Faith, Hope and Love

Faith, Hope and Love

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Faith, Hope and Love

At the age of 14 I was sent away to Cheshire Academy, a boarding school in Connecticut for boys who had problems at home. My problem was my alcoholic mother, who had torn apart our family with her dysfunctional behavior. After my parents divorced, I babysat my mother until I failed every course in eighth grade. My father and a school headmaster decided that a disciplinary boarding school that excelled in sports (and was a good distance from my alcoholic mother) might give me a chance to graduate from high school.

At orientation my freshman year at Cheshire, the last man to speak was the head disciplinarian—Fred O’Leary. He was a former All-American football player at Yale, a very large man. He had jowls and a huge neck; he looked like the Yale mascot “The Bulldog.” As he moved his large frame forward toward the microphone to speak, everyone got real quiet. An upperclassman next to me said, “Kid, don’t ever let this man see you. Cross the street or whatever. Just don’t let this man know that you exist!”

Mr. O’Leary’s speech to the school assembly that night was short and to the point: “Don’t, I repeat, don’t go off campus, don’t smoke, don’t drink. No contact with town girls. If you break these rules, there will be hell to pay, plus I will personally kick your ass!” Just when I thought he was finished, in a much lower tone, he said, “If you ever have any problems, the door to my office is open to you.” How that stuck in my mind!

As the school year wore on, my mother’s drinking got worse. She called me in my dorm at all hours of the day and night. With her slurred words, she’d beg me to drop out and move back home with her. She promised she would quit drinking and we could go to Florida on vacation, and on and on. I loved her. It was hard to say no to her and my insides turned upside-down with every call. I felt guilt. I felt shame. I was very, very confused.

One afternoon while in freshman English, I was thinking about the call from my mother the night before and my emotions got the better of me. I could feel the tears coming fast, so I asked my professor if I could be excused.

“Excused for what?” asked my professor.

“To see Mr. O’Leary,” I answered. My classmates froze and stared at me.

“What have you done, Peter? Maybe I can help,” my professor suggested.

“No! I want to go to Mr. O’Leary’s office now,” I said. As I left class, all I could think of were those words, “My door is open.”

Mr. O’Leary’s office was off a large lobby in the main hall. The door to his office had a big glass pane so you could see inside. Whenever someone was in serious trouble, he would pull them inside his office, slam the door and lower the window shade. Often you could hear him yelling, “You were seen smoking behind the town fire station last night with another guy and that town girl from the coffee shop!” There would be hell to pay for that unfortunate soul.

There was a line outside his office at all times: academy boys with all kinds of problems, sitting there with their tails between their legs. As I took my place in line, the other boys asked me what I had done wrong.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Are you crazy? Get out of here, now!” they cried, but I could think of nowhere else to go.

Finally, it was my turn. Mr. O’Leary’s office door opened and I was staring straight into the jowls of discipline. I was shaking and feeling foolish, but I had this crazy hunch that something or someone had put me in front of this man—the most feared man on campus. I looked up; our eyes met.

“What are you here for?” he barked.

“At orientation you said your door was open if anyone had a problem,” I stammered.

“Come in,” he said as he pointed to a big green arm chair and pulled the shade down over the door. Then he walked behind his desk and sat down and looked at me.

I looked up, opened my mouth and the tears ran down my face. “My mother is an alcoholic. She gets drunk and calls me on the phone. She wants me to quit school and move home. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared, afraid. Please don’t think I’m crazy or a fool.”

I buried my head in my knees and began to cry uncontrollably. Oblivious to my surroundings, I didn’t hear this large, ex-athlete move quietly from behind his desk, come around and stand beside the little adolescent boy sobbing in the big green chair. One of God’s lost children in a dark, cold place.

Then it happened—one of those miracles that God makes happen through people. Mr. O’Leary’s large hand gently touched my shoulder; his thumb rested on my neck.

Softly, I heard this dreaded giant of discipline say, “Son, I know how you feel. You see, I’m an alcoholic, too. I will do everything I can to help you and your mother. I will have my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous make contact with her today.”

In that instant, I had a moment of clarity. I knew things were going to get better, and I wasn’t scared anymore. With his hand resting on my shoulder, I felt I had been touched by God, by Christ, by Moses. Faith, Hope and Love became real to me for the first time. I could see them, taste them, and I was filled with faith, hope and love for everyone around me. The most feared man on campus became my secret friend, and I checked in with him religiously, once a week. Whenever I passed his table at lunch time, I got a quick glance and friendly wink. My heart soared with pride that this feared man of discipline took such a gentle, loving interest in me.

I reached out and, in my moment of need . . . He was there.

Peter Spelke
with a little help from Dawn Spelke
and Sam Dawson

The name Fred O’Leary is a pseudonym. The name has been changed to protect the privacy of the actual individual.

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