(FINALe Part 3 of 3) “SHOWSTOPPER”

The sound of that last trumpet echoed in my brain louder than what seemed possible. For the briefest of moments my heart was full of hope. What I had been witnessing was a truly remarkable celebration. Realizing that all of it was simply happening in my head, I felt emptied as I wondered to myself: 

Why couldn’t this creation of my mind be real?

“He’s dreaming again.”

“How can you tell?”

“Just look at that smirk on his face—it’s like he just made a presidential speech or something!”

My son Brett made the last comment: He was My Joker.  

All three boys got a small chuckle out of what he said. Even though my eyes remained closed I could tell where each of them stood in relation to my bed. Time had made them men, but they were still my children, and I loved them now more than ever. Normally, hearing them laugh would make me smile, but not today: As all it did was make me realize how much I was going to miss them.

Feeling like I was going to cry again, I kept my eyes closed and pretended to still be asleep.  

Truthfully, I was grateful to hear them laugh—Even if it was at my expense, as it made this ending tolerable. All night I had been slipping in and out of consciousness. I could tell that the time had come. 

No one ever explains how it feels to know you are about to die: Well, now I know. 

Accepting that the moment of my departure was surely near I tried to talk myself into a state of surrender. Silently, in my mind, I told myself, “You have fought the good fight. You have finished the race. Despite countless failures, you always kept the faith. Be proud of the legacy you leave behind Jose.”

Despite repeating these thoughts of encouragement to myself, I still could not help but wonder; Was it really worth it?

I was drowning in doubt and I was scared. Questions about what happens next haunted me. With my eyes still closed, I was lost in my own thoughts as the boys continued to talk to one another beside my bed.

“When you guys were kids did dad ask you that question all the time?”

“You mean, ‘THE’ question?” Brett replied.

“Of course he did,” Jayce said. 

I heard the sadness crack through his words: Jayce was My Believer. 

They remembered.

This fact made my heart grow just a little more in that moment. The question they were referring to was, “Who’s going to change the future?” 

To which I had trained all three of them to respond, “We Will!” 

It was a cute thing to do with them when they were all young. Little did they know that I truly did believe we would change the world one day. Unfortunately, that day never came….

Not long after the fire, I trained myself to keep my ambitions and dreams a secret. The YouTube video I created solidified the fact that I was delusional. Accepting that Reality-Always-Wins, I went on in life taking my medicine and focused on being a good father and a wonderful councilor to my three boys. I cannot say that I have any regrets: I just wish I could have left this world knowing that their future was brighter than the reality they are stuck in.  

The boys continued their conversation…

“Did you ever wonder why he asked us that? …Like; was he serious?? — I mean: Do you really think he thought we would???” 

The questions were presented to the group by my youngest son, Joseph: He was My Thinker. 

My entire life, Joseph was the little horn in my side that kept me on my toes, as he would religiously dissect every word that escaped my mouth; and relentlessly plaster me with questions.

The room went quiet after Joseph asked his two older brothers these series of questions. The silence allowed me to again start feeling bad for myself. Not wanting to think about all the things I wish I would have done I was grateful to hear someone speak.

“Did you ever wonder….”

“Wonder what?”

“What if… What if we believed him?”

No one responded to this question as the room fell back into awkward silence. Hearing that question again, almost like an echo in my mind, it was like I was hit with a shock of electricity. Memories began flooding my brain and an emotional earthquake inside of me slowly shook me from my slumber.

That question was the same one I had presented to my fictional self in one of the ‘articles’ in the book…

In 2020; the year of the pandemic, I took a year off from teaching and stayed home with my youngest son to help with his remote learning. At the time I was teaching math at a Recovery Highschool in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had gotten the job in February of 2019; a year and a half sober at the time. I was grateful for the job but with the pandemic that year I was also more than willing to take that time to stay home with my son and hang out with my twins as much as possible.

With the free time I had that year I finally got to finish writing my book. When I was done, I titled it: “The Book That Could Spark A Regeneration.”

In a biblical sense, the word regeneration in some religions meant; “Born Again.” Spiritually speaking it meant: “Renewal or Revival.” From a scientific perspective it simply meant: “Restoration.” 

A year earlier I had read a book titled ‘The Real History of the End of The World.’ Like most books I had read, this one found me and spoke to me in a way that opened my eyes at the time. The author, a historian named Sharan Newman, described the work as, “An exploration of the various theories of world destruction from ancient times to present day—theories that reveal as much about human nature as they do about predominant historical, scientific, and religious beliefs of the times.”

Upon completing my own book, I stole the word Regeneration as an act of defiance.  

So many people had called me crazy for my idea on how to heal this world; yet countless books were written about men across time that prophesized its destruction. This realization pissed me off. I therefore decided that I would wear the “Crazy Crown” with pride and gave my book this title.

Knowing that the title sounded delusional (on purpose), I was scared to share what I had created with anyone. I thought what I wrote was good, but with everything that had happened before I could not risk being locked away again and having to start over. The thought of losing more time with my boys tempered any delusional thoughts I had at the time: Finally. 

A few times I did consider having some friends read it, but each time I brought it up their unexcited reactions convinced me to keep it to myself: “Don’t let them in Jose!” I would remind myself. 

Over time, I decided that I was destined to be a sad soul and that the world would never be what I imagined in my mind: That I had to become a responsible adult and let my dream die. 

In the end, I never did anything with that book I had worked so hard to write. 

A copy of the book now lays buried in my closet contained in a thin aluminum storage box. Whatever it was I wrote back then was simply a dream of mine: An idea on how to change the future.  

Accepting that any idea attempting to take flight in this miserable world always came crashing down due to realities gravity, that story stayed locked away in that box and life eventually moved on…

How had I forgotten about it? 

I never taught again after I took that year off. Teaching simply did not agree with me. I felt like I was being forced to teach things that did not really help my students succeed in life. We were paid to teach certain things in certain ways so that students could one day work and survive in this world. We however spent almost no time teaching our young minds how to create a better world; or how to adapt to this changing and confusing world. 

Back then I dreamt of teaching my students how to use their imaginations, and how to separate truth from fiction so that it would not manipulate how they perceived reality. I hoped to focus more time on teaching them how to be kind and patient; how to love; how to dream; and how to be productive losers.

Personally, I felt we were drowning children in lessons of our past and making them scared of their future. I wrote the book hoping it would become a required reading for high school students: That was my target market. 

With so much I wanted to see done differently, I simply could not handle the bullshit anymore and chose to leave teaching entirely. Eventually I went back to swinging a hammer. At least that way I was building something. Even if what I was building was temporary, I found that a bit more rewarding at the end of the day. 

Reflecting on it now, I guess it just felt like I was pretending less when I was swinging a hammer. 

The book was supposed to be my attempt at building something everlasting. Something that could stand the test of time and transform reality even when I was gone. From a delusional perspective, that first book was actually intended to be a prologue to other books I dreamt of writing. It was intended to be a foundation. 

In my head, I called it “My Blueprint.”

But again, I never used it. Instead, I simply spent the last twenty years watching the world continue to slip into more and more chaos. As I thought about all of this, I realized the worst thing about dying is not being able to change what you have been.

Then, it hit me, “I was not strong enough to use the book…but maybe THEY would?”

Energized by the idea, a subtle ray of hope cracked through the darkness. Deciding that it was finally time, I slowly opened my eyes. On my bedside, the digital clock sitting there made me aware that I had not yet left this life: “1:19 P.M. April 15th, 2040.”  

“How fitting,” I thought to myself. 

I had imagined this day in so many ways; yet never pictured it like this. (sad face)

Full of ambition and the desire to create a better world, I poured my heart and soul into writing that book. Even the music I referenced was meant to inspire an unknown audience of future believers. Thinking about all of it, the question that haunted me relentlessly back then hit me like a bolt of lightning; “Was I crazy?”

At this moment however, when the threat of public ridicule is replaced by the realization of impending death, allowing oneself to dive into a world of delusions seems like common sense… 

Perhaps that story could have changed the world…Why Not?

