I knew I was caught but I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. And then the giant head turned around and...
OK. I admit I was not a very good student. I was smart enough and could do well if I applied myself but did so only when I was interested enough. In high school I was so distracted by the Beatles phenomena and all that came with it that high school was more of an inconvenience than an education.
I sat in the back row next to John Gorely during history class. Gorely was so skinny I called him, "Twig", only with a drawn out middle like, "Twiiiiiiiggg!" I hated history at the time. Love it today for whatever reason. I remember sitting right behind this giant kid from Germany. I don't know why he was in town but he paid attention to everything. He was so tall that I could easily hide behind him so the teacher would not think to call on me for answers.
This German kid had his head shaved which was odd at the time. His head was huge and, the mishievous person I was, I couldn't resist pretending to punch it off his shoulder with Gorley looking on. I say "pretend" because if he ever knew I was even thinking of punching his head he could crush me in his left hand.
I'd clench my fist, draw back and throw a punch that would come within a hair of the back of his massive skull, then pull back. The possibility of my actually hitting him was so real that the two of us broke into silent laughter beyind our control. It was that "church laughing" if you know what I mean. We did everything not to make the slightst sound yet the harder we tried to be quiet the more we died laughing. It got so bad that I almost stopped breathing. I realized right then that it really is possible to "die laughing". I couldn't breathe and started to panic. The more seriously I thought about it the funnier it got and the funnier it got the harder my diaphram collapsed. Gorely was doing the same thing. It was too much to handle.
During all of this Mr. Bennett, the highly-respected disciplinarian high school football coach and history teacher was talking about the presidents....I think!
I avoided looking left because when I did all I could see was Gorely buckled over in complete panicking silence, totally exhaled, unable to draw his breath back for the slightest bit of oxygen. I looked at him only once and it caused me to go even deeper into my own laughing abyss. I couldn't bear to look again. Then I heard the sound of him inhaling. Thank God he was going to live but I was still paralyzed. A few seconds later I caught my breath as if someone rescued me from drowing at the very last second. The breath was desperate and loud. I didn't care. I was going to live. My eyes were so watered up I couldn't see anything.
The giant head turned around along with the rest of the class and all eyes were upon me as I tried to compose myself in 2 seconds. I was caught!
Coach Bennett, in his usual understated way waited with a pregnant pause before asking, "Is there something you boys wanted to share with the rest of the class?" Oh no! There was no way I could tell the real reason I was laughing so hard. The giant head would kill me!
I diverted the question as much as I could and somehow got out of having to explain it even though he prodded relentlessly. But I didn't get out of it totally. Coach Bennett proceeded to talk about how the great society as we know it was changing and he didn't like what he was seeing. No respect for teachers. No respect for family. Everyone was more interested in growing long hair than learning. I remember him saying that the Beatles were earning more money than the president, who, at the time was Kennedy.He was really bothered by that
It took several minutes during his speech for me to clue in on his message. I was doing all I could do to contain myself. Eventually, I settled down and hooked in. I remember his face. As tough a man as he seemed he was almost weeping at the deterioration of the nation's morals and values. He was powerful and it as easy to see why everyone in town respectd him. He spoke for over 30 minutes, almost the entire class. I could tell he had wanted to say this for a long time.
I represented the epitome of the counter culture of the 60's and any kind of conformist message would normally fall on my deaf ears. But Mr. Bennett was compelling. I couldn't see myself caving into the past but he made me think at a time when I didn't want to even consider those things. He continued to make his case and although much of it I disagreed with (as any rebellious teenager would) I found myself shook with the reality of most of his message. My emotions swung the other way when he used me as the example of the way things were going. I began to think, "I'm not that guy. I'm better than that. My parents taught me all of this. What happened to me? Why was I against these values?"
I sincerely apologized, not just to get off but because I could see that there was more than one side of any story. I appreciated the concept of racial equality, women in the workplace, unnecessary military action, and all the things that made my generation great. But, I was stopped in my tracks before I was totally driven into one way of thinking. Although the world was changing, the very foundation of our values were being threatened and lost. I was not about to go old school but that was the day I learned to keep an open mind to both sides of an issue. To this day I feel the same. Regardless of how much I believe what I am hearing or learning from a given point of view, I put myself in the other side's shoes and try my best to understand why they would believe what they believe.
Mr. Bennett shook my core. Later that day I bumped into him in the hallway. I told him how he opened my eyes and how I would always keep his viewpoint in mind as I mature. For whatever reason he asked me to join him on the footbal team. I was not interested in school athletics but did go to the games. He made me his sidekick, basically his gopher. I loved it. I got to go to all the games, walk up and down the sidelines and go to all the meetings where he inspired the team. I still never liked the smeall of a locker room. Sorry.
Today, as I try to decipher the rhetoric of politics and religion, or when in a disagreement with others about any dispute, I make my case based on what I believe. But, I ALWAYS leave room for the possibility that I may either be wrong or understand from where my opponent's views were formed and the basis for their opinion.
In fact, it has become my main mission in life and my motivation for developing the Living Legacy Project. When we learn another's story we gain perspective and learn that there are good reasons for their point of view, agreed or disagreed. From there it is easier to come to a mutual resolution or understanding. A good friend and author, Tom Cordle, wrote a book about an amazing event in my life and the entire premise was based on how civilizations have always been made up of uniters and dividers. Divide and conquer is still the way it works. We haven't learned how to unite to get things done. The book depicts a point of view for sure but the main message is one of trying to learn without prejudice or long-held beliefs. Just maybe we can learn from and respect one another if we keep an open mind.
In virtually all religions there is a similar virtue that is like the old Indian lesson, "Don't judge another man until you've walked a mile in his moccasin". This is basically the Golden Rule. And, I thank Coach Bennett for driving it deep into my psyche, even though he only saw things from his perspective at the time. He died about 10 years ago and I can remember the day I heard about his death. It was the strangest feeling. I felt his presence deep in my heart because he had affected my inner being in such a profound way. Thank you Coach Bennett!