Sunday morning, and I’m thinking of my students who are about to graduate, and another Sunday when I was fifteen, and my mother was working in the laundry at a nursing home in Sumner, Illinois, where the population was around 1,000 at the time. She had to be at work at 5am, which meant I didn’t have to go to church because my father wasn’t interested, which meant I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted, which meant I was walking the streets just to be out of the house.
That’s when I saw the man in the back of a pickup truck parked along the side of the street just past Perrott’s Grocery. I didn’t know if he was asleep, passed out, or dead. He was face-down on the bed of that truck, a checked shirt pulled out of his jeans, a cuff with snap buttons undone around his wrist, a pair of pointy-toed brown cowboy boots on his feet.
This was a time when I was close to losing myself, just another teenage boy rebelling against authority, going from an “A” student to one who was barely getting by in a number of classes, taking risks with shoplifting and drinking. Small potatoes compared to some, but still I was no one my parents would recognize. I’m certain I didn’t know who I was or what I was on my way to becoming.
Then I saw that man. I stopped awhile and took him in, this man who’d obviously spent a portion of his Saturday night on that truck bed in this drowsy town where the bells at the Christian Church were now ringing and where my mother, a gentle woman who loved me, was putting her hands into detergent so strong it left her with a wicked rash. My mother who’d taught grade school for thirty-eight years and was now sixty-two years old. My mother working the five-to-two shift and missing the church service she loved, while I walked uptown, went into Piper’s Sundries and stole a paperback biography of Janis Joplin, smoked a couple of Camel cigarettes, did everything I could to forget about that man in the truck, but he was always there. He still is. I can’t get him out of my head
I wanted to be someone my mother would be proud to call her son. She took me to church that evening. She did her best to save me, and I wanted her to. It would take a few more years. It would take my mother’s unshakeable faith.
She was a teacher all her life, even after she retired. She knew how to see the best in people. She knew how to wait until they saw it in themselves. I saw that man in the truck on a Sunday morning, and I wanted to be better. It took a lot of Sundays for that to happen, but eventually it did, and, when it did, my mother didn’t act surprised. She’d been convinced all along that one day I’d pass through the darkness into the light. I’d find my talents and I’d love them too much to toss them away.
So, to my students, I say, love your talents, love yourselves, love the journeys you’re on, love the people around you. You’re going places, marvelous places you might not dare imagine. Trust me. I’ve seen the best of you. I know.