After his divorce Harold Bledsoe decided to travel back to his Boston roots, arriving to a joyous welcome from his parents. His mother had always given him her unconditional support, never questioned his choices. “Harold; why don’t you move into your old room? Take as long as you’d like to heal from your disappointments.”
He walked into his bedroom, untouched since he’d left for college—family pictures, overstuffed chair, writing desk, body-building posters, the familiar smell—all the same. He took advantage of his willing parents—hibernated, paid no rent, didn’t help with household tasks, borrowed their car when his was in the shop. Such is the logic of the single man.
His divorce had shaken him. Thinking back to his high moral training at Plymouth Congregational, he resolved to straighten out his life by reducing his alcohol consumption, stopping smoking and even avoiding dating. He worked a few odd jobs—restaurants, construction. Even though he didn’t see the point of attending, he felt guilty about staying away from church. But what could the church give him? Plymouth’s teachings provided thin porridge for his thirsting heart. He felt condemned and uncomfortable with Plymouth’s high moral standards. How could anyone live up to them? His parents didn’t pressure him, but he realized how much his life had diverged from theirs.
Two years passed. He told his father, “I’m going to apply for some high school teaching jobs.”
“Great idea, Harold. You can use your teaching degree, your coaching minor,” his father said.
Bledsoe knew he needed to get away from his folks but didn’t want to go back to California and face the debris he’d littered on those shores. He stumbled upon an ad mentioning that Cleveland’s Cuyahoga High School needed a coach and guidance counselor, so that summer of 1956 he applied, then drove out for an interview. Cuyahoga High was housed in one of those massive L-shaped brick buildings built in the 1920s with a tall brick chimney on one of the gable ends and a flagpole on the other. He walked the halls imbibing the institutional smell of wax and old wood, talking to teachers and staff, then interviewing with the principal and superintendent.
The superintendent queried him about the two-year gap after his Palo Alto counseling job. He told him, “Well, I was recovering from a nasty divorce.” Beyond this speed bump, he wowed them with his personality, good looks, and articulate answers. They hired him on the spot, and that fall he started teaching and counseling at Cuyahoga. His first year at his new job went great—this bronzed Odysseus awed everyone. Divorce had encouraged Bledsoe to make some moral amends, amends he was proud of—he’d stopped smoking and cut back on his drinking, but the giant of lust still loomed. He continued reading girlie magazines, feeling it a harmless pastime, not seeing the need to stop, not thinking how it might harm him.
One day in early fall of his second year, he found himself in his office behind closed doors, listening for two hours to one of his counselees who oozed pain and struggle. “Mr. Bledsoe, all my dad does is yell at me,” Beth said. “I feel like I don’t have any friends. I’m afraid to talk to boys. I’m a bad student. I don’t think people like me.” He gave her a sympathetic hug and she responded. He smelled her perfume, felt her warm skin.
After a few sessions they began meeting furtively after school. She has no one and she needs me, he reasoned. What harm can it do, especially if no one finds out? Being in an unfamiliar city far from home, still wounded from a divorce, he himself needed human touch, and here was a young girl that idolized him.
If he wanted something, he pursued it. Not Beth’s need, but his own selfishness impelled him to continue seeing her. He became more and more attached—and more and more afraid of being found out. Beth came to him as a fragile, vulnerable flower struggling to bloom. Desperate, she found in him a harbor for her soul.
What am I doing? he thought. She’s fifteen years old. He knew if the school discovered their liaison, he would not only lose this job; no other school would hire him. But, he rationalized, Beth needs me. I’m the only one that can reach her, help her. I mustn’t fail her.
Bledsoe employed his neocortex, not so much for logical thinking but for rationalizing the things his little rat brain really wanted. He congratulated himself on his compassion, his skill in dealing with Beth’s anxieties. He could not admit that his meetings with Beth merely fueled his own lust, harmed Beth and jeopardized his job.