My friend Brandon is 24 and teaches 7th grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Downey, California. When he learned I’d written one book about my years as an active alcoholic, and another about my conversion to Catholicism, he asked, “Would you ever come talk to my class? We’ve been reading Anne Frank.”
“I’d love to!” I replied, but deep down I was nervous. I so wanted to give these 7th graders some hope! So I prayed, “God, what can I tell these young kids?” And a voice answered, “Just tell them your story”…My story! My story is alcoholism, wrong turns, pain. My story is tenuous mental health, fear. But my story is also the story of the Prodigal Daughter returning home, of being welcomed back to the banquet table.
So the day of my visit that’s what I did. The kids filed in, adorable, well-behaved 12- and 13-year-olds, and I told my story, and almost immediately, I thought I’d made a mistake. I read them the tale of the Oratorical Contest, a childhood trauma where I’d failed in front of my entire small New Hampshire town, and I realized the kids probably thought I needed a psychiatrist. I told them I’d always been afraid that you had to be perfect in order to be loved, and I realized they’d probably figured out that wasn’t true at the age of 5.
They asked questions. Their faces shone when we talked of Anne Frank. They lined up for my “autograph” afterwards. But on the drive home, I still couldn’t help thinking that I’d told them “too much,” that I’d confused and perhaps frightened them. The next day I wrote in my journal: “I talked to these poor children for 45 minutes about suffering, like a weirdo. How could I have not understood that they’re too young to “get” it?”
That was Thursday. Friday I told myself I’d at least made the effort. Saturday, a Priority Mail package arrived on my doorstep. Inside were 31 home-made thank-you cards. There were stars, flowers, crowns; there were messages, hand-written on construction paper, that gripped my heart.
One student said, “I thought you would be shy, but I could tell that you were not holding anything back.” Another wrote, “I loved how you were able to just laugh at what happened.” A third said, “We have never heard a speaker talk about their lives like you did.”
I believe that out of suffering comes resurrection. I believe that Anne Frank lives forever, in all those with spirits as generous and sensitive and questing as hers.
My favorite message was this:
“I liked when you said keep your most precious memories and guard them—because God will let you know if he would like that to make you shine.”