There are moments in one's life which impact it in such a way that you are never the same. For me, today marks an anniversary of such an event. While the timeline was over a short period of time, I chose this particular day as to when it all crystallized. While my tale pales in comparison to others with much, much, much more horrific ordeals, its echoes haunt me still.
Shot Over The Bow
It was October 15, 1976. Shortly before I left for school that day, my mother posed what seemed to be at the time a very odd question. She asked my siblings and I what we thought about moving.
With a incredulous look, my response was, "Why?" Considering my "station" in life at the time, the proposition was unbelievable. I was a 9th. Grader in a small school district in the middle of Iowa that grouped us with the 7th. and 8th. Grades, a true junior high. In my eyes, I had finally achieved a level of success I had been seeking for a long time. I was the top vote-getter in a class-wide election to the Student Council (with 89 of the 93 votes) and was elected President at the first meeting; I was Vice President of the Band; I was Editor of the Student Newspaper, when the technology to print it was the mimeograph.
The titles were important, but more importantly they symbolized the respect I had finally earned from my peers. Ever the introvert, the shy, quiet one who struggled to relate well to others, this was the validation I needed for my own ego. I felt I had finally could believe in myself and build a foundation of true self-confidence from here. I didn't feel I had to try so hard to be in people's good graces; I finally felt accepted as my own person. And knowing I was just starting puberty, I felt I had the security I needed to make "growing up" a little less challenging.
I never gave the query another thought. But the security I had longed to have and keep lasted just two months. The foundation was built upon sand.
The Last School Days
The words I heard the morning of October 25 stunned me to the very core of my being. Even though there was a mention of going to somewhere else in the school district, my instincts were telling me we weren't going to live here anymore. I walked to my first class in a state of shock. It felt like my heart, made of crystal, was smashed into powder.
To this day, I am not very sure why we moved. As best as I was able to piece things together some time after the fact, it was for economic reasons. My father, an independent auto body repairman, was severely hit by the recession of the mid- and late-70s. He wasn't getting the jobs to sustain us, so he found employment with an auto dealership in the north central part of Iowa near where he was raised. It was a valid reason, but try telling that to a 14-year old who thought uprooting him from a place of comfort and security was the cruelest thing you could have done to him.
The hardest part of the scenario was being told we couldn't say anything about this to anyone. Again, why? I needed a release of my emotions and was being ordered to keep them bottled, in a sense. The thought of breaking the silence did cross my mind a couple of times, but filial obedience won out.
Not that I didn't have the chance to say "good-bye."
The school would be holding a mock General Election on November 2. There was a political "rally" the last period of classes on October 29. It was held in the gym, where a raised stage graced one end of the basketball floor.
I was the last speaker. I spoke on behalf of the incumbent from our House seat who lived in the community, the incumbent governor at the time, and President Gerald R. Ford in his bid for a full term. I mentioned you had heard of the Ford automobile and (Kansas Senator and Vice-Presidential nominee Robert) Dole pineapple, but had you ever heard of a Carter peanut? (The beginning of my conservative leanings. I even said something about Demo-rats.)
The bell rang and dismissed school for the day. I exited from a side door near the stage to run my paper route. As the door closed, the thought I never even considered before entered my mind.
That would be the last time I would ever see my old schoolmates en masse. Reality finally stopped for me.
We were told October 28 a new place to live was found and we would be packing that weekend. My younger siblings would stay with my maternal grandparents while my twin brother and I would help with the hauling. I really didn't want to do this, but I thought it would help me cope with the change in reality.
I don't remember if we assisted at Mass that Sunday, Hallowe'en Day. I know we didn't assist the next day, the Feast of All Saints. That Monday afternoon my brother and I emptied the lockers of all four siblings and returned the books to the principal's office. It was then the "news" was broken and the "black-out" lifted. It was a complete surprise to the principal, saddened to see us leave. I tried to put on my best face and look forward to the opportunity, but, inside, my heart was heavy.
And so it came. Everything was packed in a large truck borrowed from an acquaintance, in whose home we spent the last two nights. On November 2, the day Jimmy Carter was voted into the White House, I had to leave mine.
It was that moment in my life when I lost my childhood innocence. I was about to lose my adolescence as well.
November 3 was the first day in the new place, a farmhouse about four miles north of the town itself. November 5 saw me in the principal's office of the new school that morning, registering for classes. And November 8 was the first day as the new kid on the block. I would be literally and figuratively starting from the bottom, as the 9th. Graders in the new school were actually part of the senior high.
OK, I thought to myself. I don't have the titles or the prestige anymore; they were taken from me. But what I still do have is my intelligence. That was the cornerstone of your last success; it is going to be the cornerstone here. Give people a chance here.
It became a millstone. They blew their chance.
The Final Straws
Two incidents ended any hope of wanting to belong.
The first was my second day of classes. I was in 9th. Grade Biology, sitting in a very familiar place (the front row) with my book open and exchanging questions and answers with the teacher. If you listened close enough, you could hear the jaws of the students hitting the top of their desks.
Yes, they were so impressed with my intelligence one of my classmates gave me a nickname which stuck to me for three years. He thought it to be one of flattery; I thought it to be one of mockery. It was supposed to be a name of a computer; instead, it was the company name of the leading photocopier at the time. And when I got tagged with that moniker, I thought, "So, now, I am only a machine."
The sensitivity of insensitive teenagers.
The cherry on top of this bitter cake was a few days later. I kept my gym clothes in a duffel bag in a wire basket in the locker room. Somehow, someone was able to partially open the bag, reach into it, and tear the t-shirt I was using. It was from my old school.
I was already emotionally devastated by the change of scenery, but this was too much. Having no skills to cope with this change and seemingly nobody to whom I could turn for help, I came to only one conclusion. To save me from going through this kind of heartache ever again, I started emotionally withdrawing from my surroundings as much as I could.
Practice makes perfect. It still is my best (?) coping mechanism.
Three things stand out in all this, even after thirty years.
The innocence I lost was my ability to trust deeply enough to be vunerable. I did blame my father for doing this for quite awhile until I grew out of that idea. But I still hold much resentment toward God, first wondering why He did this to me, and now wondering why He allowed it to happen.
This event seemingly destroyed what very little confidence I was finally developing. I felt very powerless when this all happened and really wondered if it was worth the time and effort to achieve something I wanted if it were going to be taken away that easily. Deep down inside, I really don't believe in me that much, if at all.
I still keep my feelings to myself. I still keep to myself. Still waters may run deep, but the emotional tides are strong.
I want to blame all my failings on this. But as Fr. John Powell, SJ, has written in many of his books, "Growth begins where blame ends." I don't have to be stuck where I am; I still have the choice of victor or victim.
But it is hard to break this mold, especially when the One Who can do it is the One you don't know well enough for you to allow access to the places that need healing. I wonder if this was the struggle of St. Augustine. It is a case of "give me your Grace but not yet."
It has been a long "dark night of the soul" regarding this. I know I have held this so tightly in my hands that I am afraid to let go of it. But I can only receive it my hands are open. He can only take it when I am willing giving it.
It is time to "Let Go and Let God."
Thirty years is long enough.