A Small Light in the Darkness


Kevin awoke to a brand-new world. He couldn’t stop wondering if—and how—he’d fit in.

A Small Light in the Darkness

The first night in their new home the family slept on the floor in sleeping bags because the moving van hadn’t arrived with the furniture. The next morning, during a brief interval between sleep and consciousness when he first opened his eyes, Kevin couldn’t remember where he was. From his viewpoint on the floor of the empty bedroom, the walls seemed to converge at strange, distorted angles high above him. A single shaft of sunlight swept bright and dark patterns across the floor and wall. Small dust particles exposed by the light danced—as if to the music of a silent song.

Then, as a dream only vaguely recalled, the memory of leaving their home seeped into his mind—the awkward last few words with his friends in the priests quorum, each aware of a deep bond built over years of camping, sports, and priesthood activities. Embarrassed to put words to what they felt, they finally resorted to small jokes and a last, clumsy, hurried handshake. Then the drive by car. His father let Kevin drive partway down the four-lane ribbon that crossed the rolling plains leading east to Illinois.

Kevin brought the cover of the sleeping bag to his face, taking in the delicious smell of campfires in the mountains 50 miles from his old home. He wondered if his friend Jed back home had gone camping last night.

Kevin remembered the first time he had seen Jed. It was when they were both nine years old. A boy from a new family in the neighborhood had walked across the street and watched Kevin practice doing chin-ups on the branch of a tree in the front yard.

“How many can you do?” Jed had asked.

“Twenty,” Kevin had answered.

“That’s not so many. I can do 30.”

By the end of the day, they were both doing 40 chin-ups.

Through the years they had mutually pushed each other through one challenge after another. They were both presented with their Eagle Scout ranks at the same time. After that they continued to learn new skills—skiing, playing the guitar, cross-country running, baseball, fly fishing, and, just before Kevin had left, rock climbing.

On many Friday afternoons in the summer, Jed and Kevin drove into the mountains and camped—spending time hiking, fishing, or climbing the sheer granite spires near where they camped. By Saturday night they were packed again and heading toward home so they could carry out priesthood responsibilities on Sunday.

If it hadn’t been for Jed, I’d never have become an Eagle Scout, or even done much at all, Kevin thought as he rolled out of his sleeping bag and crawled over to his suitcase. Rummaging through it, he found his warm-up suit, socks, and tennis shoes, which he put on. He padded quietly through the house, being careful not to disturb his parents and two younger brothers.

Sitting on the front steps, he studied the neighborhood for the first time in daylight. After a few minutes he discovered what was troubling him about the houses in the development. Of the hundreds of homes that stood along the curving suburban street, there were only four basic floor plans. Every fifth house was exactly like the one his family would be living in.

He jogged along the sidewalk for three blocks, eventually coming to a boulevard, along which he continued, passing small shops and gas stations, some of which were just opening for their Saturday business. The high humidity was like a clammy blanket on his arms and face, causing small beads of sweat to collect.

The large high school complex loomed in front of him on the boulevard a block away as he ran toward it. His father had pointed it out as they had passed the night before.

“This is where you’ll be going to school.” He remembered his father’s voice the night before as he now walked around the building. His father didn’t seem to understand how hard it was for him to move. “I know you think you’re leaving everything behind,” his father had said. “But you’ll make new friends in Illinois.”

Finally Kevin made his way to the oval track that circled the football field.

He had run a mile and a half when she appeared. He could hear someone approaching, and then she passed him, a flash of red jogging suit and a bobbing ponytail that progressively left him. He checked his watch to make sure he was maintaining his pace for four miles.

Half a lap later she stopped and began to walk. He caught up with her and passed.

A little later she again fired past him and then again resumed walking.

He decided to quicken his pace. When he reached her again, he was running much faster. He passed her as she walked, smiling to himself, confident that a girl didn’t have enough endurance to catch him.

A quarter of a lap later, she edged past him. He pushed himself harder, unwilling to let a girl pass him. They continued side by side for a quarter of a lap. Then she eased away from him, sprinting the last half lap before she stopped and continued walking.

When he caught up with her, he also stopped to walk.

“You run good—for a girl,” he said.

It was apparent she didn’t consider that a compliment.

