PREPARE YE THE WAY

By John Thomas Tuft

The little human male attached to my hand is walking with me down the street in Aliquippa, PA. We are on our way to the first day of kindergarten. For him, you understand. In the days leading up to this moment, he has been full of righteous anticipation. He is bright and articulate, so bring on the learning. Except for one small problem. It occurs in school. Among other little humans striving for a myriad of goals. Led by an adult female who he has never seen before, has no inclination of how she is prepared to take on the awesome responsibility of teaching him. The lower lip begins to quiver. The grip on my hand grows tighter. We enter the building and approach the room down the hallway. Tears begin to roll down his cheeks and tight sobs escape. I must pretend to be brave and leave him there in the care of said adult female who has various little humans in different emotional states clinging to her.

And that is our ritual for the entire school year of kindergarten. The walk, the brave talk, the hand tightening, the lip beginning to quiver, the dissolution into tears at the door to his classroom. Every. Single. Day. Now flash forward to the beginning of first grade. Nervous chatter, reluctance to commit to having a good day, quivering lip… At the end of the first day, he arrives home and immediately begins a miraculous transformation. From six-year-old student into the intrepid teacher, Mr. Barnett. Stuffed animals are arranged behind cardboard brick desks, and they are hectored into learning, like it or not. Every. Single. Day. Until probably the end of sixth grade. Recess[JTT1]  in the back yard, field trips to the front porch, lunch eaten in the dining room. Stuffed students needing discipline, extra attention, more homework, more rest, or the dreaded trip to the principal’s office, cleverly disguised as a mom in a kitchen.

It is two decades later. I find myself standing in the hallway of an elementary school wondering, why do they all smell the same? Classroom doors are closed. The occasional stray small human wanders aimlessly down the hall, giving me bored looks or sideways looks of fear as they wonder, What’s this old man doing here? I step to the door and peer through the small window. Various small humans are assembled around tables, in different poses of focusing attention to the teacher. Mr. Barnett has transformed into Mister Tuft, third grade teacher. And today, as I write this, he is Principal Tuft. Well past the age that I was when I first walked him to kindergarten. Befuddled by his old man, with a son of his own who in two short years will make that walk down the green mile of kindergarten. As I stand there considering all of this, I want to shout, “Prepare ye the way!” And me being me, there’s got to be some kind of lesson in all this…right?

I keep hearing people speaking about their spiritual journey and I have no idea what that means.

What prepares us for the spiritual journey? Blinding light or utter darkness? People in recovery in addiction speak of having moments of clarity. Is that the spiritual journey? Groping our way toward clarity? Where the light strikes at just the right angle with just the right intensity to see more clearly who we are and where we are going? Is the spiritual journey the sum of what we do with what we see in those moments of clarity? Or, as some would maintain, is it seeking a bigger portion of some magical holy ghost powder sprinkled all over us? But what if our lives are made of flesh and bone, dust and dirt, and are not supernatural? Even our dreaming is brought about by matter and stuff. Light and sound. Chemicals and electrical pulses.

In psychology there is the concept of mental rehearsal. It refers to the way we go over and over in our minds what we want to say in an upcoming encounter that makes us anxious. Or similarly, mentally walking ourselves through some upcoming event. And I realized that is what my son was doing. Originally, he was rehearsing his fears. Then he changed to rehearsing his future. It made all the difference. It became a spiritual journey.

One Reverend Mister Fred Rogers is my guide in this. As he knelt beside his bed each night and murmured aloud the names of those he cared about, he was rehearsing. Rehearsing the future, not his fears. When he asked people to stop and think in silence for a minute about one person who helped them become who they are, he was teaching us to rehearse. Rehearse the future. Rehearse being the kind of person we want to be. Isn’t that the spiritual journey? I think Fred had the impact that he had because he was always rehearsing. Rehearsing the kind of person he wanted to become. And he became that person. That’s the kind of journey that I can understand. Righteous anticipation…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.