Earlier this month, I told a story at a Moth GrandSLAM in Brooklyn about a time in my life when I had to face down the principal as a third grader. After stealing a classmate's stamp catalog, I was forced to admit to the theft or risk allowing my entire class to be punished for my crime.
Walking into the principal's office and telling him the truth that day remains one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I can still remember the moment like it was yesterday, and I think about it often when faced with the need to speak a difficult truth or admit to a mistake.
It was a lesson for a lifetime.
It wasn't a typical story for me. Too long for a Moth slam, I stripped the story down to its bones and retained more humor than heart. Not my unusual strategy in storytelling, and especially in competitive storytelling, but I enjoyed telling it just the same. I don't often go for the laugh as often as I did that night, and I probably swore more on the stage that night than all the stages I've ever stood on combined.
It was a different side of me as a storyteller. Not my most effective side, but a fun alternative.
The principal's name was Fred Hartnett. I had not seen or spoken to him since elementary school, though a few years ago, I discovered that the new middle school in my hometown - built on the street where I grew up - bears his name. I thought it was the perfect choice of name given how much that man still lives in my heart and mind almost four decades later.
I assumed that Mr. Hartnett had probably passed away years ago, given that he was my principal back in 1979 and already seemed old to me even back then, but when I mentioned on Facebook that I was telling a story about him, a former classmate sent me a message informing me that Mr. Hartnett is alive and well and passed along his email address.
Since then, Mr. Hartnett and I have exchanged emails.
I can't believe it.
In addition to the message I sent him, I attached a recording of the story made at a Speak Up event, where I had first told the more complete version of the story.
"I certainly do remember you as well as other members of the Dicks family. I must admit, however, I do not recall the incident you referenced. That having been said, I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation."
He went on to expound on the fates of several people in the story, including my teacher and a classmate who plays a significant role in the tale.
In regards to the new school bearing his name, he writes:
"As for the middle school at BMRSD, it was my responsibility as superintendent to construct it, The school committee announced the dedication at graduation in 2003, the year I retired. I was, and sometimes remain, uncomfortable about it, though relieved it's not posthumously! On occasion, when I drive in I reflect it's similar to seeing one's name on a tombstone."
The man still has it.
Remarkable how the power of The Moth has once again brought someone back into my life and re-established a connection that means so much to me. Mr. Hartnett and I continue to exchange emails. A man who once lived only in my heart and mind has come to life once again for me. We have discussed our teaching, writing, and course of our lives.
It's been remarkable.
Tell your stories. On stages or in living rooms or at dinner table. Share them with friends and family and people willing to listen. You never know what may happen.