The majority of the relationships that I had built up over the years were with other educators…and the nature of my offense was also an insult to the profession that I had served. So I pretty much isolated myself, with the exception of continuing to talk with my wife.

Then out of the blue one day, Paula asked if it was “Ok” to give my address to Jean because there were a number of my former colleagues who wanted to write to me. I gave my permission and several days later I received a letter from John. Of everyone who had been on staff at the high school, John was the last one that I would have expected to write me. But he not only wrote me, he comforted me. He shared that I wasn’t alone in my struggles with pornography and sent me a book to read that he had studied in a men’s group at his church. He said that he would like to write a letter to the judge on my behalf to be considered at my trial.

Over the next four years, I saw a soft side of John that I didn’t know existed. While in prison, each month like clockwork I would receive a short note from John. Sometimes he would include a newspaper clipping about the high school or he would keep me updated on how the sports teams were doing. He always asked how I was doing…was I safe? How was the food? Was I getting counseling? He would ask how things at the chapel where I worked were going and how my guitar lessons were progessing. In most of the envelopes that bore his letters or cards, I would find a receipt for twenty or thirty dollars that he had sent to be deposited in my commissary account. While not a large amount in society’s eyes, they were a gift of amazing abundance to me.

When I was released from prison, John continued to correspond with me. Once again, like clockwork I would receive a phone call from John each month. We would talk like old friends and share stories of all that was going on in our lives. For him, stories of his grandkids and his work. For me, updates on trying to find work or sharing the blessings when work finally came. We maintained the connection for over a year and then busyness in both of our lives resulted in the conversations becoming more infrequent.

So when I read the words, my heart sank. I quickly e-mailed Jean back asking for her to keep me updated on John’s condition and prognosis. I paused in my activities at work and said a silent prayer for John and his wife Judy…and their two kids who had been students and passed through the high school during my tenure there. Over the next several days, the news came in. Uncertainty over the cause but perhaps from a fall he had taken at work the previous week. Initial partial paralysis and some loss of eyesight in the first few days…but movement returning as he began to heal. Reminders from Jean of John’s extremely strong faith and his determination to recover.
John’s situation was a stark reminder to me of the fragility of life and our lack of control in it. So much can happen in the blink of an eye. Life as normal one moment, everything turned upside down the next. But it also reminded me that even as unpredictable as life can be, the relationships that we invest in are so important. John had invested in me during my time of need and had build a solid foundation for both of us. Now it’s my turn to return the favor.
Photos from Flickr