Arriving at the Friday of our fourth week of school, the students and I have put the month of September behind us. The month of October—2020, has just begun:
Earlier in the week I promised my students that we would spend a day listening to and discussing music. That day is today.
I’ve also agreed to let Lauryn pick the songs for a few of my weekly articles since my selections continue to be “old,” according to her.
For this class period the students were required to find songs they believed shared a positive message. In preparation for this day I provided them a list of artists for them to pick these songs from.
I have three boys of my own; a set of identical twins, now twelve, and my youngest son, now six. Telling them about this class of mine, the four of us attempted to put this list together by watching music videos on YouTube over the weekend. This mission kept them focused for a total of ten minutes. They spent the rest the time watching videos by this one artist we had never heard of before; some guy named NF. The list I ended up giving my students was basically a collection of top artists I found with a simple Google search.
The only song I’ve heard this class period that I felt was truly inspiring was selected by Lauryn; she chose a song titled Rise Up by Andra Day. Unfortunately, I think Lauryn felt uncomfortable being the only student to take my assignment seriously. Everyone else has simply used this class period to listen to music they find entertaining. Most of the songs I’ve listened to will not be making my greatest hits list any day soon, but this is their class period, not mine—for the most part.
From his cube on screen Nel is playing a song titled “Let Me Fly’” by the rap artist, DMX. Nel had chosen this song, but I had secretly snuck this artist on the list for a reason. Once the song ends, I tell them why.
“Interesting fact for all of you,” I say matter-of-factly to the faces looking back at me on screen, “I lived with DMX for a month.”
“What?” replies Nel.
“He and I stayed at a sober house together for a month up in New Hampshire back in 2017.”
This is true and something I knew my students would get a kick out of.
“Did you talk to him?” Nel says, with increased interest. “—Like, can we meet him?”
I laugh and tell Nel the truth. “I spoke two words to him Nel. I said, ‘Thanks man,’ on a night he bought all the guys in the house pizza. He barely came out of his room…”
The world is full of all kinds of people that made it once in all different arenas of life. I’m sure many of these people love the attention this brings, but I am just as certain many do not.
As far as celebrities go, today I imagine the people I see on television are just as unsatisfied with this world as I am. That they are just as broken as me. Probably worse in some cases. Often, I now watch these people on screen and wonder how the roles they play for us affect them in real life. This may be a reflection of my own personal issues, but seeing DMX back then fed these views: he looked so tired of this world—just like me.
I continue my conversation with Nel.
“He was in a fight to get his life back together Nel. I’m sure he hated being reminded of the glory days just like I did at the time, so I left him alone.” I lean in a bit closer to my screen and add, “Who the hell was I to him anyway? I just knew you guys would get a kick out of it…I did sneak a picture of him though.”
I show them the picture and we all have some fun talking about it for a few minutes. Before I know it, class is almost over.
Looking out at my students, I attempt to end the week on a productive note. “Is there anything else we should talk about before we end for the day?” I say to them.
Pras jumps at this question of mine. “Yeah—Big Orange tested positive!” he says, “You heard the news right Mr. J?”
Nodding, I reply, “Yes Pras, I did hear that;” while thinking to myself: How in the world could anyone not know that the President of the United States has contracted Covid?
“He’s faking—It’s all part of a plan to get himself re-elected,” Pras says. “He’ll recover and then sign an executive order for another Stimulus Deal. Giving us all another check with his name on it so we’ll vote for him next month. He’s literally gonna buy himself another four years in office…just watch”
Hearing this, I can’t help but wish I would have simply stuck to the crappy music to end this class period.
At the halfway house it’s not long before I am called into John’s office for an impromptu counseling session. The house has three councilors on staff. All the residents are assigned one while we live here; John is mine. I sit in his office waiting for him to arrive.
Walking in, he shuts the door behind him and then sits at his desk. He looks at me through his black rimmed glasses and I can see him debating how exactly to start this conversation.
“Alright Jose,” he begins, “I’m just gonna put it out there. Rumor is you found out your wife is sleeping with another guy.”
“—Talking,” I say quickly; fury bubbling up inside me.
Putting his hands up; as if the lightning bolts coming from my eyes are a real danger to him, John corrects himself without me having to say another word. “I’m sorry…talking with another guy.”
It’s been a few days since Sirena gave me the news and the men at the house have obviously told John their own exaggerated version of the facts.
“You’re at a crossroads Jose,” John continues, “I can see it in your eyes. You’re debating leaving here right now to go out and get her back, aren’t you?”
