Today’s guest contributor is one of my English Composition I students, Ryan Clack. He’s graciously given me permission to share his first essay of the fall semester with all of you. I was inspired and touched by his essay; I’m sure you will be, too.
What Makes Ryan Clack, Ryan Clack?
Answering the question above is neither simple nor complicated, but somewhere right in between. In order to start this “Who I Am” essay, I’ll begin with an introduction. My name is Ryan Clack. I am a 20 year-old Caucasian red-headed male from Temecula, California. I was born into this beautiful, yet harsh world on May 18, 1998, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I have three other siblings. Two are my half siblings, and my parents’ names are Ron and Heather Clack. I am not afraid to admit that I’m a little bit of a mama’s boy and have been that way forever, so it’s safe to say I love her very dearly. My father and I share a huge bond in the game of baseball, and he has been such an important piece to my maturity and manhood throughout the years. With that being said, baseball has been my identity my entire life; it’s where I’ve met just about all of my friends, and it has given me the blessing of an opportunity to play collegiate ball on a scholarship on this very campus.
If I were to ask my friends or peers, they would likely tell me that I’m a very outgoing, funny, loving, kind, and smart guy. These are some attributes about myself I cherish and am very proud of. My mama always said, “You’re the most like me,” because she is the same exact way.
Throughout this year I’ve dealt with a great bit of adversity, and that adversity is what makes the overall question a little difficult to answer. Why? I’ve had to learn many lessons since January 17, 2018, the date of my mother’s passing. I feel as if my attributes include being outgoing, funny, loving, kind, and smart. These have not changed due to the fact that those are practically my foundation as a person, but a lot of other things have changed. My mom passed away after a year-long battle with stage 4 colon cancer. The messed up part about everything is the fact that she beat breast cancer in 2016 only to find out six months later that she would be fighting another battle for her life, being diagnosed with colon cancer.
Throughout being there for the process of chemotherapy sessions, sores, and week-long streaks of her being so tired and weak she wouldn’t leave bed, I witnessed a woman who was literally dying become the most positive, loving, fierce, and fearless warrior goddess of all time. Whilst on hospice, she would write on paper because she could no longer speak.
One thing she wrote is so beautiful and powerful that it is what I live by and identify with on this day and every other day. She said, “I live every beautiful day and I can find beautiful on even the worst day.” Since the day that I watched her write this on her deathbed, my whole life changed. I learned to embrace the good, bad, and ugly and endure everything with a smile on my face. I learned how to cope with such immense pain and how to overcome the depression that comes with it.
If you ask “What makes Ryan Clack, Ryan Clack?’ today, I’d be able to give you a great answer. Adversity.
Adversity has turned me from a teenage boy to a man, and although going through it is never easy, I wouldn’t want it any other way. With adversity I have learned countless lessons, great and awful, and it helps me learn through real life experiences. Those real life experiences are free, stone cold, and hard life lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. As of now, I couldn’t be happier with my situation, and I’m extremely blessed to be a part of such an amazing opportunity for me to continue to grow, obtain a degree, and continue to work on becoming the best person that I could possibly become.
This piece was written by my former professor, who I like to consider one of my writing mentors, Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, as a tribute to her parents. They will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this month. Happy anniversary to a couple who obviously understand what it takes to love others well.
My parents were both teachers, so there were lessons galore at our house. I’ve written the following two stories to illustrate what I learned from each parent before I even “formally” started school.
From My Father
My sister, Liz, and I were tucked in our warm bed when the pre-dawn stillness of our house was rattled by the sound of a ringing phone. I lay awake, listening to my dad’s voice as he took the call, paying close attention for clues as to the identity of the caller. Then I heard the sounds of my dad’s footsteps coming into the room Liz and I shared.
“Teresa,” my dad said. “I’ve got to drive the bus this morning. Do you want to go with me?”
Did I ever! I sprang out of bed and into my clothes. The caller had been the superintendent of the school where my dad taught, informing him that one of the bus drivers was ill, asking if he could take that driver’s morning route. In those days, there were no requirements for school bus drivers to have a commercial license. They just had to have enough nerve to navigate the twists and turns of rural Arkansas back roads while ferrying a group of school kids. I knew driving the bus was an unwelcome chore for my dad, but I was always thrilled when he got the call because there was a chance that I would get to ride with him.
I followed my dad out to his car, and we took off through the streets of our small town. Lights in the houses along the road that led to the school flickered on as their inhabitants woke up and prepared for the day ahead. The school building where my dad taught was not yet illuminated when we arrived at the space out front where he parked his car. Together, we walked to the area where the buses were kept and then we were off.
