(5) The Bull

Our school district had announced students would be coming back into schools the next week. This ‘Hybrid Model’ they introduced meant students would only be in the building for half the week, but it was at least a step towards some sense of normalcy. For this fifth week though, we were still on the computers. On our screen was a quote I was 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.”

When I was finished reading this aloud, I minimized the quote and put all the students back in their boxes on the computer. Now seeing all of them, I asked, “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 was requiring that my students keep a journal for the class. At the beginning of the year I had bought all of them a nice one to keep. They were allowed to write whatever they wanted in them but were asked to answer certain questions in it as well.  

Part of what helped me in recovery was journaling, so I was simply trying to plant a seed with them. I knew damn well most kids did not journal: I had never journaled when I was a kid. But it really helped me as an adult, and I wanted them to look back on this as something they could possibly use in the future. In reality I was never going to really check that they kept them. But looking at my students on the screen at that moment I could see they all had their journals with them; making me very happy. 

After not getting any volunteers, I moved the conversation forward, “Pras, tell me what you think.”

Reading from his journal he spoke, “From an evolutionary standpoint we are infants when it comes to understanding the technology that we have at our fingertips today. For that reason, I agree with the statement completely.” Looking up from his book Pras saw that I was encouraging him to go on. Not looking at his journal anymore, he elaborated, “I mean, classes are taught to kids about the industrial revolution and how it changed everything. Someday I have to 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?”

“I think that makes perfect sense to me,” I responded, agreeing with Pras. “What do you think Lauryn?”

“Honestly, I think it’s a bunch of crap to distract us from what’s really going on,” Lauryn barked back, “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.”

Telling you now about how this conversation of ours went, I realize that I could have anticipated what Lauren said: She spoke of religion a lot. However, when I provided the quote for them to reflect on, I never imagined someone putting this spin on it. 

Honestly, religion was a topic that always intimidated me and talking about it often made me feel stupid. Not long ago, a friend of mine; named Billy, did try teaching me the ins and outs of it, but I always found his lessons and stories confusing. I’d ask him questions and he’d say, “You’re missing the point Jose.” He said that to me so much that I just stopped asking questions and gave up trying to understand. Billy did teach me a lot though. I remember the day I asked him a question about another friend’s religion; to which Billy responded: “If it brings a person purpose without causing someone else pain, then I believe God smiles upon his pursuers regardless of who is more right Jose.”

Remembering my friend’s words; and attempting to respect Lauryn’s beliefs, I had tried to politely move on by asking Nel what he thought…

“I agree with Lauryn,” said Nel, matter-of-factly.  

From the corner of the screen I could see Lauryn smile, and then Nel smile too. Not to each other, but instead to the camera in front of them. On a computer this whole flirting thing was super-awkward. It made everyone else in the class feel like a third wheel on a date.

Laughing at them, I butted 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.”

His smile grew into a smirk as he looked at me through the screen, “I agree with Lauryn,” he said again. 

***BREAKING KNEWS***

We need to leave the halfway house for a bit. To tell this story properly there is more about me that you must know. In order to get us to our next destination I must quickly tell you about my youth: You know—about the person I was before I became this screw up. 

The information I am called to share here is a bit dull, but I am going to do my best in order to keep you awake.  

I find it funny that when you are young you think an entire book could be written about you. Whether as a successful youth or as a troubled youth does not matter. Only later do you discover the truth: That life is long, and every phase of it is simply a chapter in a larger story. To make this point of mine, I am going to share these ‘highlights’ with you in less than one-thousand words. This should be less than the time it takes you to shit: Because honestly—no one should give two shits about who I was. 

Let’s be real, you want to know about how I ended up getting arrested in that movie theatre. I get it. And don’t worry, I’ll get there.

I will be transitioning into third person dialogue for this section. Please know I’m doing this for entertainment purposes only:

Back in the day, it is said Jose Julian would have been a shoo-in to win “Most Likely to Succeed.” Sadly, his popularity, good looks, and athletic ability got in the way of him being able to put this particular notch on his belt. 

Regardless of what awards he won or did not win, there was not a more likely candidate to be a future productive member of society than this young stud.  

In an article published on May 25th, 2001, in his local newspaper; The Sentinel and Enterprise, Jose discussed his selection as Chanel 5’s ‘High 5 High School Player-of-the-Week.’ Referring to the filming of this television spot he’d be in, Jose was quoted by the paper as saying, “The whole team had a blast with it, they enjoyed it. It wasn’t about me; it was more about the team…not about what I was doing. I’m glad it wasn’t more centered on me. I like the attention, but this was better.”

