It was getting on towards Thanksgiving and I was eleven. My siblings and I bounded out of the car at our uncle’s house and were immediately surrounded by our cousins.
“Hey,” said my cousin Malcolm, “Come and see what I’ve got!” He led the way around to the back of the house. There on the picnic table were two army helmets from his father’s service days, and a BB gun.
“Did you bring your gun, Steve?” he asked. I held up the shiny new BB gun I’d gotten five months earlier for my birthday.
“Good. Let’s pretend we’re at war and shoot to hit the helmet on the other guy’s head!”
That sounded like an interesting proposition. We took turns wearing the helmets and shooting at each other. The “ping” of the BBs deflecting off the helmet made us feel like we were in a real war.
Then one shot went astray, hitting Malcolm’s little finger. He jumped up and down, alternately waving his hand in the air, and sucking on the injured finger.
We should have known to quit then, but decided to have one more round. I donned one helmet and lay down, taking aim at the other helmet-covered head. “Ping, ping, ping.”
Finally I had had enough, and stood up saying, “I quit.” The other boy pulled his trigger one more time and suddenly a stabbing pain shot from my eye into my head. Brilliant colors surged across my sight as my eye pulsated from the hit of the BB.
Everyone was suddenly very quiet as I clutched my head and moaned. Immediately we gathered everything up and all went back to the house. No one said anything to the adults.
Finally my mother noticed me rubbing my eye and when she looked at it, saw the red spot where it had been hit. Then the whole story came out and off we went to the emergency room.
I was admitted to the hospital and spent two days lying on my back in an effort to keep the blood in the eyeball from settling over the pupil, but to no avail. When I left the hospital, I had no sight in my right eye: the pupil was now an opaque grey.
Having sight in only one eye meant that I now had no depth perception and had to relearn just about everything. Even eating was hard: when I moved the fork towards my mouth, it would go out of my sight and I would frequently miss my mouth. I’d often pour water beside the glass rather than in it. Hitting a baseball and shooting a basketball were much more difficult now.
I was handicapped but also peculiarly felt that I was positively different from other kids because of it. Insecurity drives us to interesting ways of thinking: any form of “specialness” gave me a sense of having an edge over others, even if it was a handicap.
My mother felt especially bad about my loss of eyesight and blamed herself for this accident because she had consented to my having a BB gun.
None of us realized, however that this accident, the result of childish play, was allowed by God to save my life and give me a different direction in the future.
It was the first day of 7th grade and we were all sitting in our classroom talking. Suddenly the door banged open and the new teacher strode in.
“Shut up!” he said.
When some of us ignored his order, we were immediately hauled up to the black board and told to put our noses on it until we were ready to sit still and listen!
Mr. Gauthier was fresh out of the Marines and from one year of teaching in Boston; he was as tough as they came. And we loved him. He was the first really strong male role model we’d had in grammar school and we were willing and eager to follow him.
Being extremely creative, he took us “out of the box” in many ways. He had us read literature that stretched us, like the Ancient Mariner. He made us memorize all the US Presidents, the years they served, their parties and state of birth. He taught us how to take notes, how to make an outline and how to study.
He had us reenact the battle of Gettysburg on the playground, allowing us to bring old rifles to school and march around the “battlefield.”
The day the Berlin Wall went up, he had us sitting out under the trees talking about its impact. He was always discussing current events. He made us think.
He was also our football and basketball coach, teaching us about teamwork, about thinking on our feet and following directions.
I thought of him often in my first year of teaching: “What would Mr. Gauthier do in this situation?” I’d ask myself. He was another gift in the preparation God was building into my life.
Mr. Gauthier’s good teaching was unable, however, to fully overcome my difficulty with academics. Each day after school I still had to carefully go over all the material presented in class, trying to understand each concept. It took a lot of work to make it sink in.
I struggled especially with math, and had almost stayed back in the fifth grade because of my weakness in that subject—that would have been disastrous, as my brother Les was in the grade behind me. But the Lord spared me that humiliation.
One of my favorite places to do my homework was the old desk up in the empty haymow of the cow barn and that’s where I retreated to work on my most difficult projects.
The assignment of a term paper in 8th grade hadn’t seemed so bad in the beginning, but it become a huge mountain in my mind—and more destructively, in my emotions.
I sat at the old desk with my note cards strewn over it, trying to bring them into some order. But pulling together all those references seemed beyond my ability and I felt hopelessly overwhelmed.
I stood up and climbed down out of the haymow to the barn floor. I decided it was better to do something I felt competent at, so I went to clean the gutters behind the cows.
As the term paper project progressed, I kept feeling that no matter how much I worked on it, I had never done enough. There was no release, no sense of finishing something well. It just went on and on with no end in sight. I was trapped in the feeling that I would never complete this work, that I was incompetent, a total failure.
These feelings slowly etched themselves into my soul. They hovered over me like a shadow forming another part of the cage around my heart.
This was a prison I would dwell in for many years as I struggled with the sense of never reaching a completion of my work, never doing enough to measure up, never finishing well.
These negative feelings were joined by another lie that had become part of my emotional life: my worth comes from my work. If I performed well, worth was there; when I was subpar in work or failed, then I felt worthless. As this struggle accompanied me into high school, a cloud of depression slowly began to form around me.
Picture: me at 8 years old