Attitude Adjustment

by Jim Morrison
Santa Ana, California, USA

Attitude Adjustment

The first time I saw Gary, he was seated outside the junior high principal’s office and wearing a baseball cap at an attitude angle. Gary didn’t have an “attitude”. He had cancer and was trying to hide his balding head from the public.

His ordeal helped him discover the true nature of several people whose existence he had previously trivialized or considered outside his sphere of influence.

The first thing he found out: tough teachers can be real people. During one of Gary’s stays in the hospital, a teacher universally regarded by the students as a complete grouch spent several hours creating a beautiful bouquet of artificial flowers for Gary’s hospital room. Gary laughingly complained to me later that he tried to stay awake through the drugs because the flowers looked so real that he had to continually remind the nurses not to water and so maybe ruin them.

He also learned he could become a hero. Gary and his parents wanted his life to continue as normally as possible, so he and I attacked all subjects with equal vigor when I was assigned to be his home teacher. Since math was my specialty, I easily demonstrated the practicality of the subject, but my own enthusiasm for studying American history was fanned by Gary’s regard for its storybook quality. Neither of us had considered the subject in such a warm light before, but I believe Gary’s enthusiasm was more inspiring to me than my teaching was to him. I hope he understood that I owed him more than he did me.

The third thing he learned was a lesson I’ve been able to share many times: famous personalities don’t necessarily require publicity to embody true charity. About the time Gary’s condition became worse, he used some of his empty daylight hours to write a fan letter to actor Arnold Schwarzenneger, who at the time was filming in Greece. When Arnold returned to the U.S., he visited Gary at his home. After a conversation which completely thrilled Gary, Arnold left an autographed picture with the inscription, “The courage of a man is not measured by the size of his muscles.”

I’m sure there are other heroes in Gary’s story, but I’m personally familiar with only these three. I’ve passed on the Schwarzenneger tale to several thousand of my students to help them understand that the toughest teachers might well be their best ones, and that famous personalities are, after all, just people. My telling students of Schwarzenneger’s visit has consistently been rewarded by the most sincere sign of attention and approval that a classroom of public school students can offer: several moments of complete voluntary silence.

Originally published as HeroicStories #27 on July 3, 1999
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 1.

2 thoughts on “Attitude Adjustment”

  1. I love to hear stories about people who reach out to those who are famous and receive a positive response in return. This heart-felt student sounded like he was more of a teacher
    to those adults around him & brought out their very best qualities.

    Arnie wasn’t my favorite governator as we Californians used to say, but his wisdom, personal kindness & generosity towards this young man who admired him makes me
    appreciate his humanity all the more and helps me find some warmth in the thought.

    Thank you for this story.

  2. Dear Heroic Stories, Once again, this story moved me. Truly horrible life experiences often lead to very different interpretations of what we previously took as negative or at the best, dull experiences. Jim Morrison’s story inspires because of the outlook of his young cancer patient. Ending with the Schwarzenneger story was inspiring due to Arnold taking the time off his schedual to visit this young patient and inspiring him. I am a cancer survivor andin the 60s – 70s was a NYC police officer. During my 10 yrs +, I only met 2 real heroes.Their looks and stature were totally unimpressive, yet had managed to ignore their fears and save the lives of total strangers. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us.


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