This sense of humility, real or not, made Jose even more attractive to the onlooking observer. 

Throughout his entire life Jose seemed to always rise to the top in whatever he did. The oldest of three siblings, many times this fact would cause those siblings of his to get angry; announcing in defiance, “Sorry I can’t be as perfect as Jose,” to their parents repeatedly throughout their adolescents.

At the age of nine Jose began getting noticed as a standout three-sport athlete. Making every all-star team there was while continuing to be the lovable neighborhood paperboy. As this newspaper article we just quoted from suggests, this tendency to standout continued throughout high school.

It was in high school, as a freshman, that Jose would meet his future wife. As if written for a script of a movie, Jose fell in love with this beautifully brown-eyed girl that was not enjoying her transition from her private school beginnings into the public-school system. Though they had their ups and downs like all young love, this fairy tale relationship of theirs culminated with the young couple hand in hand on stage: voted their school’s homecoming king and queen.  

Jose would go to college at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Enrolling at the school in Fall of 2001. He would hang up his cleats at this point in his life. This was a decision that his mother disagreed with, however, Jose knew he was never destined to be a professional athlete. Instead, college was to be where he learned how to be a “Simple Man:” Just like Lynyrd Skynyrd had advised.

His first month at that college terror gripped his beloved country when the twin towers fell on September 11th. It was on that day Jose first remembers wondering if perhaps he did not understand the world he lived in as well as he thought.

In his last two years at Umass, he lived from home and commuted so that he could work full time with his father doing construction. Jose would eventually graduate with a degree in Finance a semester early with top grades. This accomplishment allowed him to get a jumpstart on living the family life he had spent his entire life looking forward to. 

By the age of twenty-six, Jose had married his high school sweetheart, built a beautiful home, and had himself a good job in the field of finance that he had gone to college for. To top it off, his wife gave birth to a set of beautiful and healthy identical twin boys in August of 2008. 

For Jose, living the American Dream was, for a little while, a dream. 

In retrospect the cracks in the foundation of this fairy tale existence of Jose’s began to appear during the 2008 stock market crash. Up until then this young man had followed all life’s rules; he had colored within all the lines: But it was at this point he started to lose faith in the yellow brick road he was on. 

Fighting a money war from a cubicle left a sour taste in Jose’s mouth that year. Having gotten to where he wanted to be in life, and not being happy, Jose simply chose to change his destination. He decided that a career in teaching would be more rewarding. Like he had done countless times before, Jose transitioned easily into this next chapter of his life. 

In truth however, this transition was not as smooth as it appeared.  

In the face of mounting family turmoil, this American-Dream-Life ended in 2011 when Jose decided to divorce his high school sweetheart. Though he did not realize it at the time, this was not the new start Jose had imagined for himself. 

Rather, this decision marked the beginning of what would be a slow and painful transformation into the A-hole we know him to be today…. 

***End Of Breaking Knews***

Dear Reader, obviously I have some explaining to do regarding my love life. But first we need to get back to class and finish this week strong. This rollercoaster of ours is just beginning, so let’s see you practice some patience; and focus. 

All that fifth week in class I had been working with the students on something I called: “The Sprinkle Scale.”

I began the week by defining this word as we would use it:

Sprinkle (verb): to tell a story using pieces of truth.

Obviously, you know where the idea for this word of mine came from (thanks councilor John), but my students did not know its origin. This “Scale” was a horizonal ten-point scale. On the left of the scale was the number zero, along with the word, “Real.” On the right of the scale, was the number ten with the word, “Fiction.” 

We had practiced using this 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 a little earlier, we used this class period to continue practice working with this scale. It was Lauren’s day to pick a piece of entertainment that we would discuss. I’m going to pick back up towards the end of our discussion that day…

“I ranked it a two on our scale,” said Lauren, after reviewing her choice; a show called ‘13 Reasons Why.’  

Lauren’s ranking suggested that she felt the show war very accurate to how things are in real life. 

This show was a high school drama. A perfect choice for this class of ours (thanks Lauren). A child in the show had committed suicide and left a video outlining the 13 Reasons Why she felt compelled to do it. Luckily for me, I had watched this show prior to Lauren’s discussion about it that day.  

This scale 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 mostly agreed with my students ranking of their choices. I simply let the students disagree with one another and kept conversations on track the best I could when needed. However, I was about to step out of this passive observer role with Lauren: Knowing that I was destined to get myself in trouble by doing so.

“What if I told you that I rank the show an eight on our scale Lauren,” I said, as kindly as I could.

My ranking suggested that I felt the show was more based on fiction than on how things are in real life.

