Lent’s Compass. Day 17: Bonfires and Grace.

Fire By Fire

My son goes down in the orchard to incinerate
Burning the day’s trash, the accumulation
Of old letters, empty toilet paper rolls, a paper plate,
Marketing lists, discarded manuscript, on occasion
Used cartons of bird seed, dog biscuit. The fire
Rises and sinks; he stirs the ashes till the flames expire.

Burn, too, old sins, bedraggled virtues, tarnished
Dreams, remembered unrealities, the gross
Should-haves, would-haves, the unvarnished
Errors of the day, burn, burn the loss
Of intentions, recurring failures, turn
Them all to ash. Incinerate the dross. Burn. Burn.

~ Madeleine L’Engle The Weather of the Heart, p. 49.

The following story is excerpted from Robert Fulghum’s blog. The entry is dated March 8, 2011. Fulghum’s inner bonfire pairs nicely with L’Engles.

When I was a high school senior I smoked a cigar at school.
In the chemistry lab.
Lit it with a Bunsen burner.
And tried covering the smell by mixing up a batch of stinky chemicals.
The toxic orange smoke triggered the emergency fire alarms.
Students, teachers, and staff trooped out into playgrounds and parking lots.
Fire trucks appeared with sirens blaring.

Later, the principal used the public address system to call for information on who had been smoking a cigar in the chemistry lab.
Goodtime Bobby Fulghum played it cool and kept his mouth shut.

Wow! Wonder who the idiot was who would do something like that?

But word always gets around.
The look on the chemistry teacher’s face said she knew who the Who was.
But she didn’t say anything to me.
And neither did the principal, Mr. Ware.

Mr. Ware, a tall dignified man, was one of the finest men in our community.
Much respected by students, faculty, parents, and even students.
He addressed us with equal respect: Mr. Fulghum, Miss Brown.
Nobody wanted his disapproval.

But now I had single-handedly caused an all-out fire drill. Bad.
And didn’t own up to the truth when asked. Worse.
A crime and a cover-up.
But . . . somehow . . . I knew he knew.
And I was sure that he knew that I knew that he knew.
Because he always seemed to know about these things.

Next stop for Goodtime Bobby would surely be the principal’s office.

But a week went by without a summons to appear.
Meanwhile I began to beat myself up for what I had done.
There might have been an explosion.
The school might have burned down.
People could have been hurt, maimed, killed.
And I am such a gutless creep I won’t own up or apologize.
I deserve to be expelled, turned over to the police, beaten, branded, jailed.
I am thoughtless, stupid, worthless, a criminal loser.

It was a long, long week – and I hardly slept or ate.
When my parents asked what was wrong with me, I kept the lie alive.
Oh, nothing . . .

On Friday morning there was an envelope in my locker.
Inside on official school stationary was a handwritten note from Mr. Ware.
Mr. Fulghum, would you please stop by my office today?
The end had come.

Reporting to his office, I sat in the waiting room for an eternity.
Rehearsing my confession, my apology, and my plea for mercy.

Finally, his door opened.
Hello Mr. Fulghum, please come in.
He shook my hand in greeting and offered me a chair.
He asked how I was and if I had been doing any thinking this week.
Well, yes, actually I had.
And I threw up the whole mess in a non-stop monologue – confessed what I had done, admitted how dangerous my actions were, and even suggested the severe punishment I deserved.
Finally I ran out of words and choked up with tears.

There was a painfully long silence before he smiled and spoke.
Mr. Fulghum, I respect you and the way you think.
Thanks for stopping by.

No lecture about crime and punishment.
No moralizing.
Just courtesy and respect.
Thanks for stopping by.

As I rose to leave, he said – and I still remember his words spoken to me fifty-six years ago:
By the way, Mr. Fulghum, it doesn’t matter what I or anybody else thinks about you and what you do. What you think about you is all that really counts. Think the best.

That’s all he had wanted to know – what I thought of me.
He chose to think well of me, and left the rest in my hands.
With an act of grace he resolved my disgrace.

I never forgot. . .

When Mr. Ware retired many years later, I sent him a box of cigars.


One thought on “Lent’s Compass. Day 17: Bonfires and Grace.

  1. MDTaz says:

    Fulghum’s story makes me think of my Dad. He was like that. Wise and good at waiting. It inspires me to leave space around my kids, to give them room to develop their own moral compass. thanks for this.

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