It is now the Friday before Halloween in 2020 and our eighth week of the school year is about to come to a close. Lily and I are working together in her office as snow begins to fall outside. Yup, snow on Halloween. This year continues to surprise:
“Are you and Principal Sam on good terms yet?”
Lily and I both have our laptops out and are typing on them. I stop what I’m doing to ask her this question.
“We will be fine,” she replies. “People just don’t like being called out…it’s an ego killer.” She looks up and gives me a look from over her laptop screen. “Don’t worry about it,” she says.
I had told Lily about the ass-chewing I received from Principal Sam over my suicide story. Lily knew about that story and she knows what I am doing in my class with the students. As the school’s councilor she is very supportive. Hearing what happened, she was not happy with how Principal Sam made me feel that day.
Without my knowing Lily argued with the principal in my defense and after whatever was said between them, I actually got an apology from Principal Sam. I would never have asked Lily to do what she did, but that’s just the type of person she is.
While I might have gotten an apology; and a little pressure taken off my shoulders, Lily was now on Principal Sam’s shit list. There has been tension between the two of them ever since.
We spend the next few minutes gossiping about Principal Sam; about how that ego was long overdue for a little adjustment; and how Lily is everyone’s hero for giving the principal a long overdue reality check.
Lily opens a piece of chocolate and throws it to me from across the desk. “Try it,” she says, “It’s really good.”
I hold it up to my nose and smell it: Dark chocolate; I thought so by the look but now I know for sure; I don’t like dark chocolate.
“Smells good,” I say, and throw it in my mouth.
Pretending to enjoy this treat, I watch Lily put her hair into a ponytail. We are working on a project together for my class next week. We are calling the class Deciphering Texts.
Lily flattens her hair on the top of her head and re-focuses her attention on the laptop in front of her. But I don’t feel like getting back to work yet.
“I’ve got an appointment to get myself fixed next week,” I say; blurting out this piece of private information.
The distraction works. Lily looks up from her computer. “What?” she says.
“You know…” I snip the air with my fingers. “It’s an easy surgery, I guess. Except the guy doing it made feel like I was gonna throw up when he explained it.” I let Lily see me shiver. “I’m not good with blood—at all,” I tell her.
“Do you really think you’re ready for that?” she says inquiringly. “What if you meet someone that wants to have kids?”
“My boys are a lot and it wouldn’t be fair to them if I had another one…” I answer.
This isn’t the whole truth but it’s enough for this conversation. The truth is I just don’t think if I’m a really good dad. I’m doing the best I can with the three I have but starting this journey all over is not something I’m equipped to handle.
“It’s not like I’m using the thing anyway,” I add with a goofy smirk. “But it would be just my luck to get someone pregnant if I did.”
“You’re an idiot,” Lily says with a smile—a smile that I see quickly fade into serious face again. “You should really think about it Jose… And if you’re not active what’s the point of rushing into that decision anyway?”
“With two ex-wives and three kids, I don’t think you can say I’m rushing into the decision Lily.”
“I think you should wait,” she says assertively. “But we really need to finish these conversations. Let’s just get them done.”
Adjusting my seat, I comply with her request. “Fine Miss Lily, whatever you say.”
I resume typing on my laptop and try to focus on my work, but I am now thinking about that surgery and wondering if maybe I should wait like Lily suggests; it’s easy for a someone to plant a seed of doubt in my head.
I was only doing it as to not sabotage my life any more than I already have. But like I just said, it’s not like I’m using the thing anyway—which is probably for the best.
Perhaps waiting might not be a bad idea? I was told I’d have to ice myself for a week and I’m not really sure how I’ll explain that to my boys anyhow…
A few minutes pass and a knock on the office door interrupts the silent punching of keyboards.
“Come in!” Lily says loudly.
The door opens and Lauryn stands looking at us. “Sorry to interrupt you two lovebirds,” she says, “but can one of you let me in the principal’s office to get the small speaker to bring outside?”
Lauryn points two fingers at her eyes and then points them at Lily and me. “I’m watching you two…” she adds.
“I got it,” I say; disrupting the awkwardness that has just entered the room.
Standing up, I grab my mask off the desk in front of me and put it on my face. The only thing Lily and I are guilty of is not wearing our masks in school. We both know Lauryn won’t snitch on us.
The two girls exchange a look with one another as I follow Lauryn out the door.
After a week stay in that detox facility in 2014, I was prescribed medicine that was designed to block opiates from effecting my system.
This medicine made it so even if I did take a Percocet I couldn’t get high; which meant taking one was pointless. I was told that I couldn’t drink alcohol on this medicine either. This was a good thing as drinking was another devil in disguise for me. I could smoke weed though—A Lifesaver!
Part of the treatment plan I agreed to with my family included weekly counseling sessions with a psychologist. Everyone came together in an effort to find me someone good. Who they found was amazing.
This psychologist was an older man who got me asking myself some really great questions. He talked very little but like a ninja could pick at my words with precision and say simple things that would force me to dissect what I was saying myself. He was my Mr. Miyage and I was his Karate Kid eager for his instruction.
