Wednesday, August 21, 2013

This High School Teacher Broke My Heart... And Enabled Me To Put It Back Together Again

My favorite class in college was an Adult Psychology course for which the main premise was that we cannot become healthy adults if we maintain unresolved issues from our childhood.  A colossal assignment for the semester was to identify the issue from our youth that remained most unsettling, and then confront it head on.  The idea was to write an explanatory letter to the person with whom the issue remains and then follow up with a face-to-face meeting aimed toward resolution.

My problem, if you could call it that, was that I didn’t have a living person in my life that I had any real issue with.  So unless going up to the Heavens to confront my deceased father on the one fat joke he ever made (to my face) was on option, I was in a pickle.  Requiring a more tangible option, my professor allowed me to turn toward my adolescence, in which there were plenty of untapped issues.  One inscription from my high school yearbook read:

“KLP, I am not going to say anything important in a yearbook.  You know how I feel about how you’ve managed through the years, especially this year.
See you when I see you.  I’ll be in my office. – SMacM”

In the CliffNotes version of this story, I’m KLP, the jovial yet sensitive high school graduate known for her (now maiden) initials, and for having learned in her freshman year that her father had terminal brain cancer.

SMacM was my advisor, which in my tiny private day school meant that he was like a homeroom teacher for me and about 8 other students for four years straight.  He was the “cool” one.  He wore aviator sunglasses, coached lacrosse and dated one of the other teachers.  But this all meant little to me after I got to know him, and it means very little to me now.

As my advisor, SMacM was responsible for making sure I didn’t fall through the cracks.  Yet to use any of this brief description as a way of defining my relationship with him only trivializes all that he meant to me- and all that he made me mean to myself.  Our relationship was atypical, as were all of my years with him.

I identify with my high school as much as anyone.  It’s the place where I shared my first real kiss, developed a passion for writing, and a hatred for algebra.  And it’s where the acronym I’d used all my life developed much more meaning than just it’s similarity to the theme song from that show about a radio station in Cincinnati.

SMacM, or Sandy, knew it all- even the stuff I tried to hide from him.  He knew when my free periods were, who I was dating, how many cigarettes I smoked a day and how fast I drove in the parking lot.  Once in a great while, you find someone who knows you better than you know yourself.  For me, he was that person.  And he knew it.

Sandy went above and beyond his call of duty.  I was required to meet with him way more often than the average student was.  In the beginning, I resented this.  Like all teenagers, I believed I could handle anything, and felt no need to pour my heart out to him merely because he had been assigned to me.  Until, that is, he proved that I was more than just an assignment.

My father’s life began to wind down just as my senior year did and though my graduation was a milestone, it does not bring back the happiest of memories.  Commencement meant a new group of advisees for Sandy, and that unfortunately, under the circumstances, my father had found the most perfect time to find his peace.  Already in a Hospice, my Dad was unable to attend my graduation, though he did see me in my cap and gown.  Sandy did what he could to lessen the blow, stepping in as a “father figure”, with a gripping hug as I held my diploma in hand.

Less than one month after that ceremony, my father had a ceremony of his own.  Next summer will mark 20 years since his passing, and I have little more clarity about it now than I did then.  The outpouring of love and support from family, friends and strangers was unprecedented.  But one face was missing.

I never heard from Sandy after my father died.  No visit, no phone call, no card and no fulfillment of the promise he had made to see me through the challenge whenever it came.  Despite the yearbook inscription that his office door would remain open, it closed on the day I received my diploma.  I was made to feel that because I was no longer a student, I was no longer part of his job description, his assignment.

So to fulfill my assignment, I wrote Sandy a letter, addressing the wound that clearly had not healed.  As you may have guessed, there was no reply.

Still, I consider myself a healthy adult.  Though unable to discuss the issue with him in person, as outlined in the assignment, I was able to face it on my own.

I can honestly say that I have forgiven Sandy, but more importantly, I have forgiven myself.  I have forgiven myself for the judgment I placed upon him in his absence and for the disappointment I let myself experience.

Many (many) years later, I can confidently disagree with my Adult Psychology professor.  Our health as adults is not based solely upon our ability to resolve, but our ability to forgive.  The challenge then becomes doing so before time runs out.