Our school district has announced that in-person-learning will begin next week. But for this fifth week, we are still on the computers. On our screen is a quote I am reading out loud to the class:
“Future civilizations will study how technology transformed our world. They will analyze how humanity was molded by television, literature, and all forms of entertainment. They will be able to look at our behavior differently with an advanced understanding of which we cannot comprehend today. They will use what is happening now to improve future life on this planet.”
Once I have finished reading, I minimize the quote and put all the students back into their boxes on the computer screen in front of me.
Now seeing all of them, I ask, “So—What do you think?”
Yesterday I had given them this quote at the end of the day to read and reflect on in their journals for homework; I am requiring that my students keep a journal for the class. Not getting any volunteers, I move the conversation forward. “Pras, tell me what you think.”
Pras reads from his journal. “From an evolutionary standpoint we are infants when it comes to understanding the technology we have today. For that reason, I agree with the statement completely.”
Looking up, Pras sees me encouraging him to go on. Not looking at what he wrote anymore, he elaborates. “I mean, classes are taught to kids about the Industrial Revolution and how that changed everything, someday I imagine a class will be taught about the Internet Revolution and what is happening right now….and how that changed everything too. That’s pretty much what the quote means, right Mr. J?”
“That makes perfect sense to me Pras,” I reply, nodding. “What do you think Lauryn?”
“Honestly…I think it’s a bunch of crap,” she says calmly. “Fancy f****n* words to distract us all from what’s really going on. God has a plan. This world is destined to end and everything going on is just part of His plan. Thinking that we can control things—or fix things, is the devil’s work.”
Lauryn speaks of religion a lot and I immediately question if I should have anticipated this reaction from her.
Her comment makes me think of an old friend Billy Preston; my religion expert, who told me, “God created religion because he knew people needed to feel part of a story. A faithful person will not be judged for believing the wrong story because they all lead to him in the end.”
I can’t say I exactly agree with Billy’s statement, but his words echo around in my head at this moment.
“I’m sure you’re not alone feeling that way Lauryn,” I respond sympathetically; remembering my friend. “Nel—How about you? What do you think?”
Nel is quick a response, “I agree with Lauryn,” he says reflexively.
From the top left corner of the screen I can see Lauryn smile, and then Nel smile too on the other side of my screen. They don’t smile to each other, but instead to the camera in front of them. On a computer this whole flirting thing is super awkward. Everyone else in the class feels like a third wheel on a date.
Amused by this, I butt in. “—Nel, how about you think as an individual and not as a boyfriend for once. I promise Lauryn can take an honest opinion on the subject from you.”
Nel’s face turns serious. “I agree with Lauryn,” he says again with unwavering conviction.
I see my computer image smile on screen at Nel’s statement, and I can’t help but think to myself that Nel is a smarter kid than I give him credit for…
I graduated high school in 2001. In my senior yearbook I was voted Most Athletic by my classmates. While this was an honor, the award I really coveted in those days was Most Likely to Succeed. I remember privately consoling myself back then: “You can’t have it all,” I told myself unbelievingly.
Regardless of what award I won, there was no one more likely to be a productive member of society than me. I was blessed both physically and mentally. And to top it off I came from a great home. This combination of things left me privileged, white, and talented: the three pre-requisites one needed to conquer the world: THE GOLDEN TICKET—or so I was told.
Being the oldest of four children, often my siblings would get angry at the relentless success I encountered throughout my youth. “Sorry no one can be as perfect as Jose,” was a common phrase my siblings would mutter over the years. A comment made laughable for many reasons later on in my life.
As a freshman in high school I met my future wife. A beautiful and shy brown eyed girl: Falling in love with her at the age of fourteen was my very first addiction.
After high school I enrolled at a state college in order to stay close to her. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Doing this allowed me to work with my father doing construction and continue my education at the same time. All part of a plan to get me living the Simple Man life as soon as possible. Just like Leonard Skynyrd had so poignantly advised in the song. The fact I was in such a rush to get to this “simple life” I now find ironic.
It was during my first month at Umass that the September 11th attack terrified the world in 2001. It was a bright blue-sky day that Tuesday morning. A day that turned scary in an instant. It was that day I first remember wondering if maybe I did not understand the world I lived in as well as I thought. (I didn’t.)
