Site moved to, redirecting in 2 seconds!

« Know the point of your life | Main | Write to remember »

17 April 2005

Love unlovable people

“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” -Albert Schweitzer

It’s easy to love people when they’re lovable. It’s harder when they’re not.

In high school, I learned intricate details of the battles of the Civil War. I knew the U.S. presidents, frontwards and backwards. I could recite the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and William Faulkner’s remarks when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Alas, age has diminished my photographic memory, once a real asset…). I could wax poetic about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution: who was there, who wasn’t (women, for example, but don’t get me started).

Why did I know so much about history?

Leosnowedited_3 Not because I was naturally predisposed to love studying bygone days, but because I had a brilliant young teacher named Leo Snow who made the past literally come alive. He turned all of Freedom High School into a history project, with generals and kings and soldiers running through hallways, acne-prone battles raging across the lunchroom, skirmishes reenacted in the bandroom and chemistry lab, gangly teenagers serving as Napoleon and foot soldiers; Patrick Henry’s liberty or death, those “two if by sea” lanterns, all that tea in the Boston Harbor.

We knew it all, because Mr. Snow made it come alive. Never a dull moment, never a lesson that wasn’t experiential and active, with us moving through history, seeing it unfold, acting out our parts with hormonal gusto. He was an inventive and dazzling teacher, fresh from graduate school and bursting with ideas and staggering creativity in teaching a subject that in other, less capable hands can be soulless and pedestrian.

Many of us lose touch with our teachers, even those brilliant ones so significant to us, particularly after this many years. I don’t know where many of my high school teachers are, but I do know exactly where Mr. Snow is, every moment of every day.

He is in prison for the rest of his life.

On December 16, 2002, Leo Snow was convicted of hundreds of counts of first degree statutory sexual offense, sexual activity with students by a school teacher, and first degree kidnapping of two male students.

What happens to a life?

How could I reconcile this new information, this horrific and awful data, even more troubling in its details of decades of abuse, with the Leo Snow I knew? What utter disconnect, how things fall apart. What do his eyes say and not say?

Why did I finally write to him? Because my first impulse when he was imprisoned was to reach out to him, but I hesitated, I faltered. What could I possibly say, how did I feel about all this, would my writing him be seen as condoning what he did (and why did I care if it were, I ask myself now)? And so, I didn’t write, although my gut instinct told me to.

But the disquiet I have continued to feel as the years pass and he pays for his many undoable crimes, leaving behind his wife and children to internalize this legacy of shame – that disquiet has continued to tell me that the path of disregard wouldn’t work for me. Because I know that no matter what he has done, he is a living, breathing human being not just defined by his crimes, and I couldn’t bear to leave him there, alone.

Playwright Eve Ensler first visited the Bedford Hills Correctional Institute for Women in 1998. Having taught at a university level, she volunteered to be a writing instructor there, working with women inmates, most convicted of murder. In a 2004 speech, Ensler spoke about the women being “murderers and abusers and thieves” when she started the writing program there. As she grew to know the women through their writing - in which they confront the lives they have ruined, explain the scars on their bodies, describe their crimes - they became “women and sisters” to her.

As she further listened to their stories, she came to know “that these women weren’t just the crimes they committed: they were mothers, daughters, sisters, Jews, Christians, Muslims, high-school dropouts, PhD candidates, barely 21, pushing 60, barely conscious of their crimes, remorseful to the point of suicide.” She began to realize that, as she said, “There is no ‘other.’ That is an illusion. They are me. I am accountable for what they did.” My recent letter to Mr. Snow was the tangible artifact of three years of thoughts about my own accountability.

My finally writing was prompted a month ago by reading a column in the local newspaper, written by a teacher about a former student of hers who is a brilliant writer, who was a University of Virginia Jefferson Scholar with a genius IQ, and who has been in prison since 1985 for murdering his girlfriend’s parents. Jens Soering maintains his innocence and there is compelling evidence to suggest he is telling the truth.

As we corresponded after I read her article, Jean Franklin further explained her continued relationship with her student, whom she also believes is innocent: “but my decision to visit Jens did not depend on his guilt or innocence. The teacher-student relationship, for me, is unconditional. They come to us, warts and all, and we try to influence them for the good. In this case, I taught Jens for two years, had read his writing, and knew there was good in him, guilty or innocent. You may also recognize the good in your former teacher, though he wasn't perfect.”

