Becoming a New Guy

(Because we’re just pretending anyway, right?)

By Hugh Chapman

When I was a kid, my friends and I played Secret Agents. With toy pistols we’d run around the yard trying to out-spy the bad guys. But eventually the game would get boring so we’d think of a good way for the enemy to do us in so we could go sit in the shade. Sometimes we’d be tricked into drinking a deadly potion! (It was really only Kool-Aid that someone’s mom had made). Or maybe we’d be chased over a cliff that was a thousand… No! A million feet high. Sometimes we’d be captured, or sometimes we’d crash our bikes, or (for the truly unimaginative kids) we’d just say we were shot or something. At any rate, once we were done in, we’d always go sit in the shade because from that point on we were dead.

But one day a new kid moved in our neighborhood. After a half hour of spying, he pretended to have been killed. But then…he didn’t go sit down!  Instead he just shouted, “New Guy!” then kept right on playing. My friends and I were stunned.

I said, “What do you mean, ‘new guy’?  You can’t still be playing. You’re dead.”

He said, “No. I was dead. Now I’m a new guy.” Then the kid laughed when he saw my irritation. “Look, this is just pretend, right? I’m not ready to quit playing, so now I’m going to pretend to be a new guy.”  To my amazement, the other kids went along with him.

For me, the event marked a whole new paradigm. The crazy kid was right!  We were just pretending anyway. So if he wanted to be a new guy – in fact if we all want to be new guys — all we have to do is shout out our intention and start again.

I have since adopted the philosophy as my own and it has worked well for me most of my life. When I got fat my first year in college, I woke up one morning and said, “New guy,” then set out to lose 30 pounds. When a girl I worked with told me I had wimpy arms, I called, “New guy,” then went to the gym and ended up bench pressing 300 pounds before the year was out. When I discovered I didn’t have enough money to buy the beach condo in Destin, Florida that I wanted for my retirement, I said, “New guy,” and… well, I still haven’t made it, but I haven’t stopped trying.

The point is; if life is not working out the way we want it, we don’t have to remain the same. And neither do our students

Role of the Teacher 

My friends know me as a school teacher/bus driver. Our school is high poverty; we have a 73 percent free or reduced lunch program. For many of my kids, life is not pretend.

My first encounter with a future student was two years before I began my teaching career. My wife was already teaching at our elementary school and one evening she asked me to drive her to the home of one of her forth graders so she could visit with the parents about his worsening school performance. When we got there we found a mother, father and four children living in a broken down trailer. The living room was heated with a rusty wood stove and illuminated by two kerosene lamps. My wife’s student, who had done well in the early fall when the days were long, had simply reached a point where after finishing his chores there was not enough daylight left to do his homework.

As we drove home that night, I watched my wife brush away a tear. “Baxter’s parents can’t even help themselves, much less help Baxter,” she sighed. “And if his teachers won’t help him, who will? He’ll have to live this way for the rest of his life.”

That was the moment I decided what I wanted to do with my life.

If I appear to be rambling, please bear with me; the two stories are very much related. At the time my wife introduced me to Baxter I was the branch manager at a rapidly growing bank with multi-million dollar facilities. My desk, bookshelf and credenza were made of Indonesian Mahogany and I had plush leather chairs. But the night I met Baxter, I began to realize that I had only been pretending. It was time to be a new guy, and within six months I was back in school pursuing a degree in Special Education. It was the only means I knew to reach people like Baxter. And while I would never be flippant enough to suggesting that Baxter was pretending (because his life was more real than I can possibly imagine) I will tell you that his existence was far from the one he would have chosen. And though his parents were desperate to help, it was all they could do to simply survive.

So what do I stand for as a teacher? Well it’s not reading, writing and arithmetic, (although they are obviously an essential part of any curriculum.)  Rather, I stand for helping a child with his own realization; the discovery that if what he’s doing is not working for him he doesn’t have to leave the game and sit in the shade. There’s a new guy in there somewhere. He just needs the motivation to step forward. My job is to find the motivation.

The Role of the School

No teacher has a say anymore in what is being taught in Arkansas Schools. There are standards and frameworks that must be adhered to in order for the school to meet the preset criteria. Fortunately, the State has designed a well rounded menu for our students. But like a good restaurant, the items on the menu must be well prepared by someone with the expertise to do so. Whether it’s reading, calculus, chemistry, or health, the school should insist on excellence from its teachers in their area of specialty.

