When he was 12 years old, the boy did something he only later realized probably hurt his seventh-grade teacher. It was minor -- he was, after all, a kid -- but in time, when he was older and wiser, he wanted to find this teacher and apologize.
But the teacher seemed to have vanished. Over the decades, the man occasionally turned to the Internet, typing the teacher's name into the search box. He never found anything. He never quit looking. A few months ago -- by now nearly 39 years after this happened -- he got a hit.
Stunned, he started reading a story that two years earlier had appeared in The Oregonian. He studied an accompanying photograph and recognized his teacher. He cleared his screen and wrote an e-mail that ended up in the newspaper's mailbox. A clerk forwarded it to me. I found it buried in my in-box where it was surrounded by notifications about crimes, road conditions and interoffice messages.
Only by chance was I curious enough about the subject line -- "Customer Feedback" -- to open the email from a man named Larry Israelson.
You published an item involving retired teacher James Atteberry and the CASA program. Mr. Atteberry was a teacher of mine in the early '70s, and I wish to apologize to him for a regrettable incident that occurred when I was his student. Can you provide any contact information for him, or would you be willing to serve as an intermediary and deliver a message on my behalf? Thank you for your time, and I await your reply.
In the paper's electronic files, I found a story I had written in 2009. My assignment had been to write a short piece about Clatsop CASA, a program that helps kids. To put a face on the organization I found Atteberry, 75, a retired Southern California teacher. He'd moved to Astoria and joined CASA by chance after a server at his favorite restaurant encouraged him to volunteer.
I called CASA, left a message for Atteberry and then e-mailed Israelson to ask why he wanted to contact Atteberry. He would only say he wanted to apologize. Weeks later, Atteberry returned my call. I said I had something a bit bizarre. Intrigued when I told him what little I knew, he told me to contact this former student and see what happened.
Soon, I received an overnight package containing a sealed envelope. I addressed it to Atteberry and dropped it the mailbox.
As the days passed, I thought about this strange tale. There was no news. If no one ever heard a word about James Atteberry and Larry Israelson, it wouldn't matter.
Or would it?
A good feature story is about something universal. When it comes to apologies, no one gets a pass in this life. Everyone deserves one, and everyone needs to give one. When I mentioned this letter to people, I found a story more universal than any that I'd written in years. Everyone told me they had someone they wished they could apologize to. And they told me that by the time they realized that truth, it was too late.
In my case, it was something that has haunted me for decades.
My third-grade teacher organized a secret Christmas gift exchange. On the big day, we sat in a circle to open our gifts in front of our classmates. The teacher instructed us to announce the name of the gift giver, who would stand and be roundly applauded.
Every kid ripped open a fancy package containing a new toy. Then it was my turn. The teacher handed me something that had been wrapped in paper that was clearly reused. It was so wrinkled and re-taped that the colors had faded. With everyone watching, I peeled back the paper and pulled out a cheap paperback book with torn and dirty pages.
Tucked inside was a handwritten note identifying the girl who gave it to me. When I announced her name, my classmates started laughing. Her gift was yet another indication of just how different this girl was than the rest of us. She'd arrive late to class, her hair wet and unkempt. She didn't have friends, and the popular students made fun of her because she wore old clothes and shoes.
Only later in life did I understand that she obviously came from a terribly poor family.
Even though this incident happened nearly 50 years ago, I remember that afternoon as if it were yesterday. As the class laughed, this 8-year-old girl turned in her chair to hide her tears while the teacher unsuccessfully tried to restore order in a class that had turned on the weakest among us.
At that moment I was worried that the popular kids would think that this girl and I were friends. So I didn't thank her, or even acknowledge the gift. Only decades later -- like Larry Israelson -- did I realize that what I did next was unforgivable: I tossed the book in the garbage.
Months later, the girl left school. I never saw her again. The school I attended has been torn down. I have forgotten the names of many of my old classmates. But not hers. For years I wanted to apologize. While waiting to see what became of Israelson and Atteberry, I typed her name into an Internet search field. I found nothing. I realized then that my story -- the one with no news -- was about something more powerful than news.
It was about getting a second chance.
As James Atteberry read the letter he was brought back to 1973 when he was a middle-school history and composition teacher in Huntington Beach, a wealthy Southern California beach community. He was 37, got great reviews and was well liked. He was also gay, and politicians were working to root out gay teachers.
"If a teacher was found to be gay, his contract would not be renewed," Atteberry said. "Gay teachers kept their mouths shut. People of this era might not understand it. But it was intense time. An art teacher in the school made a stupid mistake, and that was the end of his career. I never talked about my life."
