Poetic Justice

Open Mic

Dear Will:

When my son Luke entered the seventh grade, he chose to attend what was then called the Orange County High School of the Arts, where he remained until his graduation from high school six years later. He loved that school, in no small part because of the extraordinary friends he made there. Luke was part of the creative writing program at OCHSA (now simply OCSA), which required that he participate in 10-12 hours of after-school instruction each week. Those supplementary classes covered playwriting, short stories, essays, poetry, and other writing disciplines. It was marvelous training, both enriching and enlightening. And Luke really enjoyed it. (Well, most of it anyway. Screenwriting was awesome. Modernism? Not so much.)

Every couple of months or so, the school hosted a poetry reading for its students, events which Dana and I attended faithfully. The readings offered a mixed bag to be sure. Several of the students were exceptionally talented, and we always looked forward to hearing their latest writings. But as you might expect, much of what we heard those nights was incomprehensible gobbledygook, filled with rushed expressions of teenaged angst and mystifying allusions to who-knows-what. The first time I attended one of the readings, so much of the work was so poorly written and so poorly read that I maintained a running internal commentary, chuckling to myself, criticizing their turns of phrase, and mentally demeaning them for being so “pretentious.”

Of course, I was the pretentious one. With time and perspective (and no small amount of coaching from my wiser, more understanding son), I came to appreciate just how hard it was for each of those kids to put themselves out there in that way—to experiment with new ideas, painstakingly craft a poem, and then risk derision by sharing it openly with a room full peers and ignorant strangers. In fact, what I came to appreciate most about those readings fills me with wonder even to this day: Those OCHSA kids were unwaveringly supportive of one another—not prone to the cruelty and sarcasm you might otherwise expect of a group of high-schoolers.

Not surprisingly, the lingering consequence of that unwavering support is a web of lifelong friendships—deep, meaningful associations which continue more than a decade since those aspiring writers first started practicing their iambic pentameter on one another. I was reminded of this just a couple of weeks ago when Luke got married and his best of friends were there to support him, many of them “kids” he has known since those earliest days at OCHSA. His “best man”? Paris, a girl he met in seventh grade who remains to this day the best friend he’s ever had.

It’s remarkable to witness such a tangible byproduct of mutual love and acceptance, to see what can be achieved when people are more eager to praise than to criticize. What would happen if we all—consistently—offered one another that same level of support and allowance when we might otherwise be tempted to judge and belittle? How might it change our worship services, for example, if we maintained that attitude during a dull talk or a poorly-prepared lesson? What if we made a habit of mentally applauding those doing a bad job at something we know we could do better? What might become of us as a people if we went out of our way to give one another the benefit of the doubt, to assume that most everyone is doing the best they can? Talk about poetic justice!

I think it would be transformative—an experiment worth trying. Let’s start Sunday.


Just $160 Gazillion Short

Dear Will:

My children have the misfortune of being raised by a guy who doesn’t have a clue how to become wealthy. The making money part I can do. It’s the accumulating of money that has always baffled me.

No one is more upset about this fact than my son Luke, who now finds himself just weeks away from high school graduation. Luke is scary-smart, and except for a pathological distaste for math homework, he does very well in school. He also has the good fortune of doing very well on standardized tests. Add to that the fact that he has spent six years at the Orange County High School of the Arts (where he receives 10 hours each week in after-school creative writing classes) and you get the idea that he shouldn’t have too much trouble getting into college.

To validate that theory, Luke applied for admission to Claremont McKenna College, the ultra-prestigious private university about a half hour north of here. How prestigious is it? It’s generally regarded as one of the top 15 liberal arts schools in the country. There are only 1,150 students there—TOTAL—meaning that it admits only around 260 students a year (maybe 10% or 11% of those who apply). Needless to say, if you can get admitted to Claremont McKenna, it’s a big deal.

Well, Luke got in. I don’t know if I have ever seen him more excited. And I couldn’t have been more pleased. That is, before I got the letter from the Financial Aid Office. It will cost roughly $50,000 for Luke to attend CMC, they say, including tuition, living expenses, and incidentals. But not to worry, they told me. They would throw in $9,300 to help us out.

Ninety-three hundred dollars. A generous offer, perhaps, but it still leaves me $40,000+ short. And that’s just in Year One.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t have $160,000 set aside to send my kid to the college of his choice. In fact, I don’t have $16,000. I tried pleading my case to the school, but they weren’t about to contribute enough to make it possible. Luke, of course, is devastated; and I feel as though I arrived at one of those critical dad-moments and was completely unprepared.

But not just unprepared. Inadequate. Helpless. Having fallen so far short of the mark, I found myself unable to conceive of a solution to help him out. I want so badly to send him to this great school, but I can’t pull it off. It is not within my power to do so.

In the many hours of soul-searching I have spent over the last few weeks, I have more than once reflected on the incomprehensible miracle of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. In this life, we cannot begin to approach our Heavenly Father’s divine nature. No matter how hard we try, we will be so unholy that we could not dwell in His presence. Christ, in his infinite love for us, makes reconciliation possible, enabling us to overcome that which we could never overcome on our own. It is as if he came along and paid the $160 gazillion for me. Not because I deserve it (perhaps, in fact, because I don’t). It is His free gift to me—to all of us—which he grants in exchange for our best effort to live the gospel and show our faith in him. No amount of hard work and effort will make us worthy of that gift—rather it is through grace that He makes His Atonement available to us.

