Tuesday, June 24, 2008


As a kid I was an odd duck. I spent my days listening to family stories in my grandmother’s beauty shop, or traveling around Monticello with my grandfather checking on the houses he was building. Occasionally, I could be found hanging at Allerton Park with my young mom and her scruffy crew of friends whom my grandparents suspiciously called “hippies”. I knew how to wrap a perm, carried a carpenter’s pencil in my pocket, and could easily discuss the various merits of Cat Steven’s latest song. My social skills with children, however, were awkward at best.

At school I was so painfully shy that I rarely spoke to anyone. Eye contact was fleeting and uncomfortable. I found my peers fascinating, unpredictable and sometimes frightening, so I sat back and watched. I spent many recesses examining playground gravel, looking for fossils. Perhaps now, I would have been labeled with social anxiety disorder and medicinally jolted into a stimulated state. Back in the 70s, I was just a shy kid.

Children are expert diagnosticians. They can enter a room filled with children and within seconds have sifted out and mentally flagged those who are in any way unusual. As a child, I seemed to be a blip on every kid’s –“weird-dar” screen.

In 2nd grade, a larger, louder girl, inspected me as I sat sifting stones and began an interrogation. When I remained stubbornly silent, she became annoyed. Suddenly, a look of recognition came over her face. “Humph!” she sniffed with authority to the large, appreciative crowd around her, “My mom’s a nurse. This kid has brain damage.” That scene set the tone for the remainder of my early school years. I recall my chagrin when entering the batter’s box to a chorus of,” Brain damage is up! Easy out!” I would then proceed to either strike out, refuse to swing at a succession of one million pitches, or trip over my feet thereby re-confirming their diagnosis.

While I wasn’t deeply scarred by my social dysfunction, and did ultimately enjoy some successes and lasting friendships in my early youth, I was generally inept with my peer community. I was unsuccessful not from a lack of desire for relationships, but from inability. Often a fear of embarrassment kept me from finding my voice.

Now, in my 30s, although I have improved, I continue to be shy. I know that there are people to whom congeniality comes easily, naturally even. These self-extenders seem to have been born with qualities that attract others.

I think of people locally who continue to teach me so much about the art of self-extension. People like my long-time neighbors, Billie and Terry Van Tine. They have been extra grandparents to my boys (They even painted a basketball court on their driveway!). Billie has cared for me when I was ill, while Terry has fixed and replaced things around my home without allowing me to reimburse him. Their generosity is overwhelming. (A large percentage of Jerry’s obesity can be traced the daily snacks they provide.) I can’t imagine better friends and neighbors.

I think of people like Kim and Matt Usher who exemplify their faith by simply giving of themselves, caring for others.

I think of people like Angie O’Brien and Cristin McMullen- each time I speak with them; I come away feeling a little better; as though I had been hugged. They both are genuinely warm without pretense.

I think of the great teachers I have experienced and whose teachings have had staying power: Mr. Nolte, Mr. Gardner, Ms. Moore, Mr.White. I think of teachers who have been touchstones in the lives of my children: Mrs. White, Mrs. Stratman, Mr. Smith, Mr. Hehn, and Mrs. Rose (my youngest son still corresponds with Mrs. Rose after nearly 4 years).

I think of the Coursons who embarked on a mission to create a mission and have already brought visible compassion and love to Cisco.

I think of the many people I work with who face overwhelming societal problems but who continue to serve on committees to find solutions in spite of depressing statistics. People like Chief Judge Shonkwiler, Sheriff Manint, J.D. Russell, Gayla Hislope, Kelle Sebens, Doug Edwards and others who tirelessly serve.

All of them self- extenders and our peers. I think about the word community and what it really means. Maybe it simply means offering ourselves to others; sharing what we know and what we have with one another. Finding solutions when others are experiencing difficulties. There was a time when our first response to friends and neighbors in need was, “What can I do to help?”, rather than, “What is this going to cost me?”

I am going to continue to aspire to learn from the many altruistic folks around me. I truly believe that community is what children and families need most. In these often dark times, communities offer hope. We desperately need to work together for the common good. Communities are, as author Mary Pipher eloquently says, “the shelter of each other”.


Anonymous said...

Chris, I have enjoyed reading your column each week -- it's the best part of the newspaper!


Lisa said...

I recently started reading your column also and have to say I love it. I look forward to keeping up with your blog also:)