It is New Year’s Day. We have said goodbye to the year 2020 and now welcome year 2021. With school still on break, week seventeen is a quick virtual meeting between the students and I on our computers:
“Happy New Year … Happy New Year … Happy New Year … HAPPY-NEW-YEAR!!!” I spat repeatedly to the faces looking back at me on the computer screen.
It was New Year’s Day, and the students and I decided we’d have a little check-in. The fact that none of them were required to meet with me this day, but wanted to, made me feel beyond good. The past year had been challenging, and the year ahead was looking like it would have some hurdles to jump as well, but a feeling of optimism about the world coming back to life seemed to be catching on.
Personally, I had other things on my mind when this meeting of ours began. The night before both my grandparents had been brought to the hospital by ambulance. My grandfather had been diagnosed with Covid-19, and now my grandmother was not feeling well either. All I could think about was how scared they must be. But these faces on the screen needed me right then, so I did my best to focus.
“From The Ashes, A New Life Is Born,” something a friend once told me, was the quote now stuck to my head. All of us came to this little meeting with a quote we hoped would describe the year 2021. We all wrote our quotes on a sticky note and stuck them to our foreheads. It was silly, yes, but we were all feeling comfortable enough to be silly together, which meant I was making progress.
As they leaned-in, one-by-one, close to the computer screen so that I could read their quotes, every one of them satisfied our objective: “Pick a quote that will feed the 400-Pound Mate in your head next year.”
This was something I had previously taught them about. It was a reference to one of my lessons earlier in the year: It meant to pick a quote that would help keep them mentally tough.
“Hey, Mr. J.” started Lauryn, “Did Miss Lilly show you the video she made about your class?”
Lauryn was looking at me from a cube on the screen that she shared with Nell. The two of them were together at Nel’s house during this virtual meeting of ours. Having seen the video she was referring to, I responded, “Yes Lauryn, I saw it. Really it was amazing. Thank you all so much.”
Lily had planned to send this video of hers, along with a course outline and examples of student work to the school board. Her hope was that they would see what we were doing in this class and extend funding throughout the rest of the year. I was not that optimistic about it.
Hoping not to sound negative with my students, I followed my statement by saying, “—Just so you all know. I’ve offered to stay on and not get paid. Unfortunately, it’s a liability to have me in the school with you like that. But we can still have check-ins like these if the funding does not go through. Principal Sam can’t officially approve our meetings, but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
After a short discussion, they accepted the reality of the situation: There was very little chance that I’d be seeing them at school after term two came to a close.
Changing the subject, I asked the group, “Does anyone have a New Year’s Resolution for themselves?”
Lauryn was the first to speak, “I’m gonna stop swearing.”
“Go F*** Yourself!” I said to myself, but NOT out loud.
Unfortunately, I could not make this same resolution for myself, but her desire to better herself was not about me. So, instead of making it that way, I spoke genuinely to her through the screen, “You know Lauryn, swearing makes it really hard for some people to see how special you are. I think trying to stop, or limit your swearing, sounds wonderful. Good luck to you my dear.”
I was walked out of that theatre in Vermont with handcuffs on my wrists and brought to the police station: My attempt at Running All Night had come to a disastrous end.
The family van I was driving was under Sirena’s name. So, when I did not come home that night, she was advised to report the car stolen. A warrant was then put out for my arrest and an official search for the van ensued.
When I gave blood, they had taken my license. This was how they tracked me down. I later learned that the police showed up at the blood bank and talked to the girl that had been with me when I almost passed out. She is the one that told them I was planning on going to the movies. The rest I assume you can put together yourself.
My parents drove the four hours to Vermont and picked me up. On the drive home I was angry. Not sad or embarrassed—Angry!
I was mad at myself; I was mad at them; I was mad at Sirena: I was mad at the world.
No one had read what I wrote. No one understood how I felt. No one wanted to help. They all wanted me to stop fighting and give up. To admit that I was wrong….
To admit that I was sick.
They all wanted the “Old Jose” to come back to the real world. Unfortunately for them, no one realized that this person they wanted back was dead.
