“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” -Albert Schweitzer
It’s easy to love people when they’re lovable. It’s harder when they’re not.
In high school, I learned intricate details of the battles of the Civil War. I knew the U.S. presidents, frontwards and backwards. I could recite the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and William Faulkner’s remarks when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Alas, age has diminished my photographic memory, once a real asset…). I could wax poetic about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution: who was there, who wasn’t (women, for example, but don’t get me started).
Why did I know so much about history?
Not because I was naturally predisposed to love studying bygone days, but because I had a brilliant young teacher named Leo Snow who made the past literally come alive. He turned all of Freedom High School into a history project, with generals and kings and soldiers running through hallways, acne-prone battles raging across the lunchroom, skirmishes reenacted in the bandroom and chemistry lab, gangly teenagers serving as Napoleon and foot soldiers; Patrick Henry’s liberty or death, those “two if by sea” lanterns, all that tea in the Boston Harbor.
We knew it all, because Mr. Snow made it come alive. Never a dull moment, never a lesson that wasn’t experiential and active, with us moving through history, seeing it unfold, acting out our parts with hormonal gusto. He was an inventive and dazzling teacher, fresh from graduate school and bursting with ideas and staggering creativity in teaching a subject that in other, less capable hands can be soulless and pedestrian.
Many of us lose touch with our teachers, even those brilliant ones so significant to us, particularly after this many years. I don’t know where many of my high school teachers are, but I do know exactly where Mr. Snow is, every moment of every day.
On December 16, 2002, Leo Snow was convicted of hundreds of counts of first degree statutory sexual offense, sexual activity with students by a school teacher, and first degree kidnapping of two male students.
What happens to a life?
How could I reconcile this new information, this horrific and awful data, even more troubling in its details of decades of abuse, with the Leo Snow I knew? What utter disconnect, how things fall apart. What do his eyes say and not say?
Why did I finally write to him? Because my first impulse when he was imprisoned was to reach out to him, but I hesitated, I faltered. What could I possibly say, how did I feel about all this, would my writing him be seen as condoning what he did (and why did I care if it were, I ask myself now)? And so, I didn’t write, although my gut instinct told me to.
But the disquiet I have continued to feel as the years pass and he pays for his many undoable crimes, leaving behind his wife and children to internalize this legacy of shame – that disquiet has continued to tell me that the path of disregard wouldn’t work for me. Because I know that no matter what he has done, he is a living, breathing human being not just defined by his crimes, and I couldn’t bear to leave him there, alone.
Playwright Eve Ensler first visited the Bedford Hills Correctional Institute for Women in 1998. Having taught at a university level, she volunteered to be a writing instructor there, working with women inmates, most convicted of murder. In a 2004 speech, Ensler spoke about the women being “murderers and abusers and thieves” when she started the writing program there. As she grew to know the women through their writing – in which they confront the lives they have ruined, explain the scars on their bodies, describe their crimes – they became “women and sisters” to her.
As she further listened to their stories, she came to know “that these women weren’t just the crimes they committed: they were mothers, daughters, sisters, Jews, Christians, Muslims, high-school dropouts, PhD candidates, barely 21, pushing 60, barely conscious of their crimes, remorseful to the point of suicide.” She began to realize that, as she said, “There is no ‘other.’ That is an illusion. They are me. I am accountable for what they did.” My recent letter to Mr. Snow was the tangible artifact of three years of thoughts about my own accountability.
My finally writing was prompted a month ago by reading a column in the local newspaper, written by a teacher about a former student of hers who is a brilliant writer, who was a University of Virginia Jefferson Scholar with a genius IQ, and who has been in prison since 1985 for murdering his girlfriend’s parents. Jens Soering maintains his innocence and there is compelling evidence to suggest he is telling the truth.
As we corresponded after I read her article, Jean Franklin further explained her continued relationship with her student, whom she also believes is innocent: “but my decision to visit Jens did not depend on his guilt or innocence. The teacher-student relationship, for me, is unconditional. They come to us, warts and all, and we try to influence them for the good. In this case, I taught Jens for two years, had read his writing, and knew there was good in him, guilty or innocent. You may also recognize the good in your former teacher, though he wasn’t perfect.”
I don’t condone what Mr. Snow did; I also know there is no doubt that he is guilty as charged. Nor do I lament his sentence—I believe it is just, given the unutterable anguish he caused many young boys and their families. But I do wish it had never happened, that futile kind of wish—the sad kind—we sometimes have when we know it’s too late to go back.
I wish his life had taken such a different trajectory; he is so talented. But it didn’t go in a different direction, it went in this one. And now, Mr. Snow is Inmate #0787172. But he is still, under there somewhere, the Mr. Snow I knew. Isn’t he?
I’m not sure what finding this Mr. Snow will mean for either one of us, but I do know that in reaching out to him, I have found an important part of myself.
“Every person is a half-opened door leading to a room for everyone.” -Tomas Transtromer (translated by Robert Bly)
“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” -Paul Boese
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
Explore and expand your capacity for love and forgiveness. Love people who are unlovable. As G.K. Chesterton said, “love means to love that which is unlovable, or it is no virtue at all.” Who in your life is unlovable? What would loving them look like? How would it change you?