OPINION

Such beauty in it

I sat in the shade of a large campus oak tree, mesmerized by the sun piercing the stained glass. I moved my head slightly and a new prism appeared; the other way and yet another color shot through. A church bell swept back and forth slowly and the wind carried its low vibrations through neatly groomed gardens and trails.

Stained glass and bells have marked much of my life, I thought.

As the light changed and the bell tolled, I slipped into a Walter Mitty-type trance. I do that sometimes. I don't pretend I'm someone else, I just disappear for a few minutes into my thoughts.

I appreciate the distinct beginning and end of a school year. Even more, I appreciate the simple blocks of time relegated to high school and college. Those four-year blocks are a good measuring stick for setbacks and success, for challenges and for growth.

Not long ago, a newly minted graduate walked in my door as if on cue. He wanted to talk about his high school experience and get some closure, as he called it. I leaned in to hear what that meant.

"I made some mistakes and I had consequences as a result. I didn't agree with all the consequences." He looked out the office window, avoiding eye contact. Every bit of his demeanor was respectful. His shirt tail was tucked in, and he looked more like he was going to a job interview than to lodge a complaint in his now former principal's office.

"I appreciate your candor," I said. I knew the consequences he was talking about and the situation that got him into trouble in the first place. "I've always admired that you're able to articulate what you think. But, as I've told you before, the consequences, though difficult, were fair. Let's continue the candor. Is it the result that bothers you still, or is it the mistake that caused the result?"

I've always hated the part of myself that so clearly sees my faults and rolls them around like balls in a bingo cage. I used to write it off as a result of my German blood and its need to do things perfectly but, as I got older, I realized how damaging the mental replay of mistakes can be. And here was this young man doing the same thing. He had his diploma. He was free of high school oversight. The lure of replaying regret was still just too much for him.

The block of time relegated to high school is extremely transformational. A huge difference lies between incoming freshmen and outgoing seniors, partly the result of physical maturity, but mostly a result of gained experience. The growing ability to read the after-action reports from our successes and our failures provides that. We're able to better predict the reaction to our actions.

The same goes for the four-year block of undergraduate studies. This time, however, the growth is steadier and more evenly distributed. There's the initial burst of independence that comes from living away from home for the first time, being the master of one's destiny at last. My youngest son just finished his freshman year of college and he's fond of saying, "This time last year, I had to raise my hand to ask if I could use the restroom. Now, every decision is mine."

That's a big leap and some can't handle it. Others weave the thread of new experiences into their lives and souls easily.

"I didn't like the consequence,'" the young man said, his eyes on me now. He grimaced as if the memory caused him physical pain. A deep exhale later, he spoke again.

"And I wish I hadn't done anything to deserve it." He seemed relieved by his own words.

"I understand," I said. "You're a good man who made a mistake. That doesn't make you a criminal; it makes you human. When you speak, people listen, and that's a good thing. You're able to tell others very clearly what you're thinking. You seem to have wisdom beyond your years." He looked up.

"Like everyone else, you also have shadows within your metabolism. That means that you--we--do stupid things and experience that most awful of human emotions: regret. While regret keeps us from doing the same stupid thing over and over, it can also be a weight that drags us slowly underwater until our upturned faces are left gasping for air. Regret should never weigh us down so fully that we're unable to move forward."

The young man ran his fingers through his hair and looked to the window once more. A weary smile sat in the corners of his mouth.

"I just ..." he began. Another exhale. "I'm not a bad kid. I just didn't want anyone to think I'm a bad kid."

I sat listening to the bell's last echo escape through the paths and trails leading away from the church. I tilted my head to see the sun brighten in the stained glass then the other way where it darkened once more.

The Walter Mitty daydream began to leave me as I came back to the present.

The transformation of youth during a school year is profound. Move one way and it's a bright future ahead. Move another, and it's a setback that could freeze one in place. In the background, time is always accounted for and the bell keeps marking that space.

Youth is the garden of mistakes. It's not until later that we realize those mistakes bloom into the beauty of life.


Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. "The Strenuous Life" appears every other Saturday.

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