Once we had gotten back into town, my parents brought me to my house (Sirena’s house). The entire ride home I refused to talk. When they tried to talk to me upon arriving home, I yelled at them, and told them to, “Leave me the f*** alone!”
Sirena was there waiting. Before we could even fight, or hug, or cry, or whatever was gonna happen, three police cars were out front of the house with lights aglow. I was put in a cop car again and brought to our local jail. Sirena had, under much pressure, sanctioned me.
This would be the first time I got locked away: My first trip to a mental institution for psychiatric treatment.
When I arrived at the facility I was pumped with anti-psychotic medication and mood stabilizers. This is when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Dear Reader, please know that I am not arguing a case against my diagnoses. I am simply telling you the story of how things happened. My time fighting over whether or not I am these things has come and gone. Today I simply have compassion for those that struggle with such ailments and hope you do as well.
My roommate at the facility was a kid in his mid-twenties. I never saw him afterwards, so I will share his name with you and hope that one day I can meet him again under more inspiring circumstances: His name was Joel Jorrado; though I am not certain of the spelling. He and I had some great conversations during the time we spent sharing a room.
It did not take me long to realize that the people in this hospital were not like the characters you see in the movies. While their ailments differed in severity, most people I met were simply temporarily broken by life; like me. All of them, regardless of diagnoses, were good people.
This kid, Joel, allowed me to talk about the story I had written that no one would read. He listened and did not call me crazy. I was grateful for that. He was realistic though and said something I needed to hear at the time; “Jose, no one reads anymore. You aren’t gonna change the world by writing a book. You’d have better luck creating a movie or something…or you could just create a religion. What you really need to do is find a group of people who celebrate crazy.”
By the time my stay at this hospital was over I was completed deflated. No one wanted to hear about my story anymore. Everyone wanted me to take my meds and get back to the old me.
Once I had calmed down and stopped being angry with everyone, the embarrassment of what I had done sunk in. Over time, I, like them, began hoping to find the old me as well.
Sadly, despite everything I was wrong about, the one thing I had right was the fact that the old me was dead. Now, there was just me. And I had no clue what to do next…
***End Of Breaking Knews***
Lauryn and Nel had just left our virtual meeting. At this point Pras and I were alone looking at one another through the computer.
“Mr. J,” he began, “Why don’t you support the Black-Lives-Matter movement?”
The question threw me off: I was confused, “What are you talking about Pras?”
“On Halloween, when we were back at school, I overheard you talking to the other teachers and you said you weren’t a fan of the movement…I’m just curious as to why?”
Thinking back to that day, I remembered the conversation he was referring to, “Well, Pras, I won’t deny saying something like what you heard, but you clearly did not hear the whole conversation. What I actually said was, ‘I’m not a fan of the slogan.’”
“What’s the difference?” he asked looking semi-annoyed; like I was being sketchy with my words or something.
For a brief moment I felt uncomfortable, but then, I wasn’t. By this point this student and I knew one another very well. He must have been struggling with what he heard me say for some time. Once I got past the awkwardness of the moment, I realized asking me this meant he was comfortable with me.
In my head, I debated where to take the conversation. I wondered what was safe to say and what I should keep to myself. This was thin-ice I was about to walk on, but it was just him and I, so I decided to just go for it….
“The week before you heard me say that I was at this scooter park in Fitchburg with my boys. It was early and no one was there yet. One of the twins noticed something that was spray-painted on the concrete and pointed it out to me. It was just the three letters: B-L-M. My son looked at me, pointed to it, then gave me his goofy smirk, raised his eyebrows, and said, ‘Dad…All-Lives-Matter…am I right?’ Like he was saying something funny to me.”
I looked for a reaction from Pras, but he offered me none, so I went on, “You know my twins Pras, and I assume you know he meant no harm by saying this. Obviously, it was something he had heard an adult in his life say; or something on television, or online, or whatever. At the time, I got angry with him. I didn’t yell at him because he didn’t know any better, I just knew if he said this at school around other people, I’d be embarrassed of what he said. I was put in an awkward position. So… Mr. Future President Pras—What do you think I should have said to him in that situation?”
