September has arrived and the 2020 school year is about to begin whether we are ready for it or not. Everyone knows the year ahead will be challenging, but all we can do now is buckle up and prepare for the ride:
Committees across the country have argued both publicly and amongst themselves whether or not it is safe for students in their districts to go back to school for in-person learning. One of the many debates is this: Are kids more at risk of this disease or suffering long-term emotional trauma by staying isolated in their homes? Everyone has an opinion on this, but most people understand there really is no clear right decision as far as what schools should do.
Knowing that the Emotional Intelligence Program I am being paid to teach is 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 is simple: Convince the district to extend the program through the end of the school year—and beyond.
A few weeks before school was set to begin, the announcement was made of our committee’s decision to start the year remotely. All educators were told to expect an in-person meeting with their supervisors before the school year began. I am about to have mine. To discuss “Expectations and Requirements” according to the email I received from Principal Sam.
Prior to this meeting I had sent my principal a set of 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 read and then reflect on. There are no National Standards to consult for my course, so really I am simply flying by the seat of my pants. As I sit in Principal Sam’s office, I have to hope that what I presented appeared structured and logical. Who knows if my class will go the way I imagine, but I have to pretend the best I can.
“I don’t get it,” Principal Sam begins.
Before I can respond, the cellphone lying on the desk between us lights up with an incoming message. As its recipient’s eyes look down at it, I immediately feel like an unwanted distraction in the room.
The fact that we are both wearing masks and sitting in a stripped-down office makes this whole meeting feel even more uncomfortable. I had expected some small talk before discussing business, but I guess the fact we are only allotted fifteen minutes to meet in person means there is no time for such subtleties.
A sprinkle of rain begins to tap on the window behind Principal Sam. With eyes no longer focusing on a phone, I respond. “What don’t you get exactly?”
Principal Sam had intimidated me last year, and I quickly realize things are not about to change heading into this new school year.
A few pieces of paper are thrown on the table in front of me. I can now see what Principal Sam “doesn’t get.” I cannot reach down and grab the papers because “person to person contact is not permitted,” but I see my article titled ONE PERCENT PIRATE staring up at me.
Seeing me look down at the papers, Principal Sam breaks the silence by asking a question. “How exactly does this story of yours tie into the objectives of your class?”
I think for a long second before speaking.
“The class is intended to help students think critically and objectively when presented with entertainment in the real world” —I quote my curriculum objective almost verbatim— “And of course, discussing the effect social media is having on them will be important too.”
Under this pressure sticking to my script seems like common sense. I sit stone faced, waiting for a reply.
“Well…” Principal Sam begins, “It seems to me that you’re just testing out your own personal creativity on my students.”
After a painful pause; during which I can think of nothing to say, the dementor across from me continues.
“As you know Jose, your friend, Mr. Bernard, pulled a lot of strings to get you into my school, and while I appreciate what you are trying to do, I am personally not a big fan of this little experiment of yours—”
It is now clear to me that this is not to be a meeting, but instead a lecture. Whatever I want to say at this moment isn’t going to change anything.
Principal Sam continues.
“We did not get to talk much last year given everything that happened with this 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 laziness.” I acknowledge this by nodding my head and continue to listen. “Your class is only getting our students one credit as an elective Jose. With everything we have piled up against us this year, I have to say that filling it was almost impossible… I’m sure you are aware of this by the size of your class roster?”
I was hoping that the rosters were still being worked on. That what I was given was a temporary snag. But these words confirm it: I will be teaching a class of only four students.
I try to look strong, but a nervous voice inside me silently asks: What the hell am I supposed to do with only four students?
“We need to talk about what I expect from you on a weekly basis….”
Principal Sam continues to speak as my heartbeat becomes more pronounced. I feel a single drop of sweat drip down the inside of my left arm and immediately realize how uncomfortable I now am.
Rather than listen to what is going to be expected of me, I can’t help but contemplate what I’ll to do with just four students.
To calm myself, I start talking to the audience in my head.
You’ve come so far Jose, I begin.
This is a phrase I often repeat to the doubters sitting on a set of comfy recliners that have made my mind their home. This is who I speak to as I reflect on the journey that has led to this point—Don’t forget, it was only three years ago that you walked into that halfway house….
When I decided to write this story I knew I’d have to be able to share things with my readers that the characters in the story did not know. Initially I tried very hard to weave the information in seamlessly. Unfortunately, I quickly realized 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 for readers to follow along. There will be one of these flashbacks for each of the weeks going forward and they will interrupt the story at similar points each time.
