After leaving school in March of 2020 we finished the entire year teaching our students remotely. Five months after the Covid pandemic began, our summer break is coming to an end and another school year is set to begin. In an attempt to touch base with my students I send out a WELCOME BACK email. It is dated August 7th, 2020:
As a new school year quickly approaches, I can only hope that you are all enjoying your summer break. While it certainly must be different with everything going on, have faith that the memories of this time will unite us in the future as history has shown us over and over that difficult times bring people together in ways that would not have happened otherwise. Whether or not this brings you any comfort, I cannot know, but understand that you are not alone in your impatience for better days.
To help you get to know me, I’ve attached an article that was recently published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. I wrote it for the paper hoping to get public support for our school and its program. I hope you like it.
Sincerely Yours—With Love, Mr. J
“A Teacher IN Recovery”
Most people have never heard of a “Recovery High School.” To help change that let me tell you about how I became a teacher at one.
To do this, I must first bring you back to May 27th, 2016.
At three a.m. on this morning I stand outside watching a fire engulf my family’s home. I hold my chin up to look at the smoke swirly high into the sky, but my heart is buried beneath my feet, deep underground. The flames of guilt, anger, shame, fear, and hopelessness rise like the sparkling fire reflecting in my eyes. These emotions live inside me, some place just above my stomach, and they are as real as this house I watch burn. They are the same feelings and emotions I have been battling in my attempt to get sober. While the pain of this moment hurts, I realize it is just another day for “someone like me.”
When I close my eyes today, I can vividly recall being huddled under that fire-lit sky. Believing that at thirty-three years old I would forever be defined by my struggles. As the flames danced their way through the roof; entertaining the audience that had gathered outside, the strange beauty of that scene mocked me. The endless failed attempts to put my life back together danced with those flames…and right then my dream of achieving some sense of redemption—just like my house—went up in smoke.
One hour before this fire started, I was feeling hopeful. I was awake on the back porch staring up at the moon reflecting on my journey; on my fight; proud of how far I had come. Lost in thought, I smoked my cigarette; a bad habit of insomnia. The fire that I watched burn that morning in 2016… the fire that would leave my family homeless—this fire—was my fault.
How did my life end up this way?
Back in my glory days, I was “That Kid.” An All-Star athlete—Honor roll student—Class treasurer—Homecoming King. I do not list these things to brag. Instead I list them to illustrate that addiction and mental illness can affect anyone. I am living proof of this. While I list these things to make my point, the truth is I am prouder today of surviving my failures than I am reminiscing over any of these past accolades.
Before I go on, let me make one thing perfectly clear: People with addictive personalities or emotional instability can struggle with any type of substance: from alcohol and weed, to heroin, cocaine, and everything in between. Some among us might even know that addiction does not end or begin with just substances. Because of this fact, the substances I used is irrelevant (though I bet you’re itching to know).
As I write this, I am thirty-seven years old. I have lost more than I could ever explain due to my substance use. I have slept days, weeks, months away battling depression. I have been a chronic failure and spent a lot of time hating myself; regretting bad decisions and punishing myself more than anyone else could ever wish to punish me because of the personal anguish introduced by life naturally.
My struggles and the destruction I have caused is difficult to overlook. Too often I forget that in my time on this planet I have also done some very good things.
While it may seem that I am eager to give myself this little pat on the back, the thought of “my good deeds” has never been enough to grant myself forgiveness. If you have ever dealt with severe guilt and regret, I am sure you can relate. Getting healthy for me meant reinventing myself. I needed to find my purpose. To accomplish this, I needed a fresh start. This is a nice idea but a very tough thing to do when you carry so much baggage. Lucky for me, I found Lakay Recovery High School in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Or maybe the school found me?
In ‘The Program’ (that’s AA and NA for those of you trying to learn) I heard people say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Could this really be true? Did I have to struggle myself to help understand how to be a useful asset to these children?
This has yet to be determined, but what I can say is at this school I am surrounded by people that respect me for what I have been through and support me in things I am continually trying to overcome. They appreciate my struggle and try to learn from my experiences. Here I do not need to hide things that have made me who I am. I can honestly say they love me just the way I am.
This year I will be suggesting to my students that they write editorials so that people can learn what goes on at this school, but I anticipate they will be understandably hesitant when I present this idea of mine. This left me in a dilemma.
Any adult knows that it is hard to make a child go out on a limb and do something uncomfortable. Most of the time we as the adults must show them first by doing that uncomfortable thing ourselves. So, I had to ask myself, do I put myself out there?
I am not a fool—not completely. The ‘Stigma’ does still exist. The truth is some people reading this will judge and ridicule me for my candidness. Some may never be able to forget that I accidentally started that stupid fire. Some may even consider me delusional for thinking that these children are so important to society as a whole.
Despite such truths, and after much debate, I decided that it was worth the risk and wrote this editorial in order to prove to my students that the fear is merely in our minds; that the world is not as scary as we think it is; and that there are people out there that will support us—Golden Souls.
I have done this for my students because I have seen first-hand that these young minds are determined to live a life where substances do not derail their dreams. Lives that are focused on making the world a better place; for them, their families, and everyone’s future. We need them to succeed. And if thinking this makes me crazy, then so be it. But I don’t think it does. I think you love them just as much as I do. Am I right?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Come take my hand.”
Not Afraid by Eminem