The date is Saturday January 23rd, 2021:
I am driving when Nel speaks from the back seat of the van. “This food is amazing J-Man,” he says giggling to himself, “It’s doing a little dance right down my throat.”
In my rear-view mirror I see Nel smile at me with a mouth full of food; he seems to be a in a very silly mood today. Despite some of our differences, seeing this side of him reminds me of how alike him and I really are.
We are in my hometown of Leominster, Massachusetts (Pronounced Lemonster). I had promised to buy my students lunch on this day and am making good on my word.
Originally, we had planned to go to Lance’s American Grille, but when we got there, I was shocked to see it had closed. Another small business that did not survive this pandemic…
This pandemic continues to stir rage in people everywhere. It is not bringing us together, instead it is just another thing tearing us apart. Fights on airplanes have become a regular thing as of late. All of it videotaped on phones and shown to us on the news and on social media. Fights in classrooms, same thing. It’s scary, disheartening, and annoying all at the same time. If this was truly the end of the world, it sure is dragging its feet—in the movies it would have been over by now one way or another.
Finding Lance’s closed, I took my students to Paisanos just down the road. From what Nel just said, their food did not disappoint. They are all eating while I drive.
It is a very cold day, but here in the van we are all warm and the weather outside is not discouraging any of us from enjoying this time together. I have also given them all a small parting gift. A friend of mine recently began his own business making custom decals. He made a small one for us that reads: The J-Squad. What my students do with this gift, I have no clue, but it looks cool and they thought it was awesome.
Finding what Nel just called me funny, I look in the mirror again and ask him for an explanation. “No one has ever called me J-Man before Nel, is that my super-hero name now?” I say sarcastically.
From the passenger seat beside me Lauryn speaks for Nel. “It’s your nickname,” she says. “We’ve been using it for a while. 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 is Lauryn’s way of being sweet, I oblige. “Thank you,” I say, grabbing my drink and holding it up to her for a toast.
Lauryn lifts her drink to mine, “You’re welcome,” she smiles, clapping her drink against mine.
As I continue to drive, I reflect on my new nickname…The J-Man… I like it.…
“—Where the heck are we?” says Pras from the back.
He is clearly confused as driving through a residential suburb probably seems strange to him. “We are here,” I reply, pulling into the driveway of a large brown-brick house sitting upon a hill; a mansion in my students’ eyes.
Amazed, Nel wonders aloud, “Who’s house is this?”
Not wanting them to get excited I answer. “My friend lives here. We are not going inside though. We are going to have our last class together right here in this van.”
Parking the van, I tell them one of the reasons I chose this location.
“I brought you here because in historical literature many important lessons are taught on top of mountains. Do you know why that is?” I say to them; marking the beginning of this unorthodox last class of ours. No one offers an answer to my question, so, I continue. “The mountain is symbolical. It means that great feats in life take hard work and dedication.”
Unbuckling myself, I turn to look in the back seat. “I actually brought you here to tell you a few secrets—” I say excitedly, “Are you ready for the first one?”
My students smile and nod their heads. And I waste no time making my grand declaration to them.
“Alright then, here it is…” I begin, then pause for a slow second. “The adults in your life have no clue what the hell they are doing.”
I look at Pras as I say this and see his face light up. “That’s why we love you Mr. J,” he announces loudly, “You get it!”
Pras leans forward in his seat to offer me a fist bump. I give Pras his bump and everyone in the van jumps in on a brief celebration; chatter amongst my students fills the van.
I watch and laugh to myself. Adults have always hated hearing this line and kids have always loved it. Like thousands of teachers before me, I use it to create a bond between my students and I… right before telling them the truth.
“Alright—”I say loudly; interrupting their celebration of superiority. “Deflate those egos kiddos…Because none of you know what the hell you’re doing either…”
The noise in the van fades to silence and I give them an explanation for what I’ve just said.
“Social media and all forms of entertainment is tearing everyone apart. Someday your children’s children will look at our mistakes and learn how to use these tools more productively…They are the ones who will put this world back together for us.”
Their eyes study me. “I know that’s a bit heavy,” I say to their silence. “So let me change gears by asking you this—” I turn my head to look at Lauryn beside me. “What do you think I consider to be my number one priority as a father to be?”
Lauryn is quick with a response. “To make your kids smile,” she says confidently.
“No,” I reply, offering her a respectful nod, “but that’s a big priority also.” —Lauryn will one day learn how hard it is to make a kid smile all the time; but only life will teach her that— “I want to make it so my children aren’t scared of this world Lauryn….”
