Take Me Back to the Hills of Camp Toccoa

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I have hiked the Appalachian Trail in three states.

I have gone tubing down the James River in Virginia.

I have body surfed in the Atlantic Ocean.

I have explored and hiked trails in Arizona, marveling at the art left in the rocks by those who lived there before my time.

I have climbed a mountain and gazed down at the city of Kyoto, Japan.

I have gone 4-wheeling in the Pyrenees of northern Spain and southern France.

I have climbed Stone Mountain more times than I can remember.

I have sat on a rock overlooking the Shenandoah Valley and watched a hawk soar through the blue autumn sky.

All of these things, and many more, I have done in the 69 years of my life. I have experienced a lifetime of extraordinary days.

But none of these adventures hold a candle to the ones I had every summer growing up, and spending weeks on end at Camp Toccoa in the North Georgia mountains.

From the age of 8 until my 16th summer, the end of school in June meant that summer camp was near. My days were spent in anticipation of going to camp, riding the train from Atlanta to Toccoa, and then spending anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 weeks (depending on my ability to beg my parents to let me stay, and their ability to pay for it) at Camp Toccoa.

I was a very shy little girl – an introvert before I knew the word or what it means – and never was quite comfortable anywhere except in my cabin at camp with 7 other girls. I always felt overwhelmed in a school classroom filled with kids, on the playground at recess, waiting to be picked for a team, and even in Sunday School, where I was never sure where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to believe. In my everyday life I was somewhat of a chameleon – I could adapt to my surroundings and my environment, but I was never comfortable or at ease. I never felt like I was part of any school group I attempted to join – I was always on the fringes, or so it seemed to me. I was happiest when I was outdoors swinging on a rope swing, lying in the grass gazing at the clouds drifting across the blue sky, or walking on the beach or along a path, either by myself or with a trusted friend.

But I loved Camp Toccoa. And I loved being a Camp Fire Girl. Camp was a place where I felt like I belonged, and being a part of the group that was Camp Fire gave me a safe place to be me and to explore the depths of my imagination and my soul. The counselors and leaders were my mentors, and I looked to them as the role models for my emerging self. Camp was the place where I knew where I was, where I was supposed to be, and who I was supposed to be with. The pressure was off, and I was free to be myself.

This past weekend, the memories flooded back as I attended Camp Toccoa’s 90th anniversary alumni reunion. The camp has changed quite a bit since I was a camper in the 1950s and 1960s, but even with the changes and the growth, there are some things that never change. I slept in the cabin I spent four weeks in when I was 9 years old. I found my signature – along with the silly little writings of a 12-year-old – written in pencil in the rafters of another cabin. I found quartz crystals where I had searched for them as a teenager. I climbed a huge rock ledge to a lookout point where I had spent sleep-out nights as a girl pondering the universe and gazing out at the valley below. I hiked trails that were familiar to me, and a few that I had never been on before, discovering that Camp Toccoa always has something new to offer me.

Seeing old friends and familiar faces was a treat for this introvert, giving me the courage to step out and engage with new friends. Still, at age 69, it can be a challenge! I was a sponge, absorbing everything, every word, every face, every story.

I sat in a rocking chair on the lodge porch, my mind flooded with memories long buried, now bubbling to the surface. I observed the happy reunions as former campers and counselors arrived, recognizing familiar faces, and greeting each other with hugs and lots of love. I watched the night campfire crackle and pop, while children eagerly fed it wood and anticipated making s’mores. I listened to stories of summer camp, and contributed a few of my own as the bonds of Camp Fire intertwined around us all, pulling us all together as a universal family.

I was at camp, my safe place. I was home.

 

 

 

“Beneath the pine trees, I hear the night breeze. It seems to whisper of Camp Toccoa…..Take me back to the hills of Camp Toccoa.”

 

 

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Things I Learned On My Road Trip

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On my weeklong trek to New England with my cousin, Kate, I had the wondrous opportunity to see parts of the United States I had never seen before, and to visit a place I had not been in decades. I also had eight days to get to know my cousin even better – I thought I knew her pretty well before – and to benefit from her words of wisdom, quick wit, and stories that, at one moment brought me close to tears, and at the next, sent me doubling over in deep belly laughter. As I write these thoughts on our first day home, I consider all that I saw and learned, and find myself a wee bit different from the girl who headed out of Kate’s driveway in North Carolina eight days ago.

