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 repeat the phrase to the faces looking back at me on the computer screen. It is eleven in the morning and my students scheduled this little check-in, not me. While I attend this meeting for them, my mind is elsewhere….
Last night both my grandparents were brought to the hospital by ambulance. My grandfather was diagnosed with Covid-19 a few days ago and now my grandmother is not feeling well either. Even before this pandemic, family gatherings had not been happening as often as they once did. The last time we got together it felt as if a collection of people had simply gathered to share complaints about the world with one another. This saddened me and made me wonder if the rest of society was experiencing a similar fate.
Sitting at this computer all I can think about is how scared my grandparents must be at the hospital. But these faces on screen need me, so I do my best to stay present.
My students and I all came to this 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. This is silly, but we are all feeling comfortable enough to be silly together.
Each of the quotes we now wear satisfies the objective we set for this meeting: Pick a quote that will feed the 400-Pound Gorilla in your head next year. This was a reference to a lesson earlier in the year. It meant to pick a quote that would help keep us mentally tough.
“Hey Mr. J, did Miss Lily show you the video she made about your class?” Lauryn says; she is looking at me from a cube on screen that she shares with Nel; the two of them are together at Nel’s house.
Having seen the video, I respond. “Yes I did. Really it was amazing. Thank you all so much.”
Lily plans to send this video of hers, along with a course outline and examples of student work to the school board. Her hope is that they will see what we are doing in this class and extend funding throughout the rest of the year. I am not optimistic about it.
“Just so you all know,” I add, “I’ve offered to stay on and not get paid, but it’s a liability to have me in the school with you like that. We can still have check-ins like these if the funding doesn’t come through though.”
After a short discussion, they accept the reality of the situation: There is very little chance that I will be seeing them at school after term two comes to a close.
Moving on, I ask the group, “Does anyone have a New Year’s Resolution for themselves?”
Lauryn is the first to speak. “I’m gonna stop swearing,” she says proudly.
I say this to myself, but not out loud. The voices in my head find it funny. Lauryn’s resolution is not one I can make, but her desire to better herself is not about me, so instead of making it that way I speak genuinely to her through the computer 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, is a wonderful idea.”
“Mr. J—” Nel interrupts from beside Lauryn. “We are watching Ted Lasso. The guy reminds us of you. We both think so.”
“If you didn’t have so much gray hair and could grow a decent mustache, you’d even look like him Mr. J!” Lauryn adds… sneaking this jab in with a glorious smile on her face.
The angels—I mean police officers—walk me out of the movie theatre in Vermont with handcuffs on my wrists and bring me to their local police station. My attempt at Running All Night has come to a disastrous end.
The family van I was driving was under Sirena’s name. When I did not come home that night, Sirena 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 the police showed up at the blood bank and talked to the girl who’d been with me when I almost passed out. She is the one that told them I was planning on going to the movies.
My parents then drove the four hours to Vermont and I’m released from the jail I had been taken to. I am not relieved. I am not sad. I am not embarrassed. I—AM—ANGRY!
I am angry at myself. I am angry at them. I am angry at Sirena. I am angry at the world.
No one read what I wrote. No one understands how I feel. No one wants to help. They all want me to stop fighting and give up. To admit that I am wrong—To admit that I am sick. They all want the “Old Jose” to come back to the real world. Unfortunately for them, no one realizes that this person they want back is dead.
My parents pay to have the van towed back so that they can keep me company on the drive home. The entire four hours I refuse to talk to them. When they try to say something when we get home, I yell at them and tell them to, “Leave me the f*** alone!”
Sirena is waiting for me. Before we can fight, or hug, or cry, or do whatever, two police cars are in front of the house with their lights flashing. A tall police officer in his twenties kindly invites me into his cramped backseat. My youngest son cries in the doorway….
A few hours earlier, in that theatre in Vermont, I felt calm. Not anymore. Life has now come to judge me. To crush me. I am now the furthest thing from calm.
