Every year at Christmastime, I make my husband watch the old black-and-white movie classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. We both know the movie almost by heart now, but nonetheless, I am endlessly fascinated by the story of a very ordinary man living a very ordinary life, who actually gets to see what a difference he made, simply by being born.
I have always yearned to ‘make a difference’: to do something that would have far-reaching, positive consequences, ideally for generations to come. Alas, I am one of those ordinary people who has lived a rather ordinary life. My name is never going to go down in the annals of history as having done anything even remotely life altering. As a consequence, I often find myself wondering at the pointlessness of it all: does what I am doing matter? Is there any point to this life I am living? Why am I here, if not to somehow make the world a better place?
I profoundly envy and admire those people who regularly get to witness their impact on the world. Some – like doctors, nurses, caregivers, fire fighters, or police officers may even see the difference they are making on a daily basis. These people, in my mind, have achieved the holy grail of ‘Making a Difference’.
Others, like teachers, pastors, social workers, guidance counsellors, therapists, sports coaches, etc., may only get to occasionally see how much what they do has made a difference. My husband is one of those. He worked as a school social services consultant for many years. His were the toughest cases: kids who were into drugs and alcohol; kids who were involved in street gangs or prostitution; kids who suffered from anxiety and depression; battered women (adult education); students who were suicidal, etc. Gregarious by nature, it is rare for my husband to go any place where he does not run into someone he knows. Often, the people who recognise him are former students. I have lost count of the number of times a young, twenty-or-thirty something stranger has thrown their arms around his neck saying “I can’t believe you’re here! Mom, this is P_, remember? He’s the man who changed my life!” Generally, my husband remembers them, as well as the particulars of what they were going through when he worked with them. Every once in awhile, though, he can’t recall them, although he never lets on. I have reminded him that he helped so many students – thousands of them – that it would be a miracle if he did remember each and every one.
How I would love to be able to say that I had made a difference to thousands, yet strangely, it never seems to be that big a deal for my husband. Perhaps because he stands on the shoulders of a hero of his own. My husband grew up in the roughest neighbourhood of a very rough city. I was not blessed to meet my parents-in-law – they had both died many years before my husband and I met – but I have often wondered at how they maintained their sanity. Their only son was (and still is) headstrong, provoking, and a little reckless. By the time he met his own hero – Mr. Frank Mugglestone, my husband had been kicked out of two previous schools for fighting and generally raising holy hell. This last school was also his last chance: although he was incredibly bright, his former teachers felt there was little chance that he would even finish high school, let alone go onto university.
Enter Mr. Frank Mugglestone, who was a personage in his own right. An imposing, barrel-chested man, he had been the youngest person (aged seventeen) to ever play professional rugby for Bradford Northern Rugby Club in England in the early 1940s. He would later join the RAF during World War II where he continued to play rugby throughout the war years. Following the war, he and his family moved to Canada where he taught physics, math and Phys. Ed and coached the boys’ high school rugby team for a great many years. By the time my quarrelsome, overconfident husband was sent to his office, Mr. Mugglestone was the high school Principal.
Their meeting did not get off to a particularly good start.
“Hey, Frank!” declared P_, swaggering into Mr. Mugglestone’s office with all the bravado of an obnoxious sixteen-year old.
Mr. Mugglestone was lightening quick. “MY NAME,” he boomed, as he put himself nose to nose and chest to chest with P_ and quickly backed him up against the wall, “is MR. MUGGLESTONE TO YOU, BOY!”
Having successfully established who was in control of the situation, Mr. Mugglestone the high school principal reviewed P_’s unimpressive school performance against an obviously capable mind and made a decision. At that point, Mr. Mugglestone the high school rugby coach made a rapid professional assessment of P_’s equally barrel-chested physique and took over the remainder of the conversation.
“DO YOU KNOW WHAT RUGBY IS, BOY?” he boomed, “RUGBY IS THE PERMISSION TO INFLICT DAMAGE UPON ANOTHER HUMAN BEING TO THE APPLAUSE OF THE MASSES.”
These would be magical, life-changing words for a scrappy, argumentative sixteen-year-old: he joined the rugby team on the spot. P_ limped through the back door of that high school into the vocational education program when he was in grade 10. Under Mr. Mugglestone’s mentorship, by the time he graduated, the scrappy kid whom no one had expected would finish high school had gradually progressed from general education into the academic program. Thanks to a letter of recommendation written by Mr. Mugglestone, P_ was accepted into the bachelor’s program of an excellent nearby university, where he would eventually be nominated Valedictorian. He would subsequently be offered several scholarships with a university in Connecticut, where he would go on to complete first one, and then a second, masters degree.
Around 10 years ago, P_ decided to call Mr. Mugglestone to thank him for transforming him from a troubled kid into a successful man who was now making a difference of his own; to thank him for changing the course of his life. I was there when he made the call. It was a lovely conversation, but P_ was a bit disappointed to discover that Mr. Mugglestone didn’t remember him. After he had hung up the phone, I reminded him how often the same thing happens to him. “How many kids must he have helped,” I queried, laughing, “For him not to remember a kid as memorable as you?”
Last month, P_ learned that Mr. Mugglestone had died at the respectable age of 95. There was no need for a discussion; P_ intended to go to the funeral and I had every intention of going with him. The drive took several hours but we eventually found ourselves sitting in an unfamiliar church surrounded by a number of people we didn’t know. A few spoke at length and very eloquently about how this amazing man had made such a difference in their lives. P_ and I smiled at one another all the way through.
Following the service, P_ spoke with one of Mr. Mugglestone’s daughters for a few minutes. She politely listened to P_’s story. She laughed out loud at P’s impersonation of her father, complete with his poor version of Mr. Mugglesone’s eloquent British accent. P_ and I left the church holding hands and smiling.
When I am writing a blog post, I always struggle with how to end it; this one particularly so. I read it back to my husband (who made me change a thing or two, here and there, about just how bad he really was as a kid). And then I stayed very quiet, watching him, as he sat deep in thought – forehead creased and big shoulders hunched forward – for many long moments.
“What can you possibly say about someone whose life was so impactful on your own?” he finally asked me with a helpless look on his face. “I just feel so humbled that he took an interest in a kid nobody else wanted to deal with. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”
As a person who sees ‘making a difference’ as the holy grail of a life well lived, I can’t think of a better eulogy than that….
Patti Moore Wilson/ © wednesdayschildca.wordpress.com