And with that disclosure of story structure, I will now bring us to that halfway house….
Sobriety did come to me giftwrapped, and I certainly did not get it on my first try. 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 is with this realization that I am being pushed through the doors of a halfway house in Gardner, Massachusetts. Prior to arriving I spent a few weeks at a detox facility in New Hampshire (A place to sober-up and get help with the physical effects of being addicted to substances). In the past, I went to such a facility and then walked out a week later excited to get back to the real world as a new man. 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 just mine though. 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 find myself here, at the Pathways Halfway House: the most successfully run halfway house in our state; a thirty-minute drive from where my family and I live.
The house is not a resort. Comfort is not what makes it successful and the staff are not celebrated for the unwavering love and support they offer their residents. Instead, what earns this house its reputation of success is how strictly it is run. Residents, like myself, work and pay a small rent to live here. We have chores, attend daily meetings, and are 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 is a white, three-story building on a side street near the city’s downtown area. Walking in, a door on the right leads to an office for the staff. Residents are not allowed in this room and it is barricaded off by a half door that’s top also serves as a surface to sign all the papers upon arriving. This is where I am asked to hand over all my belongings for inspection.
“When will I get my phone back?” I ask; as I begin filling out the paperwork given to me.
Across the doorway I see all my things being emptied on a desk. The face that greeted me does not smile. His name is Gavin according to the nameplate I see on his desk—Gavin looks grumpy.
There is no warm welcome and I can’t help but feel like I am getting checked into a prison. Gavin answers my question robotically. “You will get all electronics back when you leave.”
He is an older man with reddish hair and a hardened complexion; the owner of a face that looks like it was born with a scowl on it. This response causes me to stop filling out the paperwork I’m working on and look up.
Gavin seems to predict my thoughts. He stomps over to me and takes out a piece of paper that is buried within the stack in front of me. He slides it out and slaps it on top. Then he turns and walks back to my belongings spread out on the table.
I see his back and read the title: HOUSE RULES.
Some of the things I read are clear no-brainers. Other expectations stand out as a bit strange but I do not believe they apply to me; things like “No Gambling” and “No New Romantic Relationships.” I’ll learn why these things are banned but at this moment I have no clue. At the bottom of this paper the last rule shocks me. It’s as if they put it last on purpose—one final f-u. “No electronics allowed in the house, including cellphones.”
I have never heard of such a thing and the thought of it is like a punch in the gut.
Troubled, I shift my eyes back to the top of the paper and begin reading more closely. My immediate concern focuses on FIRST MONTH RESTRICTIONS; which include “No phone calls and no visits.”
Already nervous, my head begins doing summersaults. I think of my wife and my kids. Trying not to sound too pathetic I speak to the back of the man across the doorway. “After the first month can I use my phone to call my family?” I ask.
Gavin turns and heads towards me again. Annoyed. He points at the very bottom of the paper and reads something out loud for me, really slow, “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 say; once he’s done reading what I can clearly read myself.
If I sound dumb, I’m not sure, but both my hands grip the counter in front of me.
Gavin looks at me. There is no sympathy in his eyes and he wears the anger on his face like a signpost. “No,” he answers.
“But how do I call my family?”
I remove my hands from the counter—I think Gavin was unhappy with them there.
Pointing at a phone hanging on the wall just behind me I get an explanation.
“After the week you’re allowed ten minutes on the phone a day. Time permitting.” Gavin then looks into my eyes. “Listen kid, I’m short staffed today. If you don’t like the rules, the door’s right there,” he says while waiving his head at the door to my right.
I would later learn 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 can leave whenever you want.
Gavin goes back to ruffling through my stuff; with a little more intensity now.
He is taking each of my pockets and turning them inside out and padding down each piece of clothing in an attempt to find something expertly hidden. With what he just said about being short staffed I wonder if his frustration is not with me but with something else. I try to be optimistic and tell myself that he’s a lot nicer than he appears; that this place is not a prison—but I don’t believe myself.
Reading over the piece of paper for the third time, I am certain my wife does not know these rules. Before handing in my phone I am going to have to call her and explain them. “Can I call my wife and tell her about the rules please?”
Gavin turns and looks at me; like I just insulted him. He pauses, thinks, then speaks. “Go. Make your call. But be quick. I don’t have all day.” He looks at a watch on his wrist and makes a frustrated sound.
While I am about to use this as an excuse to make one last phone call to my wife, alternative motives are also at play. Primarily the fact that I am not going to be staying at this house the entire six months it requires to “Graduate.”
Sirena, my wife, has already told me that I just need to spend a few months here. She has yet to give me an official date that I can come home though. I am going to use this phone call to find out when exactly that will be.
“…I won’t be able to talk to you or the boys for the first week” —with an exploding pulse I finish explaining the rules to Sirena in a hushed tone; making certain she hears the fear in my voice— “and after that I’m only allowed ten-minute phone calls to one person per day.”
I am certainly terrified, but my pleas are also manipulative. With time running out, I have to just ask the question I really need answered. “How long are you going to make me stay here?” I say to her.
There is a pause on the other end of the line. If prying ears were not present, I would probably fill the silence with some begging and maybe add some fearful tears. I cannot see her through the phone, but I feel Sirena’s eyes on me: “Christmas,” she finally says.
It is the beginning of October in 2017—Christmas is less than three months away.
Hanging up the phone, I go and continue to fill out the rest of the paperwork and decide not to ask Gavin any more questions. A voice from inside my head speaks, keeping me company: I can do three months, it says, trying to sound confident.
***End of Breaking Knews***
A loud beeping alarm coming from the phone on the desk in front of me brings back into the meeting with Principal Sam. The voices in my head made it impossible to pay attention. Something that happens more often than I care to admit.
Principal Sam touches a button on the phone, shutting off the alarm, and finishes a thought. “They are going to be watching us very closely this year Jose, so let’s make sure we’ve got each other’s backs.” I am given a look I do not completely understand as I watch the principal stand up in front of me. “You may leave but remember to have weekly lesson plans and progress reports emailed to me every Friday by five starting next week. I will be forwarding everything to the Director, so make sure it follows all district guidelines.”
Feeling overwhelmed, I get up and walk out of the office; relieved to make my exit.
My mind is full as I start walking down the hallway away from Principal Sam’s office. Before I have time to get completely lost in my concerns, I see Lily, our school counselor, speed-walking down the hall towards me.
Lily became the closest thing to an adult friend I had in the school last year. We ended up working together a lot in an effort to help some of our students cope with the difficulties around remote learning. With all that is now going on in my head, seeing her is a pleasant surprise.
Getting closer, her appearance makes me smile to myself. She has a mask on, which is normal now, but her eyes are covered by her sunglasses; making her entire face a mystery.
“You’re running late I’m guessing?” I say, coming together.
“As usual,” she replies, stopping next to me. “How’d your meeting go?”
“Same old shit,” I answer half-heartedly, then shake my head and add, “Actually—totally new shit with everything going on…but shit all the same.” Turning my head slightly, I lean in and say, “Are you smiling under there? I can’t tell.”
“Sorry,” she says, and pushes her sunglasses to the top of her head. “I just bought them. How do they look?”
At this I privately question why attractive girls seem obsessed with always wearing sunglasses. But there are a million things about women that confuse me nowadays. Like, when did eyelashes become an accessory? … I guess size does matter now?
Not needing to invite Lily into my questioning mind, I respond to her flamboyantly. “They look fabulous!” I say.
This gets her to laugh but knowing that she is just being polite by stopping, and really needs to run, I push her on. “Go to your meeting,” I say to her, “we’ll catch up later.”
“Alright…” she says, touching my chest and then quickly turning around. “But you make sure to come see me next week.”
I watch Lily walk towards Principal Sam’s office and can’t help but throw one last teaser in her direction.
“HEY…” I yell down the hallway, “Did you get that ring yet?”
Not looking back at me, Lily raises her left hand into the air, wiggles her naked fingers, and shouts, “DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED JOSE!”
A minute later I find myself walking through the school parking lot and getting into my car.
The reality of my situation again hits me and I begin to wonder how I’m going to get the district to extend funding for my program with only four students enrolled. Trying not to panic, I accept the predicament I am in: It will not be easy, but it is doable.
If my class is going to be a success, however, it is crucial that the few students I have buy into what I am trying to do with them. Which makes me think about the articles I will be sharing with them each week. The first one—that will be given to them on Friday, September 11th—runs through my mind as I drive home from my meeting.
I worry…will they get it?
Week 1: Friday, September 11th, 2020
“One Percent Pirate”
I overheard my father reading a text message out-loud to my mother a few weeks ago. He read, “I went on Ancestry.com and found out that we are One Percent Pirate today.”