But even more, the school should surpass those basics. Teachers should be encouraged to get to know about their students. I’m not talking, obviously, about becoming one of the kids in a buddy-buddy kind of way. Rather, I contend that familiarity can be achieved in a very professional manner. An excellent means would be to monitor a bus route for a day or two. An excursion down the back roads of Izard County Arkansas, for instance, can be an eye opening experience for most teachers.

Teacher Student Relationship

As noted, the teacher must remain professional at all times. A true teacher is sickened when he or she learns of impropriety or immorality among others within the profession. Yet in order to truly be effective, there should be a respectful form of professional familiarity established between teacher and student.

My eighth grade English teacher was an old fuddy duddy of a woman who my friends and I made fun of unmercifully. But soon she discovered I was interested in baseball and one day she called me to her desk and told me she was from Forrest City, Arkansas and that she used to baby-sit for Chicago Cubs shortstop Don Kissinger. From that point on, old Mrs. Hudspeth could do no wrong in my eyes.

How Students Learn

Students need lessons that 1) relate to their own prior knowledge and 2) deal with subjects the student can see themselves making use of in the future. By the time my wife’s student Baxter had reached the seventh grade, I had been employed as the school’s special education teacher. Baxter was a big friendly kid and he and I quickly established a mutual respect. Because I drove Baxter’s bus route I would occasionally see his father at the house. One day I stopped in for a visit. Baxter’s father told me that he worked part time as a carpenter for one of the local builders and he hoped that Baxter would go into the same business someday. That afternoon after my route was done I swung back by the school and borrowed a book on carpentry from our shop teacher.

Kids relate to things they know and things they will eventually use. When I showed up the next day with a carpenters square talking about how rafters are affected by the lean and pitch of the roof, Baxter was the only kid in class who knew what I was talking about. It became the thing that distinguished him from the others. Baxter knew about roofing, and Mr. Chapman thought it was important enough to talk about it in class!  His father later told me that Baxter had become a pretty good carpenter.

Curriculum Emphasis

As I mentioned earlier, the basics, reading, writing and rudimentary math skills are essential for any education. But because I was dealing with special education kids, they required a lot of reinforcement. My “three R’s” became review, remediation and re-teaching because my students seemed to grasp the skills one day but then forget them by the next morning. I learned to use this short term memory failure to my advantage.

Moderately handicapped kids like Baxter, I discovered, are often very happy and quick to forget their anger. Though I would sometimes make him angry enough to spit nails, Baxter would soon forgive, forget, and want to be my buddy again. I taught him to just say “new guy,” as a signal that he was ready to start fresh. After a few months, I realized this was a gift we could all benefit from.

I knew that if potential employers could get to know Baxter like I did, they would learn to like him, and thus be willing to overlook many faults. So after our remediation, I tried to work on ways that would best benefit my kids socially. I taught them to be clean and to present a firm handshake. I would teach them to say, “Yes sir” and “no ma’am,” to speak clearly and to make eye contact. And I tried to show them that controlling their temper was absolutely essential.

Tangible rewards are few in teaching, but one Valentines Day Baxter wrote me the following note which I’ll keep in my file forever.

“To a good friend ho (who) taught me everything that I know and moer (more)! A good friend and understand my problem and ho (who) wass a good teacher. Love, your good friend Baxter.

Social Context and Expectations

In the fall of 1999, four months after his high school graduation Baxter died in an automobile accident along the rural curves of an Arkansas Ozark Highway. He was 21 years old and had held a job for the past two years. As I walked away from the simple grave site, I found myself wondering what our years together had all been for. And I remembered what my wife had once said after visiting Baxter’s home, “His parents can’t even help themselves, much less help Baxter…if his teachers won’t help him, who will?

Though Baxter never got the chance to realize his full potential, I have no regrets concerning my efforts. I did the very best I could, and in turn, Baxter gave me his very best. I guess that’s all any of us can really hope for.

I don’t want to get too spiritual in a philosophically based paper, but I do have a confidence that Baxter has found a better place where at last his knowledge is complete. “New guy, Baxter. New Guy!”

 

 

The Wisdom of Agur

By Hugh Chapman

“Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God

                                                                             Proverbs 30:7-9

In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first beheld the stunning natural beauty of the Emerald Coast.  Essential to the formation of the shoreline bordering the pristine Gulf of Mexico is the purity of the white sands that have washed southward from the Appalachian Mountains to form the Sea Oat-covered dunes of Destin.  It was the immense natural beauty of the locale that inspired the Spaniard to christen the area Pascua de Florida or “Flowery Easter.”

