In March 1972, when I was 13, my parents moved six miles from the only house I had ever known. My dad had an opportunity to buy 40 acres of almonds. After a decade of advising farmers on their crops, he wanted to keep doing that while trying his hand at his own nut ranch. So, we moved from Turlock to Denair, to this ranch with a sprawling ranch-style, red house with white trim, on a small rise of land, we called a hill, surrounded by the huge eucalyptus and 40 acres of almond trees.
Up until then, I had attended Brown Middle School with about 300 kids in 3 grades. I was lost in the crowd, flunking German, feeling like a loser in other subjects. I had spent much of my 7th grade year, up until that point, in heel pain. The doctors gave me shots in my heels, put me in cast up to my knees, on crutches, and then in a wheelchair trying to give me time to become pain free. All to no avail. Finally, my parents took me to see a counselor who diagnosed me with this sentence, “Brian cannot stand up to life.”
I had my reasons, but in the end, I was an emotional and high-strung kid.
By the time my March birthday rolled around, I was walking and doing a bit better. With the move, my mom and dad gave me a choice. Either, my mom would drive me daily back to Turlock and I could continue at Brown School with my friends, or I could start at the school 1/4 mile from our new house. Called Gratton School, it was a three room schoolhouse hosting 9 grades, K-8.
By choosing Gratton School, with its 60 kids in 9 grades, I thought I could start over. It was a different world. I believed in starting over I could leave everything I disliked about myself behind as well. But you’ve probably already discovered, wherever we go, we take ourselves with us. So, I still felt little, inadequate and ashamed, like I didn’t measure up. I was afraid I’d fail. And when I encountered those feelings I’d see within my mind a picture of this little boy curled up in the corner of a dark room. Then, I’d hate myself for feeling self pity. The image was an image connected to abuse I had experienced 5 years earlier, but I wouldn’t learn this for another 45 years.
The seventh-grade class had eight students. We met in one room of the three-room schoolhouse with the sixth and eighth graders. Our teacher, the school principal, was Jack Harlan. God brought Jack into my life to breathe into me some hope in the middle of what was a life filled with so much darkness and despair.
Jack was of medium height, broad shouldered, blue-eyed and kind. His short black hair was parted on the side. He had an easy, genuine smile. He was immediately likable. He accepted me, this mid-year arrival, a scrawny, shy, frightened, reserved, “trying so hard to be liked by smiling lots” kid. He encouraged me to take up an instrument and join the band. I wanted to play flute. It was not the kind of band for a flute. I ended up playing trumpet. He encouraged me in sports. I felt totally uncoordinated. Being in his classroom was kind of like being homeschooled. He led parts of the class in some lessons, but mostly we worked through the books we had and he gave us individual attention.
I immediately wanted to be as good at everything as a girl named Bonnie Haarstag. She either was super smart, or she just seemed super smart. Anyway, she was good at math. And she was great at spelling.
In May I lost to Bonnie in the School Spelling Bee. I missed the word “anxiety.” Bonnie and I were the last two up, but anxiety stumped me. There was nearly an “ng” sound in there! Was it related to anger or angst? The letter “x” never entered my mind. I couldn’t spell it. Bonnie spelled anxiety with ease and spelled the next word correctly and won. I saw the little boy in the corner. My cheeks flushed; shame coursed through me. I wanted to run. But Jack handled shame differently than others had in the past. He didn’t ridicule or use sarcasm. Instead, Jack reframed my defeat.
He congratulated me. He said: “You are a victor! You stayed in the game. You did your best. You stood your ground. You made it to the very last round.” To Jack, nothing was a failure. Everything was a step toward a larger victory. “This,” he whispered, “is worth celebrating!” No one had ever spoken to me like Jack Harlan. No one. Every student was his favorite student. He had plenty of love for us all.
Jack started a process of healing in my heart. He began to teach me defeats need not be endings. He showed me failure in the shape of a stepping stone. It has taken me years to let his lessons take root. I’m still learning.
Many around us are feeling anxious, defeated, depressed, and alone. Today there was a man wearing a full-blown gas mask in the grocery store! I hoped it was a publicity stunt, but he looked frightening and serious. A friend tells me new people are coming daily to the food pantry who have never previously been out of work. Crisis hotlines are flooded with calls.
Those calls might be related to the fact that isolation is taking a toll. Everyone needs people around. Regular hugs are needed just for basic wholeness. A hug that lasts 20 seconds has all kind of therapeutic effects wrote Claire Ezzine at “Bridge the Gap Therapies” listing nine beneficial effects from the release of oxytocin to building self-esteem.
One mantra, Jack would have used, had he known it, has helped me multiple times when feeling the anxiety of this season. It came through my therapist Kate, and she needs to remind me of it frequently. It reframes situations and emotions. When your body is “spelling anxiety” with every cell, it helps to say it out loud:
God is in control. He is not biting His fingernails. Breathe in Jesus. Breathe out anxiety.
God is in control.
Paul reminds us “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
God is in control.
Rest in this, beloved.