This I Believe

Patti - Asheville, North Carolina
Entered on October 4, 2007

I believe we must love unlovable people.

It’s easy to love people when they’re lovable. It’s harder when they’re not.

In high school, I learned intricate details of the Civil War. I knew the U.S. presidents, frontward and backward. I could recite the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and William Faulkner’s remarks when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. I could wax poetic about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

Why did I know so much about history?

Not because I was naturally predisposed to studying bygone days, but because I had a brilliant young teacher who made the past literally come alive. He turned all of Freedom High School into a history project, with generals and kings and soldiers running through hallways, acne-prone battles raging across the lunchroom, skirmishes reenacted in the chemistry lab, gangly teenagers serving as Napoleon and foot soldiers; Patrick Henry’s liberty or death, those “two if by sea” lanterns, all that tea in the Boston Harbor.

We knew it all, because Mr. Snow made it come alive. Never a dull moment, never a lesson that wasn’t active, with us moving through history, seeing it unfold, acting out our parts with hormonal gusto. He was an inventive and dazzling teacher, fresh from graduate school and bursting with ideas and staggering creativity in teaching a subject that in other, less capable hands can be soulless and pedestrian.

Many of us lose touch with our teachers, even those brilliant ones so significant to us, particularly after this many years. I don’t know where many of my high school teachers are, but I do know exactly where Mr. Snow is, every moment of every day.

He is in prison for the rest of his life.

On December 16, 2002, Mr. Snow was convicted of hundreds of counts of first degree statutory sexual offense, sexual activity with students by a school teacher, and first degree kidnapping of two male students.

What happens to a life?

My first impulse when he was imprisoned was to reach out to him, but I hesitated, I faltered. What could I possibly say, would my writing him be seen as condoning what he did? And so, I didn’t write, although my gut told me to.

But the disquiet I continued to feel as the years passed—that disquiet told me that the path of disregard wouldn’t work for me. Because I know that no matter what he has done, he is a living, breathing human being not just defined by his crimes, and I couldn’t bear to leave him there, alone.

Playwright Eve Ensler first visited the Bedford Hills Correctional Institute for Women in 1998, volunteering to teach writing there, working with women inmates, most convicted of murder. In a 2004 speech, Ensler spoke about the women being “murderers and abusers and thieves” when she started. As she grew to know them through their writing – in which they confront the lives they have ruined, explain the scars on their bodies, describe their crimes – they became “women and sisters” to her.

As she listened further, she came to know “that these women weren’t just the crimes they committed: they were mothers, daughters, sisters, Jews, Christians, Muslims, high-school dropouts, PhD candidates, barely 21, pushing 60, barely conscious of their crimes, remorseful to the point of suicide.” She began to realize that, as she said, “There is no ‘other.’ That is an illusion. They are me. I am accountable for what they did.”

My decision to write Mr Snow, now a three-year correspondence, came with my own understanding that the truest test is not loving someone when they’re doing what is right and true and kind, but when they are not, that love comes when our loving someone doesn’t depend on their guilt or innocence, that love and compassion come with seeing our own shadow self in them.

I wish his life had taken such a different trajectory, but it didn’t. It went in this inexorable direction. And I’m not sure what finding Mr. Snow will mean for either one of us over the coming years, but I do know that in reaching out to him, I have found an important part of myself.

I believe we must explore and expand our capacity for love and forgiveness. I believe, as G.K. Chesterton said, “love means to love that which is unlovable, or it is no virtue at all.”