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…So, really, what can I do for you right now?
As I waited at the door, I could not stop thinking about what I had read in the middle of the night; “This is what I get for snooping,” I thought to myself.
Today’s date is Thursday, March 19th, 2020. 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 eerily quiet cafeteria waiting for the kids to arrive. Principal Sam just finished telling me that since I had no “real curriculum” to cover that it was going to be my job to “babysit” today; so that my colleagues could scramble to send sufficient work home.
The neon light overhead was still flickering on when I heard the students begin to come in from outside- I know high school kids are supposed to be moody, but do they look extra miserable today; Or is it just me?
“Good morning Lauryn!” I said, in the most cheerful voice that I could muster this early in the day.
“F*** you,” she said back, walking past me.
Well, that was fast. Normally I do not get the F-word from Lauryn so quick. But today was obviously a special day.
Nel walked behind holding her bag and gave me a smile as he shrugged his shoulders in a silent attempt to say, “Don’t sweat it Mr. J…”
Everyone already heard the news; SCHOOLS ARE CLOSING FRIDAY (tomorrow). This virus was spreading, and for safety reasons schools across the state, across the country, across the world, were closing to prevent a spike in cases. Of course, students had questions for me, but it seemed that many of them had more information than I did as they all stared into their phones for more breaking news.
Lauryn had a collection of students around her within minutes of sitting down. At school her nickname was “Mama;” because everyone knew that she ran things here.
Lock Recovery Highschool had only been around for three years and Lauryn had been here since its inception. Everyone knew this, and while she was only a Junior even the Seniors considered her the boss. There were not many kids in the school; I haven’t yet figured out the official count, but let’s just say I am rather certain the low enrollment has the entire program on shaky ground for future funding. Perhaps it was this reality that made the entire place feel rather miserable. I mean how happy can one be at a school that may not exist in a year?
While you may think I was offended by Lauryn’s response to me as she walked in, nothing could be further from the truth. This girl, Mama, was probably the only person at this school that made me feel welcome.
I only started here at the end of January; less than two months ago, and it did not take me long to realize that I did not 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 did not have many teachers. This being the only male, I secretly held out hope that we would be friends. “Your name is Jose, right??” Without any time to respond he 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 really knowing what question to answer first, I spit out the simplest response I could and remember politely shaking his hand, “Yes, I’m J, nice to meet you.”
Honestly, his assumption about me being Spanish was not that out of the ordinary as I had been dealing with it my entire life. The truth is, I’m as white as the snow in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. 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. This caused many awkward moments throughout the years. The name was actually Portuguese, and is one of the two major decisions my mother made for me as an infant that made my life a little bit more uncomfortable than it had to be.
“Like just the letter J?” Mr. Henry had responded.
“Yes, I’ve been called that ever since I was a kid,” I said back.
“Wow, I though only celebrities could pull that off…you’re not a celebrity, are you?” asked Mr. Henry sarcastically.
That was my introduction to Mr. Henry when I first started here. His condescending tone pretty much squashed any illusions that I had of us becoming friends. He and the rest of the staff at the school rarely talked to me except to say, “Good morning” and “Have a good night.” A common courtesy, but definitely not a conversation starter. While being ignored made me feel isolated, I observed that none of the other teachers really talked to each other much either; which strangely gave me some hope-maybe it’s not just me?
But, for some reason Lauryn (Mama) liked me, which helped a lot with the other students at the school.
This girl had a spark-something I recognized in her very quickly. She put her heart and soul in everything she did. Which is a great quality if pointed in the right direction. From very early on I made it my personal mission to help her any way I could.
Which is why the post I had read on her Facebook profile from the night before was troubling me so much: “What’s the point of this thing we call life?”
I knew that things at home were difficult for her. But this post scared me. Did she realize how worried people might get by saying something like this? Was she crying out for help?? Was she in serious danger??? … Or maybe I’m just misinterpreting this? Perhaps she’s referencing something that I’m just not cool enough to know about? Maybe I’m just creating something out of nothing? 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 would I get her to tell me what she meant by this post?
Troubleshooting this dilemma, a lightbulb went off in my mind as I thought of how to respond to Lauryn’s not so nice “good morning” a few minutes earlier. I reached for my school bag beside me and unzipped it. Inside was a stack of index cards I had been carrying around for a while. On each card was a quote that I had typed out. Some of the quotes were inspirational, some funny, others just interesting. It was an idea of mine to hand them out to students and have them write reflections on the back as part of our class together. Since nothing had gone to plan as of yet, I had not used them since starting my work with the students. Honestly, the thought of handing them out made me feel kinda stupid. I was too old-and too young-and too…. well…. just too me to garner any respect from this demographic…or so I thought.
Shuffling through the cards, I quickly found the one that I was in search of. Flipping it over, I wrote a message on the back. When I was done, I yelled out to Nel, “Nel, come here for a second.”
Showing Nel the card, I let him read the quote as well as what I wrote on the back. He smiled slightly.
“Do you think she will laugh?” I asked.
“Bro, its your call, I have no clue…whatever you do don’t tell her I said to give it to her please,” he laughed a bit, but I could not mistake the seriousness of his request.
“Bring it to her please.”
I watched as Nel jumped across the cafeteria towards Lauryn to give her my index card:
“Language is a weapon. Swearing is its sword. Truth is its shotgun.”