In my mind, I was on a journey discovering who I was meant to be, to everyone else, I’d lost a grip on who I was. Under much pressure, Sirena had sectioned me: a legal process through which an individual who is deemed by a qualified agent to have symptoms of severe mental disorder is detained in a psychiatric hospital where they can be treated involuntarily.
I am brought to our local jail and placed in a padded cell for safekeeping.
In this cell a troubled boy I knew from my high school has carved his name in this white plastic bench I sit on. This cell was designed to keep unstable people safe from themselves, I, however, do not feel safe in this cell. Sitting completely alone, I know my life is never going to be normal again: I am now that troubled boy from high school.
Eventually I am shipped to a mental facility for evaluation. This would be the first time I got locked away—my first trip to a mental institution for psychiatric treatment.
And just like that, my running days are over.
Anvil. Anvil. Anvil.
I am actually taken to two separate facilities. The first is just a regular hospital, I think, but later I am taken by ambulance to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts where I am pumped with anti-psychotic medication and mood stabilizers. This is where I will be diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
It does not take me long to realize that the people in these hospitals are not like the characters you see on tv. While their ailments differ in severity, most people I meet are just temporarily broken by life, like me. All of them, regardless of diagnoses, are good people.
At McLean, my roommate is a younger kid, his name is Joel Jorrado (though I am not certain of the spelling). Joel and I have some eye-opening conversations during the time we spend sharing a room.
This young kid has a huge heart. He wants me to talk about the story I had written that no one would read. He listens to me and does not call me crazy. I am grateful for this, and I am grateful for him.
Joel is realistic though. After hearing all that has transpired, he says something to me that I need to hear: “Jose, no one reads anymore. You aren’t gonna change the world by writing a book. You’d have better luck making a movie or something. You’re a man on the rise Jose, but maybe you just had the wrong dream?”
I do not give his words much consideration at first. You need to write a book before it turns into a movie. Joel is obviously too young to understand how it all works.
Later however, alone in that room, I start to wonder if perhaps Joel is right.
By the time my stay at this hospital is over, I am completed deflated. No one wants to hear about my story anymore or about how I think I’m supposed to be a writer. Everyone just wants me to take my meds and get back to the “old me”.
Once I have calmed down and am no longer angry with everyone, the embarrassment of what I have done—and who I am—really sinks in. Over time, I—just like everybody else—begin to hope that I can find the “old me” as well.
Despite everything I was wrong about though, sadly there is one thing I had right: The old me was dead. Now, there was just me, and that person has no clue what to do next….
***End of Breaking Knews***
Lauryn and Nel have just left our virtual meeting. At this point Pras and I are alone, looking at one another through the computer.
“Mr. J,” he begins, “Why don’t you support the Black-Lives-Matter movement?”
“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 why?”
Thinking back to that day, I quickly remember the conversation he is referring to. “First of all, Pras,” I say, “I do so support the movement. Racist hate makes me sick to my stomach. But what I actually said that day was I’m not a fan of the slogan.”
“What’s the difference?” Pras replies; with a face of annoyance that I’m not used to seeing on him.
For a brief second I feel uncomfortable, but then, I’m not. By now Pras and I know each other. He must have been struggling with what he heard me say for some time. Him asking me about this means he is comfortable with me.
Above my computer screen, to the right, is an eleven by seventeen poster of Martin Luther King Jr. The quote Mr. King overlooks reads: A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.
Looking at these words, I debate where to take this conversation. And I wonder what is safe to say and what I should keep to myself. This is thin-ice I’m about to walk on with Pras, but it’s just him and I, so I decide to just go for it.
“There’s a lot of people in the world Pras,” I say, “and most of them are fighting over words even if their hearts are in the right place…”
On Halloween the conversation Pras overheard began when a fellow teacher said, “My jerk neighbor is selling signs that say, ‘All Lives Matter.’ He thinks he’s so smart, but he’s just a racist in denial.”