Looking at the three boys in front of me, I wondered: “Maybe my attempt to change things will not be lost— Maybe you will deliver my ideas to the world— Maybe you can save them???”

Unable to speak, due to the throat cancer that would be my demise, I looked at them in silence. I was probably seeing things that weren’t really there, but it appeared to me that the excitement that flashed in my eyes spoke to them.  

Were their sleeping minds waking up along with mine?  

To be honest, this was all I ever asked for as a father: To inspire my kids to think …. To dream …. To ask themselves: “What If?”

Questioning if this was destiny unfolding, my mind began to remember everything I had written back then. The idea for the word diverge. Using the word detach. Teaching the world about acceptance, and pride, and fear, and faith, and so many other things I wanted people to appreciate while putting together their ‘Life’s Puzzle.’

Then another thought hit me: “Was my entire life a test of my ability to be patient?”

Maybe it was meant to be my children, not me?

All of the excitement building up inside me quickly popped like a balloon: “THEY DIDN’T KNOW THE SECRET!!!”

Without the secret, it wouldn’t work. The secret would make it Heartwarming; and make them smile. The secret would make it Heart-Wrenching; and make them think. The secret would make it Hilarious; and make them laugh. 

The secret would produce the “Three H’s” necessary to create the showstopper this world needed. 

With this realization I quickly sat up. This action from me startled the boys. Not paying any attention to the concerned words they were throwing in my direction, I frantically looked around for something to write with. 

I was not supposed to get overly excited; as my body could not handle it, but this was too important—I needed them to know

This was going to wake them up.

Giving up on their attempts to talk to me, my boys simply watched me; not understanding what was happening or what to do. With difficulty I reached over to the bedside drawer and opened it. I found a black sharpie marker, but nothing else. Frustrated, I scanned my surroundings in a further attempt to find something to write on.

I wish I could just talk to them!

Above my head, the Saint Francis Prayer was attached to the wall. Excited, I struggled to reach up in an attempt to rip it down. Unfortunately, it had been there for years and the tape holding it in place made it impossible to remove.

Damnit.

Exhausted, my head fell back onto the pillow as I let out a deflating breathe of air. 

With all the intentions of giving up, my eyes looked lazily at the bedside table on the other side of the bed. On it, Billy’s tattered book that had comforted me so gracefully in life laid silent. “I could write the secret to my boys in that,” I thought, “But do I want to deface something so important by writing my gibberish in it?”

Feeling defeated, I began to hear footsteps approaching the room. Lifting my head slightly from the pillow, a calmness came over me as I watched rain sprinkle the window that was next to the door of the room: “How long had it been raining?” I wondered.

One by one, I watched four friends come through the door and join us in the room; Candace, Lauryn, Nel, and Pras—My Students.

Rotating my head, I watched them walk further into the room and stand beside my boys. The fact that they were here with me now, at the moment I was to leave this world, made my heart ache with happiness. I loved these students of mine more than anyone could ever understand.  

If I could only speak to them now: What would I say?

Overwhelmed with emotion, I looked at the seven heads in front of me and noticed my joy turn to anger: “—Why did I have to put them through all of this!?!”

This thought made me hate myself as I felt like a monstrous beast preparing to destroy their lives. 

Noticing the change in my expression, my boys looked at me with concern. Each of them then turned and looked at the four students standing beside them. Looking confused, it was Joseph who broke the silence and asked the question they were all wondering…

“What is he looking at?”

In my mind; with my imagination, these four students were as real as they were. The fact that my boys could not see them broke something inside of me.  

I’d never be able to see my boys faces when they finally realized who I was looking at on this day.

Debating my next move, I once again turned my head and stared.  

The rock that caught my eye was about four inches in diameter and had a smooth white finish. Sitting on top of Billy’s book, I could imagine exactly how it felt in the palm of my hand. This seemingly simple rock was given to me a year ago by my boys.  

When I was struggling to keep it together after my diagnoses, they gave it to me with a simple note attached: “You will forever be our rock.”

Sobbing uncontrollably with feelings of self-pity, I had held that rock for countless hours in search of some inner peace; never truly finding it.  

I will leave my secret there: Why Not???

Tiredly, I reached over and grabbed it. 

Becoming more aware of my surroundings; almost as if to chronicle them, I noticed the rain outside begin to fall harder on the windows of the room. Fighting for strength, I sat up the best I could and prepared myself. With shaking hands, I started to write.

I began getting short of breath and everything started to blur. Squinting my eyes, I watched my hands create the final words that this body would ever share with the Universe. 

When I was finished, I put the message to my chest and looked up to get one final glimpse of this world—My World…My Children.

All eyes in the room were on me. Zeroing in on them, one by one, I was fittingly reminded of one undeniable truth: “All along the target was you.”

Staring out through the pages of this life I would give anything to be able to speak just a few words: “To My Believer—This world needs your heart: Don’t let anger dull its shine. To My Joker—This world needs your laugh: Don’t let anger wipe it away. To My Thinker—This world needs your sense of wonder: Don’t let anger blind you. To All My Children—This world needs YOU: Don’t let anger win. Now, go change the future…With Love….”

Without warning, all strength left my body. My lifeless hands fell to my lap. As they did, slowly; like in a movie, I saw my children look down to see what I had written on the small white rock that rolled onto the bed. The confusion on their faces was a wonderful site to witness as I faded from this life. I had them….

“I Am Uncircumcised.”

The end?

(Dear Reader, click here to see the YouTube video that was released after the fire in 2016.)

The Teacher’s Playlist:

“Can anyone hear me?”

Earth by Lil Dicky

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Read our story at: RecoveryHighSchool.com

(FINALe-Part 2/3) “Mind-Blowing”

Diverge (verb): separate from another route, especially a main one, and go in a different direction.

“This house is too damn big,” I said to myself, as I walked in pursuit of somewhere quiet to rest before the festivities began.

Outside I could hear the band practicing for the celebration. All day long the sound of trumpets had made silence unattainable anywhere you went in this place. Livening up the house even more were all the cameras everywhere, which was annoying but something I could not blame on anyone except myself…

Years ago, it was my idea to invite the world into this house; reality-TV style: they called the show ‘Our House.’ It was created with the intention of helping people finally learn the truth about what went on in here.  

“In a world only sprinkled with truth, it’s about time we discover what’s real.”

This was how I pitched the show to networks that first year. I never really thought the show would actually happen, never mind last as long as it has. It was simply intended to be a gimmick to get peoples’ attention. But then it happened, for real, and once it became real people got used to it. There was no going back. So, again, I had no one to blame but myself for having a hard time finding somewhere to take my nap on this day.  

Continuing on my hunt to find a place to hide, I wondered where the boys were.

Don’t get me wrong, my wife and I love having the kids here with us, but the energy they bring with them is exhausting. Trying to keep track of them is nearly impossible as they wander the place like a few wild tornadoes. The place is fifty-five thousand square feet so obviously they get excited every time they are here. You might think that they would be used to the house after three-plus years, but truth be told, even I still often felt like a marauder in this place.  

Turning a corner, I waived at a few staff members working diligently behind their desks. Though today is a Sunday, everyone had come in to make sure that tonight went forward without a hitch. Normally I’d stop and talk to them, but I knew they were busy, so I simply smiled and moved on.  

Down the hall, the meeting room on my left was vacant as I looked in quickly before sneaking through the dining room to head towards my study.  

This study of mine was small, but I liked it that way. I actually called it my ‘Think Tank,’ as it was one of the only rooms in the house that offered me much privacy when I needed to read or get some writing done. My intentions today however were to use it for a quick nap.

Approaching its door, I realized that it was being cleaned. Knowing that the cleaning staff would have insisted on leaving if I entered, I just continued walking past the door; pretending I never had intentions of going in.  

I’d have to use the couch in the big office for my nap: No big deal. 

Thrown off a bit by this change in destination, I was distracted for a moment by the photos hanging on the wall in the small hallway. The picture of my boys standing with Dwayne Johnson always made me smile. They looked so small standing next to him. In this picture they were still little boys, which magnified this man’s size. He was one of the first celebrities they ever met in person. Looking at the picture with him I remembered their nervous faces as we prepared to take this photo that day. 

