Russ saw something different

Published 5:35 pm Friday, April 17, 2020

What do you see when you look out of the window? While you’re thinking about it, here’s a story for us to share — for such a time as this.

I first heard the story we are about to share from a man almost anyone in Red Oak, Texas, knows. In the summer of 1998, while still living in Waco, I learned that there was a public speaking teaching job open at Red Oak High School. I was looking to make a change that summer, so I made the phone call to the principal as soon as I learned of the opening. The secretary transferred me to him, and he picked up the phone and answered, “This is Russ.” I remember that moment vividly because life kind of changed at that moment. I told him who I was, and before I could even tell him why I was calling, he exclaimed, “Steve Bowen!”

I think I had the job the minute he called my name. I recognized his voice immediately because Russ Schupmann and I coached basketball together at North Shore High School in Houston for one year in the mid-1980s. The next year he took a job as the assistant principal at the school and a few years after that left and took the principalship at Red Oak. Until that phone call, I hadn’t heard from him for about ten years.

In the first year I was teaching here, I asked Russ if he would come by and do our daily motivational talk. Russ agreed, and you are about to read the story he told. It stuck with me, and I shared it with my students just about every year afterward.

Years ago, he said to my class, two men shared the same hospital room, both men confined to lie flat on their backs and not able to sit up. But once a day, the man whose bed was by the window could have his bed cranked up, and the nurses allowed him to look out for a little while.

Whenever the nurse would come in to let him sit up, he would look out and begin to describe to his friend in the other bed what all he saw outside.

One day a parade passed by the hospital, and he could see it all from his upper-story hospital room. He described the bands marching and playing, the cartoon characters entertaining the crowd, the famous people waving to the crowd cheerfully from their floats. The man’s friend could almost hear the band as he clung to every word his friend said.

On another day, he described the wavy lake just across the road from the hospital — tall trees, ducks splashing in the water, a young couple having a picnic. Ah, that scene sounded so peaceful to the man’s friend, and he could close his eyes and drift off to sleep.

But one day, the nurses came in and moved his friend to another room for rehab. The friend immediately was disappointed but, at his first chance, asked the nurse if she would move him over by the window and allow him to sit up a little every day to look out.

The nurse agreed, and you can imagine the excitement as the nurse began to crank up his bed that evening. But when he looked out, he was shocked. Outside that, there was nothing but a red brick wall. Nothing else. No parade. No tall trees. No picnics. Just a red brick wall as far as you could see.

Russ finished his story with a smile, talked to the class a bit, then left his message with us. As the years went on, Russ would move on to become the assistant superintendent before retiring, but I always carried his story with me.

A few years ago, the man who changed my life at the moment he answered the phone with “This is Russ” lost a long battle to cancer. In my book, I had never worked for a better principal or a better person. I miss him, still these years later.

I’m glad that it was Russ told my class that story two decades ago, because, as long as I knew him, I never saw him mope down the hallway. He walked the halls of Red Oak High with a smile, always. When others saw a brick wall, Russ always saw the parade. I still smile at his story, every time I think of it because I cannot help but think —

You know, it’s one thing to tell a story. It’s another to live it.