A story about a guy who grows and learns to see his life and socialization differently.
|I pulled back into the church parking lot Sunday afternoon. I had run home for a quick bite to eat and to let Katie out. Jessica was standing outside and spotted my car. She waved to me and motioned for me to take one of the spots near the church entrance. I pulled into the space and rolled down my window. “Are you sure I can park here?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Well, isn’t this one of the spots that are normally reserved for the ministerial staff and other leaders?”
“Yes they are. And it seems to me that you’re currently here to act in a leadership capacity.” She grinned. “Besides, they only enforce that during services and certain other official church functions.”
“I just don’t want to get a dressing down my first day helping out, that’s all,” I said as I killed the engine.
“No worries there, I promise.” She glanced at the back seat of my car. “Do you need some help carrying anything?”
“No thanks. It’s just a few of my sketchbooks. I can’t find the bag I used to haul my portfolio around in. To be honest, I haven’t had a use for it in a few years.” I gathered up my stuff and locked my car. “If you would be so kind as to lead the way?”
She bowed. “It’d be a pleasure.”
“So, how’s the turnout look? Have you peeked?”
“About ten teens came. I talked to a few parents after the service this morning. I’m guessing we have at least another five who will get involved, but couldn’t make it today.
“That’s fine. She led me to one of the classrooms normally used for a junior high Sunday school class. Four boys and six girls sat around the rectangular table talking among themselves. Becka spotted me and waved to me frantically. When I returned her greeting, she motioned to the empty chair beside her. I smiled at Jessica, who just shrugged and returned a smile of her own. I took the offered seat. “I’m glad you could make it Becka. Did you bring your sketchbook?”
“Of course!” she said as she pulled it from the backback on the table in front of her.
Jessica glanced at her watch, then stood at one end of the table and rapped sharply on it. The room immediately went quiet as all eyes turned toward her. She smiled and said, “I’m glad you could each make it this afternoon. Some of you had very short notice.”
“Like the end of this morning’s worship?” a red-headed boy suggested, to the chuckles of some of the other teens.
“Precisely, Ben,” Jessica said. “I apologize for that. We had some administrivia to address before we could set the meeting for sure.” Becka snorted and muttered something under her breath that I’m pretty sure would have launched some of the elders into a lecture about vulgarity. I placed my hand on hers and gave her a look that I hoped conveyed both empathy and a sense of seriousness. Jessica glanced at both of us, then continued. “As you know, the Easter pageant is coming up in a couple of months, and the director for it suggested that the teens build and decorate the scenery and props for it.
A woman in her forties that I didn’t recognize spoke up from one corner of the room. “I’ve heard that some of you -- including every teen in this room -- are rather talented artists, so it seemed reasonable to ask for your help.”
Jessica nodded to the woman. “Thank you, Lauren. The thing is, when we youth leaders got together to talk about the possibility, we realized that most of us weren’t really qualified to guide such a big art project. Those of you who have played Pictionary with me know I personally couldn’t draw a stick figure to save my life.” Most of the teens in the room laughed and murmured in agreement. Jessica waited for them to settle back down. “Fortunately, we soon learned that we had someone in the congregation who is well suited to lead such a project. Curtis Harding here has graciously agreed to do exactly that,” she said, gesturing to me. Becka began clapping and the other teens soon joined in. After a few seconds, Jessica rapped on the table again, then nodded to me.
I cleared my throat. “Hello, everyone. As Jessica said, my name is Curtis Harding. I’d prefer it if you called me Curt, though. I’m twenty eight years old and work as a graphic artist for Dalrymple Designs, a fairly large architecture firm based in the downtown area. I graduated from art school about six years ago. In addition to my job, I also still enjoy drawing. I’ve brought some of my sketchbooks with you, which you all are welcome to glance through once we get through the formalities here.”
Becka spoke up, “He’s incredible. His nude drawings are incredibly realistic.”
I glanced at both Jessica, who seemed unfazed, and Lauren, who seemed slightly upset by Becka’s announcement. I continued, “Yes, well that’s neither here nor there, as we won’t be drawing people -- clothed or otherwise -- as part of this project. And none of the sketchbooks I brought have any nudes in them. So I’m afraid you’ll just have to decide whether or not you trust Becka’s opinion on this.”
Jessica spoke up, directing her comment primarily to Lauren, “Becka and Curt met briefly a few months back. She snuck a peek in one of his older sketchbooks.”