Dwayne Johnson: The first ever Divergent inhabitant of this office: Who would have ever imagined it? …

So many people thought it was a joke back then. That we were a joke; and that it could never happen. Some of our haters were so persistent that for a long time even we were forced to believe them. The group that fought against us the hardest and were the most vocal back then had even given themselves a nickname: The Bully Rabbits. Over time, however, we cuddled those assholes into submission: In the end, they proved no match for The Rock!

Reflecting on everything that had happened always took my breathe away. Prior to all this I had hibernated in fear for so long, but then, it all just happened in a way I never could have predicted. Before I knew it this dream of mine was a reality: Good-God did it feel AMAZING!

“Hope is definitely the best medicine,” I whispered to myself; as I continued to smile at the pictures on the wall. 

Shaking my head in an attempt to bring myself back to reality, I took a few more steps towards the doorway to the big office. Approaching it, I brought the three fingers of my right hand up to my lips and kissed them. I then placed those fingers on the picture of my grandparents hanging on the wall just to the right of the door. They had never lived to see all this, but they were not forgotten: “Lives that inspire never expire; until we meet again,” I said in my head. 

Walking through the door into my office, this was a ritual I had started and one that I would keep alive as long as I could.  

Shutting the door behind me, I was beyond happy to be alone. The long couch at the center of this circular room welcomed me. Sitting upon it, I took a moment to look at yet another picture; this time of my wife. Looking at her, I was reminded of the fact that I had to make sure tonight went perfectly.

The date today is April 15th, 2040; my wife’s 50th birthday. Seeing her glowing smile looking back at me made my heart feel full.  

Laying down on the couch, I closed my eyes. For a moment I let myself reflect on all that I had to be grateful for:

A single word that changed everything. With it, a new future was born. Humanity chose to create a different path forward. A campaign to detach from the norm and build something new was welcomed with open arms by a broken-down nation thirsting for change. The overwhelming desire to diverge as one human race was enough to make even the non-believer consider believing again. It was a truly magical transformation.

Lost in thought, this moment of reflection was mentally side-tracked by a responsibility that popped into my mind; “I need to call Uncle Marshal.” Our annual Transcending Concert needed another performer and he said he had an idea on who he wanted to ask. I needed to call him and find out who would be joining our Squad this year.

My mind did this to me a lot these days: jumping from one thing to another at completely random times. All the attention was great in some ways but created responsibilities that often became too much. Sometimes I even found myself wishing I was back at my parents’ house watching movies with my boys in bed; bored. That’s life I guess…constantly wanting more or wishing to have less; how strange?  

“That would be a good line for my next book,” I thought to myself, as I opened my eyes and took my phone out to make a note… 

Was all of this destiny—Or did I create it—Who could know for sure???

Honestly, none of it really mattered at this point. Being divergent became a way of life for people. 

“It was real in a movie, why couldn’t it be real in real life?”

It sounded crazy in my head, but as humanity discovered the world WAS crazy. And people everywhere loved me for attempting to give purpose to it. With that book in my hand I was unstoppable—I could do anything…

Lost in a world that once only existed in my mind, I brought myself back to reality. The speech I intended to give today was going to be epic. The crowd was going to be full of celebrities; this fact made me super excited and super nervous at the same time. I knew it was crucial I presented every word of my speech flawlessly.  

Laying my head down on the small pillow, I adjusted myself in an attempt to get more comfortable. While I had originally come in here to take a nap, my mind had just woken up again; it was going to be impossible to sleep now. Accepting this, I decided right then to use this time alone for something else.

Visualizing myself doing something was important to getting it right. Taking a deep breath and closing my eyes, I let the room I was in disappear from view as I imagined myself giving my speech later in the day….

“Thank You—Thank You—Thank You…. You’re far to kind!  (Pause until crowd stops cheering)

“Dear Friends. (Pause 1 Count) The Time Has Come. (Pause 2 count) My wife’s long-awaited day of celebration is here! (Brief-fireworks-display).  

“Now, before we get this party started, let me begin this speech like I do all my others…as she would not forgive me if I did it any other way. YOU are changing this world. Our progress continues to rely on YOUR actions. They were, and will continue to be, what changes our future. You are the miracle, let us never forget that.  

“A long time ago I made a choice in my life: To look at humanity as it might be rather than for what it was. Back then, this was the only way I knew how to survive the world that lived outside my windows, and on the television screen, and on that phone in my hand. This vision I had for our future crept into mind like a caterpillar and made my brain its cocoon. That idea; that living thing in my head, would die in there without being fed; or it would turn itself into a butterfly and take flight in this world. Looking out at you now, I think we all know how that played out… (Wait for cheers as butterflies are released in the background.)

“Today we continue our quest of changing the five great pillars our existence: Changing Education, Changing Entertainment, Changing Business, Changing Government, and Changing Religion. While none of this is easy, I feel lucky knowing many of you have become more open-minded over the years. Speaking of feeling lucky, I must tell you that this was always a concept that seemed laughable to me in my previous life. It took me a very long time to realize that I was not meant to be lucky. Instead, I was destined to be successful. And as we all now know, DESTINY—ALWAYS —WINS!  (Pause again for cheers)

“Entertainment transforms our reality. We didn’t know any better before; or maybe we didn’t want to know better, but now we do. Today many of you have taken it as your responsibility to use it as a tool for progress rather than for destruction. On behalf of my children, and their children, and their children’s children in the future: I thank you. To all of you that are making this dream of mine a reality, I love you all: I truly, truly do.  

“Now; with all this seriousness out of the way, let’s move onto the main event; shall we?  (Rambunctious Applause To Music)

“In my twenties I learned that life is long—Thank God for that. In my thirties I realized that life is short—Thank God for that also. In my forties I was fortunate to discover that life is beautiful—I have all of YOU to thank for that. (Pause, smile, and point to the crowd) Now in my fifties, I know that life is unpredictable. (Turn and look at Emma) I have your First Lady and my Wonderwall here to thank for that! (Pause while our song is played)

“My dearest Emma, as you now turn fifty yourself, please know that not a day goes by that I am not amazed by what a beautiful person you are. Your beauty on the outside is undeniable, but as you know, it was your heart I fell in love with. A heart so big that I still question how it fits inside that body. Somehow, each day, like magic, your smile wipes away my insecurities—Like it did the first time we met after such an awkward introduction. Though this is your day, I must take a minute to tell you that I hope to continue to be the man I promised to be all those years ago. The fan that held out his hand to you and promised to open your eyes. The man that grabbed that hand and promised to show you wonder after wonder. That dork who would not let that hand go as he promised to take you over, sideways, and under on a —”

“—Dad.”

“Dad…”

“Dad…WAKE UP!”

The Teacher’s Playlist:

“Music is my time machine.”

Cinderella Man by Eminem

(Click here to continue to next chapter)

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(FINALe-Part 1/3) “Fight P.A.I.N.”

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…

“Fight P.A.I.N.”

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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

(Click here to continue to next chapter)

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(20) P.A.I.N. Through Fear

Week twenty had arrived. It was Friday and I was at school for my last day teaching. In-person learning for students was set to begin the following week, so the building was filled with other teachers preparing to welcome back students. With no preparing to do myself, I was with Lily in her office watching her wipe tears from her eyes: 

Putting the papers down, Lily began to speak, “That’s beautiful Jose. Honestly I didn’t think she had this in her.”

I had given Lily an essay that Lauryn had written. Lauryn titled this essay of hers;“Through Those Eyes”

Earlier that week the students and I watched a movie together. The title of this movie was, ‘Finding Neverland.’ 

As their final assignment for my class I required them to write an essay or a short story. What they wrote had no parameters except that it had to somehow reference this movie we had watched in two different, and unique ways. Besides this they were free to write whatever they wanted. 

While each of my students provided something great, it was Lauryn’s essay that made my heart hurt with hope when I read it. Watching Lily cry across from me, I could now see she felt the same way about what Lauryn had written.

