Friday, February 4, 2011

Why couldn’t I help you Lance?

I would not normally write about and identify any of the children I used to work with, but in Lance’s case I’m going to make an exception, because, you see, Lance is dead.

The details are hazy as it happened many years ago, but as I recall, Lance took a pistol and shot himself in the head. I think he was 15 at the time. The specifics are immaterial, and when one doesn’t know all the facts, the facts become mixed with rumor until truth can no longer be separated from fiction.

All that matters for now is Lance is dead. And while it remains speculation, I have a pretty good idea as to why.

Lance was a handsome, energetic, athletic and mischievous boy from Texas. His smile was infectious. He honestly tried to please others, but like many boys his age diagnosed with ADD, his mouth and actions often got ahead of his brain, leading him to say and do things he quickly regretted.

He was a student at the private boarding school where I worked as a cabin counselor. The school, up in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, was for teens diagnosed with learning disabilities. It was a beautiful natural setting that offered tremendous opportunities for outdoor activities in the surrounding national forest. I took students on many hikes and backpack trips into the mountains there and not just for recreation. I’ve always believed that the wilderness is an effective teacher of many things; it will humble the most arrogant teen and in the flash of a moment, will show you death for what it really is.

I liked Lance. I remember on a hike one day up the steep slope of a ridge by the school, we encountered a rock outcropping that was about 12 feet high. You could walk around it, but it was an excellent opportunity to do a little free climbing without any serious risk. I was amazed at Lance’s agility as he easily climbed up the rock face, finding the right handholds and swinging his body up to another tiny ledge where he paused briefly horizontal to the ground before using his wiry strength to pull himself to the top of the outcropping.

It really was a beautiful and awe-inspiring site.

Later in the year there was hushed talk about an incident between Lance and another boy in his cabin. Lance’s normally bright demeanor was subdued and gloomy. The once loquacious boy had become taciturn and morose. I was just 24 years old at the time, struggling with my own sexuality. Intuitively, I sensed a similar struggle within Lance. So I took a risk.

Lance’s cabin counselor agreed to let Lance come over to my cabin after lights out to chat. Talk about an uncomfortable meeting. I let Lance know I knew what occurred between him and the other boy. I also let him know I wasn’t going to tell him that there was something wrong with him. Rather, I wanted to find out what he thought about the situation. How was he going to deal with it? What happened, I said, didn’t mean he was gay. But the incident wasn’t going to go away.

There was one other time I approached another boy, also from another cabin and at the request of his counselor. (Was it that obvious to others? “Send the kid to Rich, he knows how to deal with that kind of thing.”) In that situation, I made an obvious mistake. The boy’s reaction to my inquiries, despite how oblique they were, clearly let me know I was making a mistake.

With Lance, however, I believed I was right. He gave me the non-denial denial, never clearly denying what others were saying had happened, nor clearly denying that he had sexual feelings for other boys. But he remained closed up. Never had I seen someone suppress their tears so effectively. He wanted to tell me something, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it. I told him that anytime he needed to talk about anything, I would be there.

That was late in the school year. Lance brightened up a bit and finished the year on a good note. He opted to return to public school the following fall, so he did not come back to our school.

About six weeks into the next school year, I was doing something in the office when someone grabbed me and said, “Hey, Lance is on the phone, he just called and asked if you were there.” At the time, I thought it was odd for Lance to call like that. But I shrugged it off. I took the phone and asked Lance how things were going at his new school. Not so well, he said. He was calling from home, he had just been suspended. His parents weren’t home yet. He was worried how they might react.

I think I asked Lance what had happened at school to get him suspended, but I can’t remember whether he again evaded my question or gave me an answer. I remember telling him he would get through this. And I remember telling him thanks for calling and asking for me. I told him I liked him, he was a good kid.

A week later I heard the news. Lance had shot himself dead. He did it on the same day that he called the school. He must have shot himself shortly after the phone call.

Long pause because I’m crying right now.

I don’t blame myself for what happened to Lance. But goddamnit, what a fucked up situation that was. It was the 1980s when everything said about gays had AIDS connected to it. I was in my 20s, confused about my own sexuality trying to talk to a 14-year-old who was just as confused. I was deathly afraid of anyone finding out. My position at the school would be ruined. Even though I had never done anything in the least inappropriate with any of the boys at that school – and while I worked there I had personal knowledge of at least three other counselors who had sex with students, two involving male counselors with female students and the third a male counselor with a male student (and there are a couple other instances that while I didn’t have personal knowledge, I have strong evidence, a lot can happen in five years) – I knew that if someone were even suspicious of me being gay my life would be ruined. Or at least, that’s how I thought.

Lance must have been thinking the same way.

So much suffering, and what the fuck for?

Much of this came to me during my morning meditation today. Normally when I finish meditating, I always recite the Loving Kindness chant. But today, I just couldn’t get through it. Not only couldn’t I remember the verses in the right order, I was weeping as I tried to say them. And when I went through the Five Remembrances, I was struck by the last line.

“I am the owner of my Kamma, made of my Kamma, born of my Kamma, related to my Kamma, abide supported in my Kamma. Whatever Kamma I create, wholesome or unwholesome, light or dark, skillful or unskillful, to that I fall heir.”

It’s the part “… related to my Kamma, abide supported in my Kamma …” I asked my original teacher long ago what that meant. He said that being related to your Kamma literally means my relatives are manifestations of my Kamma, and the last part had to do with all my personal relationships. My friends, the jobs I had and the co-workers I have, that also is my Kamma. And as we continue to create more Kamma with our present actions, we constantly create for ourselves situations and relationships that allow us opportunity to undo past Kamma.

When you look at Kamma this way, you see how we are all in our own personal version of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.” This endless cycle of rebirth plays on and on until we get it right, until we stop making Kamma and find release.

There are a lot of us in this world who behave like oxen, dragging a wagon full of woes behind us. And instead of unhitching ourselves from these carts, we spend our time throwing more shit onto someone else’s wagon. We protect our own wagons, having become fond of our woes, rather than abandoning them. I do the same thing. I want to stop. I want to help others stop.

I don’t know how to finish this post, so I’m just going to stop.


  1. Man, that's a tough story all the way around. I don't know what else you could have done for him.

    I used to work with kids like Lance, with various "issues" that caused trouble in school and at home. Most of the kids I worked with were younger, but I did work with a half dozen early teens that sound just like him - rash choices regretted later, confusion around sex (and sexuality in some cases). One boy in particular, David, hoped into bed in the middle of the night with other boys a few times, and was mostly isolated during the day. I haven't heard about any of them in the past ten years, but sometimes wonder if they all made it through alive because it's not hard for me to imagine suicide in a few cases sadly.

    The teen years can be so brutal.

  2. Thanks Nathan. Lance's story has a lot to do with my anxiety and impatience regarding my friend mentioned in the previous post. But then again, I have a lot of issues...;)

  3. At least there is still time with your current friend. Maybe something will click in for him yet.

  4. Richard, what a brave and beautiful post. Others are so kind to appear and guide us, even when it appears we are trying to guide them. I rejoice in your dedication to *our* path! We are all so beautifully connected...
    thanks again,
    Leslee Hare

  5. Thank you Leslee for you kind words :) Metta.

  6. What a beautiful and sad story. You reached out to Lance - that's what mattered. There is so much needless suffering. Thanks for sharing.