Bedlam Farm Blog Journal by Jon Katz

8 December

The Bishop Maginn Story: Turrell: “I Want To Be The Person Who Helps Others, Not The One Who Needs Help.”

by Jon Katz

(This is another in a series of articles on Bishop Maginn High School’s diverse students, many of whom have faced severe challenges and their lives. I talk to them to learn and share how they deal with adversity in their own words and see what they can teach us. They have taught me a lot.)

Turrell is 14, a freshman at Bishop Maginn.  He has a younger brother and sister and another sister on the way. He exudes character and confidence. Friendship is very important to him.

He wanted to talk to me; he said he wanted to talk about how he dealt with his own challenge, a sudden change to the color of his face and skin when he was younger.

He wanted to let other kids know that this was painful and, at first, terrifying, but over time was something he had accepted and that does not now limit or threaten his life in any way now.

It is not something he dwells on or often thinks about.

Terrell has a skin condition called Vitiligo that causes lighter patches to form on the skin. While it can affect anyone in the general population, it is more noticeable in those with darker skin tones, including people of African American heritage.

Vitiligo can sometimes lead to social stigma and insecurity, but Terrell was too strong and determined to let that happen.

I find that the students who have suffered painful difficulties often cite one or both parents who tell them their problems do not define them and that they need to be strong and open and ask for help when they need it.

This advice seems to take hold, especially if offered kindly and in support.

“It hasn’t affected who I am,” Terrell told me as we sat in a classroom with a dozen students in the background, laughing and looking on their phones. “It hasn’t changed who I am, and I have no control over it, so there’s no point worrying about it.”

He stopped for a second to think about what he was saying. I was again surprised by how poised and articulate this young man is. I guess he’s a child, but he sure doesn’t act like one.

“I know one thing,” he said, “I don’t want to be dependent on people. I want to be the one who helps others, not the one who needs help,”

This struck me; I know so many older people who do not handle trouble as clearly or well. Bishop Maginn either attracts kids with character or builds character. Perhaps it does both.

Like most of the kids I interviewed, Terrell was uncertain initially, but then he warmed up and opened up.

This is their first interview, in most cases,  and probably the last for many. I want them to feel good about it. I want to know what’s important to them, not what’s important to me.

I am in awe of the character that lives in these children and their maturity. I watch our so-called leaders in Washington, who are so often immature and without character,  and I wonder how it is that these children  – who have been through so much – are so much more adult and have such a strong sense of responsibility and morality.

I’ve heard the refugee students talk about murder, genocide, slaughter, the brutal life of refugee camps and their bloody and traumatic dislocation with the same distance and perspective: it doesn’t really matter now, it isn’t forgotten, but it isn’t what they are about either. They have moved well past their tormentors.

Perhaps it’s true that adversity builds character.

“Terrell is simply a wonderful addition to the Bishop Maginn family, ” says Sue Silverstein. “He is an excellent student, a diligent worker, and an unusually empathetic young adult. He has much to give to the world. He has never let his own struggles slow him or make him less compassionate. We are lucky to have him with us.”

When Terrell told me he was interested in politics, my heart sank a bit. One part of me thought he was just what we needed; another thought he didn’t deserve any fate as awful. I didn’t say that to him.

I told him that everybody says he has a lot of good friends.

How, I wondered, did he define friendship: “A friend is a person you can rely on. A friend won’t let you do stupid stuff; they won’t let you fall. That’s the kind of friend I want to be, and that’s the kind of friend I want to have.”

According to his teachers, he’s gotten his wish.

Ultimately, he said, the coloration of his skin is not something that should make you fall.

I’ve gotten to know Terrell at Bishop Maginn a bit – he and his friends always come and eat their lunch in Sue Silverstein’s art room – and he is, by all accounts, one of the most popular and respected students there, even halfway through his first year.

“Nobody cares about my skin,” he says, “They don’t care here. You have to pick your friends, I guess, and I have good ones.”

