(If you’ve been following my Life Purpose Journey, then you know that I’ve aptly entitled the series of posts around my new job as the “Chicken Wing Series“–not only for the dish that heralded this season of my life, but for the meaning of the word CHICKEN!
Which brings to mind an experience I once had in the DARK. Literally. And the HERO who led me OUT. Now, of course, the hero has to be me–with my spirit and my trust and my faith and my courage and my belief–despite the great DARKNESS.
Interestingly enough, I’m encouraged by the memory of the sweet boy who once came back to find me in the dark. I hope it’s okay that I haven’t changed his name. It’s been precious to me ever since.
Kelly, January 2011)
As a teacher and mother, I’ve led a pretty average life–not much contact with heroes. I’ve read about them in the newspaper and seen them on television, but I’ve never experienced them up close… except for Tom Pittakis at the Newark Liberty Science Museum.
Tom was a child in my sixth-grade, social studies class. He was a quiet, easy-going fellow with dark eyes, wavy hair, and a very sturdy frame for an eleven-year old. He was one of those kids that could pretty much go unnoticed, because he never gave any trouble.
It’s difficult to admit, but I’d bet I’d barely remember him today, let alone peg him as the hero type; yet this unassuming boy transcended relative obscurity in a class of fifty pre-adolescents in a single act.
You see, I had been showing off for the kids that day. The museum was one of those interactive science places that sprung up in the nineties with hands-on things to explore. There was even one of those new climbing walls, and I wanted my sixth-grade boys to know that their five-foot two, almost thirty-year old teacher, in glasses, could kick their butts. And I did! I made it all the way across the wall, while many of them fell off.
“Did you see Ms. Salasin!” they said to one other. I acted real cool on the outside–like I did this kind of thing all the time–but inside, I was GLOATING.
It was this inner bravado, this warped sense of competition with boys, that led me to get in line for the next challenge. This one was a little different. It was a simulation. We were to crawl through a tight tunnel of mazes in an enclosed structure through complete darkness–this to simulate the experience of being blind (and perhaps being a gerbil.)
We entered on hands and knees in groups of four or five.
I went in after Tom Pittikas at the tail end of the last group. We were all kinds of giddy at first, feeling silly and nervous at the same time. We joked around as we entered the maze, but soon quieted when the seriousness of the experience set in.
We really couldn’t see a thing, not even our hands in front of us. And just as we got comfortable moving around on all fours, the paths became more challenging–with inclines and declines, and narrow twists and turns. Soon, the only sounds we heard were our own labored breaths and the occasional “ouch” when one of us took a wrong turn.
It was in this silence that I lost the group. I really don’t like tight enclosed spaces, and after a few too many collisions with the carpeted walls and low ceilings, my movements became more and more tentative. At first I don’t think I noticed that the others were getting ahead of me, and when I did, I was too proud to ask them to slow down.
After a while, the only thing that I could sense was my own heart beat and panicked breaths. I quickly took a left turn, and then a right, hoping to make up the distance between us…only to crawl smack into a wall. I was so disoriented that I had no idea if I was heading toward the end of the simulation or back to the beginning or if I was lost in a detour of which there were many.
When I discovered that my efforts to reach the group had delivered me to a dead end, I crumpled. I tried to sit up to compose myself, but there wasn’t enough room. I desperately listened for any sounds… perhaps another group would come along…. but then I remembered that ours had been the last.
I couldn’t believe the absurdity of my situation–here I was, a grown woman, lost and alone in a maze at a museum, while my entire class of sixth graders was waiting for me unattended.
Suddenly, I heard something. It was my name. Someone was coming for me.
“Ms. Salasin? Ms. Salasin?” The voice came closer.
It was Tom Pittakas! He had come back through the maze to find me. “Tom!” I said, attempting to mask my panic.
“Follow me, Ms. Salasin. This way,” he said in his gentle voice.
Back on all fours, I followed sweet Tom Pittakas out of that dark terrible tunnel. Soon the light was flooding my eyes, and my ears were immersed in the sounds of children. I awkwardly resumed a standing position, brushed the creases from my clothes, straightened my glasses, and became a teacher again–directing the students toward our next adventure: the pregnancy simulation.
Tom never said another word , didn’t tease me, didn’t tell his friends, didn’t even joke around for special favors in return. He remained the same, quiet, unassuming boy; unchanged by his actions.
But for me everything was different. My entire being was flooded with gratitude and affection. I loved Tom Pittikas.
There must be a chemical reaction which occurs in your body when you’re rescued from peril– whether the danger is real or imaginary. It truly is a feeling of devotion larger than words.
Since that day at the museum, I’ve had a new understanding of the word “hero” and a new found place in my heart for a gentle, eleven-year old boy.
I don’t know where Tom Pittakas is these days. He must be in his twenties by now, out of college, maybe married with kids of his own. I’m sure he’s been a humble hero many, many more times over the years. I’ll always remember him as mine!
Kelly Salasin, 2005
( Lately, I’ve realized that making life changes can seem a lot like crawling around in the dark bumping into walls. In dark times, our minds aren’t always allies, and we have to “feel” our way along–which makes me thankful for all the ways we shine light onto each other’s paths.)