If one has read any of my three novels, they would realize I believe in fate and destiny. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God or free will in determining the paths or events in our lives. It merely means I believe fate and destiny often play a role, perhaps an overlooked role, in who we meet, when we meet, what choices we make, or how we travel from birth to death.
Not a particularly philosophical person, I hadn’t thought much about this concept until the late 1980s when it stared me straight in the eyes as I received my first HIV test results. When HIV and AIDS became a major health issue among the US gay male community in the early 1980s, we were advised not to be tested for the virus; the government, we feared, would release positive diagnoses to insurance companies, employers, and families which would, likely, lead to loss of medical insurance, jobs and families.
Therefore, I waited until the government and AIDS activists assured us this would not happen and that took several years. I took the test in 1988 or 1989, in Portland, Oregon, where I lived at the time, with the expectation my status would be positive. I had, after all, had some form of sex with numerous men during the early years of HIV and the years prior. To my surprise, my results were negative.
I was very much relieved, but puzzled. People were dying that were far less promiscuous than me or much younger than my 40 years. Why had I been spared? What was God’s reason for keeping me healthy? I wondered. Or, was it solely God’s doing? Did something else play a role in this? Had my negative test result been due to fate and destiny? Why was my destiny to live on? After much reflection, I theorized that perhaps it was because I still had a purpose on earth, a mission. But I didn’t know what it was.
I evaluated myself, my skills, personality qualities, and relationships hoping to find my mission and, after considerable soul-searching, it dawned on me. It was a bit of a surprise. Because I was older than I looked, and hopefully as wise as my true age indicated, I had a history of playing big brother, uncle, and adviser to numerous younger gay men. They seemed to trust and listen to me. But then I realized I had played a similar role long before I came out. I had done it in high school and college.
My mission, I realized, was to work with and mentor young people, to support, guide, and listen to them. It was a skill I had, a history of doing it, and something I did effectively. But how was I to do it at this point in my life?
I moved back to Seattle in 1990 and took two short-term unsatisfying jobs, still thinking what am I supposed to be doing. During these two years, I met a neighbor, a gay man who was a middle school Special Education teacher in suburban Seattle. We became friends. He constantly talked about his classroom assistant, what her duties were, and how he could not do his job without her. But as the school year ended, his assistant announced her resignation. Her husband had taken a position out of state and they would be relocating. My friend was panicked. “Who will her replacement be? he asked. “I’ve had some horrible assistants. The good ones are probably already taken.”
I should point out that until I met him, I had no knowledge of Special Education in the public schools. I had graduated from college in 1970; the laws establishing special education were enacted in 1975. I had no children in school, therefore I did not realize this previously hidden population was now in public schools. I had no knowledge of this new field. It is possible I had seen TV news stories about this subject but had, because it didn’t apply to me, tuned them out. Meeting my friend opened an entire new world to me. I would listen to his tales and think “I could do that. Maybe that is something I should explore.”
As fate would have it, I was fired from the second unsatisfying job late that August. I rushed to the Seattle School District and applied for the position of Special Education Assistant, but found that all those positions were filled. I could, however, apply to be a substitute for these people and get my foot in the door. I was hired, but was told it could take up to two years to be assigned a permanent position. During my first week as a substitute, I spent two days at a high school and, defying the odds, I was offered a permanent position at that school. I decided immediately that my presence there would not be limited to working with my small group of special needs students. I also would use my skills and personality to reach out to, interact with, and, perhaps, help mainstream students who needed someone’s ear or shoulder. That was, I felt, my mission.
But why had this all fallen into place so quickly and easily? Had fate and destiny played a role in it? I wondered.
I owed this life-changing development, which became a satisfying 22-year career, to my friend, the middle school teacher. But I have left out an important fact about this person and our relationship. He was an alcoholic. Our friendship ended soon after I became a Special Education assistant because, while he had exposed me to the World of Special Education, his alcoholism had been creating problems. His disease had, at times, impacted plans, caused public embarrassment, and had made me feel uncomfortable. As a result, I began questioning the future of our friendship before I was hired by the Seattle School District.