I am no father of the year, that’s for sure. Many people have helped raise my children and for them I am grateful. It’s helped me learn that children act like mirrors, which means all adults play a role in their life. It’s why I appreciate anyone who plants seeds making them stronger, more understanding, and kinder human beings. That said, I’m rather certain of the role I’m to play in their lives going forward.
With my history, there are a million things for me to warn my boys about. I can tell them these things like a confident weatherman preparing them for some disastrous storm, and micro-manage each of their decisions to help them avoid making the many mistakes I’ve made myself. If they question me, I can justify each warning I offer them by muttering two simple words: It Happens. As a storyteller, I rely on these two words often, but I’m no weatherman, so I try not to act like one with my kids.
Lauryn looks at me and continues to listen.
“We are constantly preparing one another to survive in this scary world Lauryn—Just look around you—”
I look out the windows of the van and my students’ eyes follow. This was the real reason I brought them to this house…
The beautiful home towering above us has white cameras attached at each corner and a gorgeous black fence surrounds the property. This van probably looks a bit strange from those cameras; and I can’t help but wonder if we are being watched at this very second.
“We lock all our doors and video tape everything nowadays,” I say to my students who are now looking outside with me. “To protect ourselves we put up fences and walls everywhere and take endless precautions to feel safe.”
I hold up my phone and all eyes in the van return to me.
“With these phones in our hand 24/7 getting away with anything is nearly impossible today. Yet we live in a time of unmatched paranoia, and there is more fear in this world than ever before.” I take a purposeful breath and speak not only to my students, but to myself. “Something about all of it simply doesn’t add up to me…”
I look at my students to see if what I’m saying is resonating with them. Maybe it doesn’t now, but I still feel as if I needed to at least say it. I consider offering them examples as I think of all the warnings we give to our children. Every trauma we have heard about or lived through ourselves…or seen on a screen. Each and every crisis that has ever happened or could ever happen in the future. Validating everything we say to them with those two words—It Happens.
I am again reminded of the Four Entertaining Truths I shared with them just last week and wonder to myself if perhaps all this fear is a product of something else entirely. Not telling my students what I’m thinking, I continue to talk—giving them only teaspoons of the truth.
“Of course, there are good reasons for a lot of the advice and warnings we adults offer you,” I say. “But if I feed you my fears then my scars become yours and your dreams become like ours…dead.” Pausing, I clear my throat. “I just think my children need me to against the norm and help them see things differently, so that they are not swept up in this tsunami—”
I stop mid-sentence. I can feel myself talking too much and it registers just how quiet it’s gotten in this van. What I want to say is only my opinion, and if I say it, I am doing exactly what I don’t want to. Realizing this, I break the tension in the van with a smile.
“On a lighter note,” I say, “I’ve figured out how to make my story work…but there’s a catch…”
“—And the catch is?” Nel says impatiently after an awkward silence had set it.
I had choreographed this conversation in my head and wanted to play it up a little.
“One of you is going to have to die,” I say, looking directly at Nel.
There is a moment of stillness; something I had anticipated. I am about to explain myself when a hand shoots into the air and an eager voice breaks the silence.
“I’ll do it!” Candace says to the group, smiling that wonderful smile we had wrestled out of her throughout the last five months together. (She has beautiful teeth.) Candace volunteers. “Can it be me?”
I smile back at her.
“Of course it can,” I reply, “—Candace, you’re going to die. I promise you’ll be remembered.”
I didn’t expect my students to trust my crooked mind so eagerly and force myself to shut up. Putting my explanations away, I get to the point. “I have to work on putting the pieces of my story together,” I tell them, “But the ending is always the most important part and I’ve written the first draft so that I can share it with you today.”
I reach down between the two front seats to grab a folder containing the copies of the three-part finale I have written.
“Now listen,” I say; as I begin handing them the pieces of paper, “When we read this, keep in mind that it’s a work in progress and that our stories endings often change.”
Their eyes begin to focus on the pages in front of them. They are all looking at the picture and I see curiosity begin its tickle. I watch them and think about what we are about to read. The secret at the end is what has me most worried.
“When we are done reading this,” I add—preparing to give them one last disclaimer before we begin, “Regardless of what you think…you all need to promise to laugh at me…”
They all look up from the papers in their hands to see me with a stupid looking smirk on my face. I know what I’m talking about, but they have no clue—yet.
They’ve all seen me do some interesting things to keep them entertained throughout the year, I watch their eyes widen with anticipation before speaking seriously. “Swear it?” I say to them.
Once they have all sworn to laugh at me, we get ourselves comfortable, and I begin to read…
I had a dream.
