September had arrived and the 2020 school year was about to begin whether we liked it or not. Everyone knew that the year ahead was going to be tricky; buckling up, we prepared for the ride:
Committees across the country had argued both publicly and amongst themselves whether or not it was safe for students in their districts to go back to school for in-person learning. One of the many debates was this: Are kids more at risk of this disease (COVID-19) or suffering long-term emotional trauma by staying isolated in their homes?
It seemed everyone had an opinion, but most people understood that there really was no clear ‘right decision’ as far as what schools should do. I avoided the drama around these discussions the best I could by accepting I had no say in the matter. I simply settled on going with the flow and focused on the things in my control; like creating a future for myself.
Understanding that the Emotional Intelligence program I was being paid to teach was only funded for the first two terms of the school year I spent the summer racking my brain in an attempt to come up with interesting ways of making an impact with students regardless of whether we would be asked to teach in-person or remotely via computer. The objective in my mind was simple: Convince the district to extend the program through the end of the school year.
To say I was not feeling stressed over this would be a lie.
A few weeks before school was set to begin the announcement was made of our committee’s decision to begin the year remotely; and all educators were told to expect an in-person meeting with their supervisors before the school year began. I was about to have mine: To discuss “Expectations and Requirements;” according to the email I received from Principal Sam.
Prior to our meeting I had sent my Principal a set of stated goals I hoped to focus on in my class. Attached to that was a copy of the week-one article I had written which students would be required to reflect on. In truth, there were no ‘National Standards’ to consult regarding a course called ‘Emotional Intelligence,’ so really I was simply flying by the seat of my pants.
As I sat in the Principal’s office, I had to hope that what I presented appeared structured and logical. Who knew if my class would go the way I Imagined, but I had to pretend the best I could…
“I don’t get it.”
The Principal appeared tired; maybe stressed; maybe upset—Maybe just annoyed by my presence?
Regardless, there was no doubt the face looking at me did not appear happy. Right after Principal Sam spoke these words the cellphone lying on the desk between us lit up with an incoming message. As its recipient’s eyes looked down at it, I immediately felt like an unwanted distraction in the room.
I was now beyond nervous as I had obviously not anticipated our conversation starting like this. The fact that we were both wearing masks and sitting in a stripped-down office made the whole thing feel even more uncomfortable. I had expected some small talk before talking business, but I guess the fact that we were only allotted fifteen minutes to meet in person meant there was no time for subtleties.
Noticing that it had begun to rain outside by the sprinkles hitting the window behind the principal, I replied, “What don’t you get exactly?”
I said this in a tone as non-confrontational as possible. I really did not have a clue what the principal “didn’t get;” since starting a conversation with such a statement gave me zero information to go on.
Throwing a few pages of paper on the table in front of me I could now see what was being referenced. I could not reach down and grab the papers because “person to person contact was not permitted,” but I saw my article titled ‘1% Pirate’ staring up at me.
The Principal then broke the silence by asking a question, “How exactly does this story of yours tie into the objectives you have set for your class?”
Feeling uncomfortable, I thought for a long second before speaking, “Part of the class is intended to help students think creatively and objectively when presented with entertainment in the real world. And of course, discussing the effect social media is having on them is going to be important as well.”
This was almost verbatim to what I had written as my objective for the course, and under this pressure seemed to be the best response to the question that had been presented to me. I sat stone faced, awaiting a volley-back in the conversation.
“It seems to me that you’re simply testing out your creativity on the students….” After a pause; during which I said nothing, the dementor across from me continued, “As you know, your friend, Mr. Bernard, pulled many strings to get you into my school. And while I appreciate your enthusiasm for what you are trying to do, I am not a big fan of this little experiment of yours. You must understand that I am skeptical of your ability to teach this thing you call emotional intelligence to the students we have here.”
This was a loaded statement, blatantly calling out my own insecurities and throwing them directly in my face: You’re a relatively young white male hoping to teach emotional intelligence (something no one really knows what means), to a school of mostly colored students.