You should write a book! “The Art of the F-Word.” When you’re famous I expect some recognition for the idea :0)
Once she finished reading my note Lauryn lowered the card and looked at me. A smile blossomed on her face as she silently spoke to me across the room…
After lunch everyone was attempting to kill time waiting for the end of the day to arrive. In Mr. Henry’s room the students were taking posters off the wall. Staff were told to leave nothing out so the school could be completely decontaminated when no one was there. Making it a mathematical exercise (a.k.a. keeping the kids busy), this math teacher had required the students draw a scale model of his classroom so that when they got back they would be able to put everything exactly how it was before.
Looking across the room I saw students at work while Mr. Henry packed up his desk; he was currently putting a picture of his family away for safe keeping. In his hand was a photo of your prototypical American-white-family; sitting on the steps in front of a beautiful suburban home, his wife and three boys were very impressive looking. I had seen this photo many times and used it to validate my assumption that Mr. Henry had a picture-perfect life.
Being a father to three boys myself, I had many times contemplated bringing up this similarity between him and I. But somehow, I knew that beginning this conversation would open me up to a lot of questions I would rather not answer. So, I did what I do best, I kept my mouth shut- knowing that a picture of my life may be better described as American-white-trash.
Mentally reminding myself of my inadequacies, I looked around in hope of avoiding any conversation with the only other adult in the room. To my appreciation, Lauryn called out, “Mr. J, do you want to take this home?… Mr. Henry says you can have it if you want.”
In her hand was a poster that I knew all too well. It was a poster Lauren had made the first week that I had started working at the school. The fact that Mama made it was definitely the only reason it was hanging up. It read; “Everyone should have a G.U.N.”
I could feel my face get red as she held it up so that I could see it. I could feel Mr. Henry’s thoughts as they criticized me from across the room. Lauren still found her poster genius and was super-proud of it. I could not let her know how much it embarrassed me. So, I simply walked across the room and took it from her, “Sure Lauren, I’ll hang it up at my house,” I said with a smile.
G.U.N. stood 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.”
In my mind, acronyms were everywhere. To be honest, they annoyed me because I often had no clue what people were talking about when they used them. So many times I had to smile and nod in conversations or meetings only to sneak in a quick google search later to figure out what the hell everyone was talking about. I had multiple careers over the years, and I swear everyone was using acronyms for absolutely everything. 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.
Principle Sam was put in an awkward position when Lauren demanded that the poster she made be placed on the walls of the school because, “It has such a powerful message! 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 she thought it was brilliant. Ironically, it was probably this poster that first made Lauryn and I allies in the school. At the time I was in no place to discourage her excitement over creating something so original, so I was forced to be her advocate as she faced off against other teachers over the poster.
In the end, Mama 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’m sure he was secretly thrilled to get rid of it today; “It only took a global pandemic…but I’ll take a win any way I can!” Was what I imagined him thinking as I now was the owner of this infamous poster in my hand.
Trying to change the conversation, I asked Lauryn a question, “What do you know of Nelson Mandela?”
She was taking a poster of him off of the wall at the moment, “I don’t know…that he changed the world?” she responded unconfidently.
“Is that a question or a statement?” I smiled; knowing very well that Lauryn did not know much about the man in question.
The wall she was currently removing posters from was titled our “Wall of Inspiration.” Another idea of mine when I started here. See, I had a thing for posters, and hanging up posters of people these kids could admire was part of the program that I was being paid to implement. I was not big on lectures, so explaining who Nelson Mandela was and what he did was not something I was prepared to discuss; instead I simply agreed with her, “Well, yes, he did change the world….Maybe you should watch his movie while your home these next few days, I think you’ll like it.”
Knowing this would never happen, I moved on, “When do you think someone will come along and change the world again?” I asked.
“They won’t, our world is fucked, no changing that,” she said, with such authority that I almost believed her. But struggling with feelings like this of my own in the past made me recognize that I could not for a second let her think that I agreed with such an assessment of our world.
So, I fought back, “It’s happened many times over the course of history, it’s destined to happen again.” (A line that I had borrowed from an old friend was now the chess piece I played in our conversation.)
“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 are thinking,” she stopped what she was doing to look at me, “I mean seriously, think of the damage someone could do with the use of the internet nowadays.”
She nailed it. She was right. I knew that what she just said was how many people in this world thought today. The internet made any piece of news a conspiracy, any lie a fact, any story a legend. How could anyone expect someone to use the internet for good? Good doesn’t get likes. Gossip sells…everyone knows that. The world hungered for entertainment, and the internet offered a never-ending buffet of it….
The cloud of negativity began darkening my mind. Aware of what was happening I battled back as I had 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?”
“I’d say that you are right,” Lauryn spoke with confidence, “someone will come along and destroy it, like I said.”
Broken slightly by her doomsday prophecy, but understanding it far too well, I responded, “I believe that the right person, with the right message, with the right support, at the right time, will use the internet to change this world for the better Lauryn.”
Something in the way I said it must have touched her, because I saw in her eyes that she made a conscious choice not to fight me on it any further. Perhaps she wanted to believe me. For a moment I felt like the adult, and not the child. If only she knew how unsure I truly was about the statement I had just made.
I never did find out what her post meant from the night before. But I could see that she was not in danger, which made feel better as we all left school. Our conversation that afternoon troubled me however as I found myself agreeing with her assessment of things. I might have silenced her for the moment, but her words made me question myself like I often did, leaving me wondering…
What if no one can make this world better?