Fortunately for me, life went on after that event, and four years later I graduated college. Shortly afterwards I began living the life I had been looking forward to.
By the age of twenty-six, I was married, built a beautiful home, and had myself a good job in the field of finance that college had prepared me for. To top it off, my wife gave birth to a set of healthy identical twin boys in August of 2008.
For me, living the American Dream was—for a little while—a dream.
Until the divorce.
For anyone not connecting the dots, let me clear things up: Sirena is my second wife, from my second marriage: I am a dirtbag.
Clearly this reveal means I have a lot more explaining to do regarding my love life in order for this story to make sense. But that will come. This rollercoaster has only just begun.
In retrospect the cracks in the foundation of my fairy tale existence began to appear during the 2008 stock market crash; right before my twins were born. Up until then I had followed all life’s rules and colored within all the lines, but it was at this point I started to lose faith in the yellow brick road I was on.
Fighting a money war from a cubicle left a sour taste in my mouth that year. Getting to where I wanted to be in life, and not being happy, it was then I chose to change my profession and decided a career in teaching would be more rewarding. With a degree in finance, I took the Massachusetts State Tests to become a certified math teacher and got myself a new job.
Making the career change was not too difficult. Though the transition into teaching was not as smooth as it may have appeared at the time. Something that would become evident in 2011, when—in the face of mounting family turmoil—I decided that a divorce would give me the new start I really needed in this life.
Of course, this divorce from my first wife was not the new start I had imagined for myself. Rather, this decision marked the beginning of what would be a slow and painful transformation into the asshole I am today.
***End of Breaking Knews***
Back in class the students and I are eventually able to move past our daily warm-up exercise and get started with the day’s lesson. All week I have been working with the students on something I titled THE SPRINKLE SCALE.
The week began by defining this word as we would use it: Sprinkle (verb): to tell a story using pieces of the truth.
It was the word councilor John used to describe Sirena at the halfway house, but my students don’t know its origin. The scale is a horizonal ten-point scale. On the left of is the number zero, along with the word Real. On the right of the scale is the number ten, with the word Fiction.
The idea for this lesson was actually born out of a conversation with my twins. We had just begun to watch scary movies together and one morning they stopped on a channel showing the movie Seven. Seeing that it looked scary they watched while I sat next to them; it was towards the end of the movie; when the killer is in the back seat of the police vehicle. Watching this scene, I explained to my boys the manner in which this killer was choosing his victims. “The movie is called Seven because he’s choosing one victim for each of the seven deadly sins,” I said. The boys then asked if it was based on a true story. I explained that it wasn’t. Shortly after this conversation one of the boys made up his mind: “Someone could really do this dad,” he said. Presented with this teachable moment, I took that opportunity to explain to them my opinion on the subject.
After that discussion was when I came up with this lesson of mine.
Introducing the lesson to my students, I stole a quote from that movie I watched sitting next to my twins. “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You need to hit them in the head with a sledgehammer. Then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.” I described the conversation with my twins to my students and used this quote and a few others from a show Westworld I’d been watching to illustrate to them how writers are able to insert words into their stories that speak to how he or she truly see the world. “Pay attention next time,” I said, “—I promise there are secrets hiding everywhere that they want you to find.”
My students and I used the Sprinkle Scale to rate television shows, movies, and single scenes of entertainment all week. The premise was simple: How much of this story we are being shown is based on real life stuff, and how much of if it is sprinkled with fiction in order to make it more entertaining to the viewer?
Each day a student picked a show or movie of their choosing and ranked it using our scale. As a class we would then discuss it; and either agree with the ranking or offer a different one of our own. After our warm-up to start the class today, we use this class period to continue working with this scale. It is Lauryn’s day to pick a piece of entertainment for us to discuss…
“I ranked it a two on our scale,” Lauryn says; after reviewing her choice, a show called ‘13 Reasons Why.’
Lauryn’s ranking suggests that she feels the show is very accurate to how things are in real life.
This show is a high school drama; a soap opera for kids and a perfect choice for this class of ours. A child in the show had committed suicide and left a video outlining the 13 Reasons Why she felt compelled to do it.
