I sat on the girls’ room floor, the cold tile against my back. I hugged my knees to my chest and buried my face there. Tears soaked my shirtsleeves.
Everything had gone so wrong, and I didn't know which was worse — the insult or the injury.
The injury — a literal one — came from “Will,” a boy I’d had a crush on for most of my junior high life. Will didn't know I was alive, but once, he'd let me take his picture, a treasure I’d put in my scrapbook, hoping someday he’d like me. He never did.
Now, I couldn't wait to tear that picture to shreds!
After a disagreement over a group project, he’d kicked me. What kind of boy kicks a girl? The insult had followed (and not just the obscenities in my mind, aimed at Will). When I'd told our teacher about the incident, she’d reprimanded me for “tattling” and called me a “cry-baby.” Now two people I’d liked had treated me badly.
Embarrassed, I’d run from the room.
I wanted to go home, but my dad was working and my mom would have been too, if she hadn’t been admitted to the hospital a few days earlier.
I was worried, humiliated, and in tears. How could I go back to face Will? Or my teacher? I had left without a pass — I was in big trouble!
Then I heard a voice: "Are you in there alone?"
My life was going down the tubes — it was Mr. Fetters!
I liked his class all right, if you didn't count the fact that for 40 minutes I was afraid to move. You didn't mess with Fetters.
I knew I had to answer. I assured him I was alone.
Mr. Fetters was a football coach and a Vietnam vet and a very big man. Now, he was sitting — on the girls' room floor?
I thought I’d die! He'd walked right in, sat down, stretched his legs out in front of him, and folded his hands into his lap. There next to me, his presence was larger than life — and so … relaxed?
His voice was quiet. He asked me what was going on and listened intently. He affirmed me with his words.
He asked if I’d like to call my mom. I said that I didn't want to worry her, but I wanted to talk to her.
Mr. Fetters put his huge hand in mine and pulled me to my feet, where miraculously, I stood on solid ground.
I was no longer concerned about getting in trouble or about Will. I didn't care if anyone saw my cried-up face. I was going to talk to my mom and know that she was going to be OK.
As we walked toward the office, I could feel Mr. Fetters' strong arm resting gently on my shoulder. I never once worried what anyone would think if they saw us. There was safety in his presence.
A Trustworthy Mentor
A man could lose his job (both then and now) for doing what Mr. Fetters did. Organizations have policies in place to protect children (from hurt) and leaders (from wrongdoing or the appearance thereof).
Sadly, not all men (or women) in positions of leadership are pure in their motives. We must be vigilant about protecting our sons and daughters and teach them to guard their hearts and lives, to be cautious of peers and adults.
It breaks my heart to heed that warning, because I know that my teacher’s actions were pure.
So I add a word of caution on the flip side: Teach a child to guard her heart, but not to build such a high tower around it that no peers or trustworthy mentors can ever enter it.
Rules are in place for a purpose, but I'm certain that Mr. Fetters didn't give a rip about "rules” when he heard someone crying. I know in my heart that he acted appropriately; from the moment he walked into the bathroom, I knew that his motives were good.
Keep in mind that my mentor led me toward my parents, not away from them. A trustworthy leader will never steer a kid away from her parents (more on “trustworthy mentors” next week).
Mr. Fetters’ bold action changed the way I saw men. No man in my life had ever shown me that kind of compassion and vulnerability.
Years later, I wrote him a letter thanking him. Shortly after that, he suffered a stroke and his speech was never the same. When I became a teacher, he was retired but our paths would cross. Conversations were labored, and I was never sure how much of our past he remembered, but his eyes told me there was an important connection between us.
A few years ago, I sat at my son's youth football practice, my nose in a book. My ears tuned in to a parent reliving his glory days.
"These kids think these practices are tough? When I was in school, Coach Fetters …”
He embellished his story, laughing as he spoke, admiration in his voice.
He had no idea that someone was listening who had her own story about the man whose imprint was still upon us. Mr. Fetters left a legacy that has not been forgotten.
I thought about the day I’d stood looking at the earthly shell of my teacher, who had once seemed so invincible. An American flag was draped above his casket, along with football and motorcycle memorabilia. He was laid to rest in coaching shorts and a T-shirt, with a bandana on his head.
I smiled. Mr. Fetters was never known for his orthodoxy.
Then came tears — and the image of us sitting in the girls' restroom, our backs against the wall. When I was hurting, he had heard my cries. He had pursued me enough to enter my private world and get to know my pain. When I desperately needed to know I was valued, he made me feel special.
Recently, I went to a track meet at my alma mater (where I happen to be a teacher). I watched the hand-offs of the relay events: sometimes flawless, sometimes a struggle to connect.
At the edge of the football field, a memorial bears the name “John W. Fetters.” A rock. A symbol of a man we collectively respected and loved.
It reminds me of the great responsibility we mentors bear.
What my mentors taught lives on in me. Now it’s my turn to pass the baton ...