These are some of the things I learned.

There are many mountain ranges in the Eastern United States. Each one is beautiful and majestic, and each one is different. There are the Green Mountains, the White Mountains, the Allegheny Mountains, the Adirondack Mountains, The Shenandoah Mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Great Smoky Mountains. Did I leave out a mountain range we saw from a distance, traveled over, or skirted around? If I did, I apologize. It isn’t intentional. As we traveled, I couldn’t help but marvel at these old, old mountains, and try to imagine how they were formed millions of years ago, about the forces that pushed them upward toward the sky, and how the years have weathered them and taken away their jagged edges. They are all now covered in green trees, which do their part in cleansing Earth’s air as well as doing a great job in the life cycle on the planet we call home.

You can’t completely trust OnStar. And we got lost more than once, even with the technology of GPS and a pleasant female computerized voice directing us which way we should go. Thank goodness for old-fashioned road maps and a handy atlas. Thanks to all of these, we are home now and not still wandering around some cornfield in Pennsylvania or around a finger lake in New York.

Speaking of cornfields – there are enough in Pennsylvania and Virginia to fill my need to see a cornfield for a lifetime. What do they do with all that corn? Is this the source of the ethanol that our cars burn along with gasoline in our cars? They certainly were beautiful, and went on for miles and miles, but I couldn’t help but wonder, why so many?!

The Amish people were lovely. I need to do more research on them. They certainly dress the part and drive horse drawn buggies. Their farms are beautiful and picturesque. I couldn’t get over, however, that they seemed to have a fabulous tourist enterprise going for them: buggy rides, quilt shops, bakeries (yes! The cinnamon pretzels were to die for!), and petting areas where people can buy food to feed goats and chickens. I don’t question the Amish simple life, and I long for such a life of my own, but it did seem awfully commercialized to me. Hmmm. Like I said, I need to do some more reading about this to satisfy my curious mind.

It’s not so easy going back in time. I visited the college where I graduated, and realized that it is no longer a college, but a university. As I walked through the campus, I recognized a few of the buildings and one pond, as well as a shady area where a friend and I used to sit and talk between classes. Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it caught me by surprise as I sat on a bench and bawled my eyes out, remembering the three years that I spent in school there. The past whispered to me with remembrances of those special days, and I was dumbfounded with how so much time could pass. I am now white-haired, and my working career is coming to a close in a few short years, but I am still the same young woman who had her whole life stretching out in front of her only yesterday. How can time play so many tricks on me? It doesn’t seem quite right.

There are a few friends in one’s life who only grow dearer with the passing of time. I had the treat of a lifetime to visit with one of these friends on my trip. We calculated that we had not seen each other in approximately thirty years, but when she and her husband picked me up at my hotel to go to their house for dinner, it was as if no time had passed. When I stepped into her home, it was so familiar to me that my breath caught in my heartbeat for a moment. Her kitchen table where we used to drink tea and talk were gone due to her kitchen remodel some years back, but the feeling hadn’t been updated or remodeled. I have no words to explain what it was like talking to her and visiting again after so many years.

And lastly, I learned that my cousin, Kate, and I are excellent travel companions. I couldn’t have asked for a more fabulous adventure as the one I shared with her. Even when we had tense moments in our travel, we breezed through them together without harsh words, or even negative thoughts about the other. In our conversations while traveling down country roads and interstate highways, and while enjoying a meal together or resting after a long day in a hotel room, her wisdom about life and living inspired me and made me think and reconsider some things about myself.

It was a great trip! We are now curious about where our next one will lead us.

Help Me Make It Through the Night

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The telephone awakened me from a sound sleep. My bedside clock showed that it was a few minutes past 1:00am. Caller ID on my phone informed me that the caller was my friend, Bill. What could he want to talk about at this hour of the night. We had talked earlier in the evening for almost an hour.