Through the progression of civilization over the five centuries to follow, much of the natural beauty remains — and for the fourth afternoon of our coastal journey our little van meandered down an 18 mile stretch of pavement known as Old Highway 30-A, a now-local thoroughfare which winds eastwardly along the magnificent seacoast.  From Longleaf Pine Flatwoods we rolled past turquoise coastal lakes, huge sand dunes, and finally into the quaint little gulf side villages of Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and Watercolor — where unique pastel homes feature stretch-neck towers designed to provide a glimpse of the shimmering sea below.

My son Dusty, who was somewhat of an industrialist even at the age of eleven, was especially impressed with the coastal homes and had even gone to the trouble of running down a real estate brochure revealing the six-point-five million dollar price tags.  I smiled at my son’s amazement and patted his shoulder while shrugging apologetically.  “I’m afraid that Arkansas teaching salaries fall a bit short of that kind of income Pal.” Then, in laughter I added, “Probably even if I take on that extra bus route.”

Dusty looked back to me in disappointment. “You mean we’ll never be able to afford a house here?”

I shook my head sympathetically.  “Not like the ones you have your eye on, old buddy.”  Then trying to sound more upbeat I added, “But maybe someday we’ll be able to visit again.  It’s been fun so far, hasn’t it?”

Dusty nodded with brief enthusiasm, but then drew a sigh. “I’ll bet people like rap stars and basketball players can afford these houses.  Why can’t we do something that would make us rich enough?  Can’t you just pray about it or something, maybe ask God to get you a raise?”

I wanted to laugh, but the question of my oldest child hit a little too close to home for my own comfort.  In truth, I had spent a good part of my life wondering why such luxury went to those who appeared undeserving, while those who served faithfully seemed often to have so little.  Surely God wants the best for his own people.

I then recalled my youth. While I was growing up in Southeast Missouri my mother was attending college in hopes of becoming a school teacher, and my father operated a tiny dollar store in the Mississippi River town of Caruthersville.  That small Delta community, in the mid 1960’s was economically depressed and our family struggled just to make ends meet.

In the toughest of those times, I recall my mother discussing, in hushed tones, our financial situation with my dad.  “I just don’t believe in asking God for money,” I had heard her say then, “but I do believe he’ll provide for us as necessary.”

As a boy, I looked to my mother as a great source of biblical wisdom, and during the remainder of my childhood I never questioned that principle.  In fact, on some semi-conscious level, even as an adult I’m certain that I must have adopted her belief as my own.  After all, though times were often difficult for our family, the things that my mother had predicted, most assuredly did come to pass; God had provided for everything that we needed, and for a good deal more.    Though I’m not absolutely certain as to the origin of her theory, the outcome certainly supported the premise, and for a long time I had no reason to doubt that she was correct.

Yet there came a time many years later when well into my adulthood, I became aware of a Christian publishing phenomenon.  Suddenly our local bookstores were deluged with a best-selling work having to do with a little-known prayer found nestled amid some easily overlooked verses in the Old Testament. The prayer, as did the book, appeared to suggest that God would provide unlimited blessings, if only Christians would take the time to ask.

A trusted friend, one who had been a major Christian influence on my life, gave me a copy of the book, which I devoured in one setting.  Then, I went back and re-read the pages two or three more times.  To my surprise, I found myself agreeing with every concept the author presented.

I spent the following days, weeks, perhaps even months considering the major points of the little book.  God wanted the very best for his people, and he wants us to ask him for blessings so that when he does shower us with good things, we can know without a doubt that the blessings are from Him. I dusted off my childhood memories and analyzed my youthful experiences.  God had blessed our family with the money we needed, just as my mother had contended that he would.  But how much more might our wealth have been if we had only known then about the little prayer in I Chronicles 4:9-10.

I began to look at my own life and to take stock in all I had been given:  Loving Christian parents and siblings, a happy childhood, lots of friends, a beautiful wife, two wonderful and healthy children, a good and steady job that I loved, a small but structurally sound house, a caring church family, and enough spare time to do the things that I truly enjoyed.  Indeed, these were wonderful gifts, and I have made a practice to thank God often for them.  But I wondered…

Could there possibly be even more?

I began to think of the things I might ask for; my house was fine, but our growing family could certainly do with something bigger and nicer.  I had a dependable car, but it really wasn’t very fancy with worn cloth seats, crank windows and no sunroof at all.  My job seemed secure and the income was steady, but I would never become rich from it.  I had nice friends, but they say that you never have too many.  Yes, things were good, but I could certainly see room for improvement.

I went back and re-read the recommendations.  Could it be that I really needed only to pray this simple prayer for thirty days in order to see a definite change in the blessings God would provide?  It certainly appeared that way. After all, it had worked during Old Testament times and it was apparently working now for Christians the world over.

