Climbing the Ninth Step

Twelve step programs ask participants in step nine to “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Though often misunderstood, this step offers a spiritual practice of facing our shortcomings directly and dispelling pent up energies that can afterwards be more pleasantly and productively enjoyed. Many times, the people we need to contact have already died. This doesn't prevent us from employing creative means to express our ammends through graveside visits, ceremonies, or letters. 

Working through my list, I found it necessary to put a creative process into practice. After sharing a free-write letter with my sponsor, I sensed the need for a last step of somehow publishing it as a part of my own ammends to myself for undervaluing my talents as a writer. I hope that whoever reads it will get to know and appreciate an important figure in my life just a little bit, and be encouraged in their own process of making peace with their past. 

Mr. Brown. I picture him so clearly in his teacher photo with thick, rectangular 70’s glasses, long dark hair and beard with reddish highlights against one of his standard embroidered Panama shirts. His parliamentary procedure, constantly dabbing his one glass eye with tissues, and low voice vibrating the microphone speaker employed to save his vocal chords after decades of teaching. The French workbooks and conversation quizzes. The repeated stories of the day his son got shot with a BB gun in the throat and the miraculous one centimeter distance that protected his carotid artery.  

I was entertained, enchanted, and a little critical of him. He didn’t seem a very involved or aware teacher, giving us assignments and retreating to his office at the back of the room. Both my social studies and language classes with him felt out of control, but punctuated with moments of wonder caught up in tales of ancient Egypt, rattling off a paragraph with his Parisian liaison, or the thrill of being elected classroom president and running official meetings with Robert’s Rules of Order.  

He was a true old-school educator, union die-hard who understood the long view of a teacher’s influence on students' lives. Ineffective according to today’s standards, no data-driven planning or outcome measurements, yet as fixed, quiet, and towering as a California redwood in hundreds of students minds. After twenty years in and out of the profession, my admiration for him grows, understanding just what kind of character it takes to bring exactly who you are to the classroom without apology for who you aren’t.  

But Merritt wasn’t just a teacher, he became my father in law. At Hume Lake Christian camp the summer of my Freshman year, his adult daughter Stephanie laughed heartily as my cabin counselor while I shouted “Quin-ton!”’from the top bunk, swapping the middle N with a glottal stop. We marveled together at the synchronicity of my growing infatuation with her brother, finally seeing with my own eyes the actual scar on his neck from Mr.Brown’s famous class saga.  

Stranger still, when he actually became my boyfriend, to see all these characters from separate contexts come together for a chef Merritt spaghetti dinner around their 80’s suburban San Jose kitchen table. More stories flowed, hiking to the top of Pikes Peak in his beloved Colorado, working as a dishwasher to fund the trek. Writing a novel about ancient Egypt, the year the classroom “had no walls”. All his living had already occurred. He was hanging on, going through the familiar routines, content living off fumes of the past, kitchen chair parked in front of the TV watching A’s games, peanut shells littering the carpet below. He felt comforted surrounded by his stores of pens, light bulbs, tissues, haunted by his parents' experience during the Great Depression.  

From my young perspective, he was a character, a bit ridiculous, and a force of nature. So much of what he said seemed scripted, as if he never really came out from behind the podium. His ways of seeing the world and himself were basic facts, like arithmetic. His mandate was clear in the classroom and at home, and his family arranged themselves quietly and contentedly around it. 

I did not. I wanted to question him, throw him off balance, or better yet, even the scales to reflect the rest of the family’s needs and interests. My own father’s larger than life personality and issues with alcohol weren’t met with the same complicity, and my bull in a china shop approach couldn’t have been more contrary. In retrospect, I see the opposite attraction that drew me to them. A more loving and accepting integration. 

When I imagine talking to Merritt, I don’t know what to say. The way I married his son at twenty, stayed for fifteen apparently happy years and then left wouldn’t make sense. Would he listen, turn away in denial and disapproval, or surprise me with that lowered voice, issuing a patient, compassionate proclamation about the nature of life and love? 

Merritt, it must have seemed cold hearted for me to leave without explanation.If I did send some sort of letter back then, I don’t remember what I wrote, and it would have rang false with a desperate justification, lacking the depth of understanding I have now. You were a powerful figure in my life that already had its share of powerful figures to contend with. I didn’t understand that I envied the self-possession and confidence you exuded, like a poor man watches diners through a restaurant window. You were your favorite Colorado Rockies to which you finally retired, visible in all directions for hundreds of miles, quiet and sure in the midst of daily thunderstorms. I was a wildflower on the green hills below in Estes Park, and an elk butting horns around the lake.  

I understand the love of world languages from an academic standpoint from you. I’m doing something similar, teaching teenagers Spanish that belongs much more to my past than present. I enjoy the way it sounds and its different way of expressing meaning. I also enjoy the pleasure of writing, whether published or not, like you. My faith in God has also become more private, less connected to traditional Christian institutions. I’m learning something about the nature of love, that there can be room in families for all our strengths and weaknesses, if we are willing. I always feel the need to alter myself daily for love, but you made it a lifetime being just as you were. Was it the peaceful assurance of your value that endeared them to you? 

In the end, Merritt, I loved you. You exasperated me, and I will never know if I did the same for you. I did love you, your class, and your family. I especially loved your son. What a handsome, charming enigma I could never solve, but couldn’t stop loving. I’m sorry for breaking his heart. I hope you forgive me for doing the best I could. I was so young for all the years you were in my life. It was the time for mistakes, confusion, and a search for love that I could look in the eye.  

You certainly have a lasting effect on me, and a power of persuasion so strong that I married your son. Thank you for letting me in your world and loving family. I hope that, like me, you don’t regret God’s plan that turned that centimeter of distance into a lifetime of connection.