It was now clear that this was not to be a meeting, but instead a lecture. Whatever I wanted to say was not going to change anything. So, I mentally pulled up my big-boy pants and simply prepared for further dumping…
The Principal continued; “We did not get to talk much last year given everything that happened with the virus, but you must know that I take my job of getting our students to graduate very seriously. Our program is designed to fill in the many gaps that these students have had from years of neglect, mis-management, and simple laziness.” I nodded my head, maybe muttered a word of understanding, but simply continued to listen, “Your class is only getting these kids one credit as an elective. With everything we have piled up against us this year…I have to say that filling your class was almost impossible. I’m sure you are aware of this by the size of your roster.”
This made it official. I was hoping that the rosters were still being worked on; and that what I was given was simply a temporary snag, but these words confirmed it: I would be teaching a class of only four students. YES—Four!
“We need to talk about what I expect from you on a weekly basis….”
The principal continued to speak but I had already begun mentally checking out of our little meeting. My heart was now beating fast, and I felt hotter than normal. Rather than listening to what was going to be expected of me, I was instead lost in thought: trying to convince myself that having only four students would allow me to better focus on the lessons with the kids I had.
In attempt to calm myself down I began speaking to the audience in my head; “You’ve come so far Jose…”
This was a phrase I repeated often to the doubters sitting on a set of comfy lawn chairs that had made my mind their home. This is who I spoke to as I reflected on the journey that had led to this point, “Don’t forget, it was only three years ago that you walked into that halfway house…”
I am not an established writer and have no proper schooling in the art. When I started writing this it became clear I’d have to provide a fair amount of backstory for My Readers (that’s you). What I mean is I would have to be able to tell you things other people in the story did not know.
I tried very hard to weave the information seamlessly into this story. Unfortunately, after endless struggles, I had to accept that I was not talented enough to accomplish such a thing. Hence, “Breaking Knews;” a cute little play on words that the teacher in me thought would provide an easy way to follow along. (ps. I can see future editors and professional writers cringing at the straightforwardness of such a move, but, Dear Reader, please know I swallow their criticism so that you might more easily comprehend what is truly going on here.)
Going forward you will clearly know when these flashbacks of mine begin and end. My apologies for such tacky transparency.
And with that disclosure of story structure, I will now tell you about the day I showed up at a halfway house….
Sobriety did come to me giftwrapped. And I certainly did not get it on my first try. If you are reading this with someone else in mind, maybe yourself, do not let my experiences discourage you: Every person’s recovery is different. But for me it took some homework to learn that all substances were off limits to someone with my degree of addictive behavior.
It was with this realization that I was pushed through the doors of a halfway house in Gardner, Massachusetts; named Pathways.
Prior to arriving I had spent a few weeks at a detox facility in New Hampshire waiting for a bed to open up at this specific house. Just in case you do not know, a detox facility is a place you go to ‘sober-up’ and get help with the physical effects of being addicted to substances.
In the past, I had gone to such a facility and then walked out a week later excited to get back to the real world as a new man. Sadly, this approach to recovery did not work for me despite my continued declarations of “being different.” Ultimately, my attempts to get back to normal as fast as I could simply prolonged my hell.
This ‘hell’ I speak of was not simply mine; in fact, even inferring it was by saying it the way I just did makes me want to slap myself: I put my wife and family on my shoulders and carried them into my hell with me. In order to earn them back I had to accept further treatment this time around. Which meant a six month stay at one of the most successfully run halfway houses in our state; about a thirty-minute drive from where my family lived.
The house was not a resort, as comfort was not what made it successful. As I would come to realize, the staff at this house were not celebrated for the unwavering love and support they offered residents. Instead, what had earned this house its reputation of success was how strictly it was run.
Residents, like myself, worked and paid a small rent to live there. We had chores, attended daily meetings, and were held to a very stringent schedule. On the day I arrived with a bag and pillow in hand, I knew nothing of this place.
