WORDS MATTER A LOT WHEN YOU’RE 13

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“To live as a hermit you will have to feast on squirrels and bugs?”

How do our kids become adults, generation after generation, so that we can evolve? At thirteen I was a naive, lost kid with a brain full of dysfunctional ideas. I could disguise my immaturity for a while, but by high school, it was affecting my grades. I was failing. Classes and sports seemed to be dull, perfunctory obligations. Lackadaisically, I went through the motions without motivation and little exertion. A daily chorus of criticism and encouragement from parents and teachers did no good.

In my own way I was motivated and aggressively pursuing a dream, but it was a dysfunctional dream that impeded my high school progress. The things that excited me were hunting, fishing and walking in the woods. It was a happy pastime, -it was what I lived for. When pre dawn  morning light permitted, I’d go hunting before school every day. Never was I more happy than walking the rural trails far from our house.

Then after reading Thoreau’s Walden, I saw living as a hermit could be an ascetic life time calling or a spiritual quest. Why would I ever exert myself in algebra, chemistry and European history when I had plans to take up the hermit business? Case closed and bad grades followed.

Half a century later now, I can laugh at such unbelievable folly. But isn’t that just the point? Juvenile minds are exposed to countless preposterous schemes and illusions. Some dreams have value, others are more dysfunctional, like living in the woods. How does a kid distinguish the sound from the silly? What is the answer to misguided teen age ridiculousness? How can the immature mind evolve into something better?

For me the change came with two sentences. They changed everything. All aspirations of living in the woods ended simply and instantaneously with a young teacher, Mr. Ted Test.

Ted taught English at my high school. Compared to the rest of the crusty, elderly faculty, I now assume he must have been hired fresh out of college, Haverford. Ted was a devout Quaker and spoke with a calm, authentic voice that allowed for little debate and still encouraged discussion. Worried about my failing grades, my parents hired Ted at the end of my freshman year to help with English literature. During one after hours tutoring session Mr. Test listened patiently to my excuses for poor grades along with that hermit ambition. At the end he spoke but a few words: Two sentences that ended my career as a recluse:

First: ” Run towards a life in the forest and you may succeed, but if you are running away from the pain of growing up, you’re guaranteed to fail.”

Second: “You will not find a woman who wishes to live with you alone on a daily diet of squirrels, roots and bugs, so you’ll have to give up all thoughts of a girl/partner/wife or ever having a family.”

That was it. No more future with squirrels and bugs. I started getting passing grades, graduated from high school, collage and finished grad school. All it took was a smidge of adult patience and logic from the best teacher I ever met.

Categories: Humor

2 replies

  1. I love this story! Of course since I had a 40 year career in public education that may have colored my view. My career direction was also snapped into focus by a teacher. Grade 7 General Science with Mr. Bramblett. I had long had some interest in the sciences, but it was pretty much limited to observing fly wings with my $5 microscope and thinking maybe I would be the first person to go to the moon in a rocket ship. At the end of the first semester Mr. Bramblett handed me my report card and said “I think you will like this!” Big as life, there it was, an A+ in science. I had never seen anything like that on any of my prior report cards in elementary school. I was lucky to make the “average” range across the board. We really never know our full impact on someone at the time, but I made certain to go back and visit Mr. Bramblett after earning my teaching credential. He was delighted, and I totally understand that. To this day, I get email messages from some of my former students telling me they never forgot one or another of the lessons I taught. And usually they were positive remembrances. Thanks for tickling me with this story of yours Barclay.

  2. Every word in what Henderson said rings true. And BTW, at age 11, Ted Test also changed my life. He spoke of the beauty and inspiration of well-crafted writing, and I decided from then on the I wanted to be a writer and a communicator. How amazing that one teacher could so radically influence both Barclay Henderson’s life and mine.

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