Embrace the Frightening Unknown: A Chapel Talk by Associate Head of School Will Speers
Embrace the Frightening Unknown: A Chapel Talk by Associate Head of School Will Speers
Will Speers

This Wednesday night Chapel Talk was given by Associate Head of School, Dean of Faculty, and English teacher Will Speers on November 8, 2017.

When I was about seven years old, I went to a store and stole a piece of candy. A one-cent Bazooka bubble gum. It was during the summer, near where we were vacationing in upstate New York.

I remember going to this store in my grandfather's 1934 Ford Phaeton, a car with wide sideboards you could stand on and pretend you were a police officer or a member of the Secret Service. I have no recollection why we went to this store, but as we arrived, I decided to take a piece of candy. I'm pretty sure I had a penny; yet for some reason I wanted to see what it would be like to have something without paying for it. Blindly, naively, hubristically, incomprehensibly, I didn't think I was stealing or doing anything bad.

I know I knew the difference between right and wrong. It wasn't like a year later when I swore for the first time, calling someone the "S-word" yet not realizing what I had said, or why that word, that sounded a lot like "shirt," resulted in me getting slapped in the face. The gum in its white, red and blue wrapper was no bigger than a quarter. It was a challenge, not a crime. And it was only penny candy.

The candy was down a side aisle from the front register. The floors were wooden, and my memory of this experience is framed by muted colors -- mostly grey, white and brown. It was a cloudy July afternoon, relatively mild in temperature. I wore a t-shirt, blue jeans, and my favorite sneakers, PF Flyers.

While my family meandered around the store, I made my way to the candy section, found the bubble gum, picked one up, casually turned and walked away. Then I nonchalantly put my clenched fist into my front pocket, and met up with my family to go home. Simple.

Here's what I remember vividly, as if it happened yesterday, rather than almost 55 years ago: as I walked by the front counter where the cash register was, the owner of the store stood there, in his khaki pants and green-grey long sleeve shirt. Inexplicably, I looked up at him as we went through the front glass door; our eyes locked. Did he know what I'd done? Was I projecting my trespass into his eyes that kept accusing me? His eyes followed me even though he didn't turn around; his head twisted like an owl's, watching me leave his store. The tiny piece of bubble gum in my pocket, that had initially slipped in unseen, now burned, screamed, sent out signals like a lighthouse, announcing my crime to the world. I couldn't stop looking at his eyes -- why? Because I knew I was wrong? Because I wanted him to call me back, and end this torture? Still he kept staring at me, his eyes penetrating my face, then down my throat which was starting to churn and tingle in a bad way, then snaking into a gaping, frigid hole where 7 years of happy childhood no longer existed.

I quickly dove into the back of the car, curling up in a fetal position on the floor because I didn't want to be seen. I didn't want his eyes on me anymore. The entire ride home I stayed on the floor, waiting for the police car which I was sure he'd sent after us. No matter how many times I blinked or shut my eyes, he silently, relentlessly peered at me. And when the police car would chase us down, its menacing siren pulling us to the side of the road, the officer and all my family would glare down at me on the floor, where I lay, convicted, ruined, scared -- really scared.

Why was I scared? Looking back, it's obvious I felt guilty. But at that moment, what harrowed me beyond anything I'd ever experienced was first how alone I felt even though my family surrounded me in the car; and second, how out-of-control my world spun around me, leaving me untethered, dizzily confused, a prisoner to my own actions. How could that tiny piece of candy unloose such monstrous chaos inside me? Just thinking of the gum in my pocket nearly made me throw up.

To me, being scared feels worse than being afraid. It's uncertainty plus danger; its mystery mixed with sudden alarm. We know what we're afraid of -- spiders, snakes, vegetables, horror movies, airplanes, exams, dentists, holidays at home -- but part of the scariness of being scared is not knowing what's terrifying us. We can act against our fears, but being scared means we're blindsided, exposed, powerless.

Here's a slightly different memory of being scared. I'm in the front row next to the dugout at Shea Stadium, sitting with my 2nd grade best friend Scott Walker, our little league mitts ready to catch a foul ball as the New York Mets play the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1960s. The Mets lost a lot of games those years (they are still losing a lot of games 50 years later); they lost that day as well, because I can still see players in red and white uniforms, the Cardinals' colors, circling the bases all afternoon.

