​They filed in about as noisily as one would expect of a high school student body:  Friday morning, Homecoming weekend at my old high school alma mater.   As the gymnasium filled to capacity, I stood there looking among them, searching for the one face that would stare back, reminding me of myself…nearly fifty years ago.
Dreading this moment nearly as much as I’d been looking forward to it, I took a deep breath, looked them all squarely in the eyes, and said, “This is the conversation I wish someone had with me forty-seven years ago…so, let’s just talk.”

Photos courtesy of Nathan Marks.

​What raced across my mind was a vision of rolling up my sleeves, picking up a razor blade…and slicing open my wrists.  Good writing, it’s been said numerous times and ways, is like that – opening a vein.  But I was here, after nearly fifty years, for a very different purpose:  to exorcise any remaining demons of my own, by speaking truths about this life with young people…and letting them know they are NOT alone.
Funny thing about truth…it can shine a light in places you’re not prepared to have exposed.  And so it was, with this effervescent group.  The plan had been to give a half-hour address to the student body, followed by a breakout session of a dozen or so students, speaking with and answering questions regarding writing.  Within a few minutes of my last words to the student body, the principal approached, said, “Umm…looks like we may have a few more kids interested than previously thought.  So, we’re going to move the breakout session into the old gymnasium.”

Kids with pensive expressions piled into the ancient wooden bleachers:  young girls and boys in small clusters, seventh and eighth-graders huddling furthest from me, young ladies hiding behind ski hats and hair, jocks in football jerseys, trying hard to appear expressionless. (Turns out, jocks were once small children, too…every one of them a possible victim of abuse and torment.)  In all, “a few” materialized into sixty students, armed with questions having little to do with the craft of writing.  Of course, those questions surfaced, too.  But these sixty were brave enough to bring themselves out of hiding, to talk with a complete stranger about the excruciating burden of being an abuse survivor.  But they didn’t begin by telling their stories; first, they wanted to know more about mine.
Thus, a breakout session planned for a half-hour turned into more than ninety minutes of Q&A.  Slowly, in answering their questions – as unemotionally and clinically as I possibly could – their own stories emerged, by the very nature of how they posed their questions.  With high school counselors listening in, and the principal looking on with eyes wide, we talked about anything they were brave enough to ask…and they were VERY brave.  We were unceremoniously ripping the band-aids off the wounds of abused childhoods, and they were seeing themselves in the visage of an old man.
In Thomas Wolfe’s posthumously-published novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, the protagonist, George Webber, discovers that writing a popular novel about people and places from his childhood may sell books, but it does nothing to endear George with his hometown.  In fact, they are outraged with him for his depictions.  While the novel dealt with the bigger topics of Capitalism and Naziism, the truth at the core of the story still reflects how difficult it is to ever “go home” again.  Places and people undergo changes; the old familiarities become strange with time; indeed, we change with them.  But in the pastorally verdant, rural place where I grew up, some things remain…shielded behind facades of respectability and privacy. 

​And so, I returned to the place I once called "home."

​Looking at that sea of young faces on October 1st, 2021, I was reminded of Jesus’ warning to his disciples, to see the world through the eyes of childhood, lest they succumb to worldly trappings, unable to enter the kingdom of Heaven.  These young faces before me, for a brief time, revealed to an old man the hope that I wish we all shared about our youth.  If we give them half a chance, maybe they can heal…and alter the course of human history.

For the full context of Carl's talk with UHS students, see article in this week's Minden City Herald:


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