Terrell says he and his friends keep an eye on one another. One of his friends likes to try to skip a class now and then, “and I just say. No, you’re not going to do that.” That, he says, is what being a friend means.

 

He acknowledges how frightened he was when the vitiligo suddenly changed the color of his skin; he said he was terrified when he learned about it in the third grade.

No one was sure what it was or what caused it, and doctors are still uncertain about its specific origins.

He was tested repeatedly, given laser treatments and some skin transplants.

He is poised, articulate, and secure.

Terrell is candid and thoughtful about his skin coloration. He seems to have a solid perspective on it. He has never gone on Facebook to complain about it.

I imagined this could be the object of some social cruelty and teasing, but he says no one has ever teased him or made him feel uncomfortable at Bishop Maginn.

He works at a neighborhood daycare center in the summer, and sometimes the younger children ask him about it. He tells them what he has experienced. They rarely mention it again.

I take from Terrell and the other kids I’ve interviewed that the past need not define

us; it is just the past. We don’t need to give our lives to it.

Listening to Terrell and then looking over my notes, I thought of a passage from Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem from Blackwater Pond:

What I want to say is that the past is the past,

and the present is what your life is

and you are capable of choosing what that will be, darling citizen.

So come to the pond or the river of your imagination,

or the harbor of your longing and put your lips to the world

And live your life.

I think that’s just what Terrell, age 14, a freshman at Bishop Maginn High School, has decided to do. He fills me with hope.

___

As I’ve mentioned, I always conclude by asking the children I interview if we – the Army Of Good – can get anything for them that would advance their cultural or academic life. Most are reluctant to ask for anything or request something for the school. I gently persist, and after they give it some thought, they come around and ask for something personal. Terrell was very reluctant to ask for the thing he most needed – a laptop for school work and access to the Internet (he plans to go to college.) It was an hour after the interview before he came up to me and assured me a dozen times I didn’t need to do it. A well-reviewed and inexpensive laptop is on his way to him and will arrive on Monday. He deserves it.

 

8 December

Stillness: The Loveliness Of Aging, Gathering The Fragments Of Your Life

by Jon Katz

Stillness, wrote the great Irish poet John O Donohue in Anam Cara, is vital to the world of the soul. If one becomes more still as they age, they will discover that stillness can be a great companion.

This is my experience. Stillness is the friend I always sought, my cherished companion.

In stillness, the disconnected fragments of my life have begun to unify; the broken places of my soul are finding the space and time to knit and heal.

“You will be able to return to yourself in this stillness,” wrote O’Donahue, who died unexpectedly in his sleep in 2008 while visiting the Avignon area of France, “you will engage your soul.”

In recent years, I began seeking and finding stillness in my life, and it has been transforming me ever since.

In stillness, I see and face the truth about who I am, the good and the bad. I collect all the parts and become whole.

Knowing myself is so different than not knowing myself. It changes everything. Old wounds have begun to heal, new opportunities open up.

We live in a world where strangers always tell us what we should be feeling, who we are.

Arrogance and self-righteousness are the poison of the times that attacks the soul and the spirit. Humility grows when I face the truth about myself; I can’t imagine telling other people who they are, knowing how hard it has been to know myself.

I know all kinds of people who know so many things – places, music, books, people – but who don’t seem to know themselves; they haven’t taken the time to find peace, solitude, and stillness.

We are so busy, so distracted, so persuaded that we can never be safe enough unless we work day and night to make more and more money, and buy more and more things, that we forget ourselves and lose track of who we are.

We are absorbed with worrying about the future we forget to grasp the present. We fail to live.

Amid all the hoary old talk of our culture, I sometimes lose track of my blessings.

Aging can be a lovely time, wrote O’Donohue shortly before he died, a time of ripening when you meet yourself, perhaps for the first time.

People have been telling me who I am, what to feel, what to be all my life. But as I get to know myself, I discover that I can understand who I am, what I think, and who I want to be.

That is a strength I never had before. I look inside for my truth, not outside. I love the idea of ripening. That is just the right word.