“Oh?” she said, moving loose strands of hair from off her face. “You run okay—for a boy. Slow but sure, right?”

With that dig, she took off, smoking the track for half a lap before heading away from the school.

The next day was Sunday. Before Sunday School classes began, the Sunday School president came over to Kevin’s family and helped direct them to the right rooms. Kevin’s younger brothers were helped first. Then the man called across the hall, “Jenny, can you come here?”

Kevin turned to see the girl from the track. They were introduced, and she was asked to show him where her class met. “This will almost double your class size, won’t it?” the president asked as they left to find the room.

“It seems that I’m always following you, doesn’t it?” Kevin joked as she led the way.

She turned and smiled. “I’m sorry for being so rude yesterday. I’ve worked hard on running, and I guess I can’t joke about it.”

The class that day consisted of Jenny, Kevin, and a boy who was visiting from another ward. The teacher, Sister Mattson, seemed to Kevin to be at least 60 years old. She was a convert of six months and was a little hard of hearing. She read much of the lesson from the manual. Kevin sullenly compared her to the teacher in his old ward, who was so well prepared he never even brought the manual to class. What can she teach me, he thought, scrunching down in his chair so he could look at the floor and think about his friends back home.

On Monday morning Kevin reported to the school office and registered for classes. He finally left the office during the class change. The endless hall, like some living organism, accepted the bumping, swaying mass of students and then gradually ejected them into different rooms.

Since it was near the beginning of the school year, being only the second week of classes, his teachers didn’t make much of a fuss over him. He sat unknown in his first two classes. When the bell rang, old friends joined up, leaving him alone and ignored.

His 11:00 class was sociology. It took him a long time to find the room, so that by the time he arrived, it was already nearly full. He found an empty desk and sat down.

To his left a boy was scanning a “men’s” magazine. As he slowly turned each page on his desk, he grinned, chattering a stream of crude remarks to his friend ahead of him.

Kevin looked away to avoid seeing the picture spread blatantly on the desk next to his. He felt his stomach churning; he clenched his teeth tightly, thinking sarcastically that he wished his father were there to see some of the new friends he was making in his new school.

“Hey, are you new here?”

Kevin turned back and saw the boy facing him, holding the rolled-up magazine in one hand. Nodding his head, he said, “Yeah, we just moved here.”

“Great. They call me Fitzie,” he said, flashing a broad grin. “Hey, have you seen this issue yet? Go ahead, take a look.” He plopped the magazine on Kevin’s desk.

Kevin’s mind raced, his internal defense and prosecution lawyers giving their arguments why he should or should not open the magazine to avoid offending the only person who had made any attempt to be a friend.

“C’mon, hurry up,” the boy said impatiently. “Class is going to start in a minute. You do want to look at this, don’t you?”

Kevin paused for what seemed a long time, then with a smile handed the magazine back. “Later. There’s not enough time now.”

At first he thought it had been a victory. After all, he thought, I didn’t look at the magazine. But a gnawing uneasiness bothered him.

The class began with Mr. Martin yelling to get everybody to quiet down. Mr. Martin had the voice and face of a movie gangster, but either because of that or in spite of it, he had control and the interest of his class.

“Today,” he said, leaning against the front of his desk, “we’re going to talk about what ethical basis you use in making decisions or why you do the things that you do. Fitzie, you usually have something interesting to say. Why do you do some things but don’t do others?”

Fitzie extended his feet further into the aisle, attempting to look more relaxed than he was. “I don’t know. I’m no philosopher. I just do things.”

“But how do you decide?”

“Well,” he said with a mischievous grin, “if it looks like fun, then I do it.” This brought catcalls of approval from many in the class.

“Kim, what basis do you use in making decisions?” Mr. Martin asked.

Kim sat three seats from Kevin. He was fascinated by her. Her high cheekbones made her look as if some sculptor had fashioned her face. She caught him staring at her and cast him a hurried smile.

“I think it’s important to be sincere,” she answered. “We live in an age of freedom, don’t we? All the old barriers are down. We’re free to do anything we want to, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. So all we have to do is to be honest with our feelings.”

The discussion came around to dating. Kim raised her hand and was called on by Mr. Martin.