Pras was quick with a response, “That the letters represent a movement that opposes systemic racism. It’s a group of people that demand justice and an end to the killing of unarmed black men and women by white police officers.”
“You would have lost him at the word ‘opposes’ Pras.”
I laughed at the image in my head of my son trying to put meaning to this word and then told Pras what I actually had said that day.
“I asked him if he’d say that around Cyrus. This kid Cyrus was the reason we were at the park so early that morning. The boy was two years older than the twins and lived somewhere close to the park. We had nicknamed him ‘The Wizard’ because of how good he was on a scooter. It was like he had springs in his feet the way he could jump from one ramp to another. He had become our friend. All four of us knew his name and he went out of his way to learn all of ours. Cyrus had a million-dollar smile Pras. It took a while for us to uncover that about him, but it was the kind of smile that makes you smile just thinking about.
“I had watched my boys describe Cyrus to my brother one day: They talked about his big bushy hair; his skinny frame and body; they explained how easily he picked up this scooter thing. Cyrus had only been at it a few months and my boys were a little jealous. I watched them tell my brother how he was helping them to go down the big ramp—that he made it look so easy. I heard them tell my brother that they had finally gotten his number so that they could tell him when they would be going to the park.
“You know what they didn’t tell my brother Pras—That he was black. I watched both of the twins tiptoe around the words as they described this friend of ours. My brother never asked what color he was. Should I have described his color Pras? If I did, how would I describe it—Was it okay to say he was black, Pras?”
I looked at Pras after plastering him with these questions, but this seemed to have turned into a lecture whether I wanted it to or not; he was simply listening now and not ready to respond; so I ranted on.
“From what I knew about Cyrus, his mother was black, or African American, or Negro…or whatever. I knew this because he had told me about a fight with a boy at school who called his mom the ‘N’ word. From Cyrus’s appearance I assumed that his dad might not have been so dark. Nevertheless, I never asked him any of this. It didn’t matter: White skin. Tan skin. Brown skin…. —Really white skin —Really tan skin —Really brown skin….”
Shaking my head; overwhelmed by all the options I was considering, I paused for a moment once I was done listing them to think about where to go next, “…If I’m being honest with you Pras, I literally don’t know how to tell my kids how to describe skin color. I’m always scared of offending someone with whatever words I use. Which is my point: We are fighting over words Pras…words. When we really should be focusing on actions.”
I stopped, looked at Pras through the computer, and took a moment to make sure that this ice I was walking on was not cracking, “Be honest Pras; I really don’t like talking about this stuff— Am I making an ass of myself?”
“No,” he replied, “I get what you’re saying…kind of…”
“Maybe I’m overthinking it— I don’t know…but here me out. You started this conversation…” I smiled at him, then continued. “I fear words are feeding the hate in this world, Pras. And seeing how annoyed some people get when they see that slogan is why I said I’m not a fan. Of course, I friggin support it. I’m sick of this crap happening just like you. But there is injustice everywhere Pras, and I worry that in a world full of people that think they are more of a victim than the next person; a world more prepared to fight than to unite, that putting that slogan out into the world is simply causing more agitation than it is transformation.”
I stopped, then thought of a different example of words creating more conflict than unity, “Pras, it’s like all those people that see cold weather anomalies and claim Global Warming is a hoax. Its why people now refer to is as Climate Change instead. Words Pras…the words…. I just wish we did not make them so divisive.”
In my pause, Pras spoke, “You’re right Mr. J, I’m sorry.”
“No Pras, don’t be sorry—” I said, shaking my head in frustration, “I’m not right. You have a right to be angry with ignorant people. And if what I said made you think I was ignorant then I’m sorry.” I took a breath and tried to calm myself; this conversation got everyone heated and I was no exception. “Pras, I don’t believe my boys know what hate is yet— Ask them next time you see them, they will tell you I yell at them when they use the word ‘hate’ to describe anything. That emotion has not seeped into their hearts yet. But when my son looked at those letters at the skate park and said those words our friend Cyrus would have interpreted that as being hateful. Just like you did when you heard me on Halloween. Words Pras, words…”
“If we can’t talk about it how are things gonna get any better Mr. J?”