And yes, he told me, he remembered Larry Israelson.
I am truly sorry for asking to be transferred out of your seventh grade social studies class at Sowers Middle School during the 1972-73 school year.
I don't have many specific memories from my two years at Sowers, but at the top of one of my assignments you wrote 'You will go far in life. Your command of the English language is exceptional.' Looking back on my younger self, I am certain that I reveled in being one of the 'teacher's pets.' As comfortable as I was in a classroom, however, the boy's locker room was something else entirely.
On the phone, Israelson's voice is low, strong and confident. He stands, he says, 6 feet 5, and played water polo in high school and in college.
"But when I was 12," he said, "I was a scrawny little kid who wore glasses and was into books. I lived in a beach town, yet I couldn't tan. I was very pale. A lot of the athletic guys loved to tease those of us who were weak. You know what it is to feel powerless?"
Some students suspected Atteberry was gay. A boy in class asked Atteberry what he thought about a proposed law banning gay teachers. When Atteberry asked the boy why he posed the question, the student said his father had specifically told his son to ask Atteberry. The teacher chose his words carefully.
Israelson was one of the best students. Bright and articulate, he submitted essays that Atteberry thought were remarkably good.
"I would praise Larry in class," Atteberry said. "That was his downfall."
In the locker room, boys began picking on Israelson.
"They started saying 'Larry' and then 'fairy' and rhyming it with 'Atteberry,'" Israelson recalled.
When he pleaded with them to stop, he was challenged to an after-school fight. Though scared, he hoped that by agreeing, they'd quit thinking he was gay. Even though he admired Atteberry and enjoyed learning from him, the boys were linking the teacher's life and his in a way that made him someone to be ridiculed.
"I took a couple of hard punches," he said. "I gave up."
The teasing intensified with the taunts becoming more sexually explicit and graphic. Israelson told no one. One day, when he could no longer stand it, he showed up at the principal's office and said he needed to leave Atteberry's class. The principal couldn't understand why. His grades were good.
"He kept pressing me," Israelson said. "I wouldn't say."
Realizing he wasn't getting anywhere, the principal signed a transfer slip and handed it to Israelson. The student walked into Atteberry's classroom, interrupted the lesson and handed Atteberry the slip. Without a word, Israelson gathered his books and walked out the door.
"There was no goodbye, no explanation," Israelson said. "I just disappeared. I never talked to Mr. Atteberry again."
When Israelson married, he was the first Anglo to marry into a Mexican-American family. More than a decade into the marriage -- by this time he and his wife had two daughters -- his brother-in-law called one night and asked if he could take Israelson out for a beer. After some small talk, his brother-in-law took a deep breath and got to the point.
"He apologized," he said. "He said that he hadn't wanted an Anglo in the family. He'd lobbied behind the scenes to try and get his sister to break up with me. He said he'd felt bad about it for all these years. He decided it was finally time to make it right."
That phrase, of course, made Israelson think once more about Atteberry. The man had inspired and encouraged Israelson at a time when a compliment or praise scrawled across the top of an essay so mattered in a boy's young life. He thought about what it must have been like for Atteberry to hide who he was.
Israelson intensified his search.
A decade or so later, he found my story.
The beauty of an apology is that everyone wins because it reveals not only who we are, but who we hope we are.
Israelson had been writing an imaginary letter to Atteberry for more than 30 years. But now the man became a bit of a boy again, writing an essay to a man who had once mattered. He struggled to find the right words. The issue had been "gently nagging at the back of my brain for more than 30 years." He said he was "truly sorry" for asking to be transferred.
"I know my age was a mitigating factor, but when I replayed this incident in my adult head, it shamed me," he wrote. "Since that realization, I have felt like I owed you an apology."
He sealed the envelope and sent it to me to be forwarded to Atteberry.
He expected nothing more. He had done what he had set out to do, and now it was over.
When Atteberry read the letter, he, too, remembered what it had been like to be a boy. Like Israelson, he had been bullied. For more than 60 years, he had kept it a secret. Two athletes had grabbed him when he was walking home, made him pull down his pants and whipped him with a belt. Shamed, he told no one, the matter made worse when the athletes tormented him by demanding each day that he turn over his lunch money to them.
In a strange way, this letter from the past allowed Atteberry to come to terms with his own past. He was not alone.
Atteberry had always wondered why Israelson had left his class. Had he been the problem? Was it something he did or said to this student?
Now he knew.
He set the letter aside, went to his computer and typed Israelson's name into the search box. He found the address and a telephone number.
More than 1,000 miles away, a phone rang.
A man answered.
Larry, a voice on the other end said, this is your teacher.