At some point in the game, with the Mets at bat, one of their players hit a foul ball that goes straight up, then drifts over towards where we're sitting, waiting, hoping, a kid's dream of a major league baseball, a sacred relic to take home and treasure, even brag about at school on Monday. Most of this memory happens in slow motion: the ball, a small dot in the blue sky, hovers stationary above us; our mitts, more like a pot holder than a baseball glove, are poised to catch the ball, receive it like a gift from the baseball gods in Heaven. Then two things unexpectedly happen which scare us to the core: looking up, the ball suddenly decides to rocket down at us like a missile of total destruction. Almost simultaneously, we glance at the field, where the Cardinals' catcher, with equal speed and ferocity, hurtles towards us. If the ball doesn't kill us, the catcher will crush Scott and me.

But then the miracle happens: right as the ball is about to obliterate us, a catcher's mitt the size of a mattress thrusts from nowhere into the path of the ball. The ball is caught, our lives are spared, the Mets lose, and we return to 2nd grade on Monday with tales of near death and Olympic athleticism. I'm sure in some retellings the catcher fell into our seats, or we held him up from certain injury.

Yet, I still remember how abruptly the moment switched from joy to danger. My stomach had that same ripping-apart sensation; even in our glee at the end of the play, Scott and I realized, as much as 8 year-olds can, that a tornado of emotions had just blasted across our lives. We didn't know baseball could be scary, that we could have been pulverized or trampled. To this day, the crack of the ball on a bat sends me instinctively ducking for cover.

My last childhood experience of being scared occurred when I was 10, in April, 1967. I'm in bed, and my mom is saying goodnight, leaning down on my covers. I'm lying very still, while she's quietly crying because her grandmother has just died. My great grandmother was 95 when she died; although she'd had a stroke a few years back and couldn't talk, she smiled, laughed, and her eyes brightened whenever we visited her.

But why was my mother crying? Only kids cried, I thought. How did my bedtime change into her sorrow? How did my great grandmother go from being alive to not being alive, whatever that meant? Again, there was that cavern deep inside my belly -- is that what those cartoon characters feel like when the cannonball tears through their stomachs? I couldn't identify what was there, or not there -- but the void throbbed unlike an injury or tummy ache.

This moment was scary because I didn't know what to do with my mother's tears, with her pain at her grandmother's death, with the quiet, darkened room that I was still in when my mom left to say goodnight to my siblings. I was scared because I didn't know what this "not-alive" word was, and I didn't want it near me. I didn't know parents could be sad; her tears seemed deeper, harder, more mysterious than mine. I could always point to the source of my tears: my knee got scrapped when I fell, my younger brother broke my favorite toy, we lost the game. But where did my mother's tears originate? What were these alien emotions possessing my mother, that were starting to infect me? After she left my room, I didn't move for a long time.

"Being scared" can feel childish. We're scared because we are discovering so much about this complex, mysterious, and sometimes threatening world around us. We grow older, we know more, we understand more, we put aside such childish worries. But a store clerk's eyes, a baseball, a mother's tears merely manifest into different plots and unnerving questions. A senior once told me he felt "strangely alone and scared" after submitting his college application: scared, he realized as he talked, because of the eerie adult world that lay unfamiliar ahead of him, symbolized by his completed applications. Yes, we know that stealing is wrong, a foul ball can hurt, that people die: but each of these conditions continues to challenge us -- a moral choice; a physical danger we didn't or couldn't anticipate; lives beyond our control.

What can we do when we're scared? I'm still scared of change, of death, sometimes even of emotions. My epiphany writing this talk is that I need to keep reading Hamlet and Beloved each year because they affirm for me how to navigate, how to embrace the frightening unknown, how to forge ahead. I need to hear Hamlet say, "The readiness is all" -- have faith, be assured, own the narrative. And I need to have Baby Suggs tell me, "Know it, and go on out the yard" -- figure it out, deal with it, rejoin and reconnect with the world. If we reach out, merge our fragmented selves with another equally broken soul, then the room isn't so dark, the terror subsides, the nerves calm.

Our rescue may indeed be our own words, the catharsis of sharing these scared, scarring, perhaps even sacred moments of aloneness. As I recounted these memories on the phone this week with my mother -- I had never told her about the bubble gum, or the night she cried -- she mentioned that when she was a child, this same grandmother returned home one day crying because she'd accidentally hit a dog while driving home. My mother said she was scared witnessing her grandmother's reaction, since she'd never seen her so upset before.

I didn't know it when I was 10 years old, or I was too scared to act, but there was my salvation with my mother. I could have broken out of my chilly isolation by putting my arms around her, easing her tears, sharing her pain, cabling to her world, anchoring my wayward spirit to hers.