Pras looked at me with concern, “So how does it get any bette
When Pras asked me this I thought of my friend Billy. This friend would always say, “Don’t feed the hate, Cuz.” This was like his trademark. He said this to me at a time in my life when he could see my heart was overwhelmed by hate. Skin color was not what we were talking about, but I had privately come to associate this phrase of his with the BLM movement: That was the route of my opinion Pras overheard me voicing on Halloween.
On that day, the conversation he overheard began with the teachers discussing the fact that whenever you see a sign that says “I support (Blank)” we can’t help but wonder if it is a passive aggressive way of someone saying that they do not support BLM. The entire discussion that day was annoying and is just another example of why I prefer to hang with children over adults.
Nevertheless, I said what I did and had to try and make it right with this student of mine: This dark-brown, African American, black-colored student.
I spoke to Pras in a way that I hoped would remove the desperateness that had just then begun to awake in his eyes, “There are people on this planet that have racist belief systems nestled in their subconscious, Pras: that systematic racism you speak of. But the truth is they are an endangered species; kind of like the old white dudes that still think their opinions and ideas are more important than a women’s just because they have a dick between their legs.
“Things are getting better Pras. They have gotten better. I just don’t want to give those endangered species the opportunity to breed their bigoted ways onto others. Which is what I fear this movement may be doing.
“Awful things have been done to colored people in history; some awful things are happening today. These things have been recognized and been registered in the minds of good people everywhere. Those good people are teaching their children why those things are wrong. In reality, my boys understand it without me even having to tell them. Over time these children will become our leaders and us parents will become the old farts. When people make signs demanding change now, a lot of time they are trying to convince people that won’t change: They are poking the bear, so to speak.
“Think about it as trying to convince a Trump supporter today to not be a Trump supporter. You might as well go bang your head against a concrete wall. The vast majority of his supporters have made up their minds. By fighting them you will not convince them otherwise and run the risk of only increasing their resolve.”
When I said this to Pras, I stopped. Above my computer screen, to the right, was an eleven by seventeen poster of Martin Luther King Jr; the quote Mr. King overlooked read: “A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.”
I took my computer and turned it around so that Pras could see this. Once he was done reading it, I put my computer back in front of me and spoke solemnly to Pras in an attempt to put this uncomfortable conversation to bed…for now at least….
“Ignorance spreads when provoked much easier than compassion can be taught in an attempt to fight against it. People in the world that see reason cannot convince the ignorant to change. They must be the change. My philosophy, I think, is simple: Let the hate die with them Pras. Love these people that don’t know how to love you. With that said: Have faith Mr. Future President: Better days are coming!”
“Shut up Mr. J,” he said, unable to help himself from smiling as I continued calling him this name.
“You never know Mr. President, you never know…” I said, smiling back: Thankful to not have fallen through the ice.
Week 17 (1.1.21):
“P.A.I.N. through Hate”
Hey There Squad Members,
I know you’re on break, but earlier today I had a conversation with Pras that inspired me to write a last-minute story for you. I hope you like it…
“Jose, my N****, where you at Cracker-Jack?”
Three days prior to hearing this being yelled from the hallway, Billy and I entered the detox facility just a few hours apart. I was unpacking when he walked by my room. We had caught each other’s eye, but neither of us acknowledged recognizing one another at the time.
Back in high school, Billy was the highly respected basketball player with street credit, and I was the pretty boy with a bright future. We may have been long removed from those days, and a few years separated us in age, but we damn well knew each other on that first day—Even though both of us were too ashamed to say hello at first because of where we were.
I was barely awake when I heard my name being called from the hall. There was no question in my mind who was calling though. It was my new partner in crime: Billy Preston.
