We find all kinds of occasions to celebrate the hope they bring, from new years to new days.
Most of us fill our lives with the opportunity of change a new beginning promises.
But the problem with these harbingers of better things to come is that they are only as good as the lessons we’ve learned from our old endings.
The new beginning that taught me this happened in my first year of high school. I had spent junior high with the school system telling me I was slow mentally and I was going to use high school to prove them wrong.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Benton, the Principal of my high school told my mom to her face how impressed he was with my intelligence within the first month of my freshman classes. Then the enthusiasm fell out of his voice and he continued,
“Of course, because of what Chris did, I’m still forced to suspend him from school for three days.”
My mom was sitting next to me in front of Mr. Benton’s desk taking in the odd mix of news she was getting about her son. Mr. Hand, the Art Teacher, who I upset, sat against the side wall, his scowl growing with each kind word heaved in my direction. A slight upward curve formed on the side of his lips when the word suspension entered the conversation though.
Mr. Benton explained that normally, he would have levied a heavier punishment for a student writing a poem about a teacher on a school desk using the type of foul language I expressed, but since I had no prior history of these types of actions, he was giving me the benefit of the doubt.
After my suspension, I returned to class and my friend Jeff who sat next to me said that he knew I was in some kind of trouble when both me AND my desk disappeared from class.
I told him how they had locked the desk in a room until they could let my mom read it for herself.
I also told Jeff how Mr. Benton said he knew the kid who wrote it was smart because all the words were spelled correctly and that the student who snitched on me saw it because she was forced to stay after school and clean desks as punishment. “She wanted to share the misery.” I rationalized to Jeff.
Ultimately, I laughed off the whole thing with Jeff and maintained the air of the unaffected rebel, but inside, I felt lost and angry.
I needed a ticket out of the hell of being in my family and I thought art would have provided it until I noticed I was getting nothing but poor grades on each of my projects in Mr. Hand’s class. When I saw other students getting better grades on what I felt were inferior projects, I stayed angry in that class until my anger manifested in a poem on a desk.
I had no intention of him ever actually seeing the poem. I also didn’t see myself confronting him directly about what was bothering me, but since we were both in Mr. Benton’s office and I was facing suspension, I confessed what provoked me. In his answer to my accusation, he admitted that he gave the other students better grades because he felt they tried harder on their projects.
I argued that I did try, but easy is easy, if an assignment didn’t challenge me, how much effort could I realistically put into it?
I was used to drawing realistically proportioned animated characters with complicated drapery and he was punishing me for not taking 10 minutes to draw a cube like his allegedly more worthy students.
He was not swayed by my argument, even though it wasn’t exaggerated.
So, for a brief period, I attempted to subtly spend more time on what I felt were easy assignments without it appearing to my classmates that I cared all that much, but my grades were consistently coming back to me with Mr. Hand’s soft disapproval. Whatever I had been missing previously, was still eluding me and beginning to eat away at me as well.
I saw nothing left for me to do to right the situation.
So I turned my efforts into creating the most heinous artwork I could imagine while staying within the parameters of the lesson. If he wanted to give me bad grades, I was gonna earn them.
This continued until sometime in the third quarter, when he assigned us a project using ‘color resist’. On a counter beside his desk, were stacks of white cardboard of varying sizes. We were each to pick a piece from the pile, draw anything we wanted on it, color it in crayon, show it to him for approval, then when he signed off on it, we were to apply black ink to the entire board allowing the wax from the crayon to ‘resist’ the ink for a unique full color etching type of effect.
He had me with the open nature of what I could draw.
This was my first chance to create without restriction.
This time it wasn’t for him though.
This was for me. I felt I earned it.
We were given five days before the crayon colored board was due for approval. I spent two days picking up the leftover pieces of board and putting them back because they didn’t feel right. I was oblivious to the rest of the class.
When I finally found a rectangular piece that felt right, I produced a creation with truly clichéd subject matter for a 13 year old. At least on the surface.
What prompted my idea though, was something cut deep through my psyche.
After moving into my mom’s house in sixth grade, I had clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and she had so much guilt over what happened when I lived at my dad’s, she couldn’t bear to hear anything about what transpired there and she already blamed herself, so she didn’t want me going to a therapist for them to echo that sentiment.
I attempted to tell a couple of my sixth grade classmates, but their lives were so different, they couldn’t relate or understand and spent the rest of school recess mimicking getting beaten.
I had carried the weight of it all alone and unspoken ever since trying to make sense of everything that had transpired.
The piece I gave Mr. Hand consisted of a laughing skull representing Death laughing over my slow and painful demise dominating the left hand side of the board and one skeletal hand reaching up on the right hand side above a stylized version of my name (me) being consumed in flames. In the background bolts of lightening flashed representing the fight I was still waging in an effort to not be destroyed.
I was not beaten yet. That picture was my testament.
When Mr. Hand looked at it. He refused to let me ink it and gave me an ‘A’ on the spot. Of the thirty students in the class, there were two other pieces along with mine that he declared to the class were already too perfect to do anything further with.
Mr. Hand understandably never liked me after the poem incident, and considering that I never told a soul what that picture represented prior to this post you’re reading now, I can only assume that it was the fire I put into that piece that registered with him.
It was the ending that taught me about unrelenting commitment and uncompromising purpose. Both were hallmarks of that creation.
It was also the finish that has colored every one of my ‘fresh starts’ since.
Comment below to share what ways your own old endings have informed your new beginnings.