“If a girl is going with a guy,” she said, nervously tapping her pencil on the desk, “and if she really cares about him, and if he’s sincerely interested in her at the time, then I think it’s okay for them to use their freedom. I mean, what good is freedom if you don’t use it?”

Mr. Martin walked intently across the room toward Kim. “You say if he’s sincere at the time. What happens when he no longer cares about her?”

Kevin sat close enough to see her eyes close momentarily, as if Mr. Martin had found a weakness. She fought for composure for only a moment, her distress unnoticed by most in the class. “Well, of course, people change … and drift apart. Maybe if they can just try to be honest with their feelings,” her voice trailed off, “while they’re together, maybe that’s all any of us can hope for.”

As the discussion continued, Kevin suddenly realized that he was waiting for someone to stand and present arguments against the ideas being given for doing whatever looked like fun—someone who would say that freedom requires responsibility. In his classes back home in his old high school, although there had been the same reasons given for freedom to “love,” there had always been some of his friends who defended the standards of the gospel.

By the end of the class he realized that the someone he waited for wasn’t around anymore. More painful to him, he realized that he had not been that someone.

After class Kevin went up and introduced himself to Mr. Martin, who gave him some previous assignments.

As he turned to leave, Kim was waiting for him.

“You’re new here, aren’t you? Can I show you how to make it through the cafeteria alive?”

They jostled their way through the line and ate by themselves at one end of a table in the corner. As they ate, other boys came and talked with Kim. As they were leaving the cafeteria, she told him, “I’m not going with anyone now … in case you were wondering.”

They walked outside to the parking lot in back of school. It was filled with students lounging in cars or standing around talking.

“You can get anything here in the parking lot if you need it,” she said to him.

He looked at her with a puzzled expression.

“You know? Beer, grass, whatever you need.”

“Oh,” he said, looking more carefully at the cars filled with students.

“Mostly I’ve given it up. Now it’s just for special occasions. How about you?”

“I’ve never tried it.”

“Never? Why not?”

“I don’t know,” he said weakly, again feeling his stomach tighten up.

“Well, you should,” she said, touching his arm, “just to see what it’s like. It’s fun. Sometime, when my parents are out of town, I’ll let you know. Maybe we could get a few others together and have a party.”

As he approached the house after school, he could see by the empty boxes near the side door that the moving van had arrived. He walked through the door, made his way past several boxes in the hallway, said hello to his mother, and asked if he could rest a few minutes before helping her unpack.

After shifting a few boxes from the floor of his room, he collapsed on his sleeping bag, bringing the cover to his face to bring back the smell of the last camping trip to the mountains with Jed. They had fished during the days. The snow still hung in drifts in some shady hillsides even then, and they could catch a fish and toss it a few feet onto a snow bank to keep fresh. He remembered talking with Jed about girls they dated. But those girls were different, he thought. It was just understood that they lived gospel standards.

A few minutes later he forced himself up and went to help his mother.

At 6:00 the family crowded around the kitchen table, stumbling over boxes to get there. They had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk for supper.

“How did school go today?” his mother asked. His two younger brothers fought to tell their adventures in grade school.

“Kevin, did you find your way around okay today?” his father asked.

“Yeah,” Kevin said, not knowing how he could explain.

“Now tonight,” his mother announced, “we’ll need everybody to work at unpacking. Let’s get going so we can get done.”

Kevin was assigned to unpack boxes of books for their new bookshelf. To relieve the boredom of the job, he turned on his portable radio. As he worked, he found himself listening, not just to the music, but to the words of the songs. One song fascinated him. It was sung by a woman. Partway through, he realized he was picturing Kim singing the words to him. The music was soft, the melody haunting, the guitar background skillfully done; but the words were wrong—wrong, at least, compared to what he had been taught in church.

He felt a battle within him becoming more fierce. Finally he jumped up and turned the radio off.

In his second week of school, Kevin decided to go out for the cross-country team, partly because he had run for his high school team back home, and partly because Fitzie was the equipment manager of the team and talked him into it.

After Kevin’s first practice, the coach told him he was welcome to be on the team. He took his shower and got dressed. Fitzie was standing, holding a bag of practice uniforms that needed laundering, and talking to the others on the team.

