What Could Have Been

With a dead stare, I sat in the principal’s office.  Again.  Except this time, with two grim-faced police officers looming over me. Words swirled around me in the air like dry dead leaves blown around on a grey winter day.  “Animal.” “Criminal.”  “Delinquent.”   At this point, the words meant nothing. I was used to it. And honestly, I didn’t care. This scene had become the norm in the ten years since I had moved in with my abusive parents at the age of six. I was constantly in trouble. If I wasn’t creating chaos and disrupting my classes, I was hitting other students and instigating fights. Maybe I wanted others to experience what I was getting at home. Or perhaps I felt that acting out was the answer. Whatever the reasoning, I had really done it this time. Was she asking for it? Maybe. Maybe not. But she got it anyways. That’s how my life was, so why should it be different for anyone else? If I had to be miserable, so did everyone around me.

I sat in the chair with the cold metal of handcuffs digging into my wrists—wrists that I had once tried to cut to end the pain. The scars were mocking reminders of my attempt to escape life, but I couldn’t even succeed at that. On the bright side, at least I wouldn’t be going back to those people who never wanted me to begin with.

After serving time in a Detention Center for juveniles, my life continued in a downward spiral. I battled addictions with drugs and alcohol and was fired from job after job, until I was no longer considered employable. By the time I was 30 years old, I had accumulated a lengthy criminal record and had been in and out of jail multiple times. When I wasn’t incarcerated, I was out on the streets. I refused to take responsibility for, or control of, my life, and I blamed it all on my parents.  I had succeeded in squandering a life that long ago had been promising and full of potential.

Now for the good news. Other than the eight months of abuse, the picture I just painted is completely fictional. However, had the events of my life not transpired in the ways that they did, it could very easily have been my story.

Oftentimes in life we go through events that we don’t understand. We question why such and such is happening to us. We can fall into the trap of being the victim very easily. And it can be years later that we clearly make out that which was once obscured in a dense fog.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through the years is that even some of the worst situations in our lives can yield rewarding results. It takes a positive mindset and attitude to see the good in things that have caused us great pain and suffering. But seeing the good in even the worst of times can lead to incredibly gratifying outcomes.

Being abused by my parents was an extremely harrowing experience. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong, and I certainly couldn’t fathom what I was doing to “deserve” the punishments inflicted upon me on an almost daily basis.  It was many years later, after my adoption, that I started to understand that my biological parents were not normal, healthy people. I also came to recognize that I could not harbor ill will against them for the rest of my life.  To do so would have been very unhealthy. Instead, I came away with two very important lessons from my traumatic experiences. First, I promised myself that when I had children of my own, I would love them unconditionally and I would never intentionally hurt them. Secondly, I came to the realization that my biological parents did me a favor by giving me up for adoption. They could have chosen to make my life even more miserable by fighting social services and subjecting me to years of being shuffled from foster home to foster home. Instead, it was within weeks of my first-grade teacher reporting the signs of abuse that I was being adopted. I’m extremely grateful that my adoption process happened as quickly as it did. And I’m thankful that my biological parents, even with all their issues, had enough sense and the wherewithal to do what was best for me. In a very literal sense, my life was dramatically changed overnight.  Instead of being that bitter, angry kid in handcuffs, I was a carefree child who looked forward to going home from school every day. Rather than starting fights in the schoolyard, I formed healthy friendships with my peers. Instead of talking out and disrupting my classes, I relished gaining knowledge, and appreciated the teachers who helped me become the man I am today. And rather than wanting to take my own life to escape the pain, I embraced and cherished my new lease on life—a life that had been transformed by the grace of God and the selfless love of a couple who took me in as their own.

As I write this, I sit in the front bedroom of my parents’ farmhouse. I watch the rays of the sun reflecting in shades of pink on the clouds, as dawn breaks over the ridge to the east. I think back on the last 42 years of my life since being adopted. The positives and successes far outnumber the negatives and failures—becoming the oldest brother of eight, graduating from VMI, serving my country for six years in the military, teaching and coaching thousands of students over the course of 16 years in public education, and raising two boys who are now young men in college and in high school. I think about where I have failed—friendships, marriage, or just in the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve tried to learn from and use those failures to create successes elsewhere.

In my mind, I can picture that anger-filled boy who could easily have been me, sitting in the principal’s office having all but given up on himself and others. Fortunately, that boy never materialized, but instead remains nothing more than the story of what could have been.


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photography by JEJ PHOTOS Budget Blinds of North

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