Lauryn was required to inform me of the show she would be discussing so I watched two episodes last night. The premise is one I’ve seen many times. Someone gets treated bad so that person treats another person bad, and so on. This cycle continues until no one is to blame but everyone. While I haven’t seen the entire show, I am rather certain this is where its headed.
The Sprinkle Scale we are using is not a scientific instrument. “There are truly no right or wrong numbers to assign a piece of entertainment using the scale.” I explained this to my students over and over throughout the week. “It is simply a tool to get you to acknowledge the entertainment value of the food you are feeding your minds.”
All week I have mostly agreed with my students ranking of their choices; letting the students disagree with one another and keeping conversations on track when needed. I am about to step out of this passive observer role with Lauryn—knowing that I am destined to get myself in trouble by doing so.
“What if I told you that I rank the show an eight on our scale Lauryn,” I say, as kindly as I can.
My ranking suggests that I feel the show is more based on fiction than on how things are in real life.
Lauryn does not need to defend her ranking of the show, Pras jumps in instead. “Mr. J,” he says, “Bullying is real. You can’t say the stuff that happens in this show isn’t happening in real life?”
“Bullying is real Pras, I agree with you on that,” I answer. “All you have to do is walk around one high school football game to see how crappy kids treat one another most of the time. But to make this show entertaining they bundle the worst of the worst and feed it to us like it’s normal.”
“No way!” Nel says loudly, in response to my statement. “This shit happens every day—at every school—all the time!”
I reply calmly to Nel, “Alright, give me an example,” I say.
At this, noise fills my screen as all of my students quickly jump at the opportunity to give me examples: to describe the cruelty that childhood seems to require these days.
One after another they tell me things that happened to their friends; things done to people they know; things they heard about on the news and on the internet; thing…after thing…after thing. As I listen, I can’t help but think that asking for examples was a dumb idea on my part.
I know that kids have been treating other kids poorly forever, and I also know that we will always turn that behavior into good entertainment, but I refuse to accept that things can’t get better—in real life. Thinking this to myself, I continue to listen to them feed this hate until I can’t listen to it anymore.
“—How many of you have seen the show Cobra Kai on Netflix?” I interrupt their vent session to ask.
As I expected, everyone confirms they’ve seen it. It’s been number one on Netflix for a while now; my boys love it.
Looking at my students, I ask a follow up question. “Are any of you as mean to each other as the kids in these shows are?”
Blank faces look back at me on screen.
All of them eventually confirm that they are not this mean—they know better than to admit otherwise to a teacher.
I then ask if they’d be friends with someone that treated people so poorly.
We discuss this for a few minutes until we all come to an agreement: No, we would not like to be friends with someone so mean.
“So…” I say in conclusion, “if you’re not this mean, and you wouldn’t be friends with anyone that’s this mean, then where are all these mean people hiding in the real world?”
Lauryn speaks for the group. “EVERYWHERE!” she says.
Lauryn says it so confidently that I lose track of what I want to say next. Part of me wants to lecture her: It’s entertainment Lauryn…How do you not recognize that!?!
Reflecting on my personal experiences—experiences I cannot easily explain to them—I look at my students and try to collect myself. People are not as evil…or entertaining…as we make them appear on screen or in books. Some might try to be, but they’ll usually let you and themselves down by doing so. Despite our strongest wishes, deepest desires, and most fabulous fantasies…life IS NOT a movie!
Thinking about all I’ve seen on this crazy journey of mine thus far, I speak to my students in a way that I hope might touch a piece of them beaten into submission long ago.
“I’m sorry Lauryn, but from what I’ve seen in my life, and what I see on this computer screen in front of me, I have to respectfully disagree with you.”
Hearing the change in my tone, Lauryn doesn’t argue with me.
“Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world…the disarray” —Lauryn tries to say something but I cut her off— “It’s everywhere, I know. But I choose to see the beauty Lauryn. That’s everywhere too. It’s just not as easy to see sometimes…especially with a screen in our face all the time.”
***Dear Reader, as your Guide I’ve done my best to leave you alone as Jose tells his story, but I must quickly interrupt here to say just one thing. Teachers, parents, and most decent adults often tell children things they do not always believe themselves. Yes, they lie. They do it hoping to encourage change in the children looking up to them. This may or may not have been one of those moments in Jose’s life. ***
Week 5: Friday, October 9th, 2020
“Did you know they put an elastic string around a bull’s balls to make it go crazy like that?”