I could barely contain my excitement as I slid into the seat behind my dad. To me, this was as good as a carnival ride, particularly the moment we left the familiar streets of our town, and the bus lurched onto the gravel road where most of the kids on the route lived. Sometimes, we stopped for a single kid standing in front of a house tucked far back into the woods. Other times, we collected a whole family of kids, often having to wait a few extra minutes while one of them, struggling into his or her coat, ran across the yard having perhaps overslept or lingered too long at the breakfast table. Always, when my dad gave the silver handle a yank, and the bus doors whooshed open, the kids’ voices registered both surprise and delight to see “Mr. Burns” at the wheel of their bus. As they made their way to their seats, some of the kids even spoke to me, and I basked in the glow of these older kids’ attention.
Those bus rides added texture to my mostly monotonous days. Since I wasn’t yet old enough to attend school, my dad had to drive me back home when the bus ride was over. In retrospect, I’m sure it would have been much easier for him to have tiptoed quietly out of our house, leaving me in my bed, garnering a few moments of peace and quiet before embarking on his task of driving the bus. But he didn’t. He invited me to go along on the journey, and I am all the richer for it – gaining in those few hours a glimpse of my dad’s world beyond the confines of our home.
From My Mother
The year I turned four, my sister, Liz, turned six. That fall, she not only got to go to first grade, she also got to move out of the nursery at church and into a regular Sunday school class. I knew there was no way I could go to school with her. There were laws against that; but, I felt I had a good chance of joining her Sunday school class. After all, this was church where you weren’t supposed to be a respecter of persons. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my mother was going to be teaching Liz’s class.
I was sick of staying in the nursery with a bunch of babies and coloring those Bible story sheets using broken crayons worn down to a dull rounded shape, most of them with their paper wrappers peeled completely off. Some of the crayons were even pocked with teeth marks where either the babies or nervous preschoolers had chewed on them. I just didn’t think I could take another year of coloring with those gross crayons or pushing thread through those silly little sewing cards and being lumped in with a bunch of drooling, bawling babies while Liz joined the big kids in a class where they’d have actual lessons. While my mother was no push-over, I felt it was worth a shot to begin my begging campaign to join her class.
“Pleeeeease,” I pleaded. “Please, let me move up to Liz’s Sunday school class.”
I’m sure my mother finally grew tired of hearing my pitiful appeals because she reluctantly said, “Okay, but only on one condition. You have to do the work that the older kids do.”
Even though I wasn’t at all sure I could meet that demand, the vision of myself spending another year in that nursery propelled me to promise my mother that I would do everything the older kids did.
I was beyond excited that first Sunday morning when I got to walk right past the nursery and into the first grade Sunday school classroom. The other kids eyed me suspiciously, but they didn’t say anything for fear of making a bad impression on my mother. When my mother announced that our first lesson was to learn the books of the Old Testament, my crisp enthusiasm wilted. I was hoping we’d learn some Bible verses, preferably short ones like, “Jesus wept,” or even the books of the New Testament. At least I could actually pronounce those names. I wanted to whine, but I knew a complaint would send me straight back to the nursery, so I kept my mouth shut and focused on the assignment.
All week, I pestered my mother to go over the names of the books of the Old Testament with me. This would have been going the extra mile for any mother, but my mother was completing her B.A. in English at Arkansas (now Lyon) College. So in addition to dealing with regular motherly things – like preparing meals, doing laundry, and refereeing fights between Liz and me, she had tons of homework to do. Still, she listened night after night as I stammered over all those names until I could say them without missing a single one.
I could barely sit still in my chair the next Sunday morning. When my mother asked if anybody could say the books of the Old Testament, I shot my pudgy hand in the air. My mother looked from face to face, but no one else moved except to narrow their eyes at me.
Finally, my mother said, “Okay, Teresa.”
To my amazement, I said them all from Genesis to Malachi, and then I held out my hand. My mother’s pledge to pay fifty cents to the students who could reel off all those Old Testament books just sweetened the deal. She smiled as she plopped the two quarters into my open palm, while the older kids looked on with what I’m sure were unchristian thoughts roiling through their brains.
Who cared what they thought? With my mother’s help, I had learned that tenacity plus hard work could equal success even for an underdog like me.