Lauren did not need to defend her ranking of the show, Pras jumped instead, “Mr. J, people do this all the time. Bullying is real. Are you really gonna say the stuff that happens in this show is not happening in real life?”

I answered, “Awful things do happen Pras, I agree with you on that. And bullying is real, I’d never try and say otherwise. But to make this show entertaining they bundle the worst of the worst and feed it to us like its normal.”

“No way!” said Nel. “This shit happens every day, at every school—all the time.”

“Alright, give me an example.” I said.

All of them jumped at the opportunity to give me examples: Things that happened to their friends: Things done to people they knew: Things they heard about on the news. Thing—after thing—after thing….  

I let them talk to one another for a few minutes and listened to them feed off one another in an  attempt to prove me wrong: to prove to me that people treat each other like crap on a regular basis.

I listened to them feed this hate until I could not listen to it anymore; “—Are any of you this mean to people?” I interrupted to ask.

They all said, “—No.”

“Would you be friends with someone that treated people this way?” I asked.

They all said, “—No.”

“So, if you’re not this mean, and you wouldn’t be friends with anyone that was this mean, then where are all these mean people hiding in the real world?” I asked.

Lauren spoke, “—Everywhere!” She said confidently.

“I’m sorry Lauren, but with what I’ve seen in my life, and what I see on this screen in front of me, I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you.”

Week 5 (10.9.20): 

“The Bull”

“Did you know that 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. This was before you 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?

Every time we would get a shot from behind of the bull kicking his hind legs, we would jump to our feet and stare into the television to get a closer look; thinking that 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 that my cousin was right. That did not stop me from laughing, however.

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 could actually ‘see it.’

“You have to see to believe.”

So, we watched. And we all laughed. It is one of my favorite memories of those Sunday Roasts that we would have. 

I know this will sound cliché, but it was simpler times back then. Nowadays, any one of us would have just 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. I am pretty sure however that you will find out the answer for me after we end class here today. Just remember to delete your browser history!

—But anyway…

All of us here 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 just maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

OR—how hard it is to simply stay sane in a seemingly insane world.

I do not have to tell you that 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. Nothing secret about any of this.

Some days we are sad. Some days we are angry. Some days we are annoyed, worried, anxious, stressed. Somedays we might feel scared that life will never get better for us.  

“Momma said there’d be days like this.”                   

But then again, some days we are happy: And that is the goal—Right?

Wrong, not for everyone. 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—Maybe some people find hope in believing the end of days is near.

Telling you this does not make me a wise person—It Is Common Sense.

The pursuit of happiness is not something to be ashamed of, however. 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.

The author of a book titled ‘The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching’ argues: “Whether we are happy, or we suffer depends largely on our perceptions. It is important to look deeply at our perceptions and know their source. We have an idea of happiness. We believe that only certain conditions will make us happy. But it is often our very idea of happiness that prevents us from being happy.”  

Sounds pretty insightful to me. But also confuses the crap out of me at the same time.  

I will never be one to pretend to have all the answers, but I do know this: We are all at our best when we feel like we have purpose. Now, if that purpose is to be happy then you should fight for it with all your might: There is no judgement here. I just want you to be reminded that for some out there, survival is the goal. So, give yourself a break and try to be grateful for being alive today.

If that Buddhist teaching is too much of a stretch for you, perhaps the fortune cookie I got the other night may speak to you instead; “Happiness is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”  

Personally, I think this quote speaks more to our times than the distant enlightened thinker does. The truth is, trying to stay happy in today’s world; just like an addict trying to kick the habit, is like riding a bull. 

Life will kick you around. It will punish you. It 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; 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. A miracle may be waiting for you right around the corner. Perhaps what you are watching now is simply one long commercial the universe is playing for you before it releases the grand final act.  

Speaking of that: Did you know that in some religions the word ‘Apocalypse’ represents an “Awakening Period” for humanity? 

This is quite different than Hollywood’s portrayal of it—Which one do you think will be correct?

Only time will tell.

Regardless of which one wins out, it promises to be quit the show.  So, gather your friends, and sit up close: You won’t want to miss it.

Which reminds me, I never have been able to see the string tied around that bull’s testicles. But as an adult, I have come to realize the bull and I are a lot alike. During hard times, I’ve wondered if I had a string tied around my own testicles. 

Only recently have I discovered that I am not like that bull; but more like the string—Do you see it?

QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:

In your opinion, will things in this world get better or worse over the next 100 years?

The Teacher’s Playlist:

“… I could take you for a ride.”

—Levitating (feat. DaBaby) by Dua Lipa

(Click here to continue to next to chapter)

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Read our story at: RecoveryHighSchool.com

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