Bill apologized for waking me up. The sound of his voice told me that something was wrong. I couldn’t get him to share with me what was on his mind, or why he called me at this ungodly hour, even though I asked him more than once what was the matter. Rather than quiz him further or demand an explanation, which it was obvious I wasn’t going to get, I simply asked him, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Talk to me, “ he replied. “Please help me make it through the night.”

Only a couple of days earlier we had been talking on the phone about our favorite song writers, and Kris Kristofferson came up in the conversation, where we had agreed that we both liked his music, and this song in particular.

“Talk to me,” he repeated.

“Would you like for me to tell you a story?” I asked.

“Yes, please.”

Drawing from my writing and my collection of days, I began telling him about a game my sister and I played as children, Runaway Orphans. Since Bill and I both grew up in the same town, he was familiar with the places my sister and I visited when we played this special game. I embellished the story and added drama to it in an attempt to entertain Bill with its telling and perhaps help him get whatever was troubling him off of his mind.

When I finished, he said to me, “Tell me another one.”

I then went into the story about the day I ran away from home when I was five years old.

“Another one?”

I dug deeper into my childhood, recalling our family tradition of making homemade peach ice cream on the Fourth of July every year and about my job of sitting on top of the churn while Daddy turned the crank. From there, I went into the story about my special brother, Johnny, and a story about my daddy’s pocket watch. As I finished this story, I realized I had been talking for well over two hours, and that it was very quiet on the other end of the line.

“Are you still there? Are you feeling any better now?” I asked.

Bill’s voice, barely above a whisper, answered, “Yes, I think I am.”

“Do you want me to tell you any more stories?”

“No, I think I’ll be ok now. Thank you.” And he hung up, leaving me wondering what had just happened. It was now 4:30am.

Bill never told me why he needed me that night. The next evening when we talked, I commented, “Well, we made it through the night last night, didn’t we?”

“Yes, “ he said. “And it was no small feat. I’ll forever be grateful to you for staying on the phone with me all night long.”

I never learned what was troubling Bill that night. Over the course of our three-year friendship, I discovered that he had his own demons he was battling, and little by little, one by one, he shared a few of them with me. He also recalled tidbits of his history and life as a journalist – he truly had the gift of the story teller, and could have me laughing uncontrollably or sympathizing with tears running down my face as he’d relate a tale from his past.

Bill also encouraged me as a writer. He never completely understood my style of writing – I am not a journalist or reporter, but a weaver of tales and a painter using words instead of paint of my memories and adventures through life. He would sometimes tell me that I needed to step away and be more objective in my writing, that I put too much of myself into it. I’d politely disagree with him, and he’d keep on complimenting me on my writing, even though I didn’t take this piece of advice. He said on many occasions that I was a better writer than he was. That wasn’t true. He was a gifted writer, a diligent researcher, and an extraordinary communicator through the written word. I could never do what he did.

One thing that Bill told me often was that he didn’t believe he would live to be an old man. He once said that he didn’t think he would live to see 70. And he was right. I guess he somehow knew his limits and sensed his life span. When a classmate of ours died recently, he told me he thought he might be next. I wish he had been wrong.

Bill was my friend. My heart is aching as I write tonight. I’ll miss hearing his voice, listening to him telling me about his latest writing assignment, and being the recipient of his praise and admiration of me and my writing.

I wish I could have had the chance to say goodbye.

“I don’t care what’s right or wrong,

I don’t try to understand.

Let the devil take tomorrow.

Lord, tonight I need a friend.

Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow’s out of sight.

And it’s sad to be alone.

Help me make it through the night.”

“Help Me Make It Through the Night” by Kris Kristofferson

Reunion!!

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I did it. I almost backed out, but I didn’t. I went to my 50-year high school reunion last night. Thanks to a wonderful posse of long-time friends, I fought back my childish insecurities, sending them packing to the far corners of my brain, and I went.

I had a wonderful time. It was amazing.

It was a 50- year reunion for most, but for me it was 52 years, since I moved away from my hometown the summer before my junior year. And one of the best serendipities of the event was the representation from my elementary school. There was a bunch of us there who grew up and went through the grades together. It was more than wonderful seeing these kids again.