In response to this statement I said, “I’m not a big fan of the BLM slogan—it’s made me critical of any other sign I see now. Like someone is being passive aggressive in not supporting the movement.”
I used big words and big opinions to fit in with my other teachers that day. The entire discussion was annoying and is just another example of why I prefer to keep my mouth shut. Nevertheless, I said what I did and have to now try and make it right with Pras: this black-colored student of mine that I see looking back at me on my computer screen.
I continue talking. “I fear words are feeding the hate in this world Pras. And I fear that in a world where injustice is everywhere—a world full of people that think they are more of a victim than the next person—that putting this slogan out into the Universe might be promoting more division than anything else.”
Pras looks at me with desperate eyes. “If we can’t talk about it then how are things gonna get any better Mr. J?” he says.
I think of a book I read about this. It explained how traditional racism on our planet is waning and how racism today is based more on culture differences than anything else, and that with the internet, in time, even this type of racism will fade. But being patient is hard, and with some of the ugliness I’ve seen lately I can completely understand Pras’s desire for all of this to end right now.
“I’m definitely not saying we shouldn’t talk about it Pras,” I say. “But unfortunately, ignorance spreads when provoked much easier than compassion can be taught in an attempt to fight against it. That’s the only reason I said I wasn’t a fan of the slogan that day.”
At this, Pras doesn’t speak, and I feel like the ice I’m walking on might be cracking. I can feel myself talking too much and try to think of how to end this conversation in a peaceful manner.
“A lot of the time we create signs demanding change from people that refuse to change Pras. We poke the bear, so to speak. Think about how we feel when we see a Trump flag…”
This is something him and I have discussed, and I use it to bring us back onto more solid ground.
I smile and try to offer him a truce. “Have faith Mr. Future President—It gets better!”
“Shut up Mr. J,” he says, laughing at me.
The face in front of me softens. Mr. Future President has been a joke between us throughout the year. Pras continues to smile and I find myself feeling grateful. I have survived his question without falling through the ice and am now safe…for now at least.
Week 17: Friday, January 1st, 2021
“P.A.I.N. through Hate”
“Jose, my ***g*, 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. The year was 2014, and I was unpacking when he walked by my room. We caught each other’s eye but neither of us acknowledged recognizing one another.
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 even though we were both 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.
Sitting up, with a reddened face, I called back, “Billy—shut up—I’m in here!”
How he called out for me is a conversation for another day. 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.)
Billy 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 bs when I first heard it, and nothing had changed my mind overnight.
The rest of that day I listed all the reasons why I hated people to Billy; why things were so bad; and why we were all destined to suffer forever.
I truly hated myself more than anyone or anything back then. And while I didn’t tell Billy that, I think he knew. That night, at dinner, it was Billy’s turn to speak his mind.
“Jose,” he said, looking at me over his plate of food, “I have listened to you all day and I appreciate where you’re at. Your journey is yours alone. But let me tell you what I’ve learned throughout mine so far…”
Billy then looked at me seriously and said this: “First of all, this world is not overflowing with hateful people like we sometimes think it is. It is bursting with hate-filled people. Those are two different things.”
This was my first trip to a detox facility. Billy on the other hand had some previous experience as his battle had lasted longer than mine had at the time. Curiously, I never asked him how he could be so positive despite his past failures. I still remember the sincere look on his face as he continued talking that day.
“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 right now.”
He said that last part to me with an unmistakable grin, making certain it registered with me.
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 this statement from Billy made me wonder what I would think of them on the outside.
I decided that if he was right then I would probably 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 being filled with so much hate towards people Billy?”
He used this question as an opportunity to put in a good word for his pastor. “CUZ!” —Billy called everyone cuz— “I know it’s not your thing, but you really gotta come 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!’”
Seeing 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. Advice that changed my life…eventually.
“Everyone is recovering from something Jose. Remind yourself of this every 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.”
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