From the midst of my little study room, and with no further prompting, I made the decision that I hoped would change my life.  I would pray the little prayer in earnest for thirty days beginning immediately.  Yet…

I made it only halfway through the third day. ~

Please don’t misunderstand.  I would never question the biblical truths found within the pages of that book nor the ones to follow.  I believe that God truly wants to bless his children and I know that the author is sincere in his writing.  Perhaps it was the things that my mother had taught me in my youth that caused my hesitation now, or maybe it was from the feeling that God had already provided me with much more than I could ever possibly deserve.  Yet for whatever reason, asking for more just didn’t feel right for me.

I went back then to the scriptures and re-read the model prayer given to us by Jesus, and within the words of our Master, I could find no demand for greater blessings other than the humble phrase, “Give us this day, our daily bread.”

I then looked to other verses that addressed the questions that puzzled me.  From James 4:2, I read “You do not have, because you do not ask God.”   Then in Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Were these not confirmation of what the author of the little book was saying?  My head said yes, but within my heart I held doubts.  God does want what is best for us, but I’ve come to believe that when Christians take their petitions to God, we should do so with the presupposition that He will grant those things that we truly need, but not necessarily the things that a world full of materialistic desires might cause us to ask for.

From beneath the tattered bill of an old fishing cap that I had donned that morning to shield my eyes from the Florida sunshine, I looked toward the beautiful coral colored homes that lined the dunes above the beach.  Turning, then, I glanced at my son who in laughter trod steadily beside me, already having forgiven me for my financial shortfalls.  Together we made our way toward the edge of the gentle surf where my daughter played happily with a yellow plastic sand shovel and a flowered pink pail.  Then, as seabirds glided peacefully over rolling ocean tides, I looked to Danielle’s mother, the woman whom God had so graciously sent to share my life.  As mild gulf breezes blew through her beautiful auburn hair, Julie looked to me with eyes that sparkled in the sun, as quietly she mouthed the words, “I love you.”

And just as suddenly my heart became filled with a sensation of immeasurable wealth, and all my longings of material possessions flittered away with the December breeze.  At that moment, Dusty broke from my side, and ran toward the shoreline where he splashed with his mother and sister in the rolling surf.  Alone once more, I quietly repeated another Old Testament prayer that God had revealed to me one morning as I searched for his will in my life.

Though originally spoken by Agur, the son of Jakeh, I had now adopted it for my own – and the words made me smile.  “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.

In that moment of splendid peace I looked around me.  On God’s great blue horizon stood my loving family, running, laughing, dancing and playing within the sandy morning sunshine.  And within my past was an ancestry with golden moments and memories that continue to guide me even today.

As the sea waves roll without end onto God’s sandy shores, so do His blessings of kindness, love and grace. If this were to be my daily bread, then for me, it will be more than sufficient.

 

 

 

 

Tags: Ocean, wealth, family, father and son, travel, Christian, Christian Short Stories, Jesus, God, Love, Bible, Family, Hope, Salvation

 

Moonshadow

By Hugh Chapman

When the sun rose over the Gulf of Mexico on our first full day on the coast, I was there on the beach.  It was 6:15 on a vacation morning, and nobody else from my family much wanted to join me – nobody, that is, except my good friend Shadow.  As I strolled briskly along the earth’s edge, Shadow trotted alongside me, seeming to enjoy this strange new world as much as I did.  Together we stopped for a moment and I sifted through some shells.  Then, as I picked up a chunk of barnacled driftwood, the dog looked on excitedly and pranced impatiently as I drew back to throw.  At my release, the dog was off like a shot, kicking up smoke-like puffs as she ran fiercely along the sea drenched sand.  She had come a long way since the day we first saw her, and whenever I think of her transformation, I have to laugh.

She was my daughter’s dog — no mistaking that.  Nearly a year before Danielle and I had rescued the mutt from the pound.  The Animal Warden in our little town confided in me later that we had arrived only an hour before the dog was scheduled to be put to sleep.  It turned out to be a good day for all of us – though at the time, it was hard to tell.

The father/daughter trip to the pound that morning had been a matter of Ol’ Dad making good on a promise to Danielle that on the first snow holiday from school, we’d hike the half mile or so to the Animal Shelter where she could pick her out a puppy.  So that chilly morning some ten months earlier, as our boots and galoshes crunched loudly in the glazed and glistening snow, Danielle had spoken excitedly about the kind of dog she would get.  It would be a little fellow, maybe a Terrier or Pekingese, or perhaps a Dachshund or Poodle.