Ron must have told him.
I do not respond to his question; John is right and he knows it. My eyes look down. I want to punch something.
On John’s desk is a jar of jellybeans. My councilor reaches across his desk and puts the jar on his lap. There are only two colors of jellybeans in this jar of his. Reaching in, John carefully removes a single blue and red jellybean without making a sound. He then puts the jar back from where he took it.
John pulls up his chair and leans on his desk with both elbows. His eyes stare at me; I feel them even if I refuse to look at them directly.
“You have a choice to make Jose,” he begins. “The choice you make is going to determine how I speak to you here today…” John delicately places both jellybeans on the desk in front of me. He then takes an exaggerated breath and continues talking. “If you choose to eat the blue jellybean then I will spend our time here trying to comfort you. If you choose to eat the red jellybean, I will instead spend our time here being honest with you.”
Both jellybeans stare at me from the desk. Knowing that this is not really a choice, I look at them for only a second. Reaching out, I reluctantly grab the red one, throw it in my mouth, and then chew it like a child being forced to eat his vegetables.
John reaches out and grabs the other jellybean off his desk. He takes that blue jellybean and drops it into the separate jar on the other side of the desk. A jar filled with only blue jellybeans: If you can’t face the truth here, you are destined to fail.
“Okay then…” John starts; after I am done with the candy in my mouth. “First things first. You need to know that I do not feel bad for you. Nobody will feel bad for us. You are now dealing with the consequences of your actions. It is as simple as that.” Seeing that I can handle what he is saying, he continues. “I’ve been here long enough to tell you that what you are dealing with now is not as unique a situation as you may think Jose. We often lose things that are important to us when we first attempt to get sober. Right now, Sirena sees you as a lost investment. You must learn to be okay with that—”
John is trying to tell me what I must be okay with and I hate him for it. I want to stop listening to him. But I can’t.
“A good relationship can create an unbreakable force Jose. Maybe that is what you thought you had. But you must also know this: A toxic one can do just the same. One will lift you up to unknown heights. One can weigh you down to unknown depths…”
For a moment John stops talking. I look up but don’t say a word. John looks at me. “Right now, you have a Sprinkler Problem Jose,” he says with serious face.
The words confuse me. Is this some landscaper joke? —Is this really the time to be joking? —What exactly is a Sprinkler Problem?
My mind is trying to make sense of his comment before I give John time to fill me in on what he means.
“You came in my office and were upset by what I said about your wife Jose. I said that she was sleeping with someone, and that upset you.” —The words are like nails on a chalkboard— “Well, the truth is, it doesn’t matter. She is an adult, and what she is, or is not doing, is not important. The details will haunt you, but you have to accept that whatever is happening is out of your control. What she will tell you is going to be sprinkled with truth. She will not want to hurt you so she will only sprinkle you with the facts that she thinks you can handle. From now on you have to think of her as a Sprinkler Jose.”
This REALLY hurts as it feels like he is nicely trying to confirm my fears. The exit door at the front of the house gets closer as I sit in this unadulterated truth. I begin to choke on the air in the room and can feel the tears gather in my eyes. Lowering them, I rest my head in the hands attached to this stupid body of mine.
I hear John’s voice soften a little. “We all have our ‘All Hope Is Lost’ moments Jose…make this one yours,” he says; trying to sound encouraging.
John doesn’t know me yet. He doesn’t know that I’ve had too many of these moments already.
The room goes quiet.
With my head down, I attempt to fill the silence. “What do I do?” I ask softly.
“The guys tell me that you’ve been sneaking on the phone a lot. I can only assume that you are trying to call Sirena—Don’t.” John is calling me out, but it doesn’t matter. “You need to talk to your children Jose, but right now you need to leave your wife alone. Next time you call home come up with set times to call and speak with your kids… only them. Sirena will respect you more for being a new man rather than simply telling her you are one. So start acting like one. You do that by being a responsible father and being there for the boys. You do that by being a decent husband and respecting your wife’s need for space to figure things out on her own.”
Hearing John says this—but not wanting to deal with any of it—I can’t help but wonder if anyone in the house has ever eaten the blue jellybean: This reality is just too hard.
“Are you going to be okay?” John says caringly; handing me a tissue, and exposing a kink in his tough-guy armor.
“Yes,” is what I want to say this question.
“Yes,” is what I should say to this question, even if it’s a lie.
Unfortunately, “Yes” is not what I say to the man I barely know sitting across from me.