“Actually, while we’re on the topic of who knows who,” I interjected, “I’d like it if everyone could take a turn telling me your name, where your artistic talents and interests lie, and just for fun, what your favorite famous work of art is. Why don’t you start, Becka?”
As each teen made their introductions in turn, I jotted down their name and where they felt their interests and talents lay. I was pleased to note several painters and drawers in the group, as well as a couple sculptors. After they finished, I smiled and said, “It sounds like you all are a bunch of talented kids. Hopefully, we can all work together and create some awesome backdrops, set pieces, and props for the pageant. I can’t promise everyone that they’ll get to work in their preferred medium, but I’ll try to make sure that you get to showcase your particular talents and artistic flair in some way.”
“So what’s next?” a fourteen year old red-headed boy named Stephen asked.
“Well, to be honest, I’m still gathering up everything I need to know,” I confessed. “While I know have a better idea of who I’ll be working with and what your talents are, I’m still not clear on what supplies we have.”
Jessica spoke up. “There’s an art supply closet in one of the youth rooms that you can have full access to. I’ll gladly take an inventory of it with you later this evening, if you’re free.”
Lauren said, “Also, you’ll have a small budget from the pageant. Granted, most of the money will go to building supplies.”
I nodded. “We don’t need a lot. Plus, making limited supplies last longer is a skill I can probably pass on to them. And I’m willing to kick in my own supplies. So we’ll take stock and I’ll come up with a basic overall plan. Then we can all get together and see what you think.”
Christine, a sixteen year old girl with glasses spoke up, “What we think?”
I looked at her, nonplussed. “Well, yes. This is your art project. I’m just here to organize and advise. So I want to give you as much say in how things turn out as I can.” There were a few mutters of “cool” around the table. I continued. “At any rate, unless there’s something Jessica feels we need to cover.”
“There’s not,” she said.
“Then I say let’s break out the snacks.” There was a cheer. “And while we eat, feel free to look over my sketches and share your own art if you got the message to bring some in time.”
We spent the next two hours enjoying cookies, chips, pretzels, and lemonade and chatting. As the teens looked through the pile of sketchbooks we had formed, they began to get excited and compare notes about techniques, strengths and weaknesses. Most of them had questions for me, not only about my art, but about my experiences going to school for art. A couple asked me if I had much trouble convincing my parents that I wasn’t throwing away my life by going to school for it. I answered each question as honestly as I could while still encouraging them to pursue their own dreams as best they could.
Eventually, Jessica announced that it was time to start cleaning up. Two teens began sorting the sketchbooks according to owner, a handful helped Lauren and me put away the snacks, dumping them into resealable containers. Everyone else helped straighten up the room. After we were all done, Jessica asked if I’d like to say a prayer to end the meeting.
“Sure,” I said. “First though, I just want to say it’s a pleasure to meet all of you and I look forward to working with you. Remember, we’re going to get together again next Saturday at three. Those of you who didn’t get a chance to bring your stuff to share, be sure to bring it then.”
“I wish I could make it then. The rest of you are lucky,” Shane, an eleven year old boy said.
“Don’t worry, you’ll make it the time we meet after that,” Christine said.
Jessica nodded in agreement. “Trust me, there’ll be plenty of chances to pitch in.”
I spoke up at that point. “Okay, let’s bow our heads.” Everyone bowed their heads and I said a brief prayer. Once it was done, teens started filing out of the room to join their parents, some of whom had been waiting for twenty minutes by that point. I turned to Jessica, “Should I go apologize for taking so long?”
“No way. Though you may hear a few parents make comments about how riled up you got their kid.”
“Wasn’t that the point?”
“Yes. And once the work starts and that excitement gets channeled into it, the parents will think it’s great. In reality, they probably think it’s great now. They’re just not sure how to deal with the currently level of chatter.”
I laughed. “Okay, I can get that. I remember my parents going through it with me.”
“Back in the good old days, eh?”
“You make it sound like I’m ancient.”
“I work with teens, Curt. In my environment, anyone over twenty three is usually seen as a relic. Actually, the fact that not a single one cracked a joke about your age shows just how much these teens like you.”
“Well, good. I like them too. And some of them are pretty good artists. Amazing, considering they’ve only had high school art classes.”
She nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought to. Though coming from you, I’d say it’s a much bigger compliment.”
I glanced at my phone to see it was only six. “So, do you have time to go through that supply closet now?”
“Sure thing. Right this way.”