“I know. It’s amazing right. My son saw the tears in my eyes when I read it too. Pretty powerful—”

A knock on the office door interrupted this moment. Principal Sam leaned her head and asked the two of us to come meet in the break room. I watched Lily wipe her tears and walk out the door; I followed suit. 

Walking behind Lily down the hallway, I could not help but admire how beautiful she really was….and I noticed she smelled good too…kinda cinnamony…. 

As Lily made a turn into the breakroom a loud song began in chorus, “For she’s a jolly good fellow— For she’s a jolly good fellow— For she’s a jolly good fellow … WHICH NOBODAY CAN DENY!”

A few of Miss Lily’s students had come to surprise her on this day. All of the staff knew about this little surprise, yet it was clear Lily had no clue herself. I watched her cry happy tears for the second time in under three minutes.  

Balloons surrounded a dressed-up table which held a few small gifts and a fancy looking cake. On the cake was written; “Congratulations Lilia!”

Standing next to Lily, I leaned in to whisper to her, “They could have at least spelt your name right.”

Turning to look at me, she punched me in the shoulder, but then hugged me, “That is my name you idiot.”

Miss Lily had gotten engaged. That boyfriend of hers had finally proposed after a short little break in their relationship earlier in the year. She had gotten the ring she had been so eager to get, and I was beyond happy for her….

“You had your chance,” said Mr. Henry to me; as I sat with him eating a piece of cake. “I still don’t get why you never went after that?” 

Mr. Henry, I had come realize, was always thinking with his dick. Of course, I never said this to him, but as I watched him drool over my friend it was more obvious than ever. I could not tell him the real reason Lily and I could not happen, so I tried to think of something to say to him that would satisfy the requirement of idle conversation. 

“She is always wearing sunglasses,” I said.

“What the hell does that matter?” 

“Sunglasses intimidate me,” I smiled.

Mr. Henry looked at me and shook his head, “For a good-looking dude, you’re a real pussy you know that.”

***BREAKING KNEWS***

Dear reader, I have some good news for you: This zigzag journey through the ashes of my past is about to come to a close. Although this will not be the last chapter in this story, this will be the last time you come across any of these flashbacks of mine. With what I am about to share I believe you will have all the information needed to get us to the finish line. Though it has been a bumpy ride, I appreciate you holding on. Hopefully I can make it all worth it in the end….

When I saw the fire flowing up the side of the house from out that kitchen window, I ran back into the basement and told Sirena to grab our son and get outside. As she did that, I frantically grabbed my laptop, a few notebooks, and ran out of the basement myself. 

Once outside, I grabbed a garden hose and tried my best to stop the fire from spreading. Only a few minutes of this passed before a fireman pulled me away for my own safety as a propane grille was very close to the flames that were spreading. From that moment on, all I could do was watch.  

Eventually the firetrucks connected their hoses and began working on controlling the blaze. From across the street I stood with my family and some neighbors to watch the flames break through the roof as smoke filled the sky. Lights from firetrucks, ambulances, and police flashed everywhere. 

It was only three in the morning, but no one was going to sleep through this disaster of mine. Standing there, the sounds of shattered glass from windows being broken drowned out the sound of my heart beating through my chest as panic overcame me. 

Our house was gone, and with it, any shot at redemption I thought I might have had. 

“You’re such a fucking idiot Jose….”

You must remember that this house was full of stuff I had been working on to create that video I was telling you about. Watching that fire, I was unsure whether to be upset or scared: Actually, no, I was both…definitely both.  

Soon everyone was going to find out about what I had been doing in that house for the past few months. That, along with costing my family its home, was definitely going to be the most embarrassing moment of my life: “…They are definitely going to lock me up for this!”

There is something I must address while sharing this part of the story; and here it is: I don’t think Sirena ever forgave me for grabbing my laptop from that house and leaving her to grab our son. 

In retrospect, yes, that decision sounds awful. But in my defense, in that moment I had no doubt she could grab my son as the fire was not big at first. However, she would never have known what to grab off of my computer desk. Nor could she have comprehended how valuable those things were to our future. With that said, this decision of mine forever fractured our already fragile marriage. 

Speaking of that marriage, prior to the fire I vividly remember Sirena asking me once: “What if your story doesn’t work Jose?”  

She had seen how determined I was, and for all the bad things I have said about her throughout this story she always permitted me to pursue this dream of mine. When she asked me this question, I did not want to consider it, I did not want to let doubt creep into my mind at the time.

In the end, this story I felt called to share cost us our marriage. While I do not regret any of it, I do wish that this dream of mine had not caused Sirena such troubles; but she too knew what she was getting into.

After the fire Sirena and I stayed at my parents with our son. No one went into that house those first few days after the fire, but I knew that once they did people would find all the work I had been doing for that video and I’d have some serious explaining to do. 

Contemplating what to do next, I determined that I had one shot to make this right: I was going to make that video.

In desperation mode, I put on headphones and let Eminem sing “Lose Yourself” into my ears as I diligently worked to put it together. Doing this while smoking my weed fed my opiate receptors with the perfect mixture of positive thoughts and delusional dreams. 

While creating the video I decided that the fire must now be part of the story also. As I worked; I wondered, “Maybe this had to happen too?”

Dear Reader, you can imagine how all of this ended up…but I’ll tell you anyway:

On June 4th, 2016; one week after the fire, I downloaded this video of mine onto YouTube. I then used my social media accounts to share the video.  

The next day I was hospitalized: Locked away for my second time in fourteen months at another mental institution for another psychological evaluation.

Seeing this video of mine, my family encouraged me to get help. I voluntarily admitted myself to a psych hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts. Within the first few hours of being there, I left, signing the A.M.A. paperwork (Against Medical Advice). 

I then wandered aimlessly around the city streets in one last-ditch attempt to hide from my problems. A few hours later some friends found me and forced me into their car. 

After a lot of crying, they brought me back to the hospital. With all that had transpired I had absolutely no choice but to accept their analysis of my behavior….  

The world that year, 2016, went forward without me as I struggled to accept how crazy I truly was and fix that house of ours. I spent most of this time lost in a deep and dark depression. That is when I had participated in the electronic shock therapy you heard me reference a while back in this story. During this time, I did my best to present a strong face, but I was beaten and had to constantly fight to simply endure another day.  

On September 25th, 2017; more than a year after the fire and my second stay at a mental institution, I finally began my journey into true sobriety. From that day on I have not used drugs or alcohol of any kind.  

While everyone’s sobriety is different: That is mine. Did I get it on my first try? —I think you now know the answer to that.

***End Of Breaking Knews***

On the drive home from school after Lily’s mini celebration, my phone rang: “Hello my girl…what’s up?” I answered.

“Just wondering how the day went. Are you doing okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s not the end of the world. Plus, I finished the end of my story and I’m taking the students out for lunch tomorrow to read it to them, so I’m kinda excited about that. It’s just a job anyway, it’s the students I’ll miss— You know they all refer to you as X2 now by the way?”

“Real nice asshole,” laughed Sirena through the phone.

I had told her about the lesson from a week earlier. Making fun of one-another and calling each other names was the type of relationship we had nowadays: we did not do it out of hate. 

No longer did we argue about who broke who first, or who owed who what. The two of us had come to understand that the relationship we had together was toxic. Even though we would never be together again in that way, we had survived a battle together and would forever be connected because of it.

It is no secret that I struggled to see Sirena as a good person for a while. Only once I realized that she was simply not a good person for me was I able to move on. Reflecting on our time together has taught me a lot: Like how losing is more traumatizing than winning is awakening; and how for some people the pursuit of love is often more precious than its possession. 

Of all that I have learned however, the most important thing, I think, is this: I am merely a product of my own insecurities. 

The truth is, for a very long time I was ashamed of my life. For a while, part of me blamed Sirena for this. It is easy to avoid telling people about my struggles with drugs and mental illness, but being divorced twice is something one cannot hide from. That reality of mine gets eye-roles that can reduce a person in size to a spec of sand. People that judge me over this do not know my story however: I am more fortunate than they could ever imagine.  