“Put your cellphone and any other electronics in the box. Label everything you will want back when you leave. Hand me your things please.”
The house was a white, three-story building on a side street close to the city’s downtown district. Walking in, a door on the right led to an office for the staff. Residents were not allowed in this room and it was barricaded off by a half door that’s top also served as a surface to sign all the papers upon arriving. This is where I was asked to hand over all my belongings for inspection.
“When will I get my phone back?”
This was the first thing I asked as I began filling out the house paperwork. Across the doorway I saw all my things being emptied on a desk. The face that had greeted me did not smile; there was no warm welcome. In all honesty, without trying to sound overdramatic, it felt like I was getting checked into a prison.
“You will get all electronics back when you leave.”
This response caused me to pause. The man seemed to predict my thoughts as he walked over to me and took out a piece of paper that was buried within the stack in front of me. He slid it out and slapped it on top of all the papers on the little make-shift counter. Its title read; ‘House Rules.’
There is no way I can remember everything that was listed on that piece of paper now. Some things were clear no-brainers of course. Other expectations stood out as a bit strange, but I remember thinking they did not apply to me; things like no gambling, and no new romantic relationships. It was on that paper where I first learned that while I lived in this house, I would not be allowed my cellphone.
Troubled by this realization, I shifted my eyes back to the top of the paper and began reading more closely. My immediate concern focused on: ‘First Month Restrictions’, which included: “No phone calls and no visits.”
My head began to spin as I thought of my wife and kids. Attempting not to sound too pathetic I spoke to the man across the doorway, “After the first month can I use my phone to call my family?”
Wordlessly, the man across from me pointed at the bottom of the paper: “Electronics of any kind found on a person while in the program will result in immediate eviction.”
“So, I can’t use my cell phone at all?” I asked, dumbfounded.
Looking at me, it felt like this man was holding back a sinister laugh when he simply responded, “No.”
“But how do I call my family?”
Pointing at a phone hanging on the wall just behind me I got an explanation, “After the first month you’re allowed ten minutes on the phone a day; time permitting.” This response came in a mocking tone (or maybe that’s just how I’m remembering it).
As if he saw the internal workings of my mind, with a flip of his head, he added nonchalantly, “If you don’t like it, the door’s right there.”
I later discovered that this was how this place was run; “Here are the rules. If you don’t like it, we are not forcing you to stay here. You may leave whenever you want.” This illusion of freedom would mock residents as the temptation to simply walk out once we felt ready was always an option. But we knew the risk of going out that door…and it was this that kept us on our leash…most of the time….
My wife had done a lot to get me into this house, but I was certain she did not know these rules. Before handing in my phone I was going to have to call her and explain what I had just been told.
Dear Reader, don’t let me fool you. While I used this as an excuse to make one last phone call to my wife, you have to know that alternative motives were also at play: primarily the fact that I was not going to stay at this house the entire six months it required to ‘graduate.’
Prior to arriving I had talked to Sirena, my wife, and worked my time to serve down to a few months. But she had not yet given me an official date I could come home, so I was going to use this phone call to find out exactly when that would be.
“….so—I won’t be able to talk to you or the boys for the first month. And after that I’m only allowed ten-minute phone calls to one person per day.”
I finished explaining the rules to Sirena in a hushed tone; but made certain she heard the fear in my voice. While I was certainly terrified, I admit to you now that my pleas were also manipulative.
With time running out, I had to simply pull off the band aid and ask, “How long are you going to make me stay here?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. If prying ears were not present, I probably would have filled the silence with more begging; perhaps added some fearful tears. I’m not saying that the fearful tears would not have been real; trust me, I wanted to cry and beg; but for negotiation purposes it couldn’t have hurt either. Unfortunately, there was no way I could let this man in the room next to me hear. So, I had to wait in silence and simply give my wife time to think.
“Christmas,” She finally said.