Then, one Sunday morning, early in my first year as an assistant, I suffered either a muscle spasm in my back or a herniated disc. It was under the oddest of circumstances: I was sitting in my recliner, The Sunday Seattle Times on my lap, when a sudden excruciating sharp pain in my back caused me to virtually bounce from a feet-on-footrest to feet- over- armrest position. I had spun 45 degrees. The newspaper flew across the room. And I could not get out of the chair. The sharp pain heightened with each attempt to get up. After, I don’t know how many painful attempts or how long I struggled, I managed to stand torqued and waddle to the phone.
I called my friend who lived a block away; I could see his condo up the hill from my window. “I need you to come here immediately,” I told him. I was practically crying.” I’m in excruciating pain. I think it’s more than a muscle spasm; maybe I just had a herniated disc. This is serious. I can’t move. I might be going into shock. I think I might pass out or throw up. Hurry. I need you to help get me to bed and then try to find the trigger point in my back and try to relax it. Hurry,” I repeated. “I have to stand here by the phone so I can buzz you in and standing is killing me. Hurry!” I pleaded again. And I stood by the phone in pain and watched through the window for him to come down the hill.
Forty-five minutes later, he ambled down the hill, fresh as a daisy, carrying a cocktail glass. It was perhaps 10:00. He leisurely crossed the street. I buzzed him in, hobbled to my apartment’s front door, and let him in. He was beaming a smile one would see in a tooth paste commercial.
“What took you so long? I screamed at him. “I can barely move and am in terrible pain. I thought I made that quite clear.”
“Well,” he answered, “I had to take my shower and mix my drink.”
Had the roles been reversed, I would have skipped the shower and run to help the person in pain immediately.
While he did manage to help me to my bed and press on my back in search of trigger points, I don’t recall if it actually helped. I don’t remember if muscle relaxers, ibuprofen, or ice packs were used. What I do recall is that, as I lay on that bed, I decided he was no longer a friend. His alcoholism, even if it is a disease, and his sense of priorities, had ended our relationship.
But I also realized I hadn’t met him for a friendship in the first place. Fate and destiny had introduced us so I could learn about special education assistants. I met him to meet my mission.
By the next morning, the pain had subsided enough I could go to work. It gradually got better. But, I now, in hindsight, realize this incident probably was one of the four herniated discs discovered in last October’s back surgery.
Within weeks of joining the staff of the school, I volunteered to be on the SIT team, a committee focused on students in trouble, not being served effectively by the school, or with personal or family issues that hampered their success. As the years passed I served as advisor to the Men’s Forum, where boys discussed issues like sexual harassment, being a high school student and a father, peer pressure, and homophobia. I ran a student-led AIDS awareness program. But most important to me, I advised numerous gay support groups, which evolved into gay-straight alliances.
However, the vast majority of my contributions to the two high schools at which I worked and their students, I believe, were the one-on-one relationships I developed with a wide variety of students. Many quickly realized, that because I was not their teacher, not a person who gave them grades, I was someone with whom they could talk, share, and ask, no strings attached. The fact I was openly gay both worked in my favor and against it and I had to learn to read situations and signs and know when to offer my attention and when to back off.
My contributions and accomplishments, however, were not always received positively by staff members. Several incidents did occur in which my motives were questioned because I was a gay man. But I survived them and continued doing what I knew I was there to do.
While I had countless positive, memorable encounters and relationships with students, I truly realized I had succeeded in my mission the summer after I retired. I had hired a June graduate, a boy I had known since he was a freshman, to do some yard work. He had a business installing fancy planter boxes in yards. I hired him because I was preparing to sell the family home prior to my move to Mexico and the backyard needed a little sprucing up. When I received my reduced bill, I was touched to see he had given me “the cool gay teacher discount.” I considered that compliment to be the coda to my career. I thought that was God’s way, or fate and destiny’s way, of saying “mission accomplished.”
As I look back at the time between my first HIV test and my retirement, I see how things fell into place. During those years, I had many decisions to make and my free will played a role in those choices. They certainly contributed to the path my life and career took. But I also believe fate and destiny played and continues to play an important role in the decisions I make and in my life.
Maybe, I often wonder, I’m not actually making any of the choices at all; perhaps fate and destiny are.