While some faces seemed to be ageless, I had to do a little bit of searching on others to discover the teenager that I remembered. But they were there, just beneath the surface, and once conversations began, they emerged in smiles and were easily recognizable. It was a night of remembrance, celebration, and yes, even healing of old wounds.

There were several discoveries. Among them was the realization that I still have no sense of rhythm and am a terrible dancer. But nobody seemed to care, and I was whirled around the dance floor a few times by a boy who grew up around the corner from my childhood home. Another good friend and I did our best to catch up on a half century, and finally concluded that there is much more to talk about, with a promise that we will keep in touch and find out more areas where our lives strike similar chords. Hugs were plentiful all night long, as I ran into people from my past, and as others searched me out.

I think we were the best looking group of grownups (I refuse to use the term “senior citizens”) I’ve ever seen in one place – the most interesting, fun-loving, and friendliest. Although I was hesitant about going, and even somewhat nervous upon my arrival at the registration table, it all evaporated with the first, and then the second, and followed by a quick third hug from old friends. And one old wound in particular found its healing touch in the form of a smile, a hug, and a warm greeting from one I was especially apprehensive, yet eager, to see again. From that moment on, all was well with me, a load was lifted, and I was able to fully enjoy the evening.

50 years – for some who didn’t make it this far with us – they were honored in a special display of remembrance. It was tough walking over to that board and looking at the photos of those who have passed on. How I would love to see them, to remember special times with them, and to embrace them one more time. It’s all a part of reunion, but not the part that we like or enjoy. They were truly missed last night.

And so, today, I return to my home, my life, and my adult world. I feel different this morning. Tears well up in my eyes without my bidding, my heart is full to overflowing, and I am very, very grateful.

I want to thank my wonderful friends who encouraged me to attend, who stood by me and had my back, and who love me for the sometimes insecure, introverted adolescent who at times sneaks back into my life. You’re the best!!

Reunions such as this one remind us that history, and having a history, is a very good thing!

My Friend, Big John

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I had to say goodbye to a very special friend today. When we were teenagers, he was Johnny, but when we reunited in 2008, he was affectionately known by everyone he knew as Big John.

I didn’t know that today was going to be the day. If I had known, I would have gone to his house for a visit yesterday. I’ve been going over to see him almost every week for the past two years. When his health declined, he asked me if I would pick up his mail at the post office for him. Of course, I said I would, and even during the times when he was better and able to drive, I still got his mail. I think he enjoyed my visits, and didn’t want them to stop. I enjoyed them, too, and never suggested that I return his mailbox key. Some afternoons he’d phone me and ask me to stop and pick up a hamburger or fish dinner for him, or something from the grocery store, on my way home from work. I was always happy to do so.

I found him this morning when I delivered his mail. The door was open, and his keys were still in the lock. I called out his name, with no response. I stepped into the house, wondering why the door wasn’t closed. He hadn’t answered the phone when I called him to tell him I was on my way, like he usually did. I knew something wasn’t right. He was in his lounge chair – asleep, I thought – at first. I didn’t want to disturb him. I knew he had trouble sleeping, and recently had been having problems with his breathing. I didn’t want to startle him, but then it sunk in. I gently touched his arm, feeling its coolness and knew he was gone.

I stood next to him for a few minutes wishing he would wake up, but knowing he wouldn’t. He looked so peaceful resting there, my heart sang and wept in harmony. Finally, I pulled out my phone from my pocket and dialed 9-1-1.

Soon a police officer arrived, followed by paramedics, and then the coroner.

I knew this day was coming. Just last week on my visit with Big John, I sensed something different – maybe a look in his eyes? Or was there something in his voice when I asked him how he was doing, and his reply, as always, was, “I’m doing well. What have you been up to?” Or the way he hugged me, and said when I got ready to leave, “I love ya, darlin’.” I stayed longer that day than I usually did; I didn’t want to go. I told a friend later in the day that I didn’t believe Big John would be with us much longer. But I’m not ready to say goodbye today.

Big John helped me through the toughest two years of my life. He listened, offered advice, propped me up when I was weak and frightened, and cheered me on during those dark days. I will forever be grateful to him for his love, his loyalty, and for the special bond of friendship that we shared. I think he was Big John because he had such a big, big heart.