And so it was.
Christmas was three months away. “I can do three months,” I remember telling myself, as I finished filling out the rest of the paperwork that day.
***End Of Breaking Knews***
The Principal was in the middle of telling me about the Director’s expectations for the program; “…They are going to be watching us very closely,” she concluded as I brought myself mentally back into the meeting.
Principal Sam looked at the clock and saw that our time was up, “You may leave, but remember to have weekly lesson plans and progress reports emailed to me every by Friday at five starting next week. I will be forwarding everything to the Director, so make sure it follows district guidelines.”
Feeling overwhelmed with everything I had just been told in fifteen minutes, I got up and walked out of the office relieved to make my exit.
Before I had time to get lost in my troubles, I saw Lily, our school counselor, speed-walking down the hall towards me.
She became the closest thing to a friend I had in the building the year before. We ended up working together helping some of our students cope with the difficulties around remote learning. With all that was now going on in my head, seeing her was a very pleasant surprise.
Getting closer, her appearance made me smile to myself: She had a mask on, which was normal, but her eyes were still covered by her sunglasses; making her entire face a mystery.
“You’re running late I’m guessing?” I said to her as we came together.
“Always!” she said, stopping next to me. “How’d your meeting go?”
In an attempt to avoid bringing her into my worried world I steered our conversation in a different direction with a witty response, “Same old shit.” Then shook my head theatrically and added, “Actually—totally new shit with everything going on…but shit all the same.” Pausing for moment I asked, “Are you smiling under there? … I can’t tell.”
“Sorry,” she said, and pushed her glasses to the top of her head. “I just bought them last week—Do you like them?”
Thinking to myself that I’d never understand why pretty girls needed to wear sunglasses all the time, I responded flamboyantly, “They look FABULOUS!”
This got her to smile. But knowing that she was simply being polite by stopping, and really needed to run, I pushed her on, “Go…we will catch up later.”
“Alright—we’ll catch up next week,” she replied, turning towards the Principal’s office.
As she walked away, I could not help but throw one last teaser her way, “Hey—Did you get that ring yet?”
Looking back at me, she shouted, “Don’t even get me started Jose.”
A minute later I found myself walking through the school parking lot and getting into my car. It was then that the reality of my situation again hit me: How was I going to get the district to extend funding for my class with only four students enrolled?
Trying not to panic, I took a few deep breathes and simply accepted the predicament I was now in: It would not be easy—but it was doable.
If my class was going to be a success however it was crucial that the few students I had bought into what I was trying to do with them. Which made me think about the articles that I would be sharing with them each week…
The first one; that would be given to them on Friday, September 11th, was now running through my mind as I drove home from the meeting: I wondered…would they get it?
Week 1 (9/11/20):
“Hey Jose, your Me-mere went on Ancestry.com and found out that she was 70% French-Canadian, 29% American, and 1% Pirate.”
My dad was sitting on his recliner looking at his phone when he told me this.
‘Me-mere’ is what I call my grandmother who was born in Canada by the way. I apologize if you know this and the information seems overkill, or irrelevant. But, as your teacher in this class there is no better time than now to tell you that I will make no assumptions about the things you may or may not know here. Please bear with me.
Interested by what I had just learned, I left my father and walked up to my room. Ironically, I was in the middle of watching ‘Black Sails;’ a television series about pirates in the early 1700’s. Let me tell you that I’ve always considered talented screenwriters as some of the great communicators of our age. The writers of this show, in my opinion, did a phenomenal job illustrating why pirates existed back then. The desire of some of these men, and women, to live a life where they were not governed by rules and expectations they disagreed with really spoke to me.
In the midst of all the turmoil and conflict across the globe, I could relate to wanting to escape, find an island to myself, and create something that I could believe in (without all the killing and stealing of course).
Excited by my newfound genealogy (that is your ancestors’ unique story and your family tree), I paused my show, took out my cellphone, and jumped on Facebook.
