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.