Our conversation continues and I find myself no longer wanting to punch something as words spill from my mouth. I know I am talking but I am unsure of what I am saying. I am an absolute mess.
When I do finally stop talking I make John a promise: I promise to tell him if I plan to leave.
“I won’t stop you Jose,” he says in a supportive voice. “But respect me enough to let me know that you are going to be safe once you walk out that door.”
I am not sure if I will survive in this house for another hour, another day, or another week. Sirena said I could come home at Christmas, but this is almost two months away…
What’s the point of staying if I won’t be returning home?
***End of Breaking Knews***
Pras had just done it, he went political. He is now talking from his cube on screen; trying to tell us all what to think.
As he talks, I reflect on my own background with the P-word….
I grew up a product of my upbringing just like most kids. I remember my grandfather liking the original George Bush. Not for any other reason except for how he and his wife carried themselves. My grandfather is old school and still thinks a President should be a role-model for children.
My dad voted for Trump. But he’s not the type of Trump supporter to attach a flag to his pickup truck—he’s a closet Trump supporter; a hardworking man frustrated with where this country is headed. My dad is also an immigrant from Canada who moved here permanently as an infant and only recently became an official U.S. citizen. He is a man that started his construction business towards the end of the seventies and remembers when the Republican Ronald Reagan saved his business when times were hard in the early 1980’s with those trickle-down economic policies of his.
As a result of all this, I have been a semi-proud and semi-loyal Republican for all my life. And a faithful capitalist.
As far as capitalism goes, I have witnessed both the good and bad side of this way of life that we American’s pride ourselves on. As a young man, my dad helped me see it as a three-step process to success: Work hard—Earn your spot—Get ahead of others not as dedicated as you. But growing into an adult beside him, I have also seen it appear as a three-step process to conflict: Work hard—Keep your spot—Get angry at others trying to take it from you.
Listening to Pras talk, I am reminded that there is literally nothing I dislike more than politics today. I hate it. There is no other way to say it.
This was not always the case however, as I was once very interested in the sport….
I only started calling it a Sport back in 2008 when I believed the Republican Party purposely threw the election. That was the year of the financial crisis. The year the Republicans ran John McCain; a nice but unelectable candidate, alongside the pretty young and loud Alaskan Sarah Palin. They ran this duo against the respectable Democratic nominee Barack Obama. The contest made for some good Saturday Night Live skits, but not much else.
While the country rejoiced at Obama’s win that year; and what it meant historically, I couldn’t help but think that this genuinely good man had just walked into the lion’s den. To me, it was like the Republicans knew someone was going to be blamed for the fallout from the financial mess and didn’t want a Republican leader in office when it happened. I was not in a great headspace at the time, so maybe I was wrong, but that’s how I felt then.
Any love I still had for this Sport died on a very specific date after. That date was eight years later, on March 3rd, 2016.
On that day I stayed up late to watch the Republican debate. My horse in the race then was a Governor from Ohio; John Kasich. Not many people knew of him, but on that night, I was hoping the world might see him as the right person for the job. Unfortunately, that debate turned into a dick measuring contest—literally—as my candidate became an afterthought to the three children on stage comparing the size of their hands with one another.
As I’m thinking about all this, big words and big opinions continue to flutter out of Pras’s mouth.
I bite my tongue and stay quiet; pretending to care. I do not discount Pras’s passion, however. I have been there. I know how it feels to care. I cared once.
While I might not be interested in this election myself, Nel is. He jumps into the conversation, ready to fight.
“Don’t be an idiot Pras,” he says. “Do you realize how much Trump has done for this country? Show him some respect. I hope you’re right…I hope he does find a way to win. We need him right now more than ever.”
“Even if he has to lie and cheat to get re-elected?” Pras says to Nel through the screen.
“Trump is a doer Pras. He gets shit done—” Spoken like a dedicated soldier of the cause, Nel punches this opinion of his home. “He’s a true American hero.”
I maintain my poker face and listen as Pras punches back. “Nel…I love you buddy…but you’re the reason people hate this country,” he says, sounding disgusted.
Hearing Nel’s statement and Pras’s rebuttal reminds me of why political talk makes me physically ill.
“No one f****** cares you girls…”
Lauryn jumps into the ring before Nel can respond.
“Don’t go getting yourselves all horny!” I hide my smile and watch Lauryn work. “You’re all just pawns. It’s voodoo shit and you idiots think you have it all figured out—Don’t be stupid!”
