When the time is right, life will teach you more than any classroom ever could. The date today is Thursday, March 19th, 2020:
There is a book in my hand titled Ready Player One. A book I am reading because of the movie I just saw but also because of a review that said this book is “proof geeks will one day inherit the Earth.” As a wannabe geek myself, I just had to read it.
I’m only on the fifth chapter but it’s wicked awesome. The whole concept of this Easter egg hunt has me completely obsessed: “Creating an entirely new reality that provided an escape for most of humanity…” (SO COOL!)
Before the school day begins, I am normally attempting to occupy my brain by getting lost in a story, but on this day, I am instead lost in my own thoughts; trying to imagine a world different than this one; trying to put together a picture of the future different than the one I think is in front of us; trying very hard to think of what to say to that student…
There has to be something I can say to you… Something to wake you up… A way to give you some hope. See, secretly, I kind of think this world sucks too—but I can’t tell you that. Things do seem broken. But I’d need a time machine to go back and fix everything… When would I go back and start changing things anyway?
As I wait at the door, I cannot stop thinking about what I read on my student’s Facebook page in the middle of the night. That’s what I get for snooping, I say to myself as I continue to worry about what this student had written.
The day ahead promises to be anything but normal. Our entire staff has been told to pack up our classes and prepare to educate students “remotely” for a bit. No one really knows exactly what that means yet.
All the real teachers are in line at the copy machine preparing packets to send home with their students while I stand in the quiet cafeteria waiting for the kids to arrive. Principal Sam just finished telling me that since I have no “real curriculum” to cover it will be my job to “babysit” for the day; “…so that the other teachers can scramble to send sufficient work home with the students.”
Principal Sam tells me that the students may be home for a while. I don’t believe it.
I can hear some of the cafeteria staff moving in a room behind me preparing the morning meal—smells like those French Toast sticks again.
From out the door I see the bus pull in and watch the students walk towards me. One can expect high school kids to be moody, but today they appear a little extra miserable. I open the door and welcome them into the building.
“Good morning Lauryn!” I say, in the most cheerful voice I can muster so early in the day.
Nudging her way through the door she barks a sharp f at me. “F*** you,” she says.
Well, that was fast.
Normally I don’t get the f word from Lauryn so quick, but today is obviously a special day. Nel; Lauryn’s boyfriend, walks behind holding Lauryn’s bag and gives me a smile as he shrugs his shoulders at me; a silent attempt to say “Don’t sweat it Mr. J.”
Everyone has already heard that schools are closing Friday—that’s tomorrow. This virus is spreading and for safety reasons schools are closing to prevent a spike in cases; an attempt to “Flatten the Curve” they are calling it. This morning I watched the news trying my best to understand it all. Pulling on my pants to leave I still hadn’t grasped exactly what is happening.
Some of the students ask me questions as they first walk in, but soon most of them stare into their phones and appear to have more information than I do. I look to Lauryn and see that she has her regular collection of students around her. At this school they call her Mama. She’s only a junior but even the seniors consider her the boss.
The school is really just a ‘Program’. It shares a building with other Special Needs programs in our district. I’m not yet sure how many students we have enrolled as I’ve only been here for two months and getting an official count is difficult as attendance is rather sporadic. Addiction is a hot topic everywhere, and a high school that addressed it as an issue facing our youth was obviously an easy sell to communities that wanted to appear proactive in fighting this disease.
While someone might think I was offended by Lauryn’s response to me as she walked in, nothing could be further from the truth.
I have a certain affection for the f word. As it is a word that can offend everyone and no one at the same time; a difficult task in our world today. Lauryn knows this. Since she uses the word often the two of us have already had a few discussions regarding its usefulness.
This girl, Lauryn, who has just told me to ‘f-off’ is actually the only person that has made me feel welcome in this place. In January—when I first started here—it did not take me long to realize I was not about to have many fans in the building….
“So, you’re this new E.I. teacher we’ve been given?” Mr. Henry said to me; he taught math.
The school only has a few teachers, this being the only male, I secretly hoped he and I would become friends.
“Your name is Jose, right?” he added while cleaning his white board that day. I watched him lick two fingers and attack an especially stubborn smudge. Without any time to respond he quickly threw in a third question that seemed to just float into his head and fall out of his mouth without much consideration. “I thought you’d be Spanish?”
Not knowing what question to answer first, I said the simplest thing I could think of. “Yes, I’m J, nice to meet you.”
Mr. Henry is an attractive man. Every day he wears a shirt and tie to school. Something I refuse to do myself ever since my time working in the corporate world. It makes him look very impressive though, and he always smells good. But he is also a bit arrogant and a guy that sure loves himself some him.
His assumption about me being Spanish was not that out of the ordinary though as I have been dealing with it my entire life. I am actually very much your standard Caucasian, but my name, Jose Julian, suggests differently.