For all its complications and aches, aging is a lovely time to me; I get stronger and find that solitude and stillness are my great friends and companions. It is a time of discovery, letting go, loving myself, and permitting others to love me.

Thomas Merton writes that every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in his or her soul. “For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that comes to rush imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men.”

Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost because most people are not prepared to receive them. Such seeds as these, Merton writes, cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.

And the end of our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started, 

And know the place for the first time.

  • T. S. Eliot
8 December

Two Donkey Portraits: Fanny At The Feeder, Lulu At The Gate

by Jon Katz

Lulu and Fanny are sisters, but they are very different. Fanny is the Lab of donkeys, sweet and affectionate. She adores Matt the farrier and practically swoons when he’s trimming her hooves. Lulu is the guard donkey who is constantly scanning the horizon for intruders or coyotes. In 15 years, no coyote or stray dog has ever gotten past her.

Matt says these two are the gentlest donkeys he’s ever met. He won’t trim the hooves of any other donkey.

Lulu is affectionate if she’s in a good mood, not loving if she isn’t. But she is never aggressive . Lulu doesn’t give it away; you have to earn it. Each has their side of the big feeder, and neither minds me getting up close for a photo.

Lulu has mastered the nose in the gate as a way of luring me into giving her an alfalfa treat. Which I always do. She has my number.

8 December

The Thomas House. Beautiful Old Buildings, Cont.

by Jon Katz

The Thomas farmhouse is one of my favorite farmhouses. On a beautiful road just outside of town, the house and the farm sits like a  monument to the best day of the family farm. I used to buy my hay from this farm, Mr. Thomas is a person of great character and integrity. His house  reflects that, which is why I have been anxious to add it to my collection of great buildings.

Sometimes these wonderful old houses are beautiful because of what’s on the outside, sometimes they are beautiful because of what they reflect on the inside. These houses remind me that it was once possible in the country to have very beautiful homes even if you were not wealthy.

7 December

Zinnia And Sue Silverstein: Love At First Sight

by Jon Katz

Zinnia first came to Bishop Maginn High School to start her therapy training when she was 12 weeks old. I thought the breeder might kill me or go and yank her back, she said it was too young. I apologized and waited a bit longer.

The first person  Zinnia saw there was Sue Silverstein, a rabid dog and animal lover (she has a pet chipmunk named Alvin who lives in her garage and has grown fat on unsalted peanuts).

It was love at first sight for Zinnia and Sue.

Sue was holding a bag of treats, a stuffed toy to chew, and a bowl of water.

Sue became Zinnia’s official Godmother.

She loves Zinnia so much (she refers to her as “my dog,”) I warned her that the dog has a computer chip embedded in her fur (the one the anti-vac zealots believe is secretly implanted in all of the vaccines by Bill Gates or maybe Jewish laser operators).

I would know where to look if she disappeared, I said.

I was kidding, of course, but the love was and is very real. Zinnia goes wild when she sees Sue waiting for her at the school front door every Tuesday.

I never see her as excited as when she and Sue are together. She is also pleased to get into the homeroom and get all those hugs, kisses, and french fries. She settles down after a few minutes, of course, she is chill, as the students say.

The love between Zinnia and Sue is powerful and beautiful. I am grateful that Zinnia can experience this love from someone outside of the family. This has reinforced her trust and ease with different people.

I’m not sure Sue would let me in the building if Zinnia weren’t there, and I’m not going to push it to find it.

Sue always has treats on hand, and they never last long. She hands them out to students.

Dog love is beautiful love wherever you find it.

The crazier the world gets, the more we need it. Sue and Zinnia are one of the great dog, his and people love stories

When Zinnia is in the room, Sue makes sure every dog phobic student gets to meet her. The two have slipped scores of kids who were afraid of dogs. Zinnia brings smiles to every unhappy face she sees.

P.S. I’m posting my weekly profile of a Bishop Maginn student tomorrow morning, his name is Terrell and he has a powerful story to tell:

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