The date is Thursday, March 19th, 2020:
The book ‘Ready Player One’ is in my hand. Normally you will find me attempting to occupy my brain by getting lost in a story. But on this day, I am instead lost in thought…
“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 had read on one of my student’s social media posts in the middle of the night; “This is what I get for snooping,” I think to myself.
The day ahead promises to be anything but normal. Our entire staff was told to pack up our classes and prepare to educate students “remotely” for a bit. No one really knew exactly what that meant yet.
All the real teachers were in line at the copy machine preparing packets to send home with their students while I stood in the quiet cafeteria waiting for the kids to arrive. Principal Sam had just finished telling me that since I had no “real curriculum” to cover that it was going to be my job to “babysit” for the day; “…so that the other teachers can scramble to send sufficient work home with the students.”
The lights overhead were still flickering on as I began to see the students come in from outside. You can expect high school kids to be moody, but on this day, they appeared a little extra miserable.
“Good morning Lauryn!” I said; in the most cheerful voice that I could muster so early in the day.
“F*** you,” she said back, walking past me.
Well, that was fast.
Normally I did 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 had 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: An attempt to “Flatten the curve,” they were calling it.
Some of the students asked me questions when they had first come in, but now most of them stared into their phones and appeared to have more information that I did.
Lauryn had her regular collection of students around her. At our school her nickname was ‘Mama,’ because everyone knew that she ran things here. Locke 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 hadn’t yet figured out the official count, but let’s just say that I was rather certain the low enrollment had the entire program on shaky ground for future funding. Perhaps it was this reality that made the entire place feel depressing.
I mean, really, how happy can one be in a place that may not exist in a year?
The school was established as a resource for students struggling to live with “Substance Use Disorders.” Addiction was a hot topic everywhere these days, 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 ‘new pandemic.’ (I highlight the words appear and new pandemic purposely so that you might guess that I privately question how successful a school like this can be in fighting addiction.)
While you may think that 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 here.
I had only started working at the school in January; less than two months prior, and let’s just say that 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 had said to me; he taught math. The school did not have many teachers. This being one of the only males, I had secretly hoped he and I would become friends. “Your name is Jose, right??” He asked me, while busily writing out objectives on his white board that day. 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 remember spitting out the simplest response I could, “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 am very much 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. This caused many awkward moments throughout the years. The name was actually Portuguese and was 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.
“Wow, I thought 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 good 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 alone, I observed that none of the other teachers really talked to each other that 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 into 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 via social media, so how was I going to get her to tell me what she meant by this post?
Sitting in that cafeteria, 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” from a few minutes earlier.
I reached for my school bag beside me and unzipped it. Inside was an envelope filled with index cards I had been carrying around since I began working here. On each card was a quote that I had written. 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, I had not yet used them. 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 feared.
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. Looking at me, he smirked.
“Do you think she will laugh?” I asked.
“Bro, it’s 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.”
(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 she finished reading my note Lauren 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 that 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.
In 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 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 that I would rather not answer. So, instead, I did what I do best, I kept my mouth shut—knowing that a picture of my life was not this pretty.
Mentally whipping myself for such 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 said you can.”
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. Mr. Henry smiled big at me and I could see his thoughts as they danced across the room criticizing me. 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 people were 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 subject, I asked Lauryn a question, “What do you know of Nelson Mandela?”
She was taking a poster of him off of the wall at that 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.” This was another idea of mine when I had 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 right then; instead I simply agreed with Lauren, “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 f****d, 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 aware that I could not for a second let her think that I agreed with such an assessment of things. So, I fought back, “It’s happened many times over the course of history Lauren, 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’re 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 had 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 clicks. Gossip sells…everyone knows that. The world hungered for entertainment, and the internet offered a never-ending buffet of it….
This 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 Lauren?”
“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, “Lauren, I truly believe that the right person, with the right message, with the right support, will come along at the right time and is destined to use the internet and other technology to change this world for the better.”
Something in what I said must have reached her, because I saw her make 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 for once.
If she only knew how unsure I truly was about the statement I had made….
I never did find out what Lauren’s 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 that day.
Our conversation that afternoon troubled me however, as I secretly 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?”
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“…but it was just a dream.”
Warriors by Imagine Dragons