I don’t condone what Mr. Snow did; I also know there is no doubt that he is guilty as charged. Nor do I lament his sentence—I believe it is just, given the unutterable anguish he caused many young boys and their families. But I do wish it had never happened, that futile kind of wish—the sad kind—we sometimes have when we know it’s too late to go back.

I wish his life had taken such a different trajectory; he is so talented. But it didn’t go in a different direction, it went in this one. And now, Mr. Snow is Inmate #0787172. But he is still, under there somewhere, the Mr. Snow I knew. Isn’t he?

I’m not sure what finding this Mr. Snow will mean for either one of us, but I do know that in reaching out to him, I have found an important part of myself.

“Every person is a half-opened door leading to a room for everyone.” -Tomas Transtromer (translated by Robert Bly)

“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”  -Paul Boese

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Explore and expand your capacity for love and forgiveness. Love people who are unlovable. As G.K. Chesterton said, “love means to love that which is unlovable, or it is no virtue at all.” Who in your life is unlovable? What would loving them look like? How would it change you?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Love unlovable people:

» Great blogging from Johnnie Moore's Weblog
Patti Digh posts infrequently at 37 Days but what she writes is always deeply thought provoking. Today's - Love Unlovable People is no exception.... [Read More]

» Living Optimally from Humanyms
What would I be doing today if I only had 37 days to live?' It helps put in perspective the give and take of life's tides. She recounts her own story of forgiveness in Love the Unloveable and relates part of Playwright Eve Ensler's story from working ... [Read More]


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I was one of Mr. Snow's students at FHS and I stumbled across this blog via google when (as a lark) I googled his name. What you say is true: he was a great teacher, and I think that that was many people's first reaction because his crimes were so shocking-they found it hard to believe that someone so personable could do something so dastardly.Now, he never touched me, but I think that his manner, his charm, was part of the way he ensnared many of those young men he abused. I have fond memories of his classes, but I find it difficult to think of him without thinking of his crimes.

FHS Grad - I so appreciate your note and I agree that Mr. Snow's charm was no doubt useful in service of his crimes. Like you, I find it difficult to think of him without thinking of his crimes. Perhaps the fact that both good and evil could so closely co-exist in him is what drove my delving into his reality - to see myself in him, to understand his humanity, to find the good in the bad, to explore - for myself - whether I believe people are redeemable. Thanks for writing.

Hi Patti. I just had the good fortune of stumbling upon your site when I was looking up Leo online. I also went to Freedom, in the late '90s, and took summer classes with Mr. Snow at the Children's School. Through the years he was a real inspiration to me and I considered him a friend. Thank you so much for your nuanced response, and I would love to know more of your exchange with Mr. Snow. I suppose I am still trying to work out where the "Mr. Snow I knew" really is, or IF he is or ever was. Can darkness eat a good man whole?

Nathan - My apologies for this delay in responding to your comment on 37days about the post concerning Leo Snow.

I appreciate your taking the time to write - I'm sure he would appreciate knowing he was an inspiration to you. He and I have corresponded for the past 1.5 years by snail mail. I send him books and magazines and ask him questions and urge him to write. He has been working on "why."

I think that yours is a fantastic question: can darkness eat a good man whole? I'd say it can come close, but he is still there, in there somewhere.

Isn't it, ultimately, a very hard question?--and one most of us don't face in such a public way--to know who the "real us" is? I'm still struck by the disconnect between my knowledge of Mr Snow as a teacher and this other part of his life--I think it would be hard to completely bridge those two. Thanks for your note...

I was forwarded this sight by a former classmate following a reunion. She had not heard of Leo's life tragedy. I, too, was molested by Leo, although following my graduation. When I remember him, my thoughts go first to his inspiration for excellence and his brilliance in teaching. This is followed almost immediately by my recall of a frightening and disturbing evening. I say this to say that for one directly affected by Leo's crimes, his inspiration narrowly surpasses his evil. I suspect others have far different experiences who were accosted, but I only have mine. I have many times given much consideration to what I had considered insignificant jesting for deeper meaning. I chhose to believe Leo remains a passionate teacher with remarkable ability, however a lethal deficit in self-control. For this reason, I have spurred myself to greater self discipline, and even so Leo gives me a valuable gift. Please forgive my rambling, I have never spoken about this specifically. Feel free to edit my remarks as you wish. Thank you for prompting me to re-examine this important portion of my life.

