Gardening Time

Hope High School was unusual in that many of its students began their academic careers, so to speak, in failure. Providence, RI eighth graders were given a standardized test, and if you scored well enough you were allowed to attend Classical High School; if not, you went to one of the city’s other three public high schools, of which Hope was one. I managed to pass this test but chose Hope because of its newly instituted arts program. I’m sure some of Hope’s students attended because it was convenient, but my wife-to-be, who lived just a couple blocks from the Hope’s front door, explained that she never considered attending because “the windows were broken and the kids looked depressed.”

It’s true; this garden was not thriving. But I was happy there. The place was blissfully free of perfectionists. I was a perfectionist, you see, and the last thing I needed were more perfectionists with whom to compete in my suicidal sprint toward the unattainable. What’s more, there was something valuable about a group of people who had largely not yet recognized their own potential. Such a group summoned from me an empathy I had to that point mostly ignored.

Enter Tony Caprio, our principal my sophomore and junior years. Tony gathered the students in the auditorium and stood before us in his mediocre suit gripping a microphone and barking down at us that we needed, “Pride and dignity!” He was so tough. I felt that he had been asked as a young man to choose between high school principal and mob boss. “Pride and dignity!” he repeated. “From now on you have pride and dignity.”

Who could argue with the man? And for a time, something subtle began to shift at Hope. Tony’s stubborn, streetwise insistence that we weren’t a pack of losers began to rub off. Why, this notion of Hope as a broken, hopeless place was just a thought. It wasn’t reality. Why not replace this old thought with a new thought, with Tony’s thought?

Then Tony set his summer home on fire for the insurance money and was sent to prison. In another story, this might have undone all that he had won, but not in the story of Bill. It seemed clear to me that all he needed to see the garden flourish was more time. That he did not take that time was his choice. It did not need to be mine.

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