I have been married to two amazing women in my life. I am still friends with both of them which makes raising our children together a blessing. While it took me some time to get here, I now know that this life is not the curse or punishment I had once believed it was. 

Perhaps I messed up. Perhaps I made mistakes that I wish I hadn’t. Perhaps my life would have been better if I had done this differently; or not have done that. Today, none of it matters because I now feel as if everything happened for a reason. 

Does that make me sound crazy? —I really don’t care.

As far as relationships go: Perhaps a relationship does not fit in my life anymore: Perhaps one day it shall. At this moment however, I am in love with a vision I have for humanity and feel as if I have an obligation to make it a reality. This mission, along with being there for my boys, makes committing to a relationship with someone impracticable. In truth, I think it would be a waste. Now let me be clear, saying that does not mean that I’m thinking with my dick, it means I’m listening to my heart… 

“Jose, I know your excited about giving your story another shot but please be careful. You’ve come so far, and I just don’t want to see you lose everything again. I’m very proud of you—you know that right?”

My entire life I wanted people to say they were proud of me. But in that moment, for some reason, I still felt as if I was not ready to hear it.

“Thank you my dear, that means a lot. And yes…I’ll be careful.”

Even though I said the words, I knew that they were a lie. What I was about to attempt was dangerous and I had some real concerns about it. However, Sirena did not need to hear them: The Universe had made it so. 

At this point in my story I knew what had to be done, and I knew that YOU were worth the risk…. 

Week 20 (1.22.21):

“P.A.I.N. through Fear”

What I was looking at could not be real: “After everything that happened, was I right to believe?”

Sitting in my chair, the bright lights shining back at me were blinding. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. When I could finally see clearly the site before me was nothing short of a miracle.  

There was no way I could guess how many people were in the crowd that I saw in front of me. Trying to identify faces I recognized was difficult at first as so many of the people looking back at me were strangers. Focusing a bit more closely, I began to identify some family and friends of mine that were scattered out amongst the vast audience. 

Slowly, my attention was brought to the people sitting in the first row; only a short distance separated us. It was then I realized that everyone from my school was there supporting me. My heart; at that moment, could not have been fuller.  

Letting the scene before me settle in, I had to smile to myself as many people in the crowd were wearing that trademark Ron-Burgundy-Red colored hat. All of them had the big letter ‘I’ stitched across its front that encased the rest of that word of ours.   

For what seemed like an eternity the music that made this a reality played from every speaker in the building. I again smiled to myself; surprised by the song the host had chosen to use for this event. As it played, the crowd danced, with the host right alongside them. I, on the other hand, did not move from my comfy seat as I watched them all jump around like children. 

The craziest thing about all of this was that I was not anyone special. If anything, you could call me a modern-day pirate. I tiptoed onto the scene like a thief in the night. I did not have money, nor was I famous. I stole people’s attention by lying and cheating. I definitely was no genius—anyone could have done it: I was nothing more than your Average Joe.

As the song came to a close the crowd stayed standing. I had never seen so many people smiling at once.

The host made her way on stage with a glowing face that was filled with excitement. Sitting down next to me, folding her legs beneath her, she grabbed a sip of her water and calmly waited for her enthusiastic crowd to go silent as she caught her breath. 

Watching this show on TV I knew the environment was electric, but never did I dream that I would experience it like this. A few seconds passed as the host and I continued to look out at the audience. Then her and I locked eyes with one another. As we did, we both smiled: that type of smile where both people are trying to stop themselves from bursting out in laughter. 

This was really happening; Ellen was about to ask me a question on live television.

“So, Jose, the question everyone wants to know the answer to…. Have you gotten the girl?”

The crowd laughed and my host smiled her signature mischievous smile. I turned red but did not mutter a word, instead I let her continue, “Of course I’m joking—Everyone knows that story already…” Waving her hand like she was swiping the question away, she added, “What I’m really dying to know is what these secret meetings between you and The Rock are all about. Would you mind filling us nosey peeps in?”  

She looked at me: This was theatre.  

The truth was, she knew what these meetings were about as she was very much part of the plan. She also knew that at this moment I could not tell her in front of them. Acting nervous, I shook my head in an attempt to say, “Please No” without having to actually use my words.

On cue, an assistant appeared from backstage. 

Wearing a black butler suit and bowtie, this handsome man walked past Ellen and placed a large silver serving tray on the table before us. Using his crisp white glove, he took the lid off of the tray; revealing a ham sandwich sitting on a single paper towel. 

“In case you get hungry,” Ellen giggled; looking back and forth between me and the audience with wide eyes. 

The crowd howled for what seemed like an eternity. As the joke receded, Ellen spoke again, “Well then, let’s get right to it shall we. You have come here today with the promise of telling us this the secret of yours…. So… What is it?”

This question was a planned part of this interview as well. In that moment, I sat hoping that I could deliver the showstopper-type secret I had promised. My stomach jumped to my throat as I tried to remain calm.

“Were they ready?” I wondered to myself; knowing that I had no choice and would find out soon enough.

In a second I would be telling the audience to reach below their seats. There they would find my secret written with a black-sharpie marker on a small, smooth, white rock. 

Attempting to give this a climactic feel, I did not say a word as I reached down to take a sip of water in order to stretch this moment out further.

As I leaned forward for my water, I realized that my hands would not do as I wanted. I automatically looked down to see what was going on. A ‘straight jacket’ was holding my limbs in place. I could not move.

Looking up in shock, all the faces in the crowd became one, and laughter filled my ears.

This was always my greatest fear.

How could I be so dumb—How did I let this happen again—Why didn’t I just give up???

The audience went silent as the room went dark. A moment passed before the lights snapped back on. Looking up, frozen in fear, a single person was left in the crowd.

But it was not a person: It was a clown.

Moving at super-human speed this clown rushed towards me on stage. Recognizing who it was by the orange face hiding beneath a big red nose, I watched this large man grin down at me. 

Slowly, this clownish figure in front of me pulled his right arm from behind his back. In his hand was a metallic looking gun. Calmly, he lifted it; aiming it directly between my eyes. With the barrel of this gun staring at me, he spoke, preparing to pull the trigger, “You’re Fired.” 

(BANG!)

Waking up, the bed I was sleeping on was wet with sweat. Sitting up, fear again forced me to face the question that had haunted me ever since I came up with the idea… “Do I really believe I can do this?”

Despite this dream (a sign from the Universe warning me to stop), curiosity trumped my fear: I was going to have to find out….

Dear Squad,

Being your teacher this year has been an experience I will forever cherish. Now that it is coming to an end let me share with you a few life lessons that may one day help with your life’s puzzle.

This week’s article was intended to illustrate one undeniable fact of life: Things rarely happen the way we imagine in our minds (or in our dreams).  

Last week I wrote a story describing a future where I had changed the world with a book I plan to write in the next few months. While I painted a grandiose image for us to consider, today’s article imagines a future just as likely. The truth is, no matter how well you plan or envision events in the future, it is important to always stay flexible and be grounded by acting in ways that make you—YOU. By doing this, you will survive anything.

Most of the time, how things unfold in real life is completely unpredictable. 

One day I can guarantee that life will have you feeling overwhelmed. You may be in a rut or going through some difficult times. In those moments try and remember this: 

“Events that change the world often come on tiptoe.” 

— A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway

If this statement is true about events that have changed the world; can’t it also be true of events that will change your life?  

What if, when you are in a rut; you are being blessed in ways that have not yet played themselves out?? 

What if, during those difficult times; everything you are going through is happening for a reason???

Unfortunately, because we spend so much time worrying about what has happened in the past, or what could happen in the future, we get stuck living in fear: where nothing productive ever takes place.  

Right now, what I’m saying to you may simply float in one ear and out the other. All I ask is that you try and remember some of this as you continue to be patient, ask questions, and have faith in whatever this future has in store for you. 

And with that, let me end by sharing with you my ‘Four Entertaining Truths’:

  1. What we learn as children stays with us forever.
  2. Children believe anything.
  3. We are all children.
  4. Disagreement is as dependable as the funny bone.

“In the vacuum of time. All possessions are merely things.