I too am a former student of Leo Snow's.
Your blog entry mirrors my own ambiguous feelings about him. I have thought about writing to him, only to stop myself with the question: What do I want to say to him? You disappointed me, by having feet of clay?
I remember having a discussion with him about "A Distant Mirror," and how it made me want to study literature from the same time period, in the middle of a test! He was such an inspiring teacher. What a waste of talent.

Hello all,

I'm was a member of the FHS class of '87 and the Humanities program with Glenda Stephens and Leo Snow. I, too, was forwarded this link by another classmate. I find myself amazed that I'm not the only one who has written to him. I have lived with some worry that communicating with him would be taken as condoning what he did. I haven't written to him in a long time, mostly because I don't know what to say. I'm still completely conflicted because he's the reason that I have any kind of quality of life but he is also one reason I have problems with trusting people. No, I wasn't molested. In fact he was very, genuinely fatherly with me. (But you could also argue that I just wasn't his type. See what I mean about not trusting people.) Anyway, thanks for putting up this website and thanks for the posts.

hey im glad he went to jail i was only 4 years old when i met him at the children school. he was always nice to me but he sometimes came to close not in the sexual kind of way but like laying his hands on my shoulder i wasnt a bid fan or not even a fan at all of the touchy situation but i alway shrugged him off. he stoped for a while and then in 3rd grade i came back to school and found out that he was locked up i think i felt safer in a way. but i hope that hes changed and realized what he has done and change.

hi patti, when i was young (er) i had a very strong hold on my values regarding the issues discussed. not sure if i make sense explaining things here. but i will try. i always held compassion for people, all people. people like leo etc. i just did. my line of thought was what someone did, like a horrific crime, was yes horrific.. but not the person. i didn't believe in "hell", and really stil DO NOT. my belief was God just loved everybody, period. it was a strong opinion and very simple... never wavering in my mind. even when everything else might have been. i should always stay at a safe distance but i guess not judge. i worked with alot of women and men charged with crimes, yes even murder, a few folks who had murdered another person. several places. a "inner city" state hospital, and a housing place at the time they were letting people with mental illness free from the state hospitals, yipee to that. they called "my" folks "criminally insane" ummm. i was asked to stay the night to supervise this "group home" and i just for a moment asked my field instructor (social work) geeze will i be ok.. he said amy, they would be far far more likely to protect you then hurt you, you walk on water to them or some wonderful compliment like that. ummmm...boy, working with more people, meeting more people, hearing life stories... of horrible things that have happened to them and me even... i felt a change in my strong beliefs in my young womenhood. in my 30's..... 9-11, katrina, a "client" at my husbands mental health center killed his casemanger. i heard the brutal details. the same week my niece got attacked, assaulted and escaped. thank God. i think the murder of my husbands co-worker that screwed with me horribly, being a social worker as well as, well "mentally ill" myself. national and global severe crisis and more people's stories and discovering my own history... my values about "God just loves everybody, and no matter what" changed alot... i started to believe that people can "be" evil and geeze is there a hell for all of these people to go to? what a weight on my sore sholders, and when i am sore... weighted down, that zaps my ability to spread sunshine or "just wave" give to humanity etc. well, as i aproach 40, i am moving back to the notion of "love the unloveable".
i get it. there is a delicate balance, a dance to it. i don't want to hate the person, i want to hate the crime and prevent crime, prejucide, hate from happening. you can't hate people to change. can you? it doesn't work that way for me, not saying it is a piece of cake. but, i can't hate myself to do the dishes, feed the dog, listen to a person struggling with whatever. i think the only way to freedom and moving forward is to love. love the unloveable and i choose today to love. it is friggin hard, but when i write this comment i learn (ALOT). thank you patti and thank you me for putting the effort in to go deeper, grow, know my purpose. love is one thing that can help us all move forward. it might not change another person you direct the love to, but it can change myself and teach others hopefull, even one soul "counts" i can't hate and sentence others or myself to that. i figure, now thinking about it all, it just don't work for me. period. thanks patti. i too rambled and edit "as you wish"... much love, amy

I am a former student of Mr. Snow at FHS (around 1977 timeframe). Mr. Snow should teach history classes in Central Prison, if they will allow him to do it. If he is going to be in prison anyway, and he certainly should be, maybe he could help educate the other inmates who might want to learn.