“Let me tell you a story I heard the other day,” Fitzie began. Kevin grabbed his brush and retreated to where there was a mirror in order to get away from hearing the joke. At the punch line the others roared their approval.

Kevin finished with his hair and then returned to his locker. The others had left, and Fitzie was finishing up his work.

“Hey, did you hear the joke I was telling a few minutes ago? This will kill you. It seems that there was this guy …”

Kevin stood mutely listening to the story, the fight within him erupting again. He hoped it would be over soon, and that it wouldn’t be too dirty, and that it would wash away from his memory.

Fitzie finished the joke. “How about that, huh? It’s sort of a cute story, isn’t it? Kim told me that the other day. Well, I’ve got to be going.”

Kevin sat down on the bench in front of his locker and stared numbly at the floor for a long time. He felt that he was losing his battle with his thoughts.

Suddenly he stood up and put on his running uniform and shoes.

Coach Schmidt came out of his office on the way home just as Kevin was heading for the track. “Are you still here?”

“I’m going to run some more,” Kevin said deliberately.

“Five miles isn’t enough for one day?”

“Is it okay? Will I still be able to get into the gym when I’m through?”

“Sure,” the coach said, heading for the door. “It’s open until 9:00.”

On the track Kevin forced himself to maintain a fast pace, trying to push all the debris in his mind out with the sweat, hoping to somehow cleanse himself from his thoughts.

After three laps Jenny appeared alongside him, going at his pace.

“What are you doing here?” he asked as they ran side by side.

“I always run after school. Do you think you can keep up with me today?”

They ran for two miles, and then Kevin stopped.

“I thought you might be getting tired. That’s why I stopped,” he explained as they walked around the track.

“Me tired?” she smiled, teasing him, “at this slow pace? You didn’t need to stop for me. I can run at this pace for hours.”

“Oh yeah, then why don’t you go out for cross-country?”

“Because,” she said, wiping her forehead, “I’m a sprinter. I run the 100, the 220, and the 440 in track. I’ve won some races too. Have you ever won a race?”

“Sure, back home.”

“Well, this isn’t there.”

“I’m finding that out,” he said, feeling the oppressive gloom settling on his mind again. They walked silently for a while. Then he asked, “Jenny, how do you survive here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Everything. The way everybody jokes about the wrong things. Everyone seems willing to do anything that looks like fun.”

“Not everyone,” Jenny said. “You just have to be careful who your friends are. I’ve got some really good friends who aren’t LDS, but they keep their standards high.”

“Well, everyone I’ve met acts like they’ve never even heard the word chastity. Things are different back where I came from. I have a friend there—Jed. He always lives the standards, but he’s fun to be around, too. He’s always looking for new adventures. We climbed some granite cliffs this summer …”

“Kevin, you can’t keep living back there. You’re here now, remember? I don’t know what it was like back there, but you’re wrong about the kids here. You could meet some of my friends instead of going around with Fitzie … and Kim.”

He felt his face getting red.

“Why do you eat lunch with her?” Jenny asked.

“Because she’s the only one who’s made any real effort to be a friend,” he said, feeling his voice tense up.

“Kevin, watch out for her.”

“I thought we weren’t supposed to judge people,” he snapped.

“Okay, I’m sorry. But look, you can rationalize all you want about how wicked it is here and how great it was there, but you’d better face the fact that you chose your friends back there, and you’re choosing your friends here. It’s your choice. Don’t put the blame on the place. Put it on yourself where it belongs.”

They had stopped walking and were squared off at each other.

“You’re jealous,” he accused.

“What do you want, Kevin? An excuse to get involved with her so that if you mess up your life, you can always say that things are rotten here so how could you help making a mistake? Is that what you want? An excuse?”

He wanted to get away from her, to leave her standing on the track, never to have to face her question. He turned and began walking away.

She caught up with him and walked beside him. They didn’t say anything for a lap. Then she said quietly, “Kevin, I’m not your enemy. I want to be your friend. Okay?”

He didn’t say anything for a while. His first words came out weak and uncertain. “Kim is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever known.”

“I know,” Jenny said quietly.

After that he ran with Jenny every day after he finished his workout with the team.

