March 29, 1974
Forty-eight years ago today, I was in my Sophomore English Class when there was a light knock on the door. Mrs. Miller, my English and voice teacher turned to answer the knock. I remember she stepped out into the hallway to speak to whoever had interrupted our class. When she returned, I had a brief recognition that her expression had changed. I did not recognize the look then. I soon became very familiar with it. I don’t remember now if she approached my desk or called my name from the front of the room. I do know that I was singled out from my classmates and informed I was needed in the office. With every eye in the room now focused on me, I walked to the front of the room and out of the door, never to be the same again.
In retrospect, someone, whose identity I cannot recall now, walked with me to the office and this should have been a clue that this trip was not about my behavior. However, in my experience kids were only sent to the office because they are in trouble, so it seems natural that my mind was racing to recall what I might have done to warrant the trip. Getting into trouble in school was not a normal course of events for me. My companion and I walked down the hallway in silence and my eyes were focused on the floor.
When we reached the office, I was invited into the Superintendent’s office, a place I don’t think any of us kids had ever been before and there I was confronted with several familiar faces. Again, I can’t tell you exactly who was there. I believe Mr. Plank whose office we were now in was there. It seemed like every seat in the room was taken but that is likely an exaggeration. Most significantly the pastor from our church, Pastor Swiggum and his wife Jean, who also served as school secretary were present. Probably at this moment my fear of getting in trouble was replaced by sheer dread of what was coming. I cannot tell you how it was said or by whom, although it was likely Pastor Swiggum, but it was then I learned that my dad was dead. I don’t know what words were used. Was it died, passed away, gone? I don’t remember. What I do remember was that my dad was dead, and I was needed at home.
What an awful job for anyone, to inform a young person that their world has been altered forever. I have a lot of compassion for those adults now but for many years, I was very angry about what came next. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal when I type it out, but here it is: they let me go back to my locker and get my stuff. Seems like a stupid thing to be upset about, right?
I remember that at the time, I was hell-bent on doing that. It was the birthday of a good friend and I wanted to wish her a happy birthday. I wanted to get my things. I probably wanted to pretend that none of this was happening. Maybe my overly dramatic teen-self wanted to make a good show of being strong and brave. What I could not anticipate and what they did not perceive was that by doing so, I became what I perceived as a spectacle for all to observe and the memory of that bothered me for many years. At the time, I might just as well have been walking through the school naked like someone’s reoccurring nightmare. I felt exposed and vulnerable and different, the cardinal sin of any teen. The younger me felt the adults in charge should have known this was a bad idea and stopped me from going.
Losing my dad at 15 changed my life and I was different. That walk through the lunchroom on March 29, 1974, didn’t make it so. It was just a tangible event that I could focus on and direct my anger at. In a town made up almost entirely of two parent families, I now only had one parent. Except for my friend, Jan, who had lost her father, the only other kids that I knew without fathers had divorced mothers which had already branded them as different. I hated being different. Like all teens, I just wanted to fit in.
What I couldn’t see then and likely did not see for many years is that my contemporaries were all struggling with that feeling of being different. Their struggles just weren’t as outwardly apparent as mine and since I was buried in my own pain, I did not see it. Over the years some of them have revealed those struggles and I have been surprised by them. Many have not told me directly, but I have surmised things based on what I have heard and seen in the years since. I know now that none of us gets through life without some feeling of being disconnected and we all have our own moments where we feel vulnerable and different. So today, on the 48th anniversary of my trip through that school lunchroom, I can remember it without cringing and use it to remind myself that you just never really know what people are dealing with but you can be assured they are dealing with something and that makes all of us pretty much the same.