 Ideas and dreams are the only investments you need consider.”

Seeing the beauty through all this P.A.I.N….. You have all made me a Believer!

I love you all. —Mr. J

QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:

What are you scared of?

The Teachers Playlist:

“Gonna Find You…”

—Ready Or Not by the Fugees

(Click here to continue to next chapter)

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Read our story at: RecoveryHighSchool.com

(19) Three Young Men

Week nineteen has us on our computers again. It was halfway through the month of January 2021 and we were still remote because of lingering concerns over this virus. Knowing that next week ended semester two; marking the end of my tenure at the school, there was one more lesson I wanted to share with my students before we ran out of time. Lily was sitting in on this class as her face has its own cube on screen: 

“Did you all have time to read the short story and write your reflections?” I said to start this Friday class of ours. 

They had all received it a day prior:

Thirteen-point-eight billion years ago. In a computer lab before time. Two Engineers were in fierce competition with one another. One, named Alya, had a creation that far surpassed the other’s: Actually, you’d call it more of a simulation than a creation. As the competition came to a close, the other engineer, named Lucifer, became overwhelmed with jealousy. Facing inevitable defeat, Lucifer snuck onto Alya’s computer and punched two simple buttons: X followed by the number 2. By pressing these keys in combination, ‘X2’, Lucifer added an element into Alya’s model of D-N-A. Undetectable to this great creator, Alya, the element added would infect her creation with something called ‘Deceit’—Forever Sabotaging Her Experiment.

Throughout the year I had written articles and asked my students to answer a, ‘Question For Reflection’. Besides wanting them to get in the practice of keeping a journal to chronical their personal development, one of the other purposes behind this was to increase their cognitive ability to interpret stories. 

Rather than simply watch and believe, I had hoped to teach them to watch and decipher. In the outline for my curriculum I referred to this ability as an individual’s ‘C.S.I. Score’:

Common Sense Intellect: One’s ability to separate truth from fiction when presented a piece of entertainment in the real world.     

As our time together was coming to an end, I wanted to put my students’ ability to do this to the test…

Looking at them through my computer screen, I spoke a statement that I had spent time preparing and did my best to deliver it with purpose. “Writing allows me to constructively detach from daily struggle and dream of a different world. A world where destiny is real, and the ability to diverge from where you are is available to anyone that wants it. A world I wish we could all live in one day.” I then paused before asking the question that would get this lesson started, “Now, could you all please share your thoughts about this story I wrote for you?” 

Listening to them, I kept the conversations on track when necessary but hardly muttered a word. As I watched them all ask ‘What-If-Questions’ of one-another; including Lily, I knew that this class of mine was right on track. Some of them pushed me for answers, but I deflected by simply turning their questions into more questions; knowing they would get my answers soon enough.

The conversation was even more intense than I expected. We had all become comfortable with one another which meant we all spoke with loose tongues. This made our classes together fun and entertaining, but dangerous at the same time. All of them had put some real thought into what the story inferred.

At one-point, Lauryn got really offended by what Pras perceived this story to mean and the two of them got into a heated argument (a causality of imaginative minds clashing). As I had anticipated, religion was a key discussion point. This was not normally encouraged at school but something that I welcomed on this day.

As you know by now, I do not abide by many rules of a traditional classroom. Shying away from discussing religion, however, is something I do try and comply with. 

The reason for this is best explained by Richard Holloway in his book; A brief History of Religion: “It is obvious from our history that humans are good at hating each other. And it is usually those that differ from us in some way who become the objects of our hatred. Race, class, color, sex, politics, even hair color can prompt ugly behavior in us; so can religion. In fact, religious hatred is probably the deadliest form of this human disease: Because it gives humans’ dislike divine justification. It is one thing to hate people because you don’t like their opinions, it is another thing to say God hates them too and wants them exterminated.”

The day I made the decision to go forward with this controversial lesson of mine, I had pulled behind an SUV in a grocery store parking lot. This SUV had stickers on its back windshield. On the left was a stick-figure illustration of a mom, a dad, and three children holding hands; beside them was a small dog. Next to this cute sticker was a separate sticker with the letters WWJD; this sticker was common and stood for: What Would Jesus Do. Now, on the opposite side of this same window was another sticker: “Trump 2020—Make Liberals Cry Again.” 

Earlier on that same day, while on a walk, I saw a similar scene. Draped over a porch railing was a large banner that read, “Jesus Saves;” above it, to the left, a flag flew, “Trump 2020—Keep America Great!”

The combination of those two things that day truly annoyed me. While I had avoided these conversations in my class, I decided then that I could avoid it no longer: “Separation of church and state my ass—That’s some real bullshit right there.” 

Dear Reader, obviously I said none of this to my students on this day, but I needed to get it off my chest, so, thank you for listening. I will now get back to class…

When I wrote the short story, I purposely intended to spark the debate Lauryn and Pras were having. Watching them get annoyed with one another, I secretly congratulated myself at a job well done.   

Knowing time was short, I took back control of the class, “Alright my friends,” I started, “Like all the stories you’ve read this year, I created this one also. Would you like to know the meaning behind it?”  

In life there are certain moments we wish to freeze in time, to remember so that we may one day reflect and smile upon them when needed. Knowing that this was going to be one of those moments, I looked out amongst my students and tried to take a mental picture. 

“You all know that I’ve been married and divorced twice correct?” 

“Third times the charm!” chirped Nel from his cube. His audience, Pras and Lauren, simply nodded their heads in response to my question: clearly not in the mood to laugh at Nel’s comment. I could see in the faces of Pras and Lauren that the two of them were still upset over the argument they had a few seconds prior.  

Focusing on Lily, I could not help but smirk as I looked in her eyes through the computer screen and said, “I wrote the story so that one day the world might learn that my second ex-wife was a deceitful bitch.” 

***BREAKING KNEWS***

Heading into 2016, this inescapable idea of mine would not leave me alone. Even if I was suffering from delusional thinking; even if my vision broke from reality; even if I was crazy: Did that mean I was supposed to simply throw the story I felt called to share with the world in the trash and forget about it forever?

Though no one wanted to hear me say it out loud: That was not going to happen.

Not working at the time, I decided that I would secretly prepare to give it another shot. The website I created was still up and running so I spent time cleaning up my presentation and adding things that were now relevant: things I had learned and things that had happened. 

At this point I still wanted what I wrote to be significant, but there was a new realization I had come to accept that would change my approach slightly: People Did Not Read. 

Somehow, I would have to get their attention before people willingly dedicated time to read my story. While I struggled figuring out how exactly I’d do this, I knew one thing for certain: This time around I was not going to rely on family or friends.  

Eventually it became clear to me that I would need to use social media and the internet.  

“Everyone seems able to get recognized on social media nowadays, with such a great message to share, how hard could it be?”

I began creating visuals and videotaping scenes from movies and television that I would eventually use to make a video: “This will get their attention,” I told myself.

Crazy—Yes. We’ve established this already. But this is what happened. I’m simply the messenger…

During the first few months of 2016, everyone was talking about the upcoming election. This is when Trump had entered the scene and I was not a fan from day one. However, I; unlike a lot of the world at the time, believed it entirely possible that he would win this election. I had been in the trenches and knew how broken things were. People were itching for someone new, something exciting: A man with big hands fit the bill.

“Donald Trump is going to win this election… Unless I can somehow stop him,” I thought to myself.

Was I on medicine at this time? — Yes. But clearly, my dosage must have been off. My delusional ambitions simply grew as I cut myself off from the world even more. And I was now more dedicated than ever.  

By May 27th, 2016, my entire basement was filled with visuals that would help introduce myself to the world. Very soon I would be ready to put my video together, post it on YouTube, and go viral. I was going to burst onto the world scene and be the one to talk sense into my fellow Americans before we all made a mistake that we would regret forever! 

This plan was simple…What could go wrong…

Around two that morning I woke up and had a cigarette on my back porch. The moon was bright, and I looked up at it with hopes that this time around I would get things right. Everything was falling into place. The world was not ready for my story before. I was not ready before. But now, it was time.   