Lauryn says mean words, but we don’t think she’s mean, she’s Lauryn. The words she aims at my other two students are followed by silence, as usual. A break in the action makes it clear that it is now my turn to step into the ring as this flicking contest is getting out of hand.
“Alright my friends,” I say to the irritated silence, “Let’s try and play nice.”
One of the advantages of teaching remotely is that I do not have to listen to staff talk about all this. I know that I need to squash this conversation so we can all maintain our sanity before the weekend begins. Looking at all of their frustrated faces on screen I know exactly what to say.
“Do any of you care to know what I think?” I ask.
This is a set-up. Which they walk into perfectly by staying quiet and waiting for me to speak.
“If there is one thing you remember me telling you in this class, let it be this…”
Pausing for theatrical purposes, I wait and then speak very slowly, and very clearly, so they won’t miss it.
“If you want to change the world… do—not—enter—politics.”
Really, what else could I say?
Week 4: Friday, October 2nd, 2020
“P.A.I.N. through Doubt”
“We are all born a certain way and transform into the person we become because of the events we live through and the stories we are told.”
Last week’s article, Life’s Puzzle, discussed struggle and how every human being experiences it in one way or another. Today we will move forward in this class by focusing on one word: DOUBT.
The last piece of writing you received from me was very philosophical in nature. Personally, I’m not a big fan of philosophy as I often find myself feeling inadequate. With that said, let me make a quick disclaimer: I struggle with a crippling sense of insecurity. It is why I avoid conflict and controversy in my life as much as possible. While I could get angry about why I am this way, I have instead learned to embrace it and try to have faith that it will one day serve a purpose in my life.
Why do I bring this up? Well, because today I want to take a step back from philosophical discussions and tell you a story. The story is about a boy, a man, and a woman….
The boy in this story grew up doubting his life would ever surmount to anything. As a child he believed there was nothing special about him. In the early years of his life, the one emotion many believe is the purpose for living was non-existent. This boy did not know love. He did not know what it felt to be loved or even what it was to love. In a world we say is magical, this boy only knew P.A.I.N.
The man in our story had become like a king in early childhood. People all over the world admired him and his rise to fame. Unfortunately, this man felt he was simply playing a character in someone else’s story. What he said, was not how he felt. What he did, was almost always not his choice. This man doubted people would ever respect him for who he really was. In a world so fake, this man only felt P.A.I.N.
It doesn’t make sense yet but both this boy and this man were brought to life by this woman. A woman with a dream. But the world she lived in did not think kindly of people with dreams. Because of this, this woman was destined to suffer. People told her that even if she could write a book or make a movie, no one would understand a world that only existed in her mind. As others doubted her, she was forced over and over to doubt herself. In a world so real, this woman only saw P.A.I.N.
The boy, the man, and the woman will forever be connected to one another. One without the other would have each and every one of us living in a world much different than the one we now know. In order for us to have gotten here, each of these three had to experience P.A.I.N. In their P.A.I.N., there was one common ingredient: DOUBT.
The boy in this story is Harry Potter, I think you know him. The man is Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who played Harry Potter in the movies. And the woman is J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter.
Living under the stairs, Harry Potter doubted anyone cared he existed. Living on top of the entertainment world, Daniel Radcliffe doubted anyone appreciated him for who he really was. Living on the brink of poverty, J.K. Rowling doubted anyone would ever respect the dreams she held in her mind.
The point of telling you this story is to help you recognize that doubt is part of life.
Many of us grow up learning certain things. We learn these things from our parents, from our teachers, from society, from television, from movies, from books, from the internet. We are told how things are, and how things work. As a result, we expect certain things in life. When things do not seem to make sense with our pre-conceived beliefs, doubt creeps into our mind. Some people doubt themselves. Some naturally doubt others. Some doubt EVERYTHING.
Doubt is ‘ever-present’ in our lives. It never goes away. Even for those approaching the end of life, doubt is there as questions will always haunt our minds: What is the meaning of life—or— what comes next?
As human beings, the result of doubt can often lead to feelings of anger. We get frustrated with ourselves, with others, with the world, with life—with EVERYTHING. If it is natural to doubt, then it is natural to become angry. In fact, many argue that there is a cyclical nature between the two emotions; doubt and anger. Do you agree with this argument?
(I guess I like philosophical discussions more than I thought—my bad.)
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
Which one word describes you most: a Thinker, a Believer, or a Lover? Why?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Attracted to things that will bring you trauma.”
—Where is the love? by Black Eyed Peas