The date is Saturday January 23rd, 2021:
“This food is amazing J-Man!”
Nel announced this from the back seat of the van. My students and I had just stopped at Lance’s American Grille in my hometown of Leominster. I had promised to buy them lunch on this day and was making good on my word. I let them all eat while I drove.
The cold outside was not discouraging any of us from enjoying this time together. Interested by what I was just called, I looked in the rear-view mirror to ask Nel for an explanation, “No one has ever called me that before Nel, is that my super-hero name now?” I smiled.
Jumping into the conversation from the seat beside me, Lauryn spoke, “It’s your nickname, we’ve been using it for a while now. You started as our teacher, then you became our friend, now we think of you as family. So…you’ve earned it—Shut up and just say thank you alright?”
Understanding that this was her way of being sweet, I obliged, “Thank you,” I said; while taking my drink and holding it up to hers for a toast.
“Where the heck are we?” asked Pras from the back.
He was clearly confused as driving through a residential suburb probably seemed strange to him. “We are here,” I replied, pulling into the driveway of a large brick house sitting upon a hill; a mansion in my students’ eyes.
Amazed, Nel wondered aloud, “Who’s house is this?”
Not wanting them to get excited, I told them, “We are not going inside, we are just parking here. We are going to have our last class together right here in this van.”
The large house that would serve as our backdrop was recently purchased by a childhood friend of mine. You could see this house of his from where I lived with my parents at the bottom of the hill. This house was the one with the American flag flying on top of a tall flagpole; making this place look like a monument to all the residents in the city below.
“It’s a little obnoxious,” I had joked with this friend of mine: the most successful person I knew. He had life by the balls and this house served as evidence; “Us peasants think a king lives up here or something,” I had said, teasing him further.
Interestingly enough, when I last talked to this friend, he told me that he bought this house because it was built on the hill he and I used to go hang out on as kids. “The best times of my life,” he had explained to me. He was hoping that living here would bring him back to those days, as life was now, “all work and no play.”
He pushed himself through all those extra years of school… worked all those hours… spent all that money… all so that he might be able to go back and relieve his youth: The American Dream.
Knowing that time was short, I explained all of this rather quickly to my students once I parked the van. After which, I told them the real reason we had come to this place; “I brought you here because I once read that in historical literature many important lessons are taught on top of mountains. Do you know why that is?” I asked; marking the beginning of this unorthodox last class of ours.
Not answering, they just waited for me to talk, “It’s symbolical. It means that great feats in life take hard work and dedication. But actually, I brought you here because I figured that this would be a fitting place to tell you a few secrets. Are you ready for the first one?”
Watching their heads nod back at me, I wasted no time making my grand declaration to them, “Alright then, here it is: Adults have no clue what the hell they are doing.”
I looked at Pras as I said this. Smiling at me, he said, “That’s why we love you Mr. J—You get it!” He then leaned forward in his seat and offered me a high five.
I gave him his high-five and everyone in the van jumped in on a brief celebration before I shut them up by announcing the second piece of this grand declaration of mine, “Deflate those egos my children—Because none of you know what you’re doing either.”
As a teacher I’ve learned that the pace of a lesson is very important. So is not talking too much. Often, I’ve found that there is so much I want to say in a moment that I have to slow myself down and force myself to say what I want in as few words as possible. Reminding myself of this, I tried my best to finish telling them this first secret of mine, “Social media and other technology is tearing us all apart. The fact is, your children’s, children will be the ones that learn how to use it properly. I hope that you accept this truth and learn to listen to them better than we listen to you: They are the ones who will put this world back together.”
Knowing that this was just my personal opinion, and that these students of mine were not responsible for saving the world, I then tried returning our conversation to something more tangible.
“I know that sounds a bit heavy, so let me just avoid a potential argument by moving on and asking you this question: Do you know what I consider my number one priority as a father to be?”
“To make your kids smile!” spurted Lauryn, knowingly.
“No—but that’s a big priority also. I want to make it so my kids aren’t scared of everything.”
