A former student sent me an email this week, and it hurt. It hurt the way memories can hurt.
The student, in college now, might be sent home because he called someone a “fag” on the lacrosse field.
We’ll call the student Bill. And before anyone gets angry about “safe zones” or liberal colleges coddling gays, we are talking about the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Bill asked me to write a letter to help him stay in the academy. And I did. Here’s why.
When I was in grad school, I told a joke at a party and then wondered why no one laughed. It worked for Eddie Murphy.
After an endless awkward moment, one of my friends, Kevin, said, “You know we’re gay, right?”
It had never crossed my mind.
And now I had hurt people.
But, I was lucky; no one rushed to turn me in. No one even asked me to leave the party.
In fact, they were looking at my dumbfounded face and laughing.
I was given the opportunity to mature in a university among various groups and with individuals I grew to love regardless of outside distinctions.
These life lessons were not learned through rules or indoctrination but through friendship and experience.
I was 22, and Bill is only 19.
I have known Bill for several years and have camped, canoed and hiked with him on many occasions. He was a leader in our Venture Crew and a friend and a leader to a diverse group of students.
Some of them were openly gay, and I never saw him behave with any prejudice against them.
If I had, I would not have written the letter. But, I think Bill behaved a certain way in a certain arena he felt was different. He was wrong.
I could sense his pain and surprise on the phone.
Will he have the same chance I had to mature? I hope so.
I am sure he feels awful for hurting someone.
We all have to learn at some point we don’t need to be the toughest guy on the field or the funniest guy at the party if that means being less than our best selves.
Bill is learning that lesson now, and I hope he can continue at the Air Force Academy and on the lacrosse team.
Learning life’s lessons is harder than achieving in the classroom or on the field.
A mature officer able to look back on this experience might be a better officer for the memory and knowledge gained here.
But it hurts.
Reach Boyd C. Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org .