Growing up, many people read my name and figured I was Spanish, or Puerto-Rican, or whatever, before meeting me face to face. My mother claims that when she was pregnant with me a boy wearing a sweatshirt with my name on the back crossed her path and she took it was some sort of sign. This ‘sign’ resulted in one of the two major decisions she made for me that has made my life a little bit more uncomfortable than it could have been.
“Like just the letter J?” Mr. Henry had responded to me.
He stopped wiping his board at this question. I remember this because the look he gave me wiped away any confidence off my face instead.
“Yes,” I replied, “People have called me that ever since I was a kid.”
“Wow! —Just a letter!” He said sarcastically. “I thought only celebrities could pull that off. You’re not a celebrity, are you?” asked Mr. Henry with an annoyingly superior look on his face….
That was my introduction to Mr. Henry when I first started at this school. His condescending tone pretty much squashed any illusions I had of us becoming good friends.
I’m a little sensitive and it’s not too difficult to scare me off. Mr. Henry succeeded easily.
Since I’ve been here, he and the rest of the staff have barely talked to me except to say, “Good morning” and “Have a good night.” Common courtesies, but definitely not conversation starters. While being ignored has made me feel alone, I have observed that none of the other teachers really talk to each other that much either. Which strangely gives me some hope—maybe it’s not just me?
Even though she sometimes tells me to go f myself, Lauryn genuinely likes me. Which has helped a lot with the other students at the school.
Putting aside the ugly language, Lauryn is actually a wonderful girl. While she has her struggles, I have seen her spark and the effect it has on people when she chooses to point it in the right direction—something that I have made my personal mission to see her do. That is probably why the post I read on her Facebook page last night is troubling me so much: “What’s the point of this thing we call life?” she wrote.
I have my issues with social media just like everyone else, and Lauryn’s post may have annoyed me if it were made by another person, but because it was her, I couldn’t help but be concerned by it. I know things at home are difficult and I found myself scared for her.
She made the post around nine o’clock and it was past midnight when I saw it. Wondering if she was crying out for help, I looked for comments on the post.
I saw that a few friends offered some ‘hearts’ (I still don’t understand what all the different colored hearts mean). One friend wrote, “Everything okay Lauryn?” to which Lauryn replied, “Always!” Which told me absolutely nothing.
Is she in serious danger? … I couldn’t help but consider it … Or maybe I’m just misinterpreting this … Perhaps she’s referencing something that I’m just not cool enough to know about? … I do tend to read into things too much … Maybe I’m just creating something out of nothing?
I figured that I probably was. Who knows what these kids are thinking nowadays when they post stuff? I’m sure she’s fine— But what if she’s not?
It is not professional to snoop on students using social media, so how am I going to get Lauryn to tell me what she meant by that post?
Sitting in the cafeteria; troubleshooting this dilemma, a lightbulb goes off in my mind as I think of how to respond to Lauryn’s not so nice “good morning” from a few minutes earlier.
I reach for my school bag beside me and unzip it. Inside is an envelope filled with index cards I have been carrying around since I began working here. On each card is a quote I had written. Some of the quotes are inspirational, some funny, others just interesting. It was an idea of mine to hand these out to students and have them write reflections on the back as part of our class together. Since nothing has gone to plan, I have not yet used them. The thought of handing them out makes me feel kinda stupid: I am too old, and too young, and too…well…just too me to garner any respect from this demographic…or so I fear.
Shuffling through the cards, I quickly find the one I am in search of. Flipping it over, I write a message on the back. Once I am done, I get Nel’s attention and ask him to come over to me.
Showing Nel the card, I let him read the quote as well as what I wrote on the back. Looking at me, he smirks. “Do you think she will laugh?” I ask.
“It’s your call,” he replies, “I have no clue… Just don’t tell her I said to give it to her.”
He laughs a bit, but I cannot not mistake the seriousness of his request.
“Bring it to her please,” I say.
I watch Nel jump across the cafeteria towards Lauryn and give her my index card:
“Language is a weapon. Swearing is its sword. Truth is its shotgun.”
(Over) You should write a book! “The Art of the F-Word.” When you’re famous, I expect some recognition for the idea! :0)
Once Lauryn finishes reading my note, she lowers the card and looks at me. A smile blossoms on her face and rises up her cheeks. Across the room, she silently speaks to me: “F***—You,” she mouths slowly.
After lunch everyone is attempting to kill time waiting for the end of the day to arrive. In Mr. Henry’s room the students are taking posters off the wall. Staff were told to leave nothing out so that the school could be completely decontaminated. Making it a mathematical exercise—also known as keeping the kids busy—this math teacher has required the students draw a scale model of his classroom so that when we come back everything can be placed exactly how it was before.
In the room I see students at work while Mr. Henry packs up his desk. He is currently putting a picture of his family away for safe keeping. Sitting on the steps of a beautiful suburban home, his wife and three boys are very impressive looking. The picture is all smiles and fancy clothes; happiness shouts through the expensive looking silver frame; “#1 Dad” is etched at its base.
