Biff America: Gifts and grieving (column)
July 29, 2017
"I knew God hated me."
Those were the words spoken by a confident, successful man in his 60s. They were pronounced in a dispassionate manner that somewhat diluted the implied pain. Though it was easy to envision those same words, and the assumption of divine disdain, from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy. From that vantage point, the aching is unimaginable.
Randall Swartz described his Alabama home town as "rural and cruel." Only parents, teachers and clergy called him by his given name; the rest called him 'Porky,' 'Gimp,' 'pizza-face' and worse. He was the last child of three. He was loved dearly by his mother and very much misunderstood by his dad. His two older brothers were simple and rawboned while Randy was plump, brilliant and sensitive. He was born with cerebral palsy and soon after developed acne and psoriasis. He wore leg braces, along with big hats and long sleeves to protect his ravaged skin from the southern sun. In an attempt to remain invisible from his tormentors, he spoke quietly and kept his head down; with that he had only limited success.
The young boy was not without talents. With a beautiful singing voice and a gifted intellect, his two sanctuaries were the church choir and the classroom. He possessed a near photographic memory and a baritone diction that belied his young age and small stature. Randall could recite both prose and poetry with a confidence that was a stark contrast to his insecure and timid demeanor. To hear him sing or speak was impressive yet his teachers were careful with their praise as often it was a precursor to bullying. His pastor and choir director, to their credit, realized that the chapel and choir loft were two places where Randall felt safe from abuse and allowed him to linger. His pastor once said to Randy's mum, "His voice is a godly gift."
Grammar and middle school were no walk in the park, but high school loomed fearful. But, when considering the four years ahead, Randall had two reasons to be hopeful. Unlike grammar and middle school, the high school offered accelerated courses — Randall was often bored in his earlier grades — and the high school had a glee club. The summer before 9th grade he would go into the woods behind his house and sing to an imaginary assembled crowd. For the first time in his life Randal fantasized that he might be admired rather than abused.
The night before his first day of high school Randy could not sleep. For him this was the possibility of a new beginning. He imagined a world where he was challenged intellectually and perhaps even respected for both his intellect and his voice. Though all that was his fantasy, Randall would settle for a world where he was ignored but not mistreated.
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The morning of his first day of freshman year Randall woke up with a stutter. This affliction came out of the blue. He had never stuttered before, but there it was. Unlike some people whose speech impediment goes away while singing, Randall's did not.
So on the first day when his home room teacher took attendance and called his name, Randall answered with, "P-p-p-p-present." The class erupted in laughter.
As I mentioned before, Randall Swartz told me the story of his life in a detached manner, devoid of self-pity. But to be clear, the man I was talking to was by then a successful, respected middle-aged scholar. The pain he described occurred almost 50 years past; but even after a half century the scab of heartache was easily scratched. I asked Randall, "After going to bed with a beautiful voice and waking up with an uncontrollable stutter — what were you feeling?"
"I knew God hated me."
I wonder how many children (adults) of faith feel that way today? I wonder how many children have been told that who they are and how they were born is something to be ashamed of? How many children from faithful families come to believe that God must hate them?
Randall's story continues. As fast as it appeared, his stutter vanished, four years later, almost the exact same time he left his home town for college. His beautiful voice returned and he was appreciated and valued in the college setting and later in his personal and professional life.
There are as many life stories on the planet as there are people. People blessed with gifts and saddened with challenges. Obviously God doesn't abuse, torment, afflict or otherwise choose to mistreat or favor one person, persuasion or nation over another. God just watches as we do that to each other…
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff's new book "Mind, Body, Soul." is available at local shops and bookstores or http://shop.holpublications.com/products/biff-america-mind-body-soul
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