Crawling back into bed with Sirena, I had just fallen back to sleep when the fire alarms began going off. With my heart in my throat I ran up the stairs from our finished basement, where our bedroom was, and entered the kitchen. Out of our small kitchen window I saw the fire running up the side of the house…. 

“—What the FUCK did I do now?”

***End Of Breaking Knews***

I had been trying to limit the swears used in my class. Calling my ex-wife a ‘deceitful bitch’ went against this new rule of mine, but strong words were necessary in order for this message to hit its mark. It was all part of the plan.  

“—Yo, Mr. J!” Exploded Nel, with a loud laugh.

“You’re an ass,” added Lauryn, not laughing.

Pras stayed quiet, smiling lightly; probably pondering the legitimacy of my teachings.  

Lily had conveniently disappeared from her cube on screen in the midst of my students’ reactions. But a moment later my phone received a message from her: A Cry-Laughing-Emoji. After looking at this text, I noticed her sneak back into her cube on the computer screen in front of me. Though she tried hiding it, her giggling did not go unnoticed.

“Miss Lily don’t encourage him—” Lauryn said with a straight face. It was not what I said about my ex-wife that Lauryn was upset about: she was mad I let her argue with Pras over something that now seemed irrelevant. “You’re really an ass Mr. J.”

At this, Lily broke her silence, “I’m sorry Lauryn but that was funny. Are you really gonna call Mr. J an ass for making us laugh?”

“Yup!” responded Lauryn; yet a smile blossomed.

Knowing that I had gotten the message across successfully, I gathered myself in order to present them with the lesson this class was designed to teach, “How many of you want revenge—To get back at those that have wronged you—To show the world that you were right, and they were wrong—That they suck, and you don’t?”

I’d read somewhere that a human’s most crippling desire is that to be heard. Well, social media has filled this void of ours. Social media offers individuals a tool allowing them to create their own personal war-against-the-world. Unfortunately, we have yet to comprehend the psychological effect it is having on us. I knew this when I asked them these questions and I hoped that they all recognized it as well. 

I continued speaking, “I wrote that story in my own personal journal in the middle of the night a few months ago. When I wrote it, I was sad, and I was angry. A dangerous mixture of emotions. Now, if I would have jumped on social media and wrote how I felt about my ex-wife at the time I most certainly would have regretted it…”  

On my desk was a paper-sized white erase board. In preparation for this class I had written something on it. At this point I held it up so they could see it:  

P.R.I.D.E.= Poor Ride Into Darkness (for) Everyone

“To have pride in who you are, and what you do is a good thing. But there is such a thing as false pride that will bring darkness into your life. My ex-wife leaving was hard on me. When I wrote that story, it’s clear I had still not accepted it. My ‘false-pride’ would not permit me to. I can tell you with certainty that I would have regretted putting any of my hurt on social media. I would have never been able to take it back. If I had said something about her using that weapon…the internet…would people have ever forgotten what I said? …. As you consider that, Pras, let me ask you… Will you ever forget the meaning being X2 now?”

Softening, Pras responded, “Nope.”

“Hundreds of years ago, when civilizations voyaged into lands unknown, it was normal for people to be scared of new things. It was a dangerous and scary world. Today we are not much different. In this new world of ours the internet can be a dangerous place. Nowadays proving to others that we are winning is part of surviving in this dark forest of ours. 

“When I was upset with my ex, a part of me wanted to scream it. I dreamt of saying something that would make her the loser and me the winner. Very simply: I wanted revenge. But, here’s the thing: Winning is not always important. Very often, losing opens up doors that winning cannot.  In fact—”

“—No way!” interrupted Nel. He was in a very combative mood this day. “That’s just teachers speak. Winning is important. Everyone wants to win. No one gives a shit if you’re a good loser.”

Slightly annoyed at his interruption, his tone, and his language, I fought with myself where to take our discussion. Looking at Pras, still looking upset, I decided at that moment to offer him some entertainment. Preparing for a fight, I responded, “Nell, my friend, did your President lose this year’s election?” 

Nel did not hide his love for Donald Trump in our class. Lacing up his gloves, he replied diplomatically, “That’s really nothing we know for certain Mr. J.” 

“Bullshit Pras, he lost—” I let my voice rise a bit for theatrical purposes, “As far as votes are concerned—He lost. Period. I don’t care what that Rabid-Fox-Blood coursing through your veins tells you otherwise…But in reality, was losing really a bad thing?  

“Our country is fighting amongst itself. This pandemic is going to have financial implications in the coming years that no president can prevent. There is hate bubbling up and blame being cast in all directions. It’s an absolute mess. I can’t imagine any person in their right mind—that’s assuming you think your guy is in his right mind—that would want to be President. I believe that your President won this election by losing Nel…and honestly, I think he knows it.”

On que, Pras walked into the conversation before Nel could punch back, “He’s a narcissist, Mr. J. He does not think logically. He wants to win no matter what. All the time.”

“—Name calling Pras,” I interjected; knowing that I started this fight and needed to temper it before things got out of hand, “Even if he is what you say Pras, you don’t change someone like that with name calling. You create something they want, and then tell them that they are no longer needed. Make them change in order to be wanted again. Right now, there is nothing that is going to force Trump; or his supporters, to change Pras. And that’s not Trump’s fault, I’m sorry, but it’s not.”

Pras knew my feelings about Trump, and I knew he could handle what I was saying to him. Nel was a different animal, however. I had to tread carefully in order to avoid creating a purgatory type chasm between him and I. This was politics. 

Waiting for Nel to speak, Lauryn jumped in instead, “Then who’s fault is it Mr. J?”

God did I love this girl. By her speaking she immediately put Nel back on his leash. He had no choice but to listen now. I needed to make sure I singed this wound quickly, “Well…really Lauryn, it’s no ones. Not to sound crazy, but all of this was inevitable. If you look at how humanity has evolved, a time where hate divided us so loudly was going to happen eventually. Maybe we should all thank Trump for ripping off the band-aid. I know it doesn’t feel like anyone is winning right now; I know things appear unfixable; but what if we had to go through all of this to create something better?”

Not hearing anyone respond to this question of mine, I realized that this was some deep shit I was shoveling at them. Changing gears, I went back to old-reliable: some swearing-laced humor, “Kinda like I needed my ex-wife to be a deceitful bitch in order for my life to be what it is today.”

Recognizing that the time to sprinkle had arrived, I attempted to bring this class of ours to a peaceful conclusion, “Speaking of my ex-wife, before we end today, I need to make sure you all know that she is not the deceitful bitch I have been jokingly calling her. This woman stood by me through some very challenging times in my life, and I would not be here today without her. For that reason, I hope that what we have talked about today stays between us. Have I been hurt by some of her decisions? —Yes. But in reality, I won the lottery the day she chose to leave me…”

Pausing a moment to reflect on events of the past, the ending of this lesson became clear to me, “Someday you will have a person that bounces back and forth in your life; from friends to enemies, and hopefully back again. How you feel about people in your life can be temporary: If you are strong enough to let it be that way. X2 is a great mother to my youngest son, and today she is still a great friend to me. Removed from the pain of a broken heart, I can tell you in all honesty that I do still love her.”

Week 19 (1.15.21):

“Three Young Men”

Dear Squad,

Earlier this week we joked about what would happen if I ever became a successful author with the book I will write. While Lauryn claims I am too old to become famous, I have decided to play with your minds a little and imagine a world in which she has been proven shockingly wrong. Let me bring you all into a future where your teacher, Mr. J., has changed the world….

In a galaxy far-far away, three young men; 

The Joker, The Believer, and The Thinker, 

lay in front of their screens preparing to watch their favorite show:

 “The Sunday Roast—A JoJo Enterprise Production.”

Sitting in a simple arm-chair in front of a large window, the host began his introduction: “Hello everyone, my name is Brett Fever and today’s date is Sunday, April 15th, 2040. Thank you all for joining us. We promise you won’t regret it.” 

