I defined myself solely by the company I kept, and I felt comfortable only with those who were as damaged as I was. It did not take long for me to become a person whom I disliked and could never respect. The one person who had the power to change all this was a mildly retarded girl who possessed not one of the attributes that I desperately wanted to call my own.
I withdrew from my family, allowed myself to fail academically and sought the friendship of people with ulterior motives. Along the way I acquired a self-destructive eating disorder, not so much to stay thin, but for the feeling that I could control at least one aspect in my life. On a good day I would wonder if my life would ever add up to anything; on a bad day I had no doubts at all. My stupefying actions became routineso routine that I began to settle into my role as the family failure. Deep down I felt that everyone who was supposed to love me had failed me. So instead of using their disapproval as motivation to improve myself, I actually began to revel in it.
My Catholic high school had established a quota for time to be spent each year in service of others. To meet this quota I became a Sunday school teaching assistant at a local parish. Perhaps this was an odd choice, because at this time in my life I had no real faith in God. Like many teenagers, I was angry, frustrated and cynical, but all of this did not explain my lack of faith. No, the main reason I had no faith in God was that I had no faith in myself. I was alienated from my family, my school, my future and my God. So in this sixth-grade Sunday school class I performed by rote. I figured that as long as I took attendance and sat quietly for two hours a week, I was meeting the minimum for my required service hours. And I stuck to this battle plan with little sense of personal investment and no sense of accomplishment.
However, the plan failed when it encountered a girl named Caroline (not her real name).
There are many people of low intelligence whose appearance does not betray them. Caroline is not one of these people. With a slack jaw, misshapen head and asymmetrical eyes, Caroline's appearance announced the fact that she was not normal. Complications at birth had caused minor brain damage, making it difficult for her to grow academically and socially to the level of her peers. These disabilities made her painfully shy, and her one objective in class was to blend in and draw as little attention to herself as possible.
Given her disposition, it seemed particularly unfortunate that every Sunday she came to class late. Week after week, Caroline would show up 10 minutes after class started. She would turn the knob to the classroom door with painful slowness, open the door just wide enough to accommodate her slender form and then would quickly step across the room, never raising her eyes to meet the disapproving stares of every other member of the class. I sat far from the door, yet each time she entered she would pass by vacant seats to find the one empty chair that was closest to me. For her, that passage from door to seat was a horrific distance.
It is evidence of how self-involved I was that I never asked myself why she would traverse that painful distance to find a place close to me. In hindsight it is obvious that Caroline realized that her place was not with her peers. Acceptance and hospitality were two things she rarely found among people her own age. Like an injured bird, she was used to seeking cover under the wings of people older than she was. I am sure that one of the things that brought Caroline next to me was the simple fact that I was older.
I wish I could tell you that I went out of my way to be kind to her, but in fact I treated her with the same casual disregard I had for everyone else in class. That equal treatment is precisely why she had affection for me. And for her it was far better than she was used to being treated.
One morning the Sunday school teacher took more time than the hour allowed. He ushered the children off to Mass and asked me to stay behind and put the room in order for the class that was to follow. I began collecting Bibles and storing materials away. Then I noticed I was not alone. Caroline had stayed behind. My first thought was to tell her to leave and catch up with the rest of the class. Instead I decided it would be less hassle to let her stick around and then follow me when I walked to the chapel.
She joined enthusiastically in the small chore I had to perform. Caroline made the collection of Bibles and the straightening of chairs seem like an honor conferred by God himself. Every seatback was perpendicular to every table, the materials were stacked with neat precision, and every stray piece of litter was delivered to the wastebasket. The last chore brought us to the same shelf, where we were putting Bibles that had been left behind. Once the Bibles were shelved, Caroline looked up at me with an expression of wonderful satisfaction. Her sense of grateful accomplishment was delightfully contagious. We stood there in silence for a long moment, sharing only a smile. Finally she looked up at me and said in the most unpremeditated and guileless way, You are the only reason I come to class.
I stood there in awe, completely befuddled and not knowing how to reply. All at once I realized that whatever slight attention I had offered her she interpreted not as attention, but as affection. Though utterly clueless, and without in any way intending it, I had made her world a happier place. I had received compliments before. I had received encouragement before. But never had any compliment or encouragement come to me in such a pure form. Caroline's words were completely unalloyed by flattery or ulterior motive. She communicated to me with a clarity that no one else could match. Of all the people I knew, Caroline was the only one ever to deliver a sentiment that I knew came entirely from the heart. She described the simple truth as she knew it, and the power of her words are with me still.
Finally I had met someone who admired me for qualities that I had forgotten were mine. Appreciation from a mentally retarded girl became the magic that turned me away from my headlong rush to self-destruction. Her esteem became a treasure that I wanted to earn, and could not waste. I also realized that Caroline and I were more similar than different, and perhaps the two of us were joined as two people seldom are. Each of us suffered from the same demons of poor self-esteem and a genuine hunger for good company, and both of us were accepted or rejected for reasons that had everything to do with our appearance and nothing to do with our hearts. I am convinced the two of us were a channel of God's grace to each other.
That was three years ago. I am still teaching Sunday school and looking for one more Caroline to call my own.