He was expensive though—eighty dollars on top of what insurance covered per visit—but like he explained to me when we first met, it was worth it.
This doctor and I did some sole searching together. He helped me realize that I hated selling stuff. Every job I’d had since graduating college required me to do this—Yes, even teaching; according to my sensei. With this insight I decided that I was going back into construction. I wanted to build things again.
With renewed ambition and a desire to redeem myself, I started my own business: JoJo’s Design and Carpentry Services.
This word JoJo, as I used it, was a word I had recently invented.
Growing up I worked a lot with my father and his two younger brothers framing houses over the years. They all spent time in Canada as kids and could all speak a bit of French. There was this word I heard them use. The word was Goo. Not ‘go’ with an extra o, but ‘gew’. It wasn’t an actual word in French, just one they made up I think, but for some reason the word always stuck with me. In English, the word might mean ‘adrenaline’ in the way they used it.
Sirena and I later called our son Jojo as a nickname. Somehow my brain connected these two words ‘JoJo’ and ‘Goo’ so that when I felt good about life, I began telling Sirena, “I have found my JoJo again.”
In my mind, “Finding my JoJo” meant re-discovering my inner child; a sense of childhood adrenaline—my Goo.
Naming my business JoJo’s Design and Carpentry Services was a reference to my son but also a private declaration to the Universe that I had gotten my JoJo back: Watch out world, here I come!
Three years after giving my business this name, I listened to my councilor John tell the men in the halfway house, “Big ambitions can have devasting consequences.”
Hearing John say this, I remember looking around the room at the other guys that were with me. I don’t think the warning resonated with them the same way it did with me: A warning without knowing the consequences is merely a temptation.
***End of Breaking Knews***
Our school had decided to celebrate Halloween by letting students go trick-or-treating at decorated stations outside the building; all of it carefully set up to comply with social distancing requirements.
Despite the threat of snow on this day the teachers and other building staff did their best to put together something fun knowing that many cities in the state were not doing trick-or-treating this year due to the pandemic. The whole building was participating, not just our program.
Almost everyone is wearing a costume. I have a Batman’s Robin shirt on. With the heavy sweatshirt I am wearing underneath, the students have been calling me Fat Robin all day; “It’s Robin’s Quarantine-Fifteen,” I tell them jokingly.
Walking next to me, Lauryn isn’t dressed up—she’s too cool for that—but she is wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey and has been telling everyone she is dressed as her hero for the day. Kobe had died on January 26th, 2020 in a tragic helicopter crash with his thirteen-year-old daughter Gianna sitting next to him. It was heartbreaking; and extra painful for me as the thought of looking into one of my son’s eyes during our final moments made me feel sick. Although she is trying to be cool, I respect Lauryn for wearing this jersey today.
On our way to the principal’s office for the speaker, she says, “By the way, I’m sorry Mr. J… It was me that gave Principal Sam your suicide story.”
Lauryn decides to get the truth off her chest as we have a few minutes alone. The information she shares is something I already know, so I tell her. “I know you did. And you don’t have to be sorry.”
Not mad; or surprised, she replies, “Maybe I shouldn’t listen to what adults tell me to do so much, huh?”
I assume this means Principal Sam had asked her to report on what is going on in our class.
“You said it, not me,” I say, smiling beneath mask; hoping she can hear in my voice that I’m not upset.
Walking into the office I tell Lauryn why she really shouldn’t feel bad for giving Principal Sam that article.
“Everything does happen for a reason Lauryn, and I should probably thank you.” Grabbing the small speaker, I look at her. “After that meeting with Principal Sam I had a breakthrough…I realized that I would have to start opening up to you guys if I wanted to make our class work.”
“What do you mean?” she says.
“Just wait until you read this week’s article about worry. You’ll understand.”
Lauryn looks at me. I know she wants answers, but I say nothing more as we head into the hall.
“What are you doing for Halloween tomorrow?” she says from beside me.
“My town is still doing trick-or-treating, so me and the three boys are going together. I’m pretty pumped about it. I haven’t gone with the twins for a few years.”
Lauryn has learned of my unique family situation by now.
“Mr. J…” she says slowly; as we walk through the door to head outside, “Your life is more f****d up than I can even imagine—isn’t it?”
I respond with a mild laugh. “You have no idea Lauryn…”
Week 8: Friday, October 30th, 2020
“P.A.I.N. through Worry”
HOW COULD YOU CHANGE THE WORLD?
After writing this question on my white board I slowly turn around to look out at my students. A familiar silence fills the room.
It is very difficult for a teacher to get their students engaged in class so this silence is something I am accustomed to. In fact, I expected it.
How could you change the world? What a stupid thing to ask a bunch of kids anyway. But this is all part of my plan for this class of mine.
As a teacher—when I am trying to make a point—I often do this: I ease my students into a lesson by asking questions or doing something I know they will not completely understand at first.