What I’m about to tell you about Billy definitely is not going to be politically correct. But it will save us a lot of time so I’m just gonna say it: Billy was white, but if there is such a thing as someone that struggles with ‘race identification,’ it was him. He never came right out and said it, but I really think he believed he was a black person in a white person’s body. So, when he yelled for me from the hall, what he said did not register as offensive to him.
To me, however, the word he shouted made my skin crawl. Not because I found it offensive (I’m not trying to go there right now), but because I was embarrassed by all the people that could hear him yelling for me like that.
Sitting up, with a reddened face, I called back, “Billy, shut up—I’m in here!”
Seeing him standing in the doorway, I was reminded of how grateful I was for his friendship in that place. Little did I know when entering the facility a few days earlier I would meet someone who would forever change my outlook on life.
As he and I walked down the hallway to attend our check-in that morning, I started the conversation that would keep us both entertained throughout the day, “I have decided that I really don’t like people Billy. Actually, no…I HATE PEOPLE.”
With a smile, I remember him saying, “Don’t feed that hate cuz…you gotta keep that four-hundred-pound gorilla in that head of yours fed.”
(This phrase should sound familiar to you.)
He was referring to a lesson we had been forced to attend the day before. We were told that negative thoughts can consume an addict, and that it was the number one cause of relapse. The councilor had told us to visualize a four-hundred-pound gorilla in our head fighting away the demons that wanted us to fail. I thought it was a bunch of bull when I first heard it, and nothing had changed my mind overnight.
During our cigarette breaks throughout the rest of that day I listed all the reasons why people sucked: Why I hated the world: Why things were so bad: Why we were all a bunch of ‘A-Holes’ destine to suffer forever.
That night, at dinner, it was Billy’s turn to speak his mind, “Jose, I have listened to you all day and I appreciate where you’re at. I know better than to try and make you feel better about things. Your journey is yours alone. I will however tell you what I’ve learned throughout mine so far….”
This was early 2014 and was my first trip to a detox. Billy on the other hand had some previous experience. His battle had lasted longer than mine had at the time. Curiously, I never asked him how he could be so positive despite all his past failures.
I still remember what he said next, “In my travels I have come to the conclusion that people are good. How they act however, is different. When you get to know people in places like these—when people are alone, and sometime at their lowest—you often see them as they want to be…as they were as children. They are delicate. They are sensitive. Many of them are open-minded and full of questions. If you are lucky, you will even come across many that are optimistic…unlike you at this moment…” he said this last part slowly; making certain I saw the smirk on his face.
He was right, I was the ultimate pessimist at the time. I was later told that I had not yet learned to accept life on life’s terms. Billy’s education continued, “If you let yourself be a child again inside these places you will find things to like in most people that you encounter. Now, go out and follow those same people on social media; or watch them when they are gathered in groups, and you will see how they ‘act’ in front of the world. I promise you, there’s a difference.”
I remember agreeing with him in my mind. The people I had gotten to know in that place were good people. But he made me wonder what I would think of them on the ‘outside.’ I decided that if he was right then I probably would not like them very much, and it would make me just as negative as before. So, I asked, “If people act so bad despite being good at heart, how do I stop feeling so angry?”
He used this question as an opportunity to put in a good word for his pastor, “CUZ—I know it’s not your thing, but you really gotta come to Excel and listen to Emy preach when we get out of this place—he’ll blow your mind: ‘You are in a crisis…you must train your mind to see that crisis creates opportunity…’”
Recognizing that I was not in the mood to hear about this guy again, Billy then gave me his own advice rather than quoting someone else’s, “Everyone is recovering from something Jose. Remind yourself of this every-single-day. Use it as fuel to hate no one in life. That’s the secret: Hate nothing. Don’t even use the word—Love as much as you can.”
This sounded great in principle, but I had to ask, “What is love to you?”
Grabbing a tattered book that he kept within reach at all times while we were in that place, he proceeded to open it to a page that had been bookmarked. After taking a moment to find it, he read the words I share with you now: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
…I love you all—Sincerely, Mr. J
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“…I have come to the conclusion that people are good. How they act however, is different.” What do you think about this statement made by Billy?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Something’s happening here….”
—For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield