We had made it to Monday, the start of our second week of the new school year. Remote learning made the first week unusual, but we survived. We began our first class of the new week by discussing the article I had asked them to read and reflect on over the weekend:
“Please tell me you didn’t really think you were a descendent of a pirate Mr. J?” asked Nel, through the computer screen.
I spoke to Nel, but also to everyone else that was probably wondering the same thing after reading the article I had given them before the weekend, “Does it matter?” I asked.
“F*** yeah it does,” (yup, she was with us), “there is no way that really happened?” Declared Lauryn from her cube.
The first lesson of this class of mine was—at that moment, put on a tee for me. But I chose to respond simply, and not make a big deal of it, “All stories are sprinkled with truth,” I replied, “parts of this one included.”
Not letting it go, Pras jumped into the conversation, “Did you really think someone could have Pirate genealogy though?”
Pras was very intelligent. There are all types of intelligence, but here I’m referring to book smarts. I did not know much about him before last week, but in just a few meetings I saw that he was bright. Which meant he was probably having a hard time believing that a teacher, me, could think that they were actually a pirate.
“Well, why not?” I answered. “If someone had great-great-great-grandparents that were discovered to be pirates wouldn’t that person be allowed to say that they were a descendant of pirates?”
I did not give him time to respond, instead I continued, “—Growing up I was often called gullible by family and friends, Pras. No one thought I was stupid…but gullible—definitely! Many times over the years my gullibility made me look stupid though.”
There was no way to explain to them how true this statement was. In fact, simply saying it out loud made me a bit uncomfortable; as a motion picture of dumb stuff from my past began playing in my head. For some reason I was thinking of that time with the remote control….
Growing up, my grandparents would often have the entire family over for dinner on Sundays. We called this the Sunday Roast. This was not at my Me-mere’s house (you know, the Canadian grandparent with the eye patch), this was at my mother’s parents; the Price’s.
At one of those dinners; at the innocent age of eleven, I remember showing off my ability to change the channel on the television…with my butt.
As I remember it, the audience in the living room giggled as I placed the remote vertically between my cheeks. The comfy pair of MC-Hammer pants I was wearing enabled me to get a nice, secure grip on the remote. Once in position, I flexed. Amazingly, a button at random would be pressed, and on the television my butt brought us to a channel of its choosing.
Enjoying the attention in the room, I did this over and over. Eventually I figured out how to move the channel up or down depending on a careful positioning of the remote.
“Up!” I would say…and flex simultaneously: the channel moved up one. “Up! … Up!” I would announce, flexing twice: and we’d all see it move up twice. Speaking loudly, I started showing off, “Up… down… up— up…down—down…up-up-up….UP!!!” On that last one I kept my cheeks flexed and watched the television scroll up through a bunch of channels.
Eventually my cheeks ached and everyone in the room had to catch their breath as laughing so hard became exhausting. It was not until a few weeks later I found out that my dad was in a chair in the back of the room with a different remote. He had rushed off into another room to program this different remote once I had first begun my little show in the living room—Damnit…
Thinking back on this memory, I debated telling the students this story. But I thought better of it; as trying to convince them of my stupidity was probably not a great career choice (I’d keep that one a secret).
I instead just smiled and looked at the students on my screen before finishing my thought, “Let’s just say that for a period of time after my father told me the pirate thing, I did really believe him…. Because…why shouldn’t I have? But the whole Facebook thing was made up. I needed to entertain you all with a story to get your attention.”
I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you more about that halfway house. I’m not really sure if this is the best way to proceed, but I have a lot of information to cover and I know our time is short, so I’m just gonna go with it:
In the basement of that house, long rectangular tables were pushed together to make one longer rectangular table in the narrow room. This is where our ‘house meetings’ were held.
Sitting there on my first night, I looked around at the faces of the men that I would be living with; they ranged in age from twenty-something to sixty-plus, so calling them all ‘men’ might not be an accurate statement. But let’s just go with it for now.
Truthfully, I didn’t really look at anyone that first meeting. Because that might have invited them to look at me; but I knew that they were there. I remember my eyes hurting as I waited for that meeting to start. Earlier, once I had put my stuff in my bedroom and reality had set it, the panic really hit me. By the time this meeting arrived my eyes were bloodshot; and the bags under them told these men much more about me than I wanted them to know.
I was not going to be able to stay hidden long however as I watched a piece of paper being passed around the table. In my sulking state, I did not need to raise my head to read it once it had gotten to me: It was an attendance list. On it were the names of all the men in the house; next to their name was a place to sign. Scrolling down the list of names I was at first unable to locate mine.
“Hey…” said the man next to me, as he pulled the paper in front of himself, “Let me tell you a secret…” raising my reddened eyes to look at him, he finished, “here you can be whoever the hell you want.”
On the attendance sheet, next to the name ‘Jules Najio,’ this man did not sign his name like everyone else; instead he simply wrote, ‘RON,’ in all capital letters.
Ironically, this man’s desire to be called Ron would forever engrave in my memory the name he did not want to be called. I friggin’ loved Ron—we’ll see him a bit more later.
To start the meeting, all the men went around the table and introduced themselves in standard fashion. When it came to be my turn, I followed suit, “Hello. My name is Jose and I’m an addict.”
This was how you introduced yourself in these meetings; and the men in the room all greeted me in unison by saying, “Welcome Jose.”
I had arrived at the house on the same day as one other man; his name was Ethan.
When it got to be his turn to introduce himself, we all got a little more than we were expecting; “Hello everyone! I am SOOO grateful to be here!” He smiled and tried to offer the men around the table a handshake with his eyes; this gesture was met with awkward silence.
Brushing his thin, yet pretty hair to the side he continued undaunted, “As my first words to the group, I’d like to offer you this…” He paused, straightened his shoulders like he was giving some important speech, and addressed the room, “Let me be the one to bring you a warning: If you are going to ask God for his help, be wary, because he will answer you! … And that answer may beat you down like an anvil until he turns you into gold! … With that said, you are all gold to me already!” Pausing again to add a salesmen’s smile; and maybe to mentally tell himself ‘Good-Job,’ he then finished with this, “—And if no one has told you ‘I love you’ lately…well—I LOVE YOU!”
YES…this man really did this!
Please know I don’t mean to make fun of this man. There is a point to telling you this story that I will get to in a second. At the time of this little speech of his I simply abhorred such positivity; perhaps I was just jealous. I’d later come to accept that everyone took to sobriety differently; and that was okay. Some people are very enthusiastic about it; in fact, if I’m being honest, I was once that way myself.
This was obviously how you’d describe Ethan. Once he finished the little impromptu sermon of his, Ethan was reminded by one of the men that he had forgotten something; “Your name?” ….so, he added, “Oh…I’m Ethan—by the way. And I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic and drug addict!”
The room responded, “Welcome Ethan.”
The real reason I tell you this story is because that night, unable to sleep in my new home, Ethan’s words haunted me. I had recently taken up praying again; something I had long ago stopped doing. So, what he had said at that meeting echoed in my mind as I laid in painful silence unable to sleep.
When I was young, I would say the same prayer every night: “Dear God, thank you for another great day with friends, family, and loved ones. Please help me, my friends, my family, and my loved ones; and people all over the world, to learn how to love and respect one another the way you love and respect each and every one of us. If we can do that there will be no more hate in this world; only love. Amen.”
Growing up catholic, this was a prayer created by a guiltless child; and one that I hoped covered all my bases each night before I went to bed. I remember I’d say this prayer out loud. I’m not sure if I did that because I really thought some god was listening, or because I had seen the movie ‘Truman Show’ too many times and thought maybe a group of people were watching me and judging me.
Regardless, as an adult I had given up on this prayer, or any other, a lifetime ago. But, at the detox facility some man had pushed prayer as a way to stay sober; “Get on your knees and ask for help,” this man with years of recovery had told us.
Dedicated to getting it right this time around, I began doing what I was told. So, I got on my knees. But all I ever said was, “God help me.” That was it. I’d repeat this one line over, and over, and over, and over.
Yes, I know you might think this makes me sound a bit self-obsessed, but back then I didn’t give a crap about what you’d think right now. I needed help. And I was clearly the most important person in the Universe.
Putting all of this together in my head, my mind would not leave me alone that first night in the halfway house. After hearing Ethan’s warning earlier, I laid their questioning if asking for God’s help really was the smart thing for me to do.
With all that I had been through already, I stared in silence at the ceiling thinking to myself, “What anvil will be dropped on me next?”