A week later, after they had finished and were walking together, he again confided in her. “Kim’s invited me to a party at her house a week from Saturday.”

“Are you going?” Jenny asked.

“I don’t know. Part of me says yes—it will be fun. Another part says that I shouldn’t go. I guess whatever part is stronger will decide.”

“Kevin,” she said, touching his arm, “don’t go. It won’t be any good for you.”

“I know. But what if I don’t go … this time?” he agonized. “What about the next time she asks me? What will I say then? When will I break down and go? How long will it be before this place breaks me down? I want to go back to my friends back home.”

“Kevin, have you prayed about this? I mean really prayed about your problems?”

He shook his head and confessed, “I haven’t felt worthy to pray.”

“That’s the time you need to pray the most,” she said.

That night he had a dream. In his dream he was fishing from a boat with Jed as they had done many times. It was the same lake in the mountains that they had been to that summer. At first he was catching fish, laughing with Jed, having a good time. Then the dream changed, and he was alone in the boat. The boat was leaking, and all he had was a plastic drinking cup. At first he was able to stay ahead of the water, but then it got worse. He bailed furiously to keep the boat from sinking, but he could see the water filling the boat. When he looked up, he saw Kim and Fitzie on the shore laughing at him, yelling for him to let the boat sink.

Suddenly he wrenched free of his dream. He was sweating, and his covers were in disarray. He got out of bed, turned on his light, and looked at the time. It was 12:30.

He lay down and tried to go back to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. All the offending thoughts poured down upon his mind in rapid succession.

He threw back the covers and got out of bed. Putting on a pair of slacks and a shirt, he walked outside on his front steps and sat down. The sky was free of clouds, and he could see the stars clearly. He found himself identifying some of the constellations that he had learned in Scouting.

Sitting there, he relived in his mind what Jed and he had gone through in order to both earn their Eagle Scout rank. He remembered how Jed was always in front, leading the way.

Suddenly he found an answer to his problems: “I’ll call Jed and ask if I can move out with his family!” His mind raced, picturing himself back again with his friends.

He hurried inside and went into the family room where there was an extension phone. He dialed the number of Jed’s home.

The sleepy voice of Jed’s mother answered the phone. He apologized for calling so late and asked if he could talk to Jed.

Jed answered the phone, and they talked for a few minutes about small things. Then Jed asked, “Is anything wrong?”

“I want to move back there. Do you think your parents will let me move in with your family? I could get a job and pay them for room and board. My parents would probably help too.”

“I’ll ask them in the morning,” Jed answered. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t like it here. The people are really different.” He told Jed about the drugs and loose morals, painting it in as bad a light as he could.

Jed was unimpressed. “So what? I can find the same attitudes back here in our high school. Have you forgotten?”

Kevin felt as if his last hope was being yanked away. “No! It’s different. I’ve got to get out of here, or I’ll end up being just like them.”

“Why don’t you try to set a good example?” Jed asked.

“I can’t. They’ll laugh at me. Let me come back.”

“Okay, if you need to, we’ll work it out. But Kevin, maybe you’ve got some missionary work you can do there.”

“No, not me. How can I convert them? They’ve nearly converted me.”

“Look,” Jed continued, “since we were in grade school, you’ve been somebody I’ve looked up to for help. You practically dragged me through to become an Eagle. You were always the one who was out ahead yelling for us to catch up.”

Kevin was stunned to hear Jed say that. “No, not me. You were the leader.”

“I had to hustle to stay up with you,” Jed insisted. “Didn’t you know that? Now find some friends there who will lift you up the way we helped each other.”

Kevin pictured in his mind the way the halls overflowed during a class change. “How will I find them? There are 2,000 kids in the school.”

“I don’t know. You’ll find a way. You always have before when you faced a challenge.”

They said good-bye, and Kevin hung up. He walked slowly to his room, lost in thought. Kneeling down by his bed, he began a long prayer: “Father in Heaven, I’ve got a problem …”

The next night after supper he went with Fitzie and some of his friends to play basketball in the school gym. They played for two hours.

Afterward they were all in the locker room. Kevin had already showered and was just putting on his shoes. The others were in various stages of getting dressed.

Suddenly the lights went out.