We spent two hours sorting through jars of paint, colored pencils, chalk, and all kinds of paper. Some of the supplies, especially the paints, turned out to be past their prime. We set them aside to throw them out. “When was the last time anyone went through this stuff?” I asked.
“I have no idea. To my knowledge, no one has done it since I became a youth leader. Like I said, none of us are artists. So we tend not to do art projects like this.”
“That’s kind of unfortunate for the teens I met today,” I said. “No offense.”
“I’m not offended. Personally, I think you’re understating the case. It’s extremely unfortunate. Like I said, I’d like to see you stay involved with the teens after this project and do more art projects with them.”
“I’m certainly open to the possibility at this point. To be honest, it’s not just the teens getting excited about this.”
“I noticed, actually. I think it’s cool. I know Steve will be pleased.”
I snickered. “Yeah, I’m sure. He’s on a mission.”
“Any idea why?”
I paused and thought back to the conversation at Denny’s last night. “You know, if you had asked me three days ago, I’d tell you I have no idea. But Nate and I spent some time with him last night, and I found out a few things about Steve’s past that really opened my eyes.” I paused and sighed. “I don’t feel it’s my place to tell you about it, though.”
She nodded, smiling. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I like that you value your friend’s privacy.”
“Everyone’s privacy,” I said.
“Yes, that too.” She smiled. “So, Steve got to met Nate last night?”
“Yeah, they really seemed to hit it off. I’m glad for that.”
“You doubted it?”
“Well, honestly, I’m still getting used to having a church friend who’s okay with homosexuality.”
“Well, I hope you’re on your way to having more than one. Hopefully, that’ll help you get used to it, no doubt.”
“Yeah, I think so. And thanks. At least I assume you’re talking about yourself.”
“But there’s also just the fact that Steve took the fact that Nate is an atheist in stride too.”
“Ah, yeah. So for a lot of people, Nate has two strikes against him, not just the one.”
“Exactly.” I paused then said tentatively, “I hope that’s not a problem for you.”
“Well, I’d much rather see the two of you in church together and being able to share a common faith. I think things are easier that way. But in the end, I think you love who you love, and think you should go for it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“For giving you my permission that you don’t need?” She asked, grinning.
“Then you’re welcome.”
Nate and I sat in a booth at Del’s Kitchen. I had joined him there after saying my goodbyes to Jessica. I had just finished telling Nate about how the meeting with the teens had gone and was now picking at my plate of spaghetti.
After finishing a bit of his sandwich, Nate observed, “It looks like you’re really getting into the project. Your excitement comes through when you talk about it.”
“Yeah, I hope I’m not boring you to death in the process.”
“Not even the sniffles,” he said, grinning.
“Well, yes. But I’m serious too. I enjoy the fact that you’re doing something that gets you so worked up. It tells me you’re really living.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said, twirling more pasta into my fork. He was right about that. I hadn’t felt quite this invigorated in years. And while having a great time with Nate was a major contributor, I knew it also had to do with this project a lot. My biggest concern was that the two would interfere with each other. “But how are you going to feel about it when I spend a good portion of the weekend in a smock rather than hanging out with you?”
Nate took another bite of his food and swallowed before answering. “Well, I’ll still get to spend some time with you, right? I mean, you’re not going to draw and paint around the clock are you?”
“No, nothing like that. It’ll mostly be Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I should still be free in the evening.”
“So it sounds like there’ll still be plenty of time for us to hang out. Besides, I’m going to have to spend more time on school work as the semester progresses. So the fact that you’re busy those afternoons mean I won’t be able to use you as an excuse to procrastinate during that time.”
“Yeah, I guess. As long as you don’t mind adjusting your schedule to match mine.”
Nate grinned. “Mind? Let’s just say I’ll be highly motivated to do so. Besides, I’m sure you’ll do the same for me if and when necessary.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I guess. I mean I’ve done it in the past for other boyfriends.”
“I’m not surprised.”
I pushed a meatball around my plate as I quietly added, “You’re just the first one who seemed willing to do the same for me.”
Nate reached across the table and placed his hand on top of mine. “It sounds to me like you’ve dated some real assholes in the past.”
I nodded, unable to speak at the moment. He squeezed my hand, I looked into his eyes and smiled. I felt a single tear roll down my cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” he asked.
“Being a mess, I guess.”
“Nonsense. I don’t think you’re a mess. I think you’re great just the way you are.”