Luckily, I did end up surviving that first month. Not because I was strong, but honestly because I had no choice. In retrospect, what kept me sane those first thirty days was writing notes each night to my wife (remember I could not call home).
If you’re speculating that these were love notes, you would not be wrong. Each note was different; some more pathetic and sappy than others, but in general, each of them was filled with pretty promises of a new start.
One of the many things I would write my wife about was our future. This was therapy to me as I’d always been a planner. I would go on for pages outlining where we were, and where we were going, and how; exactly, we would get there.
Remember the house fire you heard me mention in that article I wrote for the newspaper? —The one I accidently caused by not putting my cigarette out properly. (Yup—that one!) That fire was a year and a half BEFORE this halfway house visit of mine.
(I’m going to be using that fire as a reference in time throughout this story, so try and pay attention class!)
As awful as that event was, it actually worked out for me and my family rather well. The insurance money allowed my father and I to strap on our toolbelts (we grew up building houses together) and build an absolutely gorgeous home. If my wife and I sold that new house we’d have proceeds of well over three hundred thousand dollars. This was obviously enough money to provide us a new beginning anywhere we wanted.
Night after night I’d write my wife about the future that was waiting for us. It was in those notes that I first outlined the geographical cure that would bring us the fairy tale ending our love deserved.
I tell you all this for one reason only: Do not feel bad for me.
Psychologically speaking, that house fire beat the hell out of me. But from a completely different perspective it was an absolute blessing. Some people following along might now be upset with me for seeking sympathy earlier by using the fire story. But I never asked you to feel bad for me. I simply stated facts…it’s not my fault you did not know the entire story.
Dear Reader, you should probably keep that in mind moving forward….
***End Of Breaking Knews***
Back in class the students and I talked about the article from our first week a little while longer. The conversation eventually pivoted to one where we were discussing how valuable humor was; not only to entertain, but to educate. This was something I was very glad they had come to understand so soon.
Nel offered me a suggestion, “Mr. J, you gotta watch Dave Chappelle, trust me…” then added enthusiastically, “The dude see’s what’s really going on—He’s a Genius!”
I had to laugh at my student’s over the top excitement because the person he was referring to, in my mind, would always be a pothead from a funny movie he starred in earlier in his career. But Chappelle’s stand-up act had been suggested to me many times, so I promised Nel that I’d watch it.
Eventually I had to move our discussion towards what I had planned to cover in our second week together. Waiting for a break in our conversation, I did this by starting with a simple question; “Does anyone here watch the news every day?”
Everyone in the class “got the news every day”, but no one could say they, “watched the news every day.”
Watching the news was “boring.” Also: ‘Depressing,’ ‘Upsetting,’ ‘Sad,’ ‘Scary,’ ‘Stupid,’ ‘Divisive,’ ‘Manipulative,’ …. and a lot more.
This list describing the news became a separate document appearing on our virtual class screen. It was their creation, not mine; but truly, I could not have come up with a more fitting one if I tried.
Respecting the power of negativity, I made sure to not let the students steer this class of mine in the wrong direction. Once their suggestions for our list became exhausted, I took back control of the class by switching the screen over to a separate document. This document presented them with the outline for the week ahead.
Giving them enough time to read and digest it, I then said, “This week we are going to discuss how fortunate we are to have so much news at our fingertips.” And then, anticipating criticism, I added, “And yes, Lauren, we will discuss the negative impacts of so much news as well.”
I dare say, the rest of that Monday’s class had gone really well….
On Tuesday we discussed the ‘History of the News:’ An investigation into how society got their news over time.
Wednesday’s topic was “World News:” An honest attempt to find reputable information about what is going on over there.
Thursday’s topic was “How They Know:” A look into how developing nations got their news.
And then finally, on Friday, I opened up that box with a class I titled “News Today:” A conversation about the pros and cons of so much information.
This last class was simply an open discussion where I let students tell me about all the different ways society got their news nowadays. I did very little talking that last day, instead I simply listened; in a vain attempt to understand how they saw things.
Overall the second week went great. By the end of class on that Friday I was very excited by the progress we were making. Over the weekend I gave them another article I had written for them to read and reflect on…
Week 2 (9/18/20):
Last week’s article was unexpected, I know.
One percent pirate— What an idiot!