But when we finally arrived, panic began to swell within my chest.  The dogs were not pedigree, as Danielle had imagined.  They were not even the loveable selection of mutts that I had expected.  Rather, they were a pitiful lot of homely mongrels, and not a cute one in the bunch.  Danielle, however, was not discouraged and her eyes sparkled as she scanned the room.  Finally, I saw her fix on one particularly shabby animal in the dingy corner cage.

“She’s an indoor dog and partially house-trained,” the crusty old caretaker informed us as Danielle sauntered toward the cage.  “Last owner dumped her off a week ago.  Looks to me like she’s been kicked around quite a bit, but I’d bet she’ll make a good pet.  Just needs a little love.  Better take her today, they’ll be a-putting her down this afternoon.”

Danielle didn’t understand the fate that awaited the dog, but I did.  Still, I’m no pushover for animals, especially one as homely as this, and I held firmly to my resolve.  My hesitation was strengthened even further when the mutt began to cower as Danielle approached the cage.

“You know what, Sweetheart?” I said, “Let’s look for another dog, maybe we can find a nice puppy this weekend at a pet store.”

But already Danielle was reaching gingerly into the cage and I became quickly alarmed.  “Careful Honey,” I warned. “That old dog might bite!”

But the caretaker was confident.  “Naw, that-there dog’s ain’t-a gonn-a bite nobody.  She’s gentle as a lamb; probably too gentle for her own good.  The kids who dumped her off called her Moonshadow,” he spat the name in a humorous sort of disgust, then grudgingly mumbled, “Some kind of hippie name, I guess.”

At Danielle’s gentle touch, the pitiable animal cowered further and let out a whimper.  Then, to my dismay, my daughter made her announcement.  “Dad, this is the dog I want.”

Steeped in sudden anxiety, I spoke quickly.  “Now, let’s not get in a rush Sweetheart,” I said while briskly motioning toward another area of the shelter.  “Look, there are some more dogs over here.  Oh, and look!  Here are some cats!  Danielle!  Wouldn’t you rather have a cat?”

“No Dad,” Danielle stated, this time even more emphatically, “This is the Dog I want.”

I pictured Danielle’s mother who would be waiting at home to see what I might show up with, and I shuddered at her probable reaction to us trodding home with this horrible animal.  But Danielle was adamant, and pleaded with me from behind big blue eyes.  Eventually I found myself ready to reconsider, and within a half hour we were in the snow again, this time leaving behind eight footprints, rather than just four.

In the days to come, Danielle and the dog became fast friends.  Shadow was not an old dog at all, as we first believed.  As it turned out, she was little more than a year or so old, and had only seemed aged because of her unkempt appearance.  And she was smart, fetching and doing tricks in a matter of days.  The old caretaker’s assessment proved over and over to be correct.  Shadow quickly won the hearts of each of our family members, and she eventually turned into the best dog we have ever owned.

Yet as good a dog as she was, even the best of animals (much like people) are not without fault.  Shadow, it seems, has a propensity for rolling in the muck.  Furthermore, she is apt to do so at any time or any place.  The most embarrassing incident had occurred scarcely a month before our Christmas trip.

We were home among a Thanksgiving gathering of friends when Shadow approached my chair and nuzzled up to my hand hoping that I’d pet her.  As I moved my hand across her head, I immediately noticed the putrid smell of decay, and from the look on the face of many of our guests, they had discovered the same thing.  A quick investigation revealed what I had grimly suspected — Shadow had found something dead in the yard and had rolled in it.  And now she had brought the stench into our home!

Angry that she had dampened our gathering, I hurriedly put the dog outside until Danielle and I had a chance to slip away from our guests to clean her up.  As the water cascaded over the animal, she nuzzled up to Danielle.  In that instant I knew all was forgiven.

That night as I lay in bed remembering the events of the day, a strange sort of parallel began to unfold, and I believe God spoke to me through a poignantly humorous analogy.  On that evening it clearly occurred to me that just as Shadow, on a snowy day eleven months before had been saved from certain death by her master, I too, as a young man, was saved from an eternity away from my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Then as I drew the parallel further, I began to wonder how many times during the course of my own life that I have saddened Jesus by disobeying His demands — and by carelessly wallowing in my own brand of muck.  Is there any wonder then, that when we insist on bathing ourselves in the stench of sin, that our master expects us to repent before trying to move closer to him?

Yet just as Danielle continues to love Shadow, I know that despite my own failures our God continues to love me.  Though he hates the sin, his love is unconditional and he waits patiently for us to confess what we have done.  Then he unwearyingly clean us up, releases us from the stench of our sin, and bids us join him in Christian fellowship.

