Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Eliot Battle: The man who saved my life

My bloodshot eyes exposed the brewing of smoke in my room.  The music of Marvin Gaye banged against the wall as I took one last puff of marijuana before answering the door.

“Come with me,” he ordered after I opened the door.  “You’re going with me.”

The unyielding gawk forced my response.  I closed the door and followed him. He took me back to the place I avoided because the pain was too deep to stay.  He knew my story.  Everyone knew.  He came to rescue me from myself.

It was months after Crystal, my sister, died after fighting brain cancer.  The pain of her death gripped me so deep that school was too much to imagine.  My days in class were boggled with thoughts of her last breath.  Memories of running to my room to curse God for taking her away kept my mind off homework and class projects.

Elliot Battle came to take me back.  He rescued me from the death lurking to pull me deeper into the world of lost souls.  He found me intoxicated with fumes meant to fight the tears. It never helped.

“Come with me.” Those words comforted the part of me begging to be noticed.  I wanted more than the drugs I used to keep my mind off my sisters last breath.  Days had passed with no thoughts of going back.  Each day became easier.  I wanted to go back.  I didn’t know how to take the first step.

“We are here for you,” Mr. Battle said as I sat in his office.  I felt tears bubbling from that deep place.  I held them back long enough to listen.  Each word felt like a promise.  Hope began to emerge as he shared the rest.

“We’re changing your class schedule,” he told me.  A group of teachers had met to plan my rescue.  A room was assigned for me to write.  I wrote my story.  The words poured on pages like freedom waiting to scream.

They assigned me to American Culture – a class that combined English and History.  I served as a student teacher.  I watched.  I offered support. More than anything, I healed.

They refused to allow me to fail.  All of them loved me through the pain.  Each teacher caught me when I was falling.  Soon, the steps became easier.  The pain was not lessened, but I knew I was not alone.

Fast forward, it’s today.  A quick gaze at the long list of unread emails reveals one from the editor of the Columbia Magazine. I opened it thinking I’d find a friendly reminder to complete my piece on Mr. Battle.

“You may have already heard, but he passed away this morning following a car accident,” I paused. No! . “It’s a devastating loss to this community and all who knew and loved him.”

The tears came to fast to stop.  It didn’t matter that I was seated in a public place surrounded by people conducting business.  It didn’t matter that my mood shifted in the company of those who noticed my deep laughter after the waitress poured more coffee in my cup.

The thoughts were too many and too deep to stop.  Did I ever thank him?  Could I ever thank him enough? 

Deeper tears now. Each came with a special memory. Words appeared on my computer like magic.  So many thoughts.  Too many to count.

Mr. Battle, how can I say thank you for saving my life? You refused to allow me to fail.  You found me and brought me back.  Once you brought me back, you showed me what I couldn’t see.

Mr. Battle, you gave me my words.  You found me in the middle of getting high and grappling with the voices in my head.  You gave me a new voice.  You showed me the power within me, and the words lost under the shadow of pain.

More words and thoughts came to dissolve the tears

So much has happened since I left Columbia, MO in 1988 to attend graduate school at Duke University. They named a school after Muriel, Mr. Battle’s wife. The school open this academic year. Eliot and Muriel Battle began teaching in the Columbia Public Schools in 1956.  They led the charge for integration. Muriel served as Associate Superintendent of Columbia Public Schools from 1992 until she retired in 1996. She was the first female to hold that position.

Many accolades are called when people mention the Battles.  Both are dead now.  Eliot and Muriel Battle remind us of the fruit that comes from tending the earth.   You can’t just wait for fruit to grow.  You have to nurture the land when bad weather comes.

People will remember Mr. Battle as a great teacher and administrator.  I will forever remember him as the man who saved my life.

There’s one way to say thank you. Mr. Battle gave me my words.

I’m still writing.

1 comment:

  1. Karl -- I never knew. Of course I never knew. Mr. and Mrs. Battle inspired education in our hometown for decades. Your words are brilliant as always, and fitting as always. Never stop writing. Thank you.