Actually, it was more like a vision; or maybe you’d call it a premonition. Who knows what it was exactly, but I’ve been told that I intellectualize too much, so let’s just start by calling it a dream.
In this dream we had discovered something that was more valuable than all the money in the world. More powerful than any government that ever existed. More inspirational than any story ever told.
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?
“Ideas are the starting point of everything else in history.” —From the book Out of Our Minds by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Ideas are symbolical…They are everlasting… Ideas can transform reality…
Excited by this idea of mine, I tried to explain it to my friend Billy Preston the best I could. Billy was that friend of mine from the detox facility. The friend that told me that everyone is recovering from something and to hate nothing in life.
Showing Billy this hand drawn ‘Octagon of P.A.I.N.’ I explained to him how I would use this image to bring us together in this future world I imagined…
“We all care Billy,” I said to him. “But we are in such a battle with these emotions that we end up fighting—with ourselves—with other people—with life. 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 a great listener 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 today.”
At the time Billy did not call me crazy, but I knew what he was thinking when he used one word when I was done explaining this idea of mine: Patience.
Billy was right when he warned me to be patient. Ideas sometimes take a long time to get out of heads and into the world. This was something I’d have to learn the hard way. 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. It might even be that you are simply not yet ready for them to support you; though this can be a tough pill to swallow…trust me. In times of doubt and frustration just remember this: The reason why many we call successful in this world are often not the nicest people is because being an asshole 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 asshole. You might as well accept it (asshole).
Today I have done exactly that. But unfortunately, Billy is not here with me as I move forward. He died on August 8th, 2016. Less than three months after he left me that card in my mailbox when that fire happened. He was thirty-seven years old when the disease of addiction stole him from us.
Billy played his role in this world and he will not be forgotten. I dedicate the rest of this story to him and all the other people we’ve all lost on this journey towards recovery. I love you Billy (aka: The Kid).
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 spent a lot of time discussing things. When I first showed him a sketch 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 the octagon would become the foundation to what we would one day build.
In reality we were just two kids trying to stay motivated in sobriety those days. 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; kind of like people talk about all the things they’d do if they won the lottery.
“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, I know it’s a little crazy perhaps—but it’s gonna work!”
Most of the enthusiasm came from me at first, but Billy did eventually get infected with the virus, as my hope spread to him over time. I remember realizing this the day he suggested that 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. It will take time Billy, but it’s going to be fun creating it together.”
He may have thought that this was just a bunch of bs at the time, but he did a fantastic job pretending to listen to me: “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.
Around this time, I had begun studying the work of Yuval Noah Harari. He had written a book called Sapiens where I read something that would help me remember the most important element to this mission: “The most valuable economic resource at our disposal is trust in the future.”
I spent a lot of time debating how to use my ideas to build something that would help create this trust and decided it all had to start with the word we would put inside the Octagon. In an attempt to figure out the perfect word to use, I asked myself what would be important in this future of ours… Love? …. Compassion? … Empathy? … Forgiveness? … Altruism? …
There were endless possibilities to be considered. Too many to try and remember now.
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 JESUS 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 word I would even consider at the time.
“What is this whole thing meant to do Jose?” he said to me.
“Wake people up Billy…give them hope.”
“That’s what faith does Jose!” he said. “You have a scientific mind and you’re too worried about how things will look. Concerned about everyone that will weigh in on things that they don’t understand. You’re trying to get people to have faith in the future…don’t you see that?”
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. People feel disconnected with religion today Billy—”
“—Those people don’t know!” he hit back at this attack from me.
“Faith and religion are just too interchangeable, I think. 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 think telling them to have faith is enough Billy.”
At this point in my life I did not yet understand this word “Faith”. The word confused and scared me. Sometimes it even made me angry (though I never told Billy this).
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 wanted to help. I’d often repeat myself to him. “Our mission is to unite anyone and everyone in creating a future brighter than this reality. We must find a word that fits.”
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. I am certain that if he were alive today, we would probably be arguing over politics too.
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 discussed many things, faith and religion was always a constant regarding this Octagon of mine. This great stubborn friend never gave up on it, and I often 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 will unite people by representing a common desire in us all. A word for the future.”
“That’s faith Jose!” he repeated to me over and over. But I was a student deaf to his message at the time—and we all know how those types of students can be (winky face).
“Do not think of what we are doing as replacing religion, Billy. 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 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 today 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, 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!”
A song titled Ooh Ahh by Grits was playing. I remember that clearly. Turning the music off completely I looked to my friend, and in that moment—in the silence of that van—I first spoke the word that would change EVERYTHING…
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“I came to win.”
—Fly (featuring Rihanna) with Nicki Minaj