I have seen this photo many times and have used it to validate my assumption that Mr. Henry has a picture-perfect life. Being a father to three boys myself, I have many times contemplated bringing up this similarity between him and I since starting here, but somehow, I know that beginning this conversation would open me up to a lot of questions that I would rather not answer. So instead, I’ve done what I do best and kept my mouth shut: knowing that a picture of my life is not that pretty.
Mentally whipping myself for my inadequacies, I look around; hoping to avoid any conversation with the only other adult in the room. To my appreciation, Lauryn calls out to me. “Mr. J, do you want to take this home? Mr. Henry said you can.”
In her hand is a poster I know all too well. It is a poster Lauryn had made our first week together. The fact that Mama made it is definitely the only reason it’s hanging up. It reads: “Everyone should own a G.U.N.”
I can feel my face get red as she holds it up so that I can see it. Mr. Henry smiles big at me and I can see his thoughts as they dance across the room criticizing me. Lauryn still finds this poster genius and is super-proud of it. I can never let her know how much it embarrasses me.
I walk across the room and take it from her. “Sure Lauren,” I say with a smile, “I’ll hang it up at my house.”
G.U.N. stands for: Good—Underlying—Need.
It was part of a lesson I had created: Take a simple word and create an acronym out of it so that when used changes the meaning of the word completely.
I’ve had multiple careers over the years, and I swear people are using acronyms for everything. They frustrate me because I often have no clue what people are talking about when they use them.
When I was putting together lessons, I thought it would be interesting to have my students create some of their own. While many were entertaining, Lauryn’s created the greatest noise within the school as she made sure everyone knew what she had come up with. Principal Sam was then put in an awkward position when Lauryn demanded that the poster she made be placed on the walls of the school.
“It has such a powerful message!” she argued, “Everyone should have a purpose to what they are doing in life. Why are you doing something— Why do you want something— What is the ‘Good-Underlying-Need’? … Get it!?”
Confusing and a little tacky perhaps, but Lauryn thought it was brilliant.
At the time I was in no place to discourage her excitement over creating something so original and was forced into being her advocate as she faced off against other teachers over the poster. In the end, Lauryn won, because, well…she was Mama, and Mr. Henry took the bullet for the rest of the staff by letting her hang the poster up in his room.
I am sure he is secretly thrilled to get rid of it today. “It only took a global pandemic, but I’ll take a win any way I can,” is what I imagine him thinking as I am now the owner of this infamous poster in my hand.
Trying to change the subject, I ask Lauryn a question. “What do you know of Nelson Mandela?”
Lauryn is taking a poster of this man off of the wall.
“I don’t know…” she replies, “that he changed the world?”
“Is that a question or a statement?” I laugh.
The wall Lauryn is currently removing posters from is titled our “Wall of Inspiration.”
I am not big on lectures and trying to explain what this man did is not something I am prepared to discuss anyway, so, I decide to just agree with Lauryn.
“You’re actually right though, he did really change the world…” I say to her. “When do you think someone will come along and change the world again Lauryn?” I ask.
She replies quickly to this. “They won’t,” she declares. “Our world is f****d. No changing that.”
Lauryn says this with such authority that I almost believe her, but struggling with feelings like this of my own in the past, I know that I cannot for a second let her think I agree with such an assessment of things, so, I fight back at her negativity. “It’s happened many times over the course of history Lauryn, it’s destined to happen again.”
“If you’re talking about changing the world, I think it’s much more likely that someone will come along and destroy it rather than change it in the way you’re thinking” —Lauryn stops what she is doing to look at me— “I mean, seriously…think of the damage someone could do with the internet today.”
She nailed it… she is right.
I know that what she says is how many people in this world think today. The internet has made any piece of news a conspiracy, any lie a fact, any story a legend, any character real. How can anyone expect someone to use the internet for good? Good doesn’t get clicks. Gossip sells…everyone knows that. The world hungers for entertainment and the internet offers a never-ending buffet of it.
A cloud of doubt begins to darken my mind. Aware of what was happening, I battle back as I have practiced so often in the past.
“What if I told you that someone would come along and use the internet to unite people in a way never before considered possible Lauryn?”
“I’d say that you are right,” Lauryn replies, “Someone will come along and destroy it. Like I said.”
Broken slightly by her doomsday prophecy, but understanding it far too well, I slide my own chess piece into position.
“Lauryn, I truly believe that the right person, with the right message and the right support, is destined to come along and use the internet and other technology to change this world for the better.”
Looking into my eyes, Lauryn does not respond to this statement. Not often is she lost for words, but something in what I just said hit home because I see her make a conscious choice not to fight me on it any further. For a moment I feel like the adult and not the child. Maybe she wants to believe me? A hopeful voice inside my head thinks….
I never did find out what Lauryn’s post from the night before meant but I could see that she was not in danger, which made me feel better as we all left school.
Our conversation that afternoon troubled me however, as I secretly found myself agreeing with her assessment of things. I might have silenced her in that moment, but her words make me question myself like I often do; and I find myself tiptoeing around the question in my head on my drive home: What if no one can make this world better?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been.”
Believer by Imagine Dragons (feat. Lil Wayne)