Letting Go the Demons

Buddha, resisting the demons of Mara, who are attempting to prevent him from attaining enlightenment, as angels watch from above. Lithograph. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Buddha, resisting the demons of Mara, who are attempting to prevent him from attaining enlightenment, as angels watch from above. Lithograph. (via Wikimedia Commons)


My years in elementary and junior high school were less than stellar. I flunked seventh grade (I am one of the few people I know who can say seventh grade was the worst two years of my life). But of all the teachers that had left their painful mark, by far and away my fifth grade teacher was the most traumatic. Her name was Miss Barr.

Built like a fire hydrant, with a helmet of black hair atop a mean and dour face, she was every fifth grade boy’s nightmare. My typical memory was of her verbally scolding and abusing me in front of the class. She'd repeat over and over that I would never amount to anything--that I was basically worthless. For the next four years she was right, until my parents sent me off to a private school that I credit with saving my life.

Thus it was with shock and surprise that twenty-five years later I found myself sitting in a natural foods restaurant at a table right behind her. She looked exactly the same, down to the sensible shoes, with only one difference—her hair helmet was now bright white.

“Look”, I whispered to my then wife, “It’s Miss Barr!”

It was as if the very mention of her name would summon the devil. My voice had the timber of an eleven-year old, understandable because I was immediately transported back to a scared fifth grader in my old elementary school. And now, sitting behind me, was the unforgiving arch nemesis of my childhood. I immediately started to construct a passionate monologue in my mind. I leaned over to my wife and hissed, “There’s an old Klingon expression, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’ Paybacks a bitch baby!”

I was going to go over, look her in the face and say, “Miss Barr. You said I would never amount to anything. But I now have a Ph.D., a successful business and am making ten times what you make. You were wrong then, and I can only pray you have not done terrible damage to the many young children who have crossed your path.” Oh, this was going to be good.

Just to be on the safe side however, and more than a bit curious, I proceeded to prepare myself by eavesdropping on her conversation. Who knows, I thought, in a moment of sentimentality. Maybe I misjudged her. Maybe I should give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she is actually a sweet and lovely woman who I had miscast through the fragile perspective of an eleven-year-old psyche.

What I heard instead confirmed I was completely correct. As I eavesdropped, Miss Barr spent the next fifteen minutes engaged in some of the most vicious gossip mongering I have ever heard. She was mean-spirited, vindictive and downright nasty. OK I thought. My feelings are quite justified. This woman is a vampire.

Disregarding the desperately pleading eyes of my wife, I summoned my strength and decided to step into my revenge. This was the moment of truth. I had waited thirty years for this and vengeance was mine, sayeth the Lord. I strode over to her table, looked her calmly in the face and said, “Excuse me. Miss Barr?”

Without hesitation, she squinted, looked up from her curried eggplant and chickpeas, and slowly and coldly announced, “David Howard Baum”.

Dear God. The woman had super human powers of memory too! There wasn’t a moment of hunting for recognition. Not a second! I immediately started to wilt, and found myself shrinking back into a fifth grade body. “Get a grip man!” I thought. “Pull yourself together.”

Not wanting to be thrown off my game plan, I started to launch into my prepared speech. I took a deep breath and readied myself for the attack. I was not eleven anymore, and she was going to know it. I steeled myself for the moment, steadied my breath and felt the rise of adrenaline in my veins. I wanted to be calm, but forceful, and no matter what I was committed to acting on my long suffering feelings.

Suddenly, just as I was to launch into my diatribe, the most amazing thing happened. I heard a voice deep inside of me. It was me, but it wasn’t me…I don’t know how else to explain it. The voice said, “Let it go”.

Immediately I felt a shift in my thinking and instead of seeing Miss Barr as a mean-spirited and vindictive autocrat, I instead saw a sad and troubled old woman, obviously retired by now, with only her gossip and memories to keep her warm.

I looked at Miss Barr and quietly spoke. “Miss Barr,” I began. “I just wanted to say that I have turned out quite well. I have a doctorate, my own business, and am in part who I am today because of you. I just wanted to stop and tell you that.” I didn’t lie, but I did give only a humane portion of the truth. After all, I thought, what ultimate good would it have done?

Did Miss Barr soften? Did we have a moment that connected us in a new and adult way? No, not so much. She stiffened, looked me coldly in the eye, and said, “I knew all you needed was a little prodding from your boyish laziness." She then looked away. I had been dismissed.

But when I left the restaurant, instead of feeling deflated or depressed, I instead felt ten feet tall. Somehow in the reshaping of my history with Miss Barr I had given myself something that no amount of anger and retribution could provide. I had given myself respect. Those three simple words, let it go, had banished forever the demons she had represented.

"Let it go" is rooted in the Buddhist philosophy of detachment, and means we do our very best in the effort. That regardless of what happens, we detach from the outcome. “For us there is only the trying", said Alfred Tennyson. "The rest is none of our business.”

In the end, what Miss Barr said or did, never really mattered. What mattered is what I choose to do with my memories of her. And for that I am grateful.