Just because I am called a teacher please do not think I am any different than you. We are all lifelong learners as far as I am concerned. Please try to remember this.
With that being said, laughing at ourselves is going to be important. Appreciating that we all are mistaken sometimes, and being able to acknowledge when we are, is going to be key to surviving what lies ahead.
For the record, there is no official nationality called ‘pirate.’ A lesson I learned, obviously. Speaking of not knowing everything, as someone that is ‘living in recovery,’ there is one question people always want to ask me, “What helps you stay sober?”
Personally, I very much dislike this question, as there is no profound answer that I can give. Recovery is not a vacation. It is not always wonderful. It is not always fun. It is full of difficult times that cannot be overcome with a strong ‘work ethic’ or with an unbreakable sense of ‘dedication.’ None of this is a secret.
Our brain chemistry has changed. Dopamine levels have been altered (please research this if you want more information). As many people will tell you, “The real world waiting for you after living in a mind altered state is not all sunshine and rainbows!”
Life can feel boring. It can be sad. It can be overwhelming. It can feel pointless and empty. To be honest, most of the time, I have found that patience is the greatest asset one can have in recovery. Not only do I believe this to be true for someone living after struggling with drugs and alcohol, but for someone living after most traumas you can think of.
The problem is, in the world today, where everything is ‘one-click-away’ and so much is expected of us right now, who can truly say that they are allowed to be patient?
I’m not here to give you excuses however, so let’s slap ourselves in the face with a little reality for a moment by addressing the only logical question one would ask right now: “Even if we were allowed to be patient, would we be able to?”
As you think of how to answer that, I’m going to move on….
We have challenges ahead of us in this class—there is no debating that. There are many important things for us to discuss. With this being the case, maybe you are thinking back to last week’s article; 1% Pirate, and wondering why it was simply one long joke?
Well, the answer is simple: I needed to create something “REMARKable.”
Let me explain.
As you all know, the title of this course is ‘Emotional Intelligence.’ Its curriculum was something I had worked on creating for quite some time. Early on I realized that the title was very intimidating to people. After many failed attempts to get public support for this course I recognized the one thing that would be pivotal was timing: So, I had to become patient. (NOT EASY TO DO!)
While I waited, I researched. I read. I listened. I watched. I thought. I dreamt.
The question that haunted me the most was this: “With so many people vying for your attention, so many worthy voices wanting to be heard, how could I present something REMARKable?”
Meaning: What could I do that would be worthy of someone making a remark about on social media? Because, let’s be honest, if people are not talking about what you’re doing there then you really are not making much of a difference.
Doing my research, I came to the realization that what got people’s attention most nowadays was money, power, and sex. Unfortunately, I had little money, no power, and I understood clearly that no one would want to see me naked. So, I settled on the fifth best thing: Humor. (Drama/conspiracy/mystery was ranked fourth on my list by the way.)
Which is why I started this class by telling you a funny story. Hopefully this approached worked. Hopefully you’re still paying attention.
But if it failed, and I was on the verge of losing you, I had to be prepared. I needed to be be ready to say or do something that would ensure you did not give up on this little class of ours.
I decided that what I would have to do is tell you a secret about myself. Something that would get you talking. Something that would make you say, “—HOLY SHIT! Can you believe he just told us that?”
Immediately I knew the secret I had to tell you. It is something that I have been forced to keep secret since I was a child. Keeping myself clean of the shame of this secret has literally left scars on my manhood. It has caused me to be self-conscious. It has made me paranoid. It has riddled me with anxiety and shame. Growing up, this secret has made me feel alienated and embarrassed of who I am.
Now, if I’m wrong about what is happening here, and my future is not what I expect it to be, telling you this secret will forever haunt me: But life is not worth living unless we take risks, right?
So, here goes nothing: Are you ready?
“I am (BLANK).”
Okay, so unfortunately, I have decided that right now I just cannot risk telling you my secret. (Drama/conspiracy/mystery—CHECK!).
If this class is a success, I promise to fill in the blank at the end: Let’s hope that it is the mind-blowing, showstopper this class needs. And with that disappointing end, class here is dismissed for today. I look forward to seeing you all next week.
Have a great weekend, and be safe—With Love Always, Mr. J
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
What do you think ‘The Secret’ could be?
The Teacher’s Playlist
“I must be looking for something.”
—The River of Dreams by Billy Joel