Hi, I am a former student of Leo Snow. I didn't go to Freedom or The Children's School. I am someone he taught to be a teacher. Until I read this blog I would have named Leo Snow as my main inspiration as a middle school teacher. His methods class helped me form my own philosophy of education. As a teacher, my feelings about child predators are immensely strong. I have no sympathy for anyone that would abuse a child, especially a teacher who is trusted to instruct with care. I am trying to reconcile what he taught me with what he did. I remember him bringing students up to LMC from Morganton to work with my group of student teachers. I get sick thinking that perhaps that was a chance for him to abuse someone else.

When I calm myself I am left just hoping two that many of the students he didn't abuse never learn what he did and they continue to be inspired by him even if it isn't accurate, he did foster a love of learning. And last, that somehow his punishment brings peace to the children he abused.

I also grew up around Leo Snow. He wasn't my teacher, I was close to the famiy. His daughters & wife are some of the best people I have ever met. Being friends with the girls growing up, I did spend some time around Leo. He seemed like a normal dad & husband to me. One incident I will never forget, I was down at the Snows' pool & I looked up toward the house & saw Leo standing on the balcony just staring at the trees. Where I was standing he could not see me, I kept thinking he would look down towards me so I continued watching so I could wave at him. I remember staring at him for the longest time & he didn't flinch. I can only wonder whether he was riddled with guilt thinking of the family who adored him, pain he caused his trusting students, or just daydreaming like the rest of us. It's hard to imagine a teacher supplying alcohol & dirty mags to young boys for years & getting away with what he did for so long. I did not have the opportunity to experience his teaching. I did however experience the pain, embarassment, & depression this caused his innocent family. I do not believe he set out to ruin his family, I believe this intelligent man loved his family & had an illness that went untreated. Its a shame he could not or would not reach out for help.

Thank you Patti for corresponding with him. Leo was a good man. Troubled, obviously. He loved his family and I know he hates having had put him through this, and everyone else involved directly or indirectly. Let's all please remember that Jesus Christ forgives if we shall ask.

Leo Snow was my teacher at the Children's School in 1997-8...I'm not sure why everyone says he was a great teacher here, because he was a lazy, undisciplined and uneven instructor when I had him. Maybe he was more motivated in his younger years? Anyway, when I had him, it was obvious to me that he preferred boys and played favorites in the classroom. I often challenged him, which made him inordinately uncomfortable and defensive. Something was obviously going on, and it seems unbelievable now that no one picked up on it.

The glorification of his teaching here seems wrong and out-of-place.

Dear Anon - Thanks for your note. I appreciate your perspective - thanks for sharing it. However, in answer to your last line, "the glorification of his teaching here seems wrong and out-of-place," this blog is a record of *my* perspective, not *the* perspective, it is a record of my truth about my experience in the world, and so what you see is not subject to the rules of "rightness" or "wrongness." There is no truth, perhaps, just different points of view, and mine is clearly different from yours. I think both can exist in the world. Thanks again for writing. I must also add that I value the willingness of people to own their perspective, and so am more willing to engage in dialogue with people who sign their comments with their real name, rather than remain anonymous...

My own experiences with Leo go back to his earliest days at Freedom. I was a student at East Burke, and he came along with us on a student activity he was interested in. The sleeping arrangements were such that I ended up sharing a bed with him. While that would be against every policy now, it wasn't uncommon then. We were staying in a private home (a teacher's parents) to save money. Leo and I were put in a bedroom by ouselves.

(I use Leo instead of Mr. Snow because that was how I always knew him.)

I woke up in middle of the night with his hand on my buttocks. He seemed to be asleep, and in my 15 year-old naivite, I assumed he was not used to sleeping away from his wife. I moved away, but the same thing happened several times. Each time he seemed to be in a very deep sleep. I finally slept on top of the sheet so that there was a physical barrier between his hand and my buttocks. It didn't occur to me at the time that his behavior might have been intentional.

We returned home from the activity, and Leo invited me and another male EB student to his apartment. His wife and infant daughter were already in bed when we got there. He offerred us alcohol, and we thought that was great. It was the first time in my life that I got drunk.