The pony-tailed host crossed his legs, grabbed a few pieces of paper off his lap, and began to read, “We wish to begin this show with a quote; ‘Retain Even In Opposition Your Capacity For Astonishment.’  On this day in history, in 1865, Abraham Lincoln died by assassination at the age of fifty-six years old. This quote was taken from a movie depicting his life and achievements. We use the quote to remind our viewers: ‘Lives That Inspire Never Expire!’  This quote, of course, we have stolen from a different man. The man who helped inspire the show that will be our primary focus this evening: The Teacher.”

Putting his papers down, the host pushed his glasses to the top of his head and looked out through the screen at his audience, “Now, before we begin, let’s get the disclaimers out of the way, shall we?”

Out of all of the shows segments The Disclaimers was The Joker’s favorite part. He leaned in mischievously to listen…

“The show you are about to watch has two primary objectives: One—To Entertain You; and Two—To Sell You Shit. With that in mind, please understand that what you will see and hear is extremely biased and influenced by our own selfish agendas. That being said, there are many things you will want to investigate individually. As always, we encourage this. With these truths out of the way, today’s Sunday Roast is brought to you by ‘O’Hare Air’ and ‘The Extender:’ Encouraging you to become the man you never were.”

The Joker giggled louder than the other two young men as a cartoon commercial for ‘The Extender’ began to play on their screens.  

What they watched would be better described as a short skit rather than a commercial, as it lasted ten minutes. This amount of time was too long for a commercial, but just long enough for a show. Studies had been done concluding that the attention span of individuals had decreased drastically with the rise of the internet. For a long time, people understood this to be a negative consequence of technology. However, more recent studies had discovered that the human mind’s capabilities were accelerating as a result of the constant barrage of having more and more thrown at it. This reality was detrimental to anything that required a long attention span but had benefits in other areas. It was advertisers who first recognized this new reality and adapted accordingly: In order to sell people more shit.

The skit came to a hilarious conclusion, and the words “BREAKING KNEWS” exploded on screen.

A clip from an old classic movie named ‘Armageddon’ began to play. This was The Believer’s favorite part of the show. He leaned in excitedly to watch…

The thrilling visuals from this movie were followed by a scene from the 1953 film, ‘The War of the Worlds.’ While the first movie clip looked ancient to the eyes in attendance, this one looked even more so; ten-fold. The fear expressed by the actors on screen seemed laughable. To The Believer, however, this fear; though ancient looking, still spoke to him. The Believer watching always worried about what was out in the vastness of space. The idea that a far-off civilization would one day come, and attack, made perfect sense to this imaginative mind.  

Once the scene from the old movie came to a close a montage of films displaying the end of the world appeared as a rolodex on screen. As the pages of this rolodex turned, the viewer was taken through all of Hollywood’s attempts to make money by entertaining minds with the belief that a catastrophic end to the world was imminent. 

A man in a yellow robe then appeared on screen standing next to the show’s traveling correspondent; Dani Owen. They were located somewhere foreign, yet the show did not specify where. Dani then asked this man a question, “Sir, could you please tell us what the word Apocalypse means to you?”

Speaking in a strong accent, the man in the yellow robe described, “… A period of awakening for all of humanity….”  

The description being offered was truly heartwarming. As they spoke captions and video-clips appeared on screen depicting great celebrations. When the segment came to a close, The Believer smiled: Hoping that he had been wrong about what this word meant his entire life. 

Upon this segment’s conclusion, the viewer was then magically transported to a beautiful modern-day city. In front of a tall building and flowing outdoor waterfall, appeared a makeshift living room. Two comfy chairs were set a few feet apart from one another. Between the two seats was a round table with two coffee cups sitting upon it: both coffee cups displayed a fancy-looking ‘J’ purposely facing the camera. Sitting in the chairs were the two hosts; Evelyne and Brodie; on Evelyne’s lap sat her cute black dog, Winston.  

This was the show’s main event, called “Mind-Molders.” During which these two hosts discussed how entertainment was shaping society. Today they would be discussing a show called, ‘The Teacher.’ This was The Thinker’s favorite part of the show. He leaned in attentively to watch…

“Today, when you say, ‘The Teacher’, one actor comes to mind…”  Evelyne held a picture of this actor up and gazed at it lovingly. “What would this show be without this man?” she asked; opening up the discussion.

“Yes, but has the show made him, or, has he made the show, is my question?” responded Brodie.

Nodding her head, Evelyne then spoke into the camera, “Regardless of what you think about this main character, the fact is this show has become one of the most watched shows on television ever. A truly amazing feet in world filled with endless options. Today, let us discuss how this show came to be and how it is shaping our society as we speak.”

“As you can see, we are sitting in the heart of Detroit, Michigan for today’s show. The home of JoJo Enterprises.” A different camera showed Brodie from above, sitting in the middle of a few tall buildings that surrounded a stunning concrete garden. Waving up at the camera Brodie continued to speak; a little louder than before, “This place is beautiful, but not as beautiful as its people. A lot of whom will tell you that this city was brought back to life the day it appeared as the fictional headquarters to a rising empire in the movie: Showstopper…. Now that’s some realistic fiction if I do say so myself!”

“What a ride it has been,” added Evelyne; as the camera view shifted back to a head-on shot. “While today’s show will focus on the series titled ‘The Teacher’ we must take a moment to recognize the movie that helped launch it. Please sit back and enjoy the now famous opening scene to this movie.” 

Evelyne and Brodie were replaced on screen by the opening scene of the movie they were referring to…

It began with the camera focusing on a smooth white rock that was resting on top of a small black book. The scene opened in frozen silence: 

Zooming out, these two objects could now be seen sitting upon a nightstand. A second later this nightstand could be seen beside a bunk bed. With the camera slowly scanning across the room it became evident that this was a child’s bedroom; as movie posters littered every inch of its walls. 

A small television sat turned off on a bureau as the viewer explored the room further. Coming back across the room a moment later the camera stopped at this television. The television then turned on.  

A clip from the television show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ brought laughter into the silence. The channel then changed. The news could now be seen and heard coming from the television. The channel changed again. And laughter again filled the room. This television began flashing slowly from one channel to another. The pace of the channel-changing gradually quickened until it became a rapid blur of loud entertainment. The noise filling the room became as undistinguishable as the images on screen. 

After a few seconds of this the screen went black. Silence filled the room again. But then, the television turned back on. 

The scene on the television was now of a lighthouse overlooking a calm ocean. In the distance, dark, stormy clouds filled the horizon. The camera, that previously had the entire bedroom in its frame, began moving towards the television. Soon the room was gone and all that could be seen was this lighthouse overlooking the darkening ocean. 

A light from the lighthouse turned on, focusing its shine at a meaningless point in the ocean. Slowly the camera zoomed in on this spot more and more as the lighthouse disappeared from view. A sprinkle of rain began to slowly disrupt the calm, still water. 

The sound of this falling rain broke the silence and steadily intensified. A soft rumble of thunder woke the scene further. With those first distant rumbles of thunder something began rising from the depths of the water where the light was shining. 

What appeared as a small, flat surface at first, became a narrow rectangular silver box as it cleared the water. Continuing to rise, the viewer could now see that this box was supported at its base by a skinny metallic rod. This rod pushed the box up further until stopping about a foot or so above the water; leaving it floating there.

The now steady rain began to fall in slow motion and the volume of the scene became subdued. Strangely, as the image slowed, it became clear that the rain was not falling into this ocean but seemed to be getting sucked up into the sky instead. Trying to make sense of this, the viewer’s eyes focused at the base of the metal rod protruding from the water.  

In the midst of this confusion, a head began to slowly rise out of the water. With it, a pair of piercing, brilliant blue eyes inched upward unblinkingly. A moment after these two eyes became fully visible, a frightening crack of thunder turned the screen completely black. 

A second passed in loud stillness before large letters began to materialize in a blur out of the darkness. As those letters came into focus the sound of the storm became overpowering. Without warning the letters on screen snapped into focus with a loud bang: “SHOWSTOPPER”

“I get goosebumps every time Brodie,” giggled Evelyne; now visible again. “I remember the first time I saw that movie—Fair to say my life has never been the