Lauryn offered me a respectful nod before letting me explain myself, “So many people are making sure they are scared of everything. It’s not one individual that I blame for this—it’s society in general. It’s everyone and everything. Of course, there are good reasons for some of it, but they need someone…me, that goes against the norm to help them see things differently.”
I then looked at them individually, “For example: Lauryn—There is far more good in this world than there is evil. Pras—There are more people that you can ask for help, than there are people to be scared of. Nel—There is more reason for you to learn to love, than there is for you to learn how to hold a gun… I don’t care what you say in an attempt to convince me otherwise—”
Nel looked at me defensively. At that moment, I realized that I had accidently just singled him out a bit. Thankfully, he chose not to fight me. Smiling at him, he and I exchanged a silent apology with one another as I finished telling my students the second secret, “…I take it as my responsibility to make it so my children are not scared of this world.”
All of this was a serious conversation that I wanted to get out of the way so that we could have some fun on our last day together. I knew that my words were simply noise to them right then and that there was no way I could make what I was saying change their perspective.
With that serious business out of the way, I was itching to share with them my third secret.
“On a lighter note, I’ve figured out how to make my story work, but…There’s A Catch…”
“…And the catch is?” asked Nel impatiently; as I had purposely waited for someone to say something.
I had choreographed this conversation many times in my head and wanted to play it up a little.
“One of you is going to have to die.”
There was a moment of stillness in the car. This was something I had anticipated. I was about to explain myself when a hand shot into the air, and an eager voice broke the silence.
“I’ll do it!” said Candace to the group; smiling that wonderful smile that the rest of us had wrestled out of her; she volunteered, “—Can it be me?”
Realizing that my explanation was not going to be necessary I simply smiled back, “Alright then…it’s a deal. Candace—you’re gonna die. I promise you’ll be remembered.”
Not needing any further justification; instead choosing to simply trust me and my crazy mind, they continued to listen, “—So…I have to work on putting the pieces of the story together, but the ending is always the most important part and I’ve written it already so that I could share it with you now.”
I grabbed a folder containing the copies of the three-part FINALe I had written from between the two front seats of the van. Handing it to all four of them, I spoke, “Now listen, as we read this, I need you to promise me two things. First: Remember that I am committed to proving myself wrong. Whatever vision I propose of the future is simply a story meant to entertain us: Life is only worth living if you accept its destination as uncertain.”
Their eyes began to focus on the pages in front of them; eager to read what the hell I might be talking about.
“The second thing I need you to promise before we read this is that you will laugh at me when we are done…” I smirked at them, and watched their eyes widen with anticipation before speaking seriously, “Do you promise?”
“We promise,” they all said together; as I made sure to look each one of them in the eyes.
Having gotten ourselves comfortable, it was a few minutes later that I began reading aloud to them…
I had a dream….
Actually, it was more like a vision. Maybe you’d call it an epiphany, or a revelation. Who knows what it was exactly. But I’ve always been told that I intellectualize too much, so let’s just start by calling it a dream.
In this dream we had figured out a way to change the world. We had discovered something that was more valuable than all the money you could imagine, and more powerful than any government that ever existed. Dare I say, this dream of mine felt more uplifting and inspiring than all religions combined.
You know what—I know what to call it now.
It was an IDEA!
Was it delusional—Perhaps?
But really who cares: An idea is nothing more than a dream by a different name, and dreams do not have to live within the confines of our reality.
This reality sucks anyway— Am I Right?
Excited, I tried to explain it to my friend Billy the best I could…
Billy was that friend I had met at my first visit to a detox facility; the friend that told me how important love is. Showing him this hand drawn ‘Octagon of P.A.I.N.’ I explained to him how I would use this image to open our eyes and bring us together in this future world I imagined.
“See, we all do care. We are all just in such a battle with these emotions that we end up giving up; on ourselves, on other people, on life, on the world…our hearts turn cold Billy—The fight to stay positive is just too much.”
Billy listened to me ramble on as I tried to explain everything to him. He was so good at listening, and I loved him for it.