Sooner or later they will understand this about me….
Last week’s article I wrote was about Anger. After reading it, you may be wondering how I feel right now; worried that I’m still upset over that argument with Principal Sam. Well, I need you to understand that just like every emotion that makes up this class on P.A.I.N., feeling angry is natural. Last week I wrote an article to illustrate what happens when this emotion takes over.
When I was young, I had quite the temper, looking back, I almost always experienced feelings of shame afterwards. Whether it’s punching a wall or saying something mean to someone, I have come to realize that worrying about things done out of anger is inevitable.
Anger is something I’ve tried very hard over the years to learn how to embrace. That doesn’t mean I enjoy being angry, I really don’t. But I’ve noticed that whenever something upsets me to the point of anger there is usually a lesson to be learned once that difficult moment passes.
Looking at the world today there are millions of things to get angry over. In last week’s article I did my best to stir the pot. I was never really that mad as Principal Sam and I made amends soon after we got in that little disagreement of ours. Some of the more hostile words I used in the anger article were actually pirated from a character named Elliot in the first episode of a show called Mr. Robot (Remember Pras, I’m 1% Pirate!). And the story about my walk around the neighborhood was simply a collection of thoughts I’ve had over the years.
Today’s article is about worry. Something that doesn’t need much explaining as we all know how worry affects us. There is a quote from a comedy movie I always loved which references worry. The movie is Van Wilder and the free-spirited student who is the main character in it says, “Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.” This is very true and very wise—yet worrying does often serve a purpose: like helping us learn from our mistakes and avoiding our past misfortunes. Which makes me think about the state of the world today and is the reason why I’m using this week’s article to get us thinking about that.
So, without further delay, let us get back to this imaginary class of mine….
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF YOU COULD CHANGE THE WORLD?
After being called “dumb” by one of my students for implying that someone could change the world, I returned to my white board and wrote the slightly different question above. “Imagine you could,” I reasoned, “What do you think would happen?”
Again, nothing but silence. But I see their sleeping minds slowly waking up. I see them now thinking about this question.
To be honest, this is all I ask for as a teacher. To inspire my students to think, to wonder, to ask themselves, “What if?” These types of discussions are my favorite as you can never anticipate where they will go. That is the beauty of encouraging people to use their imaginations—a skill we no longer use enough.
I have no idea what they are thinking. With no one speaking, I debate having them write in their journals, but then these words break the silence: “You would piss a lot of people off.”
The words are not spoken loudly, and they come out muffled because the student who speaks them is in the back of the room with a hood on and their head down. Like usual, I had simply assumed this child was not listening (you know what happens when we ‘ass-u-me’). But when this student mutters these words the entire class hears exactly what is said.
“What do you mean by that?” I kindly ask the hooded figure—Candace.
Her eyes raise and meet mine. “Millions of people think they know the best way to change the world,” she begins. “So, you’d have to convince countless people that what they think is wrong…” The room is silent as she finishes her thought. “Who wants to be told that they are wrong?”
I love being a teacher. It is a great feeling to be presented with questions by students that you don’t know how to answer yourself.
“What do you think?” I turn slightly and ask the rest of the class, “Is Candace right?”
A student who has yet to say anything responds to this question of mine. “Mr. J, I’m worrying about how to change my own life. I really don’t care.”
The words stop me in my tracks.
I often get lost in these wonderful classes that exist in my mind and forget that all of this is supposed to be about them, not me. Looking at the frustration on the face of the student who just spoke, I realize a lot of what I am making my students talk about is probably annoying them. I’m up here trying to act all cheerful and shit while their minds face other problems that are more personal to them. I know this. And it makes me wonder why I’m up here jamming this idea of changing the world down their throats.
I remember now.
Because I need them to change the world!
This is something I am counting on. With my own children growing up in this sucky world, I need to encourage these students in front of me to do something to change their future. This is my job, and right now, this class is about me— Don’t let them think otherwise, I mentally remind myself.
All of these thoughts race through my head in an instant after this frustrated student speaks. Without the students even knowing, I gather myself and decide that they need me to act like an adult at this moment: They have no clue how well I pretend to do this.
Looking directly into that student’s eyes, I respond to the comment.
“I understand how you feel… but let me ask you this: Does human conflict affect your ability to find peace in your life?”
A look of confusion surfaces on the student’s face—or maybe its annoyance—so, I add, “What I mean is does the world around you ever cause you to get angry, worried, or ashamed?”
“Sometimes…I guess so,” the student responds with indifference.
“It does—trust me,” I say this with unquestionable confidence. “Most of us think this world sucks. And we all want to change our lives…So—Why not come together and change the world?”
No one speaks at these words as the students in front of me see that I have taken over as the adult for the time being.
Really, I don’t want them to speak. I want them to think. And more importantly, I want them to realize the truth…
YOU are going to have to change this world.
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“I have come to realize that worrying about things done out of anger is inevitable.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Some things are worth fighting for.”
— No Easy way out by Robert Tepper