A chance encounter

Dear Hope Nation,

A few days ago, I wrote about two incidents that demonstrated faith. In one, the belief in a man paid off; in the other, I didn’t get a roast beef sandwich. Since I spent five hours driving Friday, going to Berlin to visit a nonprofit and spend time with an old friend, I had a lot of time to let the notion of faith bounce around in my head. This led to memories of times when a person had believed in me. One of them ended very well indeed while the other led to my betrayal of a good man’s trust. Neither of them provided me with a roast beef sandwich. Today, I’ll tell you the success story. Tomorrow, I’ll write my walk of shame.

In August of 1987, I was 28 years old. Because these letters are primarily focused on addiction and recovery, I should tell you my drinking and drugging were at an ebb then and very manageable. My girlfriend and I would split a six pack each weeknight and a daily12 pack on weekends. While this might seem like drinking to a normal person, for me it was nearly abstinence.

I’d been discharged from a two-month psychiatric hospitalization the year before, and was working two jobs, one with adults with mental retardation and the other in a group home for folks with severe mental illness. (I’m not (quite) egotistical enough to believe you commit my writing to memory, but this was the same group home I would have been living in myself but for the great Dr. Carl Hindy.) Despite being a certified teacher, out of paranoia I feared any background check would reveal my madness, so I didn’t look for a traditional teaching job.

People used to read newspapers, physical objects delivered to their doors and mostly filled with useless information, other than the sports page and comics. Over a cup of coffee, I saw an advertisement for a part-time English as a Second Language teacher from a place called the Nashua Adult Learning Center (ALC). Because I’d learned German in the Army from a Hungarian refugee to whom I’d taught some English, on a lark, I sent in a resume and a couple days later got a phone call arranging an interview that would change my life and lead directly to my writing this today.

Mary Jordan was director of the ALC, and had been director of one of its programs, Clearway Alternative School, a school for teens for whom public school wasn’t working. When I met Mary she was in her late 40’s—which seemed ancient to me. We started talking and I revealed I’d been a second-grade teacher, a junior-high English teacher and a reading specialist. In working on a master’s in reading, I’d been given a fair amount of money to work on my thesis. I told Mary about the work to answer the thesis question: 

“Why would four first-graders who’d tested in the bottom 10% of readers end up in fifth grade with two of them still at the bottom and two at the top?”

After a year of lengthy interviews, research and thought, I had an answer. I could state definitively, “Nobody knows for sure.”

Mary laughed out loud, and the interview moved from ESL teaching to Clearway and the challenges of helping disaffected kids find meaning in education. Apparently, my answers were intriguing, because after an hour Mary asked me to be the new director of Clearway, my first leadership position.

That decision turned out well for both of us, as Mary didn’t need to worry any more about the school, and I helped guide it for the next seven years. In that time, a bunch of good things happened—I got a master’s in school administration, became part of the New Hampshire Principal’s Association and founded the Clearway Improv Theater. As part of the latter, I traveled the country with a bunch of different students, performing and training kids and adults in the basics of improv. All of this because Mary clicked with me, saw something in me I didn’t recognize was there, and gave me a chance. She believed in me—and it was good.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about misplaced faith, or at least faith that started well and ended horribly. Until then,

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith

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