(This is a chapter by chapter release of my short memoirs The Men Who Put Skin on Jesus.)
The day I turned 13, March 22, 1972, my parents had my birthday party at a local bowling alley. I bowled, ate hotdogs, popcorn, candy, and cake with six friends while my parents orchestrated the moving trucks and our move to our new place.
We moved from Turlock to Denair, California, only about 6 miles away. For twenty years my dad had sold agricultural chemicals to farmers in our area, but he had longed to try his hand at farming his own place. Dad and mom received a CalVet loan and purchased 40 acres of almonds for this side-hustle. The almond ranch nestled around a five-bedroom, red with white trim, ranch-style house on a small hill. There was a big red barn and a white fence around the horse corral for Saber our off-white horse who had long been a member of our family. At our previous place, Saber had lived in a small, fenced enclosure, but now he had space. There was an equipment and chemical shed, an extra one-bedroom, one-bath house on the property, originally for a caretaker, which my parents used as a rental, and best of all, in my mind, there was a pool connected to the main house by a breezeway.
With the move, my parents gave me the choice to either return to Brown School, where I had been attending with my friends, or attend Gratton School, the local, K-8, three-room, schoolhouse just a quarter-mile from our new place. I chose Gratton School. I thought it meant an escape. I could leave behind the feelings of being little, the F in German, the life I could not stand up to. In essence, I could begin again.
So, the next week, I started at Gratton School. Whereas Brown school had 300 students in three grades, In three rooms, Gratton School had just over 60 kids in 9 grades. It was a different world. I think 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 was disappointed when I still felt little, inadequate, and ashamed inside as I walked up the stairs into the big, white, two-story wooden building that first day.
I was one of eight in the seventh-grade class. I got introduced to the 20-some other students in the sixth, seventh and eighth-grade room. They’d been together all year. I felt behind, shy, and uncertain. Our teacher, the school principal, was Jack Harlan.
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 late-year arrival as if he’d always known me. I was a scrawny, frightened, reserved, “trying so hard to be liked by smiling lots” kid. He encouraged me within the first week to take up an instrument and join the band. I wanted to play the flute. It was not the kind of band for a flute, so I took up the trumpet. He encouraged me in sports. I felt totally uncoordinated. But Jack Harlan played with us and clapped for us as we played.
Jack led some lessons for all the students in his class, then we all worked through our school books on our own, kind of like being homeschooled. He circulated, helping as needed. I noticed how Bonnie Haarstag was good at everything and wanted to be as good as she was. She was especially good at math and great at spelling.
Two months later was the Year-End Spelling Bee for all grade levels. The whole school started out, and it ended up just me and Bonnie up last. Two seventh-graders up against one another. The word was “ANXIETY.” I heard it used in a sentence, and my mind went blank. Sweat broke out on the back of my neck and on my brow. I paused. Uncertain. Feeling the meaning of the word course through me without a clue how to spell it. I said it in my head. It sounded like there was an “ng” in there someplace, like “anger.” Here I had spent much of my life feeling anxiety, and could not find the letters to spell it.
The letter “x” never entered my mind that day. And, I got it wrong. The light went out of the room for me as Bonnie spelled it with ease and then spelled the next word and won. Interesting fact: I have been able to spell anxiety ever since!
My cheeks flushed; shame coursed through me. I felt so stupid. In my mind’s eye, I saw the image of a little boy, curled up asleep in the corner of a darkened room. I thought this image proved how stupid I was right then. It actually was the only piece of memory from the years of abuse I carried with me until it became a door into all the hidden memories and was healed after I turned 52.
But that day, Jack, beside me in an instant, reframed my defeat.
He congratulated me! This staggered me.
He applauded me, tears brimming my eyes, then took my shoulders in his hands, looked me in the eyes, and spoke, saying: “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. It was as if every student was his favorite. He had plenty of love for us all.
Jack started a process of healing in my heart. His presence began to loosen the emotional hold my mom had on me, unwittingly. He became a man’s voice over my heart and life. He gave me identity. It was as if he said, “you are a boy and it is a good thing.”
That fall, I came home from school, opened the front door, and heard mom yelling. Her back was to the door. She was standing at the big secretary desk in the kitchen, holding the receiver of the yellow, push-button phone to her ear. She was wearing her loose-fitting, sleeveless dress with purple and pink flowers.
She yelled into the receiver, “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!” Then, for the finale, she slammed down the phone with vehemence and began to sob, hands to her face. I was used to explosions but had never seen her do this before. Who would yell at anyone in such a manner? To whom was she speaking? “Mom?” I said, tentatively, as I entered. She turned around, looking up, surprised I was there, anger and grief etched into the lines on her features. “What’s going on? Who was that?”
“It was Ana Margaret,” she confessed. One of her good friends. Well, perhaps she used to be! Then, mom surprised me by saying, “I don’t want to talk about it.” With that, she left the room. I heard her crying in her bedroom. Still standing at the door, I shook my head, closed the door, and went through the hall door, turned left, and headed up the double flight of carpeted stairs to my bedroom. My room faced the front of the house and looked out over the circular drive, the big eucalyptus trees, and the corral.
I lay down on my back and shook my head. This was a first. Today, for the first time, mom had not processed her emotions with me. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to do with it except shake my head.
Looking back, I wonder, had the presence of a man who affirmed me as the boy I was, who was safe, who helped me begin to stand up, helped my mom stand up as well?
Jack’s presence in my life, underlines the power one person can have on the life of another.