When I was growing up, my father always stopped what he was doing and listened while I’d breathlessly fill him in on my day. For him, no subject was off-limits. When I was a lanky and awkward 13, Dad coached me on how to stand and walk like a lady. At 17 and madly in love, I sought his advice on pursuing a new student at school.
“Keep the conversation neutral,” he counseled. “And ask him about his car.”
I followed his suggestions and gave him daily progress reports: “Terry walked me to my locker!”
“Guess what? Terry held my hand!”
“Dad! He asked me out!”
Terry and I went steady for over a year, and soon Dad was joking, “I can tell you how to get a man; the hard part is getting rid of him.” By the time I graduated from college, I was ready to spread my wings. I got a job teaching special education at a school in Coachella, California, a desert town about 170 miles from home. It was no dream job. Low-income housing across the street from the school was a haven for drug users. Street gangs hung around the school after dark. Many of my charges, emotionally disturbed 10-to 14-year-old boys, had been arrested for shoplifting, car theft or arson.
“Be careful,” Dad warned me during one of my frequent weekend visits home. He was concerned about my living alone, but I was 23, enthusiastic and naive, and I needed to be on my own. Besides, teaching jobs were tight in 1974, and I felt lucky to have one.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured him, as I loaded up the car to start my trip back to the desert and my job.
Several evenings later I stayed after school to rearrange my classroom. Finished, I turned out the light and closed the door. Then I headed toward the gate. It was locked! I looked around. Everyone – teachers, custodians, secretaries -had gone home and, not realizing I was still there, stranded me on the school grounds. I glanced at my watch – it was almost 6 p.m.
I had been so engrossed in my work that I hadn’t noticed the time. After checking all the exits, I found just enough room to squeeze under a gate in the rear of the school. I pushed my purse through first, lay on my back and slowly edged through.
Suddenly, I heard voices. I glanced around and saw at least eight high-school-age boys following me. They were half a block away. Even in the near darkness I could see they were wearing gang insignia.
“Hey!” one called out. “You a teacher?”
“Nah, she’s too young – must be an aide!” another said.
As I walked faster, they continued taunting me.
Quickening my pace, I reached into my shoulder bag to get my key ring. If I have the keys in my hands, I thought, I can unlock the car and get in before…My heart was pounding.
Frantically, I felt all over the inside of my handbag. But the key ring wasn’t there!
“Hey! Let’s get the lady!” one boy shouted.
‘Someone, please help me,’ I prayed silently. Suddenly, my fingers wrapped around a loose key in my purse. I didn’t even know if it was for my car, but I took it out and clutched it firmly.
I jogged across the grass to my car and tried the key. It worked! I opened the door, slid in and locked it – just as the teenagers surrounded the car, kicking the sides and banging on the roof. Trembling, I started the engine and drove away.
Later, some teachers went back to the school with me. With flashlights, we found the key ring on the ground by the gate, where it had fallen as I slid through. When I returned to my apartment, the phone was ringing. It was Dad. I didn’t tell him about my ordeal; I didn’t want to worry him.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you!” he said. “I had an extra car key made and slipped it into your pocketbook – just in case you ever need it.”
Today, I keep that key in my dresser drawer and treasure it. Whenever I hold it in my hand, I am reminded of all the wonderful things Dad has done for me over the years. I realize that, although he is now 68 and I am 40, I still look to him for wisdom, guidance and reassurance. Most of all, I marvel at the fact that his thoughtful gesture of making the extra key may have saved my life. And I understand how a simple act of love can make extraordinary things happen.