From Both My Parents
Both of my parents took the time to teach me many other lessons, and they continue to teach me lessons even now. Some of these lessons have been easy to learn. Others, well, let’s just say I’m still working on them. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from them is the lesson of commitment. Throughout our lives, my parents have remained committed to my brother, Rob, to my sister, Liz, and to me. And, they have remained committed to each other for many, many years. This month, my parents will celebrate their sixtieth wedding anniversary. The symbol for that year is a diamond. This hardest of gemstones was known to the ancient Greeks as adamas, the same word they used for anything that was indestructible or unmovable. My parents’ love for their family and for each other has been both enduring and constant, and that has been the most important lesson of all.
*Special thanks to Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy for serving as today’s guest writer. Always a pleasure to read her work!*
Timing was everything. The sound of The Huntley-Brinkley Report emanating from the television in our living room was my ticking clock, each word a precious second flying by. Night after night as they delivered the evening news to the nation, I sat at the chrome table with the marbled green top, the smell of spaghetti and meatballs, fried chicken, vegetable beef soup, or whatever my mother had cooked for supper that night lingering in the kitchen. I gripped the yellow No. 2 pencil, pressed my lips together, and tried to copy the elegantly formed letters of my mother’s handwriting.
I was a third grader who had landed in the classroom of a teacher who routinely screamed at us, and, on one occasion, had tied an unruly student in her desk with a jump rope. This teacher was rumored to have deliberately turned the stone of her ring palm-side in and slapped a former student’s face in order to make a more marked impression. I believed that rumor, for she had once yanked me from my seat and whacked my bare leg so hard she left behind the imprint of her hand. Just being in that teacher’s classroom caused my muscles to constrict and my palms to sweat. Unfortunately, my constant state of unease led me to bear down too hard when I wrote, making my writing dark and prone to smudging.
Up to this point in my schooling, I had never gotten a grade below a B on my report card. That year, I received a steady string of C’s in penmanship. My mother was typically a stickler for good grades, but when those C’s began appearing on my report card, she told me to do my best and not worry so much about the grade I got. Even when the C’s dropped to a C- during one grading period, she didn’t reprimand me.
“I don’t want to make a D,” I sobbed as I handed her the offending report card.
“You won’t,” my mother reassured me. “I’ve got a plan for improving your penmanship.”
My mother’s plan was for me to copy her handwriting, five pages each weeknight for the next six weeks. If I completed my work before my favorite television shows came on after the evening news, I could watch them. If not, those Beverly Hillbillies would have to exasperate and outsmart the city folk without me. The cast of Lost in Space would have to escape the villains of the cosmos without this small earthling cheering them on. And worst of all, I would miss the antics of that adorable sheepdog in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. Desperate to go to places where there were no mean third grade teachers, I filled up those five pages night after night as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley droned on about the escalating war in Vietnam and the rising racial tensions at home.
When the report cards came out following my six weeks of diligent handwriting practice, I couldn’t wait to see how well I’d done in penmanship. Certain that I had raised my grade to at least a B, I slid my card out of its manila envelope. Next to the last grading period’s C- was a C+. That afternoon, I trudged home, the air around me so heavy I could barely breathe.
“How’d you do?” my mother asked, meeting me at the door to our house, her brown eyes bright with anticipation.
I handed her my report card.
She looked at it, her face never displaying the disappointment she must have felt.
“Oh, well,” she said with a shrug. “I guess your teacher just thinks of a C as average, and she gave you a C+, so she must think of you as above average.”
In that moment, the air was infinitely more breathable. Without criticizing my teacher, my mother had taught me the vital lessons of tenacity and acceptance. I don’t believe any of my favorite television programs won Emmy Awards that year; but, if they gave Emmys to teachers, my mother would have gotten one for her performance that afternoon. In fact, her mantel would be filled with awards for recognizing and responding to so many teachable moments both at home and in the junior high school classrooms where she taught for thirty years.
The next year, I moved on to the classroom of a fourth grade teacher who read us Beverly Cleary books and played peppy music so we could do shoulder-wiggling/feet-jiggling exercises in our seats on rainy days. She often gave us assignments to write about things that occurred in our lives. For one assignment, I wrote about my family’s vacation to California. Though it would have been thrilling to have written about seeing one of my television heroes out in Hollywood, I’m sure I stuck to the real-life events of playing with my aunt and uncle’s Pekingese pups and riding in the teacups at Disneyland with my mother.
When the teacher returned my paper, she paused at my desk and said, “You have such beautiful handwriting.”
At the top of the page was a fat red A followed by a comment that read, “Sounds like a lot of fun!”
I raised my eyes to meet my teacher’s smiling face.
“Thanks,” I said. “My mother taught me how to write like that.”