In the brilliance of a Gulf coastal sunrise, a skinny scraggly dog stood expectantly at my feet, wet from a December morning’s surf and clenching a chunk of salty gray driftwood in her teeth.  If I wanted to throw a stick and have her to fetch, she was willing.  If I wanted to sit in the quiet of the morning sunshine, she would be at my side.  If I wanted to walk further down the shore, take a brisk jog, or simply return to the beautiful condo from which we had come, my loyal and loving friend was more than ready to adhere to my commands.  She wanted only to learn my intentions, and then to help in any way she could.  For that, I loved her all the more.

I believe that as we progress through our daily lives, our Lord and Master Jesus Christ expects nothing less from us.  We must make a continual and sincere effort to understand His will for our lives, and then we must be constantly willing to set aside our own desires and concentrate on his command.

If we’ll do that, I believe that he’ll accept us just the way we are, and he will forgive us for our faults.

Move over old dog, we’re more alike than you know.

Jason’s Praying Pencils

By Hugh Chapman

I was thirty-five years old and an hour and a half into my new teaching career when I saw Jason at the opposite end of the hallway.  He was the reason that I almost didn’t take the job; then later, a hundred times when I wanted to quit, he was the reason I stayed.

Though I had never met Jason, I had been briefed as to his situation.  He was a special needs student, thirteen years old and confined pretty much to a wheelchair since birth.  As the school’s newest special education teacher, it would be my job to try to teach Jason and attend to his personal needs.  He had medicines that would have to be administered, and diapers that would need to be changed twice a day; odd tasks for a man who had made a habit of fleeing his own kids at medicine and diaper change time.

My educational certification was in Business, but there had been no positions available in that area.  To take the job meant I would have to return to school during summers and evenings in order to obtain the necessary certification, but because my own kids attended this school system, I wanted very much to be a part, and special education was the only position available.

And so as I stood at my end of the hall, watching Jason being pushed toward me by his friend Delbert, I whispered a quiet prayer.  “God, please help me with this.”  Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a prayer God would answer a thousand times.

I expected an angry child, resentful of what life had delivered, and as I watched his approach, I had to admit silently that Jason had every right to be.  His condition was called Spina bifida, a congenital defect of the vertebrae.  He had already undergone a dozen surgeries and his family anticipated more.  He was being cared for, now full time, by elderly grandparents.

And his prognosis, too, was poor.  Only a season before I had attended the school’s sixth grade graduation.  At that ceremony, his grandmother had invited the entire family, and had ordered balloons and flowers for the event.  She wanted the celebration to be special for Jason, for, as she later explained, it might be the only graduation he would ever see.

Yet, if Jason was embittered I saw no sign of it that day.  As he approached slowly and steadily, suddenly he seemed to realize who was, and held out both arms in greeting.  “Welcome friend, It’s good to see you!”

Though it took us a while to adjust; Jason as a new Junior High Student and I as a new teacher, we eventually came to terms.  More than a student, Jason became a friend – then later, more than a friend, Jason became like a son.

In our times together, Jason would often share his heart.  He told me he had attended church for as long as he could remember, and that a couple of years before he had turned his life over to Jesus, and that someday he hoped to become a preacher.  Though Jason never made it into the ministry, his witness was powerful and I believe he helped me grow as a Christian and as a teacher.

I remember one time in particular, when his 80-year-old grandfather had become ill, that Jason asked me to pray with him.  As a first year teacher and not tremendously secure with my own future, I was reluctant.  Tactfully, skillfully, I brushed away the suggestion, explaining that our government held guidelines and regulations about teachers and students praying together on school grounds.

Jason, as always, seemed to understand.

It was two hours later, though, when Jason was in his band class that God spoke to me – not in an audible voice – rather with a feeling of deep remorse that weighed heavily on my heart.  It is a sad world indeed; I came to realize, when a public school teacher is so wrapped up in the system that he is afraid to pray with a frightened child.  I dropped what I was doing and went among the tubas and clarinets to find my friend.  I wheeled him back to the nurse’s station and there in the quiet of the room Jason and I prayed for his grandfather.

It was shortly thereafter that Jason’s grandfather began his recovery and many days after that, Jason and I prayed together.  I shared with Jason that I often prayed silently in my classroom, and Jason suggested a way that he and I could pray silently together.  He would lay his pencils (he always had at least two) on his desk in the form of a cross, as a signal to me that he was praying.  Silently then, from wherever I was in the room, I would join him.