So now, my friend, I must say goodbye. Soar with the angels on warm and gentle winds, free from the oxygen tubes and insulin needles that held you down.

Please check on me now and then, Big John. I’ll be watching for you.

A Valentine’s Day Memory

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My decorated shoe box sits along the chalk tray with twenty others.  I went to Woolworth’s last week with my best friend, Susan, to buy red and pink construction paper, paper lace doilies, and heart-shaped stickers.  We spent the entire Saturday afternoon cutting out paper hearts of all shapes and sizes, layering them with the lace doilies, and pasting them onto shoe boxes we had retrieved from our fathers’ closets.  We each covered our shoe box with the construction paper, and carefully cut a slit into the box lid big enough for the fanciest Valentine to fit through, but too small for a hand to reach in to count the cards.  We created two masterpieces, works of art, beautiful beyond comparison.  We couldn’t wait until Monday to place them in the classroom.  None in the entire class could compare with our Valentine boxes.

Susan’s box sits down the shelf from mine. They are arranged in ABC order.  Susan is lucky.  Her box is between Jane Richards’ and Stephen Summer’s.  Jane’s is decorated and frilly, Stephen’s is a boy’s box –  no competition, whatsoever.  But my luck is to be sandwiched between Kathleen Brown’s and Dan Davidson’s.  Dan’s is a lot like Stephen’s – no sweat.  But Kathleen, always Kathleen.  I don’t know how she does it.  The same materials adorn her box as mine, but her box makes mine look like an orphan.  I don’t understand it.  Everything Kathleen does is perfect, from Friday spelling tests to Valentine boxes!  Her box is even bigger than mine.  Her father is very tall, and has a larger foot than my father’s.  What luck.  I bet she’ll have more cards in her box than I do, too.

Each morning the week of Valentine’s Day, we are allowed to bring in our cards and “mail” them to our classmates.  I check my box daily, peeking through the narrow slit to see if I can tell how many cards I have.  I also check Kathleen’s and Susan’s boxes.  I am positive that they have more cards than I do.  I even addressed a few of my extras to myself and slipped them into my box to make it look full.  My beautiful box is looking plainer and plainer everyday, as it sits next to Kathleen’s.  It just doesn’t look as fancy as it did at my house last Saturday.  I am feeling very sorry for myself, and I dread Valentine’s Day instead of looking forward to it.

Valentine’s Day arrives, and with it an excitement in the air.  Someone’s mom brings decorated cupcakes to school, and my mother arrives with cut-out heart sugar cookies.  Our room ceases to be a classroom as a party atmosphere fills the air.  Our teacher stands up in front of the class and gives us her lecture about how it isn’t important how many Valentines we receive, but what kind of friends we are everyday.  I have heard the same speech every year since first grade, but for some reason this year it strikes very close to my heart.  I have been so consumed with my own box and how full it is, I have forgotten the other children in the class.  I look at Dan seated in the desk next to mine.  Did I remember to put a card from me into his box?  I can’t remember.  And Kathleen?  She is so smart and talented, she does everything to perfection.  Her spelling test papers are flawless and her penmanship is perfect.  I wonder if she is as nervous as I am about opening her Valentine box.

The boxes are distributed to us, and we are allowed to open them.  Mine is full of cards, but many of them are from me.  I separate these from the rest only to discover that I still have lots of cards.  Oblivious to anyone around me, I open each card, read it, and look on the back to see who it is from.  I am feeling good as I go through my pile of cards.  I do have friends, and it really doesn’t matter anymore if my box is as fancy as Kathleen’s.  I open a card from Dan, and turn toward him to say thanks.  He has just torn open an envelope, and I recognize my printing on it.  I am so relieved that I did send one to him after all.  I turn my attention back to the job at hand, and find a card that is different from all the others.  The envelope is handmade of construction paper, and it is larger than the others.  Who can it be from?  I pull the sticker off very carefully that seals it, and I gently pull out a card made out of cut-out hearts and pictures from a store-bought card from another year.  It is the most beautiful Valentine I have ever seen in my life!  I am afraid to turn it over to see who it is from.  I look around the room to see if anyone is watching me, but everybody is busy opening their own cards and eating cupcakes and cookies. Furtively, I place one hand in front of the card to shield it from any eyes that might be looking in my direction, and with my other hand I silently flip the card over on its back.

