When I was growing up my dad was the art teacher at the local high school. There was a lot of anticipation in my family as my freshman year approached—I would finally have the opportunity to take one of my dad’s “famous” art classes. When my freshman year finally did come around, though, I asked my dad if I could pass on his class until next year. I suppose I just wanted a little time to get used to everything and settle into my high school experience. As usual, my dad was gracious about it and said it was fine.
Later that year, without warning, my father died.
His passing was unexpected. Shocking. My 14-year old heart was stunned, grieved, and tangled in guilt for having not taken his class. I had rejected him, somehow. I had passed up my last and best opportunity to connect with my father.
It was too much to bear, really. So I just disappeared. I wore black, I disengaged, I avoided anything that reminded me of Dad or the art class that I would never take. I studiously avoided the art room where my dad had spent his career teaching other high school students how to draw and paint and express themselves. I stopped drawing, stopped painting, and even stopped doodling in my notebooks.
One day after school toward the end of my junior year, I bumped into the new art teacher after track practice. “Hey Shayne,” he said, startling me as I walking past him, “I need you to grab some golf balls from the art room for me. They’re by my desk in a big mesh bag.”
He was a teacher and I was a student, so I didn’t feel I had much choice. I walked to the art room, found the bag as quickly as I could, and brought it to Mr. Jackson. “I want to show you something,” he said, and nodded for me to follow him. We walked together in silence out to the football field. He stopped in the middle of the green expanse, reached into the bag, and pulled out a long leather strap along with a golf ball. Making a sling out of the leather strap he placed the golf ball carefully in the crook of the sling and gave me a wry smile.
“Think I can make a field goal?” he asked. We were at the 50-yard line. Suddenly he had my full attention. With a few swings of the sling and a graceful step forward he launched the golf ball through the air at fantastic velocity straight between the goal posts. It was amazing!
We took turns hurling golf balls through the air—his shots consistently straight and fast, mine unpredictable at first but better with each attempt until I made a clean field goal. It was exhilarating. When we finally ran out of golf balls, we walked to the end zone to gather up the golf balls together. As we approached the art room he reached into the mesh bag, pulled out the sling, and handed it to me. “Here, keep it.” I thanked him and started to walk toward the locker room.
“Hey, Shayne,” he said, as I was walking away. I turned to face him. “Don’t answer me now, but of all the kids at this school, why aren’t you taking art?” We just stood looking at each other for a moment. Then he said, “I know whose son you are.”
My senior year I took art. For the remainder of high school, in fact, I spent as much time as I could in the art room. Over time, my heart relaxed and I was able to grieve my father’s death, celebrate his life, and, in the process, have my own life back. I now consider myself an artist, like my father was. Mr. Jackson taught me much more than just how to sling golf balls that day after school. To this day, he is the man I call when I face important decisions or need advice.
My life changed in a single moment—a moment of respect, compassion, and invitation. That moment, so many years ago, is why I do this work today.