Once, when I was having a bad day, Jason’s friend Delbert came to class without a pencil.  Jason and Delbert knew what a stickler I was for bringing necessary materials to class, and Jason would often secretly loan things to Delbert.  I noticed (and though I was annoyed, said nothing) as Jason slipped a pencil to his friend.

Later, I made a written assignment, and was surprised when Jason wheeled up to my desk with tears welling in his eyes.  “I don’t have my pencil,” he said, and immediately I remembered Delbert.

“Jason,” I said, almost in a shout, “if you didn’t keep giving your things to Delbert, you’d have a pencil, wouldn’t you?”  Then as I looked up, I noticed a pencil in his shirt pocket.  All the more annoyed that the disruption had been entirely unnecessary, I pulled out the pencil and held it in front of him.  “Jason, here’s a pencil in your pocket!”

Now a tear rolled down his cheek.  “That’s the pencil I write with,” he explained, “It’s the pencil I pray with that I don’t have.”

From that moment forward, I made a point to have lots of spare materials.  Sometimes my students come to school in the winter with no socks on their feet, or coats on their back.  A pencil, at times, seems like a small thing.

I had a chance to pray again with Jason, at a time when he was frightened because of an upcoming hospital visit.  “Will you pray with me, Mr. Chapman?” he asked, “It seems to work better when you help.”

I explained that God listens to everyone’s prayers, but that I would be honored to pray with him anyway.  Then, I made a unique assignment.

I had noticed lately, that Jason had been wearing a T-shirt upon which was printed the opening words of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is My Shepherd…”

“Jason, do you know where to find that verse?” I asked.  He nodded his reply.

“Then for homework,” I told him, “I want you to memorize the words.”

To my surprise, he came back the very next day and recited, without flaw, the entire chapter.  I smiled and told him how proud I was, then together we went over each line and discussed what they meant.  Finally, I told him that while he was in the hospital, whenever he felt frightened, to say the verses to himself.  A short time later he told me he was no longer afraid.

It was late last year, on the Thursday before he went in for a scheduled heart surgery that Jason (now an eleventh grader) and I prayed for what would be the last time.  He hugged me as he left that day, and as I returned to the classroom to gather my belongings for the trip home – I saw the desk where he sat…

…and the two pencils he had left behind.

 

When I think of Jason now, I remember perhaps the most remarkable young man I have ever known, yet I have a hard time becoming sad for him, because I know that he was not afraid.

And I know that I will see him again one day, only this time without the chair that bound him as a child.  In my mind I see him there in the distance, standing with a friend, the same friend who once answered his prayers, and who from his own heavens watched over Jason as he toiled and struggled with life’s situations below.  The struggles now are gone, but the happy smiles remain, and with laughing eyes and open arms he makes his way toward me.

“Welcome friend, it’s good to see you!”

Stories From a Blessed Life

Welcome Friends, It’s Good To See You

Hello Everyone,

This is my first attempt at a blog. I have many stories to tell. Some are old, some are new, some have been professionally published, some were rejected for publication outright, and many more were just too personal to share with the world. But I’m happy now to share them with you, my friends, beginning with my very favorite of the lot. I sincerely hope you enjoy.

Love,

Hugh

The Dollhouse

In a quiet corner of the seldom used room of my house stands a three quarter finished dollhouse. For 20 years the little house has been at the same phase of completion, with three walls fastened into place and about one-third of the tiny cedar shingles glued to the roof. There is no paint, and none of the miniature pieces of furniture have ever been assembled.

The room in which the dollhouse sits is a formal living area that sees only a small fraction of the family gatherings as compared to the new den that was built off of the kitchen. The little house is rarely touched, and even when it is, it is only because some occurrence has made necessary the dollhouse’s movement. My wife, a few years ago, relocated it temporarily to another corner of the room while decorating for Christmas. But the little house never seemed to belong there and after the holidays the house was promptly moved back to the space that we now refer to as “the dollhouse corner.” The corner is quiet and the dollhouse is safe there. What’s more, I like it there, if for no other reason than to remind me of things in my life that I should have done differently. And it makes me work harder in an effort never to repeat my mistakes.

My daughter was born during a turbulent time of my life. I was working part time, mostly weekends and late nights, while at the same time pursuing a bachelors’ degree at a nearby college. Between work, classes and studies, time always seemed scarce and parental attention to our daughter was handled almost exclusively by my wife. For that reason — and I suppose other reasons as well — I was quietly frustrated when my well-meaning sister gave the 600 piece balsa wood dollhouse to my daughter for her birthday. My dismay came not from the presenting of the gift, for I knew my sister gave it in love. Rather, my dismay came from the realization that I would ultimately be the one to assemble the project. In light of my other obligation I simply didn’t have the time.

