“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud
was more painful than the risk it took to bloom.”
Half a century ago, my high school English teacher, Lynn (Rafferty) Lasdasky, busted me for plagiarizing something. She read me the riot act and handed me back my freshly bitten-off head, and a failing grade, which I deserved. She gave me twenty-four hours to correct the situation and redeem myself, an opportunity she felt I didn’t deserve…but for the grace of God, go I. She told me to go home and write about what I know.
In the morning, I left the redemption essay on her desk and was summoned to her class after school. I didn’t know what to expect. I lost my lunch twice before that meeting. Back in the day, fear manifested into a tangible force in my life…daily. Anxiety was a part of my bloodline. I kept it well hidden for years.
Mrs. Lasdasky stood very still for a while, just looking at the paper. “Is this your work or did you steal this too? Her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Plagiarism is theft, you know.” I nodded my head. Then she asked, “The poem at the end, is that yours too?” I said, “Yes mam’, they are both mine.”
She took a deep breath and crossed her arms over her chest. I braced myself for the storm. She put the fingertips of one hand on top of the paper and cleared her throat. I thought, “Here it comes.” She began quietly and calmly.
“This is beautiful writing, but you’re way too young to be this transparent with words identifying and defining this kind of fear. She had obviously not met my mother, Jeannine the Horrible, Viking Queen of all of Scandinavia, who could inflict terror in your heart with a raised eyebrow. I have always been amazed how much she didn’t know when I was fifteen, and yet by the time I was thirty my mom was one of the wisest people I knew. Although today you would have to say she did not have a filter...she was wise just the same.
“What do you know of war except that one is going on millions of miles away?” She continued. “This is what I have been talking about all semester. This is writing with a powerful voice. Is the man in the story someone you know? A relative?” I shook my head. I had written about a young marine I had seen in a deserted hallway near our cabin, on the ship taking us to Japan in 1962. I couldn’t have been more than ten-years-old at the time. He looked like a man to me. In retrospect, I realized he couldn’t have been more than eighteen. He had been sobbing into his hands. A man crying was completely foreign in my young world.
My mom was not far behind me and hustled me into the cabin. “Men cry?” I said in my ten-year-old disbelief. My mom just nodded. “Why is he crying?” I persisted.
“I don’t know. I guess he is homesick for his family, maybe he’s just afraid he’s going to die. Perhaps he is having second thoughts about going to Vietnam. War does that,” she said, trying to look busy and end an uncomfortable and hard conversation.
I never forgot him. Five years later, I became him in the redemption essay I wrote.The essay ended with a line about a flag covered casket. I am certain I was influenced by the nightly news, often opening with the daily American casualties serving in Vietnam. I told her the idea came from something being held prisoner inside my brain; the fear of always failing, the fear of letting someone down, the fear of never being good enough. When I wrote about him, something broke free in me. Writing about him set us both free. Forever.
I relaxed a little thinking I was out of the woods…until she leaned over the desk and I could see she was picking up steam. “Then why in the hell didn’t you do this the first time I assigned this?” Now she was yelling.
I learned a valuable lesson that day and fifty years later I can still see her hand me back my redemption essay, with a big red D-. She cut me no slack. It didn’t matter how good the essay was, that was not her point. Consequences. Lesson learned. The irony that I would grow up to be a writer does not escape me. Coincidence? Not in the least. These were the first whispers of His Divine signature written on my heart and the love of writing that would drive the pursuit to write something timeless.
A line from that original essay on fear and the revelation of the lie, stayed with me, like a single fine, silk thread that transcends nearly fifty years. It went something like this in my fifteen-year-old brain:
“Fear is pretty transparent. It isn’t as complicated as it wants us to believe. Look deeply, find its stronghold. Not a adjective at all. Fear complicates, it’s an adverb. Fear is about motion or the lack there of; or creates motion, not always in the right direction. It complicates by creating a prison without walls.” jrs-1968
What I didn’t know then was how long lasting, or the high impact, the power of encouragement, would hold for my life. I didn’t know that to encourage someone could begin to dismantle the wall of lies and the fear holding them back, keeping them in a prison without walls. Today fear, tries to anchor its lies more and more in our daily lives. It is prevalent in social media, and far more dangerous in many subtle ways. Today’s generation uses the phrase, it's complicated, like a punctuation mark transforming it to dangerous new normal.
The phrase, ‘It’s complicated’ still stands in front of fear, masking and distorting it, until complicated and fear morph to that new ‘normal’. I suspect that new ‘normal’ is often the unstable foundation of homes where narcissism, substance abuse, intimidation, domestic violence, racism or manipulation lay down the eggshells everyone walks on. Fertile ground for collateral damage. Another story for another time.
It is hard to live life to the fullest when your new normal looks like a prison without walls,whether you see yourself as the hopeless victim inside looking out, or you are a helpless friend on the outside looking in, trying desperately to reveal the truth and infuse courage in some one you love.
I look back and see the prophetic value of a high school essay and the impact of a teacher Heaven would use to send me onto a writer’s journey where the stories unfold at my feet. Today we have to be open to finding those embers of hope. Mrs. Lynn Lasdasky was mine. My prayer for you is your ability to recognize that you are that ember.
Before my sophomore year ended, Mrs. Lasdasky called me in after school again, this time to tell me she had submitted my essay about the marine, to a writing contest and I had won. Presentations of the cash prizes would be awarded in a week and my parents would need to be with me when I accepted the award. I didn’t come in first. I came in third of one hundred entries. She also said there was another writing contest coming up and suggested I enter it on my own. She encouraged me again to write about what I know. Best advice ever. Her single conviction, as well as her encouragement, laid the foundation for a life time of perseverance and stamina to write for a living. Never give up on your gift. You have it for a reason. Jeremiah 29:11 confirms that.
It is quite a task these days to find something to encourage each other about, and yet in bringing the audacity of the true human spirit to fruition by a simple act of kindness, we bring that encouragement and it fuels the power behind change, for the recipient of our encouragement and for ourselves.
Dare to fear less, encourage more. Nothing breaks the cycle of fear or reveals its lies through transparency like encouragement. Part of the original design for the human race was to fear less and encourage more, a gauntlet by Divine design and nothing less. Pick up the gauntlet. Encourage just one person today. Start a tsunami of fearless forward motion in this country, right where you are. One by one. I double-dog dare you.
Jeremiah 29:11 - “For I know the plans I have for you,.” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”