When I was around eleven years old, my older cousin said this to me at one of our regular Sunday dinners while the family watched television. A bull riding competition was on.
To set the scene properly you must understand that this was before we could pause live television.
Over time, more and more family members joined my cousin and I around the couch. Was he right? Was there really an elastic string tied around this bull’s testicles?
Each time the bull started kicking its back legs we would jump to our feet and stare into the television to get a closer look; thinking we saw a string in that millisecond. For the record, I had strong feelings against animal cruelty as a young child, so I remember being upset thinking my cousin was right. That did not stop me from laughing, however. And it was not just the kids that were entertained by this either; aunts, uncles, parents, and even grandparents pondered the validity of my cousin’s statement. There would be no proof though unless one of us actually saw it though: You have to see to believe.
So, we watched, and we all laughed.
Everyone was so consumed by this that my grandmother forgot something on the stove that day and the entire house ended up smelling of burnt food. It’s one of my favorite memories of those Sunday Roasts we would have.
I know this will sound cliché, but it was simpler times back then. Nowadays, any one of us would have jumped on our phones and Googled it. But I promise you it was a lot more fun the way things went down in my grandparent’s living room.
To this day I’m still not sure if my cousin was right or not. Though I’m rather certain one of you will find out the answer for me after we end class here today. Just remember to delete your browser history!
All of us know first-hand how hard it is to kick an addiction. Or, how hard it is to stay emotionally stable in the midst of a life crises. OR—how hard it is to stay sane in a seemingly insane world.
None of these things are easy to do.
Life is hard. Life is long. Life can feel unsatisfying. Life can be overwhelming and boring at the same time. Life can feel meaningless.
I’m not here to tell you anything you didn’t know already.
Some days we are sad. Some days we are angry. Some days we are annoyed, worried, anxious, stressed. Somedays we might be scared that this life will never get better for us: “Momma said there’d be days like this.”
But some days we are happy. And that’s the goal—Right?
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news here but for many people living in this world, surviving another day is the goal, not happiness.
I wish this was not the case, but unfortunately there is too much evidence to support this statement. Tragedy strikes everywhere you look and life for the majority gets harder year after year. No wonder Hollywood has made a fortune making movies about a pending apocalypse. Certainly, some people must find hope in believing the end of days is near.
Do not be mistaken, the pursuit of happiness is not something to be ashamed of. Just like many of you reading this, I think my well-being lies at the center of the Universe also. It is how the human brain is wired and there is nothing wrong with that. Something to do with self-preservation, I think.
Understanding happiness is complex endeavor. For all of history it has been studied and pondered over. I have yet to figure it out myself but bringing it up offers me the opportunity to remind you again that I do not have all the answers. I do, however, know this: We are all at our best when we feel like we have a purpose.
Now, if that purpose is to be happy, then you should fight for it with everything you have. Just try and remember that for some people, survival is the goal, so give yourself a break today and be grateful for being alive—because trying to stay happy in this life is like riding a bull…
Life will kick you around. Life will punish you. Life will test you. It will make you hold on while you wait for it to get tired and give up before you do. Unfortunately, the bull always wins, and we all eventually fall off. The real question is: Will you get back on?
My hope is that you will, because there is no way to Google what the future holds for us. Perhaps all the turmoil we are watching on our televisions today is simply one long commercial the Universe is playing for us before it releases the grand final act.
Which reminds me—Did you know that in some religions the word Apocalypse represents an awakening period for all humanity? This is quite different than what Hollywood has us thinking it means. Which version do you think will come to be?
Regardless of what Lauryn tells me, only time will answer these questions, but whatever happens, it promises to be great show. So, gather your friends and sit up close—you won’t want to miss it!
By the way, I was never able to see that string tied around the bull’s testicles like my cousin said, but as an adult I have often felt like that bull; wondering whether or not I had a string down there myself. Only recently have I discovered the truth: That I am nothing like that bull. Instead: I am more like the string. Do you see it?
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“We are all at our best when we feel like we have a purpose.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not.
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“I could take you for a ride.”
—Levitating (feat. DaBaby) by Dua Lipa