Nothing happened that night other than a teacher giving a lot of alcohol to a 15 and a 16 year-old, who then left his home in a car for a 20 mile drive home. I was drunk to the point of passing out, and I imagine the friend who was driving was probably not much better off.

I had regular contact with Leo over the next five or six years and considered him both a friend and mentor. I beacame a teacher and often remembered his passion for teaching. I was shocked 20 years later when one of my former teachers told me about what had happened. And then I remembered that night more than 20 years before in a completely different light. As I had been exposed to the wonderful side of Leo as a passionate teacher, I realized I had come dangerously close to experiencing the demons that Leo seems to have grown less and less able to control...if he had ever been able to. And perhaps I was just lucky that in 1976 he had not yet mastered the smoothness that he later developed with years of practice.

My experience in life has been that many of the people with the greatest gifts also struggle with deepest demons. Leo is no different. The incredible things he did in the classroom can never be used as an excuse to overlook the horrible things he did--often to the same students--outside the calssroom. But by the same token, the horrible things he did outside the classroom do not invalidate the way he made learning something to be excited about for so many students.

And so I end up with feelings about Leo that are as contradictory as his life has been. I can remember aspiring to be like him as a teacher, yet I also know that I may have narrowly escaped being one of his victims.

I think about his wife and daughter and of the incredible devsstation they have gone through. I think about his victims and the incredible legacy of pain they will struggle with all their lives. And I think about Leo, a man with such great gifts who ended up hurting so many people and destroying everything and everyone he held dear through his own despicable actions. I hope that all of them can find peace somehow. Even Leo.

I was a student of Mr. Snow and Glenda Stevens at FHS in the mid-1980s. I remember hearing the stories of how he used to go drinking with the students. Some of the older brothers of some of my friends had done with with him. Keep in mind that in the 1970s -- until 1986 -- the drinking age was 18 and driving after you'd had a few drinks didn't have the stigma it has now. Nor did buying alcohol for teenagers/underage drinkers. I remember us students thought he was "cool" for having done that -- not knowing, of course, of his motivations behind doing so.

I have yet to reconcile the two sides of him in my own mind. There are my memories of a brilliant teacher who brought so much of the past alive to us, whose legacy to me still lives. Then there are his demons. I find myself conflicted because I admire the teacher while despising the pedophile, and I've never been able to reconcile my conflicted thoughts on the two. I cannot entirely dismiss him, because of the positive legacy he left so many of us. Yet, he caused lifelong pain for so many of our peers and friends. Darkness did, indeed, eat a good man whole.

I graduated FHS in 1982 and Leo was my GATE instructor along with Glenda Stephens. I heard the rumors - I even had one kid tell me of Leo trying to molest him. I, too, gained from Leo's gifts of teaching - he was an extraordinary teacher. He helped me enjoy school at a time when I was just beginning to struggle with my own demons (abuse of drugs and alcohol). I went on a camping trip one time and he was there with his chosen ones in the tent with him. I thought it strange, but I didn't question the morality of it. While there were times when I felt a certain attraction to me coming from Leo, I thought it was more of the person I was than the fact that I was a teenage boy.

There is absolutely no excuse for what he did and you certainly have to ask yourself - was he a child molestor turned teacher or vice versa. I can't even imagine what I would want to do to him if my child had been molested by him. Anyway, may the good Lord bless Leo and I hope his soul finds the eternal peace that even he deserves upon his death.

So, I too, have ambiguous feelings about Leo - he made me feel special - hell, I guess it was just dumb luck that I actually thought I was special instead of merely being another conquest of his perversions. At 45 years of age though I now recognize that we all have our own set of demons. I guess that's why we need God in our lives, because how can we judge someone for crimes which seem so much worse when we are all sinners/criminals.

He molested not one, but hundreds of souls. And not one commenter, I would wager, has suffered the indignity of having one of their kids as his victim.

The only thing this man deserves is an immediate and sound death.

Great site, unfortunate thread.

"Hate the sin and love the sinner. Let him without sin cast the first stone."

He looks sad and tired in both pictures.

People are many things, and it is not unusual to have angel and devil both in your soul. Maybe it is unusual NOT to have both.

I can't help but wonder if there was once a way to turn his path, perhaps if he could have felt proud of being gay. Sex is an extremely powerful instinct. If denied, it can break through in terrible ways. Maybe the people studying sexual predators can find a way to divert the next person heading down this path.

The comments to this entry are closed.