The Turning Point

When people ask me how old I am, I sometimes respond, “Old enough.”  There’s some snark in that answer but only a smidgin. 

There’s a lot of truth in it too.  For example, I’m certainly old enough to remember when public school teachers used those old-fashioned video projectors to show educational films in school.  I’m talking the reel-to-reel variety, the ones that required the user to thread the film through and around any number of sprockets and catch places while loading it up and before hitting the play switch. 

Some of you know what I’m talking about.  Others, not so much.

Fourth grade was an awkward year for me.  I know I attended school at that point in my life (because I have a diploma to prove it), but I have few concrete recollections about any of my teachers or any particularly impressive learning experiences.  I do recall spending hours daydreaming about, well, anything other than what was actually taking place in the classroom.  Despite being present in body but not necessarily in mind on a very regular basis, I somehow made good grades during that period of my life.

In the late spring of that year, on a very hot afternoon, our Health teacher (do they still teach such classes in public schools?) announced that we’d be seeing a video.  Of course, we were thrilled with such news because watching a film was something akin to having a substitute teacher, meaning that it felt like a break from our normal dull routine.  Then, having made her announcement, Ms. Jones—I don’t remember her actual name but this one will do—proceeded to pull the screen down at the front of the room, roll the large projector into place, and load up the film.  When we asked her what the movie was about, she merely said that we’d learn a lot about the interior of the human body.

(The vagueness of her answer suggested that she didn’t know a lot more than that and probably hadn’t previewed the film.  Such suspicions would be confirmed very shortly.)

The movie started very unimpressively, so we were lulled into a feeling that not much excitement was to be expected.  Suddenly, a few minutes in, there was a voice-over saying that the audience was about to witness a surgery that would require the cutting open of an abdomen of an actual living and breathing human being.  Hearing this, many of us straightened up in our chairs and began to pay closer attention. 

The camera was trained on a stomach and the gloved hands of a surgeon who was holding a scalpel.  The hands casually cut through the patient’s skin and muscles and then pulled the various surface layers back thus exposing pulsing innards.  The teacher rather quickly stepped to the projector and hit the kill switch, but she was too late.  Our impressionable eyes had already gotten their fill.

I felt troubled for the next several days, but not because of the goriness of the scene.  Before that fateful afternoon, I hadn’t given much thought about what keeps all of us going.  To see that we are made of such flimsy material—mere gelatinous flesh—shook me to my core.  For the first time ever, I was prompted to reflect on the uncertainty of life.  If all that animates us is the sort of wet stuff I saw on the video, how is it possible that any of us can ever expect to last very long or feel very secure about our existence?

During that period, my parents were taking me to church services on a regular basis, and I’d often heard the preacher talk about our spiritual vulnerability.  Listening to his sermons, it was easy to understand how we could get sick in soul.  The film had shown me that we have other vulnerabilities too, that the possibility of bodily illness was always there, literally lurking just below what might seem to be a veneer of wellness.

Not long after that viewing, my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.  She had one mastectomy and then another before passing away.

From time to time, I still think about that video and ponder how it changed me.  I suppose it turned me into something akin to an existentialist.  It certainly got me asking existential questions.

Have you had a similar turning point in your life?  If so, I’d like to hear about it.  Thanks for reading.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

If you’d like to see some of Troy’s art, have a look.

17 thoughts on “The Turning Point

  1. A brother of mine passed away whilst I was young. Made me consider the direction of my life very early on. I’d come to reflect on the concept of death and what it meant to me throughout my life.

    1. I’m sorry about your loss. The pain associated with such loss certainly grows more dull over time, but such experiences leave indelible marks. When my grandmother died of breast cancer, it caused me to grow up in a hurry. Children handle death pretty well, but the world suddenly looks a lot more scare and unpredictable. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. My video experience was certainly shocking in more ways than one. I doubt such videos could be shown in most schools today. Parents seem to want to protest anything that even has the appearance of being somewhat controversial. Frankly, I think we try to protect kids too much. I don’t mean we should traumatize them, but we can’t shield them from the realities of life (and death) forever. What do you think?

  2. I was the kid that, if I thought about anything other than the immediate moment, i somehow moved on real quick. Always an odd ball, but unaware of that status until I was over 60 and looking back. It was an easy way to live for me, but maybe not good for others. Well, you asked.

  3. Interestingly, when you mentioned a grade four film, I thought the topic was going to be menstruation. That’s the film the boys and girls get here at that age.

    I’m sorry you saw that. I’m a firm believer that one should be careful about what one lets children see. Even more than stories, visual images sink in, inform, and in some cases, fester. It’s hard to sort them out then, even when you get older.

    1. So I was wondering if “Health” was still being taught as a school subject. It seems that it is based on your comment. Menstruation. I can’t see that being taught in the era I was growing up. Too close to “the birds and the bees” for a small town in Texas when I was a youngster. I don’t think I was necessarily harmed by the film unless you count the ending of my naivety as harm. Thanks for the comment.

  4. My moment came at about the same time as yours but was brought on by the funeral of a great uncle. It didn’t stop me from going to funerals, but I realized there really is an end to life.

    1. The other day I was thinking about how many family members are now gone. Virtually none of the elders are still around. I suppose one of the great challenges we all face is become increasingly alone as loved ones drop by the wayside. I think we all have to make peace with loss. Those who can do so usually ending up ageing more artfully. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Intriguing post, Troy. <3 I also remember those films, as well as purple mimeographs and desks with (no longer used) inkwells.

    My family were friends with an undertaker and his wife, who was my doctor's nurse, They were members of the church where my father was the minister, and I was in the same class as one of their sons. I remember the adults making jokes about how the nurse killed people, the minister preached their funeral, and the undertaker buried them!

    This family lived in the funeral home, and I often visited their son there. I remembered one day when I was about seven years old, there was a beautiful baby laid out in a tiny open casket and surrounded by flowers at their house. I knew it was possible for children to die, but seeing the baby in the casket brought that fact home to me.

    As a minister's daughter, I knew lots of people's troubles, and I grew up knowing that life was short. That is a helpful insight and perspective for living a fulfilling life.

    1. Being friends with a family that owned a funeral home must have been really something. (I can see a great novel or memoir coming out of such an experience.) When I was a wee thing–probably around five years old–we lived in a little rent house in Austin that had a small cemetery right behind it. I think the cemetery must have sort of been forgotten or something because some of the gravestones ran nearly all the way to our house. I could literally look out my bedroom window at the rear of the house and see headstones–some of them moss covered leaning this way and that and half sunk down in the mud–a mere ten feet away from my bedroom. I was always creeped out by that house. Your “baby in the casket” story was powerful. Like I said, you should write about some of those experiences. Thanks for sharing your amazing story.

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