He was eighteen and strong and funny – and lost. He walked into my adult high school reading class with a swagger before there was such a thing as swagger. I liked him immediately. He was ready to help but only after a wisecrack. He was willing to do what I asked, but only after he complained. He was an excellent reader so I put him in the highest group, the one reading popular, but important, novels. We talked after class quite a bit. I encouraged him to make the most of his potential; he deflected any compliments and denied any interest in changing his attitude or his life.
One spring day, he told me he was moving to Texas. He never came back to class again. I was sad to lose him. Suddenly I had an inspiration. I sent him a note with a copy of some beautiful words by John Powell from Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? It starts like this:
“Don’t be fooled by me. Don’t be fooled by the mask I wear. For I wear a thousand masks, masks that I’m afraid to take off, and none of them are me. Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me, but don’t be fooled. My surface may seem smooth, but my surface is my mask. Beneath dwells the real me in confusion, fear, and loneliness. But I hide this and panic at the fear of being exposed. That’s why I frantically create a mask to hide behind, a nonchalant, sophisticated façade, to help me pretend, to shield me from the glance that knows. But such a glance is precisely my salvation and I know it. That is, if it is followed by acceptance and love. It’s the only thing that can assure me of what I can’t assure myself – that I am worth something.”
I hoped for a response but I didn’t hear anything back from him. . . . until the following October when I got a letter from Houston. He told me what he was experiencing and learning in Texas. And then he wrote:
I still have a lot to learn about myself, but I do have more confidence in confronting people with who I really am – and that is me, not a mask. That’s what started this letter. When I came down here, I didn’t bring much but I did bring my book of prayer and in it the story of masks. The first time I read it, it hit me very hard and opened my eyes to what I was doing to myself. Thank you for sending it to me. It means a lot. And you mean a lot more even if I don’t have the guts to tell you face to face. I know God is with you so all I can say is take care.
This was more than 25 years ago, but as I re-read the letter just now, I thanked God for giving me the inspiration in a moment of how to share with this young man that he was loved.