I clicked on ‘Add A New Post,’ and began to write:
“Happy Sunday everyone! I’m very excited to tell you all that I found out today that I am 1% Pirate! ARGHHH!!!”
To drive my point home, I added a ‘GIF’ (that is an animated picture) of Johnny Depp in his pirate disguise from his beloved Disney movies.
I then went about my day. Checking my phone of course for peoples’ reactions to my witty post.
One ‘like.’ A few more. (Why don’t people ‘love’ my stuff?) A ‘LMAO’ face. Another laughing face. A little later an ‘OMG’ reaction was thrown into the mix.
And then…my first comment: “U serious bro?”
It was from someone I did not recognize. So, I did some investigating.
A click here, a click there. I really could not figure out who this person was. He was very outspoken by looking at his posts. Very political. Had opinions about many things. Some things I saw made me laugh, others made me cringe. This person was not shy about making his voice and his opinions known (totally opposite of me). But no pictures of himself—Damnit!
Not knowing who he was, I still had to respond. He was my ‘friend’ after all, and I did not want to offend him. So, I carefully constructed a simple response:
“Ya man, Ancestry.com is the bomb!”
A few hours went bye and my post was losing steam. Not many more reactions were being made. At this point I think I had about twenty likes (…but who cared…I wanted more!).
Just when I had stopped checking my phone every ten minutes another comment made my phone ‘ding’: “Are u an idiot? Or is this a joke?”
Who was this guy?
I do my best not to become upset over what I see and hear on social media. In fact, I try to be as uncontroversial as possible to avoid becoming emotionally invested. But this guy took my simple post and came back calling me an ‘idiot.’ (twice!)
My blood boiled: Very annoyed, I again clicked ‘reply’:
“No joke. Legit found out that I am 1% Pirate today. Thought it was cool. No need to call me an idiot. Peace Bro ;0)”
Then it began.
He ‘shared’ my original post (this meant that his followers all saw it). Immediately after, comments started blowing up my feed. A full out Facebook assault was underway, and I was at the center of the attack. The hits came fast and furious:
“How stupid…a ‘Pirate!’ LMAO! Some people should not be allowed to bread!” (Yeah, this dude meant to say breed…kinda ironic.)
“If Ancestry.com told you to jump off a bridge would you do it? LOL.”
“Move back to Canada you moron.”
“I’m 1% Alien. You don’t see me posting that on Facebook, do you?”
There were so many comments I couldn’t believe it. As the day went on, I could not help but read each one. After taking a closer look at the original antagonizes profile, I realized that he had over ten-thousand followers. I could not recall when or how I had become this person’s ‘friend’, but none of that mattered at this point. The social media monster had me in his grasp, and I was being eaten alive.
What could I do?
Nothing. A comment from me at that point would have only fueled the fire.
I turned my phone off and went about the rest of my day. I still had yet to understand why everyone made such an issue of me saying that I was 1% Pirate. Was it because proving you are one percent anything was just impossible to prove—Who knew—Who cared?
Feeling down, frustrated with people and their ability to be so hurtful, I went downstairs for supper. As hard as I tried not to think about it, I could not comprehend how my simple post from that morning had turned my day into such a miserable one.
Dinner was cooking. My mother and father were both working in the kitchen. As I walked in, they were both laughing. Hoping for something to snap me out of my funk I asked, “What is so funny?”
“Me-mere had surgery yesterday,” she said, stirring the pot on the stove.
Not understanding, I responded, “Yeah, so, what’s so funny about that?”
She then grabbed my dad’s phone off the counter. Punched a few buttons. And handed me the phone.
On the phone I saw my Me-mere. In the photo she was smiling, but something definitely stood out that I was not expecting. She was wearing a black eye-patch over her left eye: the one she had surgery on the day before—I had completely forgot.
“One Percent Pirate…”
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
Is social media uniting or dividing humanity?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“…we thought that we were bigger.”
—7 Years by Lukas Graham