“I’m gonna write a book Billy; about everything I’ve learned and how we can fix things using all the resources at our disposal.”
At the time he did not call me crazy, but I knew what he was thinking when he used one word when I was done: “—Patience—”
Unfortunately for me, Billy was right when he warned me to be patient. I ended up getting myself into a lot of trouble trying to make this dream of mine a reality at first. My ideas may have been exciting, but my expectations regarding schedule and public reception were unrealistic (maybe ‘delusional’ is a better word).
I would have to fail first—HARD!
But I did not give up. And now we have finally made it to that ever-extending finish line. Or starting line, depending on your perspective.
Everything in life is a lesson, and my failures getting to this point are proof. Failing helped me realize that people are unlikely to push you forward until you have momentum. And that people you know are often less likely to listen to you than a stranger.
This is not applicable to all things, but if you ever find yourself reaching for the stars, attempting the improbable, or dreaming for the impossible, then you are destined to discover that most people you know will not be capable of supporting your endeavor. Whether this is out of fear for your well-being, embarrassment over your behavior, jealousy over your ambitions, or simply because they dislike you, is unimportant. Just remember this: The reason why many we call successful in this world are not the nicest people is because being an A-hole is either a pre-requisite to achieving greatness or simply an inevitable bi-product of getting there.
If you do ever make it, someone is going call you an A-hole: You might as well accept it.
Today I have done exactly that. But sadly, Billy is not here with me as I move forward. He died a year or so after I first had this dream of mine. I dedicate the following to him; “I love you my friend.”
The Teacher’s Playlist (Bonus Track):
“Let’s have a blast…”
—And We Danced by Macklemore
“What goes inside the Octagon?”
Before he passed away, Billy and I had spent a lot of time discussing these ideas of mine. When I had first showed him the picture of the ‘Octagon of P.A.I.N.’ this is one of the questions he had asked me.
It did not hit me right away, but later I came to realize that whatever we put inside would become the foundation to what we would build.
Not all our conversations were serious ones, in reality we were just two kids trying to stay motivated in sobriety those days. In truth, most of the time we would just have fun talking about what we could do in life once I figured out how to make the whole thing work; kinda like people talk about all the things they would do if they won the lottery. I was business minded back then, so I had made sure to explain to him the financial implications of making this dream of mine a reality; “Money is not my priority Billy, but trust me, this could create a billion-dollar empire.”
Yeah, this statement got eye roles from him too at the time. It is probably why he was so hesitant to engage with me at first. But keep in mind that I used to walk with a swagger in those days; I was not yet the insecure man I am today.
I pushed Billy to accept what I was trying to tell him; “Billy, we have a message to share, and we are the right people to deliver it. Once we figure out how to tell people this story, they are going to listen to us. They are going to want to believe us. Yes…it’s a little crazy, perhaps—But it’s gonna work!”
As you can imagine, most of the enthusiasm came from me at first. But Billy did eventually get infected with the virus: the hope I was infected with spread to him over time. I remember realizing this the day he suggested the word we used for the Octagon could one day spark a revolution. At which time I was forced to put my teacher’s hat on in order to talk some sense into him; “A revolution is run on the premise that breaking a system will fix our problems Billy. This will never work. The only option is to evolve our current system into something better…something for everyone… something that will take time, but something that will be fun to create—together.”
He may have thought that this was just a bunch of my B.S. at the time, but he did a fantastic job pretending to listen to me ramble on; “We don’t need any more Revolutionaries in this world Billy, we need Transitionalists: An army of elite people that lead by example, not aggressive acts.”
In retrospect, I realize that these were delusional thoughts. But I believed every word I said to him back then, “… You cannot save the world by destroying it, Billy. You must give it hope and let it heal.”
These were not all simply ideas that I had come up with on my own. I was merely channeling all the things I had seen and read over the years. It was all now making sense to me. Everything I saw, everything I did, everything that happened: All of it seemed to have happened for a reason.