Perhaps that analogy is a little strained, but it seems very real to me. This painful, disappointing experience has deepened my understanding of and gratitude for that Great Act of Love. And for that I am grateful. It doesn’t help Luke pay for college, but it does help.


Finding My Bearings

Dear Will:

Let’s say you and your buddies start a company, and before long you’re generating pretty good revenue. You hire some people, schmooze it up at trade shows, maybe even have a suck-up salesman buy you lunch from time to time. Then after three years, let’s say some European hotshots buy your company (woohoo!), give you all raises and stock options and cool new titles . . . only to fire you all and most of your staff eight months later.

What would you do? As you wobble out of your office with a box full of personal items, how would you regain your equilibrium? Where would you go to find your bearings? Well, here’s where you might start:

On the Field

You watch him struggle to drag everything out in one trip, but it’s all there: soccer goal and ball; basketball; baseball bat, glove, ball, and home plate; football and tee; tennis racquet and ball; and, of course, pommel horse (not really). He picks up the mitt and you see him transported to Angel Stadium, and immediately you know the Yankees are in trouble again today. As always, he plays every position for every team while also doing the play-by-play. You watch as once again he throws the pitch, hits the ball, fields the grounder, runs to first, and tags himself out (somehow)—all while describing it for the fans. He is alternately Chone Figgins, Bartolo Colon, the prodigiously talented “Watkins Guerrero,” and his best friend Cameron. It is a formidable line-up to say the least.

When his team wins each game (as assuredly they do), you see him move into another season and assume the MVP position for each team. He nails three-pointers for the Lakers, scores touchdowns for UCLA, and pounds tennis balls off of the stucco (and sometimes the family room window). As you watch the Olympics that continue to unfold before you, you consider how poorly the word “play” describes what is taking pace. When at last he comes inside for a glass of milk, he declares the score of each game and recounts the amazing sequence of plays that led to each victory. So of course when he wonders if you would like to see an instant replay of the winning touchdown, you can’t resist. Fortunately, the announcer will be in the backyard with you to provide analysis as the play unfolds.

The athlete’s name is Seth.

At the Studio

There are 15, maybe 16, girls standing at the barre, each in matching leotards, hair pulled back tightly in a bun. They range in age from 11 to 15, with little difference in their apparent abilities. The teacher calls out instructions, sounding increasingly like he’s doing a dramatic reading of a French menu: “chassé, piqué, sauté, flambé, pommes frittes.” The girls respond in unison, and you think to yourself: “Clearly they’ve eaten here before.”

Even if you don’t speak the language, when you marry a dancer eventually you will find yourself staring ignorantly at a stage full of ballerinas. And in a sometimes futile quest to stay awake, you’ll begin to notice that certain dancers just stand out. You’ll discover that your eye returns again and again to the same one even though it’s a regular tutu-palooza up there. Later you’ll be informed that the one you noticed is even famous, but you’ll get points anyway for having stayed alert long enough to figure out which one was the star.

It works the same way even in a class of divas-in-training. You try to survey the entire room, but you can’t help yourself: your eyes want to watch the youngest one, the 60-pounder with freckles, the one with the flexibility of a contortionist and the grace of a swan. There’s something about the way she tilts her chin or moves her hands or points her foot. You may not be sure what it is, but whatever it is she’s got it. Lots of it.

The dancer’s name is Bryn.

At the Black Box Theatre

There are chairs enough for perhaps 100 people, but they didn’t all show up. Most who are here are high-schoolers with quirky personalities and equally quirky taste in clothing. Someone has made sure that there are eccentricities sufficient to go around, and it occurs to you that by wearing standard issue Levi’s you’re perhaps the only one who doesn’t fit in. At the front of the room is a solitary microphone, encircled by a single light from overhead. You think to yourself that there should be roasting coffee and a blissed-out bongo drummer as well. How can you have a poetry reading without a bongo drummer?

The evening is charged with hormones and nervousness and . . . something else. It’s not clear how you know it, but you can tell that this is a safe place where it’s OK to try something that may or may not work. The sense of acceptance makes the air lighter somehow. One by one the students come forward to read one of their recent compositions, to get briefly intimate with a few friends and a whole bunch of strangers. A few pieces are pretentious, several are incomprehensible, but most are thought-provoking and well-crafted. It occurs to you that you could never do this in a million years.

The tall kid with wire-frames strides forward. He’s wearing one of his signature hats—an olive green fedora—and mismatched socks. You glance quickly around the room because you know something the others in the audience do not: They’re about to be blown away.

The writer’s name is Luke.

In the Classroom

All the first-graders are crammed into one classroom: 60-some kids mooshed into the aisles and along the walls. The energy in the room is so intense that you anticipate an unscheduled brown-out in Pacoima. The mom at the front has worked the kids into a frenzy, with half of them shouting “Reader Leaders rule!” and the others responding with “Books are cool!” And the kids apparently believe it, because in just five weeks they’ve read almost 2,000 books.

Later that night, as you wander the neighborhood on Halloween, one of the neighbor kids grows so excited when he spots the Reader Leader Lady you begin looking around for paparazzi. His smile reveals both missing front teeth and genuine affection. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” he says, “if instead of candy each house gave out books?” Cool indeed.

The Reader Leader Lady’s name is Dana.

You never have to go very far to remind yourself that you have been blessed far beyond what you deserve. At this time of year, I am above all most grateful for the ones I love.