Written in painstakingly neat handwriting on the back of this wonderful card is “I love you.  Be my Valentine.  Stephen.”  I feel the blood rush to my face, my very first blush.  Embarrassed, I slide the card to the bottom of my stack where it can’t be seen by anyone.  I cut my eyes over toward Stephen’s desk.  He is looking at me, but drops his head quickly when he sees my eyes move his way.  His face turns rosy, his first blush.

It was a very special Valentine’s Day.  Fifth grade, if I remember correctly, maybe sixth.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that it is the Valentine’s Day when I discovered new truths and gained new insights about competition, friendship, first love.

Stephen and I probably never said more than a dozen words to each other throughout our elementary school years.  We held hands once at a school carnival, but never worked up the nerve to say anything to each other.  I kept his Valentine for years.  I am not sure what finally happened to it.  I still remember exactly what it looked like, and I can still see his words printed on the back of it.

My Friend, Steve

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This past week-end I drove to Kentucky to visit my high school friend, Mike Hannah, and his wife, Chris. While I was there, Mike and I drove up to Ohio to see our mutual friend, Steve Langlais, who is living in a nursing home near Columbus. It was a great afternoon, as many, many funny and not-so-funny events from our lives were recalled, and we had the privilege of spending some time with our long-time friend.

Steve and I talked a little about my writing, and I remembered that I had written a piece about him, probably 20 years ago, that I put into my book, “A Collection of Days”, which has evolved into this blog.

I don’t think Steve realized how much our friendship meant to me, or how much he helped me as a transfer student at Dunedin High School, where I didn’t have many friends, and had a hard time finding my niche at my new school.  Steve called me his psychiatrist, but he was mine, as well.  I was so happy to see him again, and decided to dig out the piece I wrote about him years ago.

Here is “My Friend, Steve.”

My Friend, Steve

I don’t remember the day I met Steve.  I remember that I heard him long before I ever knew who he was.  That may sound funny, but I can still hear the click-clack, click-clack of Steve’s metal crutches as he headed down the echoing hallway at Dunedin High School going from one class to the next.  I also remember hearing loud metallic clatters from time to time when Steve “wiped out” upon hitting a wet place on the polished hallway floors, sending him tumbling onto the floor or sliding through a classroom doorway, sometimes making a grand entrance into class to the cheers of his classmates.

I officially met Steve in Journalism Class our senior year.  I had seen him almost everyday the year before, but never had a class with him or had the opportunity to meet him.  In Journalism class, as we worked together on the school newspaper, we became very good friends.

Steve was handicapped from cerebral palsy.  Both his legs were skinny and weak, and he needed the help of his metal crutches to walk. Writing was also a challenge for him, as his hands didn’t want to go in the direction he would like. He wore black-rimmed glasses, which he insisted gave him a sophisticated air. He was a snappy dresser, and was always right in style. Fortunately, he had no speech defect, as many victims of cerebral palsy are afflicted with, and he was highly intelligent.  He had a keen sense of humor and a dry, biting wit.  He always had a new joke to tell, or something funny to say that would put all of us around him in stitches, in danger of falling out of our seats from laughing.  Steve was just plain fun to be around!

Everyday in Journalism class, Steve and I would talk.  We got into constant trouble with the teacher, because we would start talking to each other, and forget about our school newspaper assignment.  Steve was the sports editor of the paper.  He loved sports, and had aspirations of becoming a sports announcer.  Most of the time our conversation would be lighthearted and fun, but some days he shared with me his dark thoughts about being crippled, and I listened as he confided feelings about girls he liked and his dreams of love and romance.  He wanted more than anything to be able to stand straight and walk without crutches.  He accepted his life, but carried a hidden hope that someday he would have an operation to straighten and strengthen his legs.  I don’t think he truly believed his doctors’ promises of new surgical techniques on the horizon, but he still had hope.  Steve called me his “psychiatrist”, but in actuality he did more for me than I ever did for him.

Click, clack. Click, clack. Here comes Steve down the hall. I know that I will soon be smiling as I see my friend make his way into the classroom.