25 Years Ago My Hair Was Darker, My Waist Was Thinner, and I Could Still Dunk a Basketball
Part Four of "Two Years Ago Our World Changed"
A Quote to Consider:
“Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke)
1 John 4:18 (CEB) — There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (CEB) — Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
James 1:2 (CEB) — My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy.
The Road Not Taken1
By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
A phone call from Ona
I hadn’t been home long when the phone rang.
I’m so tired…I’m just gonna let it ring.
Teaching seventh-grade mathematics was a special kind of blessing interwoven throughout a blanket of challenges. With his slicked-back hair, Rudy was already making his best impression of a tough guy. When he got angry at me, he pulled up a chair and stood on it in an attempt to look me in the eye and intimidate me. Juan was friendly and engaging and could talk about nothing other than baseball. Frank was a gentle giant who took every opportunity to come alongside me as I walked—” How’s it goin’, Mr. Fairbanks?” Gene showed up at my house one Saturday afternoon looking for someone to pay him some attention. And then there was quiet, timid, and soft-spoken Sheenah, who struggled, worked harder than anyone and apologized when she didn’t understand something I was trying to teach.
It’s been a long week and I’m tired…whoever is calling with surely call back.
I was staying in the basement of the Nazarene parsonage in Nyssa, Oregon. Mick was the church pastor, and his wife, Shirley, was one of my colleagues at the middle school. When my roommate situation with another first-year teacher was not going as well as hoped, they opened up their basement to me.
The two of them were exactly what my younger self needed at that time in my life. Mick, with his quiet, gentle, soft-spoken wisdom, and Shirley with her positive, building-up, always on the bright side encouragement. I didn’t live in their basement long, as they announced their retirement from the church shortly after I moved in, but it was a time that impacted my life in meaningful, long-lasting ways.
Maybe I should just answer the phone.
“Hello, this is Steve.”
“Hello,” said the distant voice on the other end, “my name is Ona, and I’m calling you from the island of Java.”
Java? I haven’t the faintest idea where in the world that might be.
“Wonderful,” I answered, trying to hide my ignorance, “can I help you with something?”
“I hope so,” Ona replied, “I’m looking for a math teacher to come and teach next school year.”
I was only a few months into my first year of teaching after graduating from Northwest Nazarene University. Maybe it was the realities of teaching seventh-grade math, or perhaps there was something grander and more divine than I was aware of going on…but I found myself dreaming about going overseas to teach.
I don’t know where it came from. In high school, I was less-than-thrilled with my required Spanish course, and in college, I petitioned out of the foreign language requirement because the thought of studying a foreign language terrified me!
Despite that, I had filled out a lengthy application to an organization that matches Christian teachers with Christian schools worldwide.
“I’m the superintendent of Central Java Inter-Mission School (CJIMS),” Ona explained, “and I’m looking at your resume right now. I think you might be a good fit here.”
We chatted for a few moments, and he promised to send me some information, which he did a few days later. Immediately after hanging up the phone, I took an encyclopedia from the bookshelf and looked up “Java Island.”
Now, if only I knew the first thing about Indonesia.
25 years ago today
I talked to Ona on the phone another time or two and decided that teaching at CIJMS was something I wanted to do. I was single, had no school debt, and figured there was no better way to expand my horizons than to do something like this. This would be, I thought, the perfect short-term adventure before returning home to settle down, keep teaching, get married, and live a typical American life.
I talked with my parents and then my principal. Both were supportive. Mick and Shirley played vital roles as encouragers as the wheels were set in motion for this plan to come to fruition. By Christmas break, my course was set. I would finish the school year at Nyssa Middle School and then…off to Java!
Twenty-five years ago today, I was in the final stages of planning and preparation for my June 17th departure. I packed my new camera with a built-in flash that was supposed to be waterproof. I had learned that Indonesia was located north of Australia and roughly south of Thailand and Vietnam. Beyond that, I knew little of this Muslim-majority nation that would soon become my home. I had no idea that the new shorts I bought would be too short to wear in public.
When the day of departure came, I remember spending some time with my parents at the house before leaving and bawling as I said goodbye to my younger brother. I remember sitting in the Portland airport with my family, waiting for my flight to begin boarding, a nervous tension filling the air as if no one knew exactly what to say.
And then, just like that, I was on the plane, my Walkman ready with a few of my favorite CDs.
Last chance to change your mind, Steve…
A whole new world
This airplane has movies…incredible!
Portland to Tokyo.
Tokyo to Singapore.
The final leg of the 30+ hour journey was a 1-hour flight from Singapore to Surakarta, Indonesia. As the plane descended into the crowded tropic city, the red clay roofing tiles and tropical trees began to appear.
What am I doing…I must be crazy.
The plane landed, and as I made my way down the aircraft’s stairs onto the tarmac, I was hit with an oppressive wall of humidity, unlike anything I had ever experienced. My first dose of Indonesian culture came even before I entered the baggage terminal. A single immigration officer sat at a single desk. There was no line. Instead, every passenger on my flight was crowded around him, arms outstretched, trying to convince him to take their passport next.
You’ve got to be kidding.
I stood for a couple of brief moments, plotting my strategy.
I’ve got longer arms than all of these people, along with the advantage of being able to see over the heads of everyone around me.
I crowded in as close as possible and then reached my arm toward the immigration official, who glanced up at me briefly. Perhaps he was impressed with my horizontal reach…or the paleness of my skin…or maybe he just felt sorry for me. The answer to that question I’ll never know…but he took my passport next.
I retrieved my bags, passed through the customs checkpoint, and entered a whole new world. A world filled with people I never knew existed. A way of life that I had never experienced before. I entered that world as a very typical, 20-something American Christian young man. Little did I know how this one decision would alter the course of my life from that day forward and change the person I am forever!
Unfortunately, decisions and their impact on our lives can only be seen clearly in the rearview mirror…unfortunately. If you are like me, you have a few regretful decisions that you look back on and think, if only I had not…
Hopefully, you also have a few diverging-roads-in-a-yellow-wood-moments that you look back on with great thankfulness, thinking that choice has had a tremendous positive impact on my life!
Take a moment and share one of those moments in the comments below.
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