“Okay, who’s the clown?” Fitzie yelled. “Turn the lights back on!”

“I didn’t turn ’em off,” someone answered. “Where’s the light switch anyway? … Ow! My toe! … The switch doesn’t work.”

“There aren’t any lights anywhere in the building,” another voice added.

“Oh no,” Fitzie groaned, “another blackout. Do any of you guys have a lighter?”

“I do,” someone volunteered. “It’s in my shirt pocket if I can find it.” Kevin could make out a figure fumbling in a locker near him. “Here it is.”

A small glimmer of light shone in the otherwise dark room.

“Hurry up, you guys! I’m low on lighter fluid.” Kevin sat on the bench and watched unknown figures make use of the small light as they finished preparing to leave the room.

“Man, I never thought I’d be glad somebody had a cheap lighter,” a voice drawled.

“What do you mean, cheap lighter? It cost me two bucks.”

“Yeah, well it sure seems bright in here.”

Finally they were ready. “Kevin, what are you doing sitting there? Let’s get out of here.”

On Sunday Kevin went with Jenny to class, mainly to be with her. He had already discounted any possibility that their teacher could teach him anything, so he sat with his shoulders hunched over, his head down, wrestling with his problems.

It wasn’t until Sister Mattson called on him that he looked up. “Kevin,” she said, then read aloud from the manual, “this can best be seen by examining what the Savior said. Will you read Matthew, chapter 5, verses 14 through 16?” [Matt. 5:14–16]

Jenny loaned him her Bible and helped him find the reference. “‘Ye are the light of the world,’” Kevin began mechanically. “‘A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light …’” He stopped and stared at the words on the page.

“Yes, go on,” Sister Mattson urged.

“‘… and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.’”

“Kevin, there’s one more verse,” Jenny quietly prompted.

“‘Let your light so shine before men,’” he read slowly, “‘that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.’”

“Yes, and what can we learn from this scripture?” Sister Mattson asked.

He didn’t say anything. He pictured the small light in the darkened locker room and the dim figures of people moving around, each attracted by the light and using it as their reference point.

“Jenny, do you know what we can learn from this scripture?” Sister Mattson asked, thinking that Kevin did not have an answer.

“We can learn a lot,” Kevin said quietly, almost to himself. “The first thing is that in order to be a light, we have to live the commandments. You have to set your standards. You can’t re-decide what to do every time someone asks you to do something wrong. You’ve got to make a mental list: This is what I will do. This is what I won’t do. You have to decide what your life is going to mean, or it won’t mean a thing.”

“Thank you,” Sister Mattson said. “Now we should get on with the rest of the lesson.”

Kevin interrupted. “The problem is, I keep thinking that if I didn’t live here, it would be easier. It doesn’t really matter where you live. What matters is that you set your standards once and for all. If you do that, you can be a light.”

“Yes, thank you, and now we’d better get on to Ephesians,” Sister Mattson said.

“You’ve got to be a light to the people around you. Do you know how much light one small lighter can throw in a completely dark room?”

“No,” Jenny replied.

“Enough. That’s the point. Enough for everyone in the room to find his way out of the darkness. And the darker it is, the more the light is noticed. And people who enjoy the light will come nearer to it. That’s how I can find friends who will help me live my standards! We can gather friends around us who will help us, and the light will get even brighter.”

Sister Mattson by now was just looking at both of them.

“Do you know what I’m going to do?” Kevin burst out. “I’m going to memorize jokes from my brother’s Boy’s Life magazine. It has some of the corniest jokes in the world. Every time I hear someone starting a dirty joke, I’m going to bombard him with corny jokes. And I’m going to have a party of my own, at my house, with kids from school and the missionaries. In a nice friendly way, they’re going to know I’m a Mormon.”

“Thank you, Kevin,” Sister Mattson broke in. Turning to Jenny, she asked confidentially, “Jenny, what did he say?”

Jenny put her hand on his arm and answered proudly, “He said that he’s going to be okay.”

“How nice,” Sister Mattson said. “Well, we’d better get on with the rest of the lesson.” She looked at the page of the manual, paused, and then shut the book.

“No. I think Kevin’s story can teach us the same thing. What were you saying about the light in the dark room?”

[photos] Photos by Scott Tanner