I then watched my dad hold out his phone and show my mother the message he had just read to her. The text message my father read was from my grandmother.
That same day I was watching a show called Black Sails. A television series about pirates in the early 1700’s.
I think of entertainment as a universal language that connects all people and consider screenwriters as some of the great communicators of our age. In my opinion the writers of this show were doing a phenomenal job illustrating why pirates existed back then. The desire of these people to live a life where they were not governed by rules and expectations they disagreed with really spoke to me.
A captain on the show, James Flint, was talking about the men of the island: “They’re not animals,” he said, “they are men starved of hope. Give that back to them and who’s to say what could happen.”
At these words I paused my show.
Excited by newfound genealogy, I then took out my phone and jumped on Facebook. I clicked ADD 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!!!”
Below this I included a YouTube clip. It was a six-minute clip titled ‘James Flint x so far from who I was.’ I didn’t care if people actually watched it; the image and title alone made my post just the right amount of interesting.
Smiling at my own cleverness, I posted this little announcement on my newsfeed, and resumed my show.
One LIKE…. Then a few more….
Why don’t people LOVE my stuff? I wondered.
A LMAO face… Another laughing face…
A little later an OMG reaction was thrown into the mix—making me feel better about myself.
And then, my first comment: “U serious?”
Not recognizing who it was, I constructed a simple response: “Yeah, it’s amazing how Ancestry.com can tell you all this stuff.”
A while later my post was losing steam and not many more reactions were being made. At this point I think I had about twenty likes (But who cares—I wanted more).
Just when I had stopped checking my phone every three minutes another comment came in: “Are u an idiot? Or is this a joke?”
It was from the same person as earlier.
Annoyed at being called an idiot, I quickly clicked REPLY: “Yeah, just thought it was cool when I found out. No need for name-calling.”
Then it began.
This friend shared my original post; allowing all his followers to see it. With it, this friend wrote: “LMAO! He thinks he’s a pirate. LITERALLY!!!”
Immediately after this, comments started blowing up my Facebook feed. A full out assault was underway and I was at the center of the attack. The hits came fast and furious:
“How stupid. A Pirate. Some people should not be allowed to bread.” (Yeah, this person meant to write “breed”—kinda ironic.)
“Time to jump ship you moron!!!”
“I’m 1% Alien. You don’t see me posting that on Facebook. Maybe I should?”
There were so many comments I couldn’t believe it. As the day went on, I couldn’t help but read each person’s creative spin on how to spew hate.
My post was like a pinata on a string at a party, put up for people to hit with their words. Inside that pinata was my heart. Who was going to hit hard enough to smash it open?
After taking a closer look at the original antagonist’s profile, I realized this person had over ten-thousand followers. I could not recall when or how I had become this person’s ‘friend’, but that no longer mattered. This social media monster—THIS TROLL—this little person desperate for the world to pay attention to them—had me in their grasp.
Eventually I turned off my phone and went about the rest of my day; still not understanding why everyone made such an issue of me saying that I was one percent pirate. Was it like saying I was one percent Native-American or something? Was it because proving you are one percent anything is impossible?
Even if I knew why these people were making fun of me, who would let themselves become upset over something so stupid?
Unfortunately, I did.
Feeling down—frustrated with people and their ability to be so hurtful—I joined my parents later that night for supper.
As hard as I tried not to think about it, I still could not comprehend how my post from earlier had turned my day into such a miserable one. In my parent’s kitchen my mother and father were both preparing that night’s meal. My dad was pealing some potatoes and my mother was cooking something on the stove (she’s the cook, he’s just hired help). I watched as the two of them laughed at something. Hoping that whatever it was might snap me out of my funk I asked what they were laughing at.
Unaware of what was going on in my head, my mother smiled and answered my question. “Just that picture from your grandmother’s surgery,” she said.
“What picture?” I asked.
She then stopped what she was doing, wiped her hands on a cloth and grabbed my dad’s phone off the counter.
Smiling, she punched a few buttons on my dad’s phone and then handed it to me.
On the phone I saw my grandmother. In the photo she was smiling, but something 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: “One Percent Pirate.”
Dammit—I’m an idiot…
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
Is virtual socialization (social media) bringing people together or tearing them apart? Give examples of both the good and bad it is causing and state why you believe one is doing more than the other.
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“We thought that we were bigger.”
—7 Years by Lukas Graham