During these talks between Billy and I, I was reading a book called Sapiens that was suggested to me by another friend. That is where I read something that would help me remember the most important element to this little mission of ours; “The most valuable economic resource at our disposal is trust in the future.”
How could I use my ideas to build something that would help create this trust?
It all had to start with the word we would put inside that Octagon.
In an attempt to figure out the perfect word to use, I asked myself what would be important in this future galaxy of ours?
Faith? …. Love? … Hope? … Forgiveness? … Family? … Friendship? … Dreams? … Spirituality? …. There were endless possibilities to be considered. Too many to try and remember right now.
At this point I owe it to my friend Billy to tell you how important religion was to him. Because of this, Billy fought very hard to have the word Religion put inside the Octagon. Once he lost that battle, he ended up fighting hard on behalf of using the word ‘Faith’; as this was the only thing I would even consider at the time.
“What is this whole thing meant to do Jose?” he asked.
“Wake people up Billy…give them hope.”
“That’s what faith does Jose. You’re too worried about how things will look. Concerned about everyone that will weigh in on things they don’t understand. You’re trying to get people to have faith in the future…don’t you see that?”
Putting on my boxing gloves I spoke confidently to him back then; like I actually knew what the hell I was talking about, “People will hear faith and think religion Billy. And I fear religion is putting too many people to sleep and making too many others angry.”
“Those people don’t know,” he punched back.
“Faith and religion are just too interchangeable Billy. It just doesn’t fit. People are sick of reading about good things, they need to see them happen—We need to throw it in their face. I don’t even think telling them to have hope is enough.”
At this point in my life I must tell you that I did not yet understand the word faith myself. The word confused and scared me; sometimes made me angry even. At the time Billy was never going to convince me to use any word that would potentially create a divide between the people in this world I dreamt of helping. I’d often repeat myself: “Our mission is to unite anyone and everyone in creating a future brighter than this reality; we must find a word that fits.”
Speaking of this conflict between this friend and I, to Billy there was only one book that a person needed in their life: The Bible. Writing a book of my own went against this philosophy of his. I appreciated the internal struggle he had regarding this and never dismissed it. Instead, we worked through it: Like good friends do when faith and friendship war against one-another.
Billy helped me figure out many things. In the end, he was the person that helped me realize that disagreement is as dependable as the funny bone.
Though we talked and argued over many other things, faith and religion was always a constant regarding this Octagon of mine. This great, stubborn friend of mine never gave up on it: Often, I wondered if I was simply adding fuel to his fire by being so against it.
Back then I found myself constantly trying to convince him to see the bigger picture; “We must use a word that everyone can relate to. A new word, with new meaning. One that could unite people by representing a common desire in us all. A word for the future.”
“That’s faith Jose!” he would say over and over to me. But I was a student deaf to his message at the time; and we all know how those types of students can be (wink face).
As I share this story now, I realize that all of this sounds extremely delusional on my end, but I cannot re-write these events: I’m simply telling you how things happened.
“Do not think of what we are doing as replacing religion…instead consider what we are doing as adding to the wonder that makes it so important to its believers without deterring non-believers. We need to have some shared sense of reality to bring people together—faith and religion cannot do this alone.”
Most of these discussions of ours would occur in my minivan. We would drive around playing with ideas and talk about a better world. While Billy could never have understood my vision completely, he very much appreciated the smile and optimism it had awoken inside me.
Looking back on our time together, I often struggle with how much of what I said back then he actually believed. Of course, I can’t ask him now, but seeing it all through life’s rear-view mirror I wish I could simply thank Billy for listening to me back then. That was all I ever needed in those days.
On those drives, Billy and I would always have the music on. I had told him the role music would have in this mission of mine, so we were constantly working on putting together our soundtrack. It was on one of those drives together that it hit me…. I had it.
“Billy—I know the word we should use!”
Turning the music off completely, I turned to my friend. It was in the silence of that moment, in that van, that I first whispered the word that would change everything: “dIverge.”
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“I came to win.”
—Fly (featuring Rihanna) with Nicki Minaj