When I was 15 years old, I took my first college course. I had never gone to a public or private school until then. I was part of the Southern California Home School Club: My mother taught me, we were part of a food co-op, and we raised goats. And here I was, not even 16, walking into my first real classroom. It was Introduction to Acting and I was not prepared, to say the least.
I didn’t want to lose my “salt,” but I did want to belong in some sense.
Christian parents often worry about sending their kids off to college where professors will challenge their beliefs, but my problems were much less dramatic. The only discord between my faith and the professor happened over an exercise where we took turns reading lines from a play that had profanity. After hearing my moral objections to the exercise, the professor encouraged me to read the lines anyway, and I survived.
But the real conflict I experienced was my deep feeling of alienation. These weren’t my people. How did they see me? Could I ever be seen as a regular college student? I didn’t want to lose my “salt,” but I did want to belong in some sense. Mostly, I just wanted to matter.
The only student I felt a connection with was this kid named Peter who had some kind of cognitive disability. Looking back, I think he may have been on the autism spectrum. He lived in the same rural town as I did and attended my church, but I didn’t know his name until we took that class together. Aside from the fact that he was at least 5 years older than me, I never bothered to get to know him at church because he seemed so odd: the way he dressed, the fact that he lived with his grandparents, the fact that no one else talked to him. The strangest thing about Peter was that he brought his grandfather to school with him each day and left him in the cafeteria, just sitting there in a wheelchair. And his grandfather couldn’t speak, so he would just sit quietly and occasionally grunt and pull himself around with his feet. For the life of me, I couldn’t wrap my head around that. Wasn’t Peter embarrassed?
Peter and I were paired up to perform a scene from a play. I chose The Odd Couple because I had seen the Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau film a few times and knew there wasn’t much profanity. During rehearsals one day, I decided to play a joke on Peter. This was my way of standing out, becoming my own person and showing my classmates that I was just a normal community college student in a theater class. And just maybe, I thought, I could impress this girl who was sitting next to me. So, as Peter walked over to sit down, I pulled the chair out from under him.
The reaction from the class was exactly what you would expect: shock and disgust. The girl I was trying to impress helped Peter up off the floor and spoke in this deeply sympathetic voice that made me both jealous of him and ashamed of myself. As for Peter, I think he was mostly confused about why I would want to hurt him like that, but he forgave me immediately and we went on to perform our scene together.
After that semester, I’d occasionally see Peter walking around campus—and his grandfather sitting alone in the cafeteria. But I never spoke to Peter again. I always felt a little bad about not making any effort to at least say hello, but since it was mutual, I figured it was okay.
Since then I’ve tried to locate Peter on social media, hoping to discover that he turned out all right and found a community that would care for him, but I can’t find him. So, I’m left with the memory of my pathetic yearning to be accepted and the cruel way I treated a man who so readily accepted and forgave me as a brother in Christ.
Nearly 20 years later, thinking back to those final years of school, I wonder if Peter only ignored me because he was so used to being ignored or mocked. And if someone from his own church, someone who knew what it felt like to be an outsider—if such a person could not bother to love him, who would?
A terrible thing about the past is that it cannot be undone. I am forgiven for failing to love Peter as my brother in Christ, but Peter still bore the burden of my indifference, which was a small part of our community’s indifference towards him. And I cannot go back and lift that burden from him. If we honestly reflect on our lives, we will recall dozens of Peters—people we wronged and with whom we can no longer make amends, even though God has forgiven us. What allows us to hold on to these memories without fear or guilt is the truth that God’s grace and sovereignty are sufficient—they extend not only over sin, but also over the echoing repercussions of sin. And so, I rest in God’s grace, knowing that Peter’s loving Father looked over him then, and looks over him still.