Yet as luck, or perhaps God’s grace, would have it, my daughter was undemanding of my time limitations and even at five years old, she was perceptive enough to understand. Not once do I recall her whining or pestering me to work on our project, for such was the nature of this quiet and beautiful child.

But to my credit, I suppose, I did try…or at least I did for a while. I remember pouring out the pieces onto an old card table and sorting them into piles. Then with an X-Acto razor in one hand and a tube of glue in the other, I began the painstaking process of cutting doorways and windows, fastening on shutters and assembling tiny planters that would be installed beneath each windowsill. I then proceeded to construct a stairway to the second floor and I worked hard to attach tiny rails and banisters for the safety of my daughter’s diminutive, imaginary family. It was a slow moving process, requiring several twenty-four hour glue-drying sessions which would inevitably stretch for several days or even weeks while I struggled to catch up on my school and work requirements.

When finally I came to the roofing portion, I was growing increasingly tired of what I saw as a meaningless task, and once I took out my frustration by shouting at my daughter, then shoving the dollhouse aside in order to make room for some selfish and mindless project of my own. Though Danielle never spoke a word in reply, the quiet tear that formed in the corner of her eye spoke louder than words ever could, and even today I still hear the echoes of her silence.

In time, it was my wife who finally moved the little dollhouse to its corner of our house. And with the project out of my sight, it soon worked its way out of mind as well, as I proceeded with my little projects, met my little deadlines, and earned my little diploma. In time I took my little job, accepted my little paycheck and earned a little acclaim from my peers. And while those little things were happening, somehow the little girl who had once viewed me as the greatest man who ever walked upon God’s green earth, had silently grown into a beautiful young woman.  And the blue eyes that had once looked so lovingly at me, her father, now had forever turned away, and toward the young man she had quietly fallen in love with.

Eventually, on an afternoon when the dollhouse rested miles away in the darkened corner of our living room, I found myself in the vestibule of my church looking at the elaborately stained dollhouse-like windows that had been fashioned into the outer walls of our place of worship. Then as the melodic sounds rolled expectantly from the church sanctuary piano, I turned from the windows to see the sparkling blue eyes of my daughter in her flowing white dress. Without a word she wrapped her hand around my arm, and together we began our long walk up the aisle where softly I kissed her glowing cheek in order to bid her farewell. As I waited to speak the well rehearsed words that would forever convey my daughter from my care and into the care of the man she had come to love and to trust, the soft memories of her childhood flowing peacefully, and my heart ached for one more day with my little girl.

The question was asked of me, and with more of a nod than a spoken word, I relinquished primary care of my daughter to the man who would soon be her husband. Then as quietly I took my seat, I thought again of the little dollhouse in the corner of our room and this time it was my eye, not hers, that quietly blinked back the tears. Meetings, project deadlines, and important decisions, come and go, but true love goes on forever.

My daughter and I have talked of years past. I have apologized to her for my absence, and she has forgiven me of my shortfalls. And through God’s grace, she has become one of my most trusted friends.

And life has played out so beautifully for us all.  As an answer to my prayers, Danielle and her husband live in their new house only a few miles from the home where the years of her childhood so swiftly passed. And on occasion when I pass through that seldom used room, I always look to the little dollhouse in the corner, and whisper a prayer for my little girl as I long for the days of her childhood.

But only recently, as snow from a winter’s day banked softly against a windowpane, I found myself thanking God for the happiness my daughter has found. There within my deliberation I found myself asking if there was some way I could ever make up for the many ways I had failed as a parent.

And with that request, I began pondering the magnitude of God’s love, and of His grace, and of His ability to offer second chances, and somehow I couldn’t help but to breathe a sigh of contentment.

For earlier that very day Danielle had been here for a visit and this time, I made time to spend with my daughter. And there together we stood side by side near the hardwood bassinet, and blinked back mutual tears of joy as we looked down at the precious gift of love that God had granted. Danielle’s daughter — my granddaughter – with eyes every as blue as her mother’s, looked happily to those who loved her.

As long as life and breath goes on, our family stories will continue to unfold. We laugh, we cry, we bruise and we heal. But sometimes, through the grace of our savior, we are given a second chance to make right all the things that are truly important.

And I’ll be happy to tell you all about them, but they will have to wait for another time. For today I have a more important job to do. There’s a baby to rock, and a dollhouse to finish.