Turning Points

Although I am not ready to celebrate the end of the pandemic yet, I have had the vaccine and like a sand crab inching out of his burrow, I want to inch forward, too. While excited, I know that turning points can be fraught with difficulties and stress.  But I also know that life has prepared us to face change. Like a sand crab we will find our way back to the surface. Indeed, we know that tomorrow will be better. Life has taught us this. Cancer taught me this. Friends taught me this.

Here is one story that showed me that change, even hard change, can lead to surprising growth. I arrived at Purdue University near the end of the Viet Nam War.  Like most college students, I hated that America was engulfed in a war that had no justification. The war stalemate left the campus with a perplexing malaise. Nonetheless, I was blissfully idealistic and had high hopes I could make a difference in the lives of others. I wanted to major in psychology and be a therapist, and I secretly longed to be a writer. Better yet, an author! I had no clue how those two majors would sync up, but I was determined to major in both. In high school I had won a few minor writing awards, and I did excessive listening to the problems of friends. I harbored a deep-seated belief that these subjects were my future.

Within a few months my hopes of becoming a writer had been dashed. My first writing teacher tortured me with B after B, and he slashed unexplained red marks across my papers. One day in class, he insisted we were all “sludge writers.” Although there was no way to Google the term back then, I knew it was bad. “Every one of you need to find another major,” he yelled at us. “None of you—I repeat none of you—will ever be able to make a living as a writer.”

In the coming year, my psychology instructors made their field appear to be a rabbit’s hole of research and exploration into the minds of those suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and paranoia. I searched the course catalog for just one class that was uplifting, but positive psychology did not exist yet. That semester I took my first (and last) class of psychological research, commonly called “rat lab.” In the second month of class, a virus swept through the lab and killed all the rats. I took it as a sign.

On my way home after the rat lab debacle, I ran into a friend who was heading to the Union to sign-up to tutor inner city students. On a whim, I went with her. This is how I came to spend my Tuesday and Thursday afternoons tutoring nine-year-old Rodney in the basement of the local Presbyterian church.

In our first session Rodney wore a Pacers jersey, and we argued over who was the best player on the team. When I realized he knew more about the team and their stats, it was easy to introduce his math lesson by teasing him that he certainly knew numbers. And he did. His language was basketball and math. Both were games to be played, and he liked them.

But reading was no game, and Rodney was not a fan. One day as we struggled through a story in his classroom reader, he made a confession. “I’m not like my sister!” Turns out that his three-year-old-sister Stephie loved books. “She pretends to read them aloud over and over,” he said. “It’s hilarious. She makes up all kinds of things!”

One day when Rodney’s mom dropped him off, I met Stephie.  She had a heart-shaped smile and a bouncy Afro pulled into mini ponytails tied in pink ribbons that seemed to have sprouted all over her head.  Her walk was more of a rock dance than a walk.  When Rodney introduced us, Stephie hugged my legs. I was charmed!

A week later when Rodney needed to write a character description, he decided to write about Stephie. We titled it “Rah! Rah” which was a nickname that sprung out of her mouth when she could not say Rodney. The name stuck, and so did Rodney’s memory of the antics Stephie pulled. “One day she took her baby doll in the bathtub, and they had a tea party, but Stephie drank so much soapy water her tummy hurt, and the baby doll—well she looked like she drowned!” A bit like a young comedian learning to work his audience, Rodney told me story after story as we worked on his assignment. He wrote how Stephie loved to punch holes with her straw in her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “She thinks they taste better!” he noted. “What’s the funniest thing she had said lately? I asked.  Rodney thought for a minute before answering. “Last night when we went to bed, she said, “Mommy, please wrap me up just like a Dorito!”

Later that month we finished reading a dog-eared copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I found at a second-hand bookstore. While I did most of the reading, Rodney worked at it, and I sensed it was making a difference.  He was changing. So was I.

After class one spring morning I was headed home from campus, but I kept thinking about my work with Rodney. I felt I was on the cusp of something significant. A turning point.  While tutoring was not a class, I realized it had been my most fulfilling learning experience since arriving on campus. As I walked down State Street, I became totally caught up in the shadows of the oak tree leaves that fell around me. The darkness of these shadows danced around me, and suddenly I paused to stare at them in wonder as they whispered to me. In that moment I felt the warmth of the sun on my cheeks, and as I lifted my head skyward, I could see the sun light as it filtered through the darkness and shone like diamonds in the sky.

I knew what I had to do. My start at Purdue had been bumpy, but it no longer mattered. I had discovered what I loved doing–and I could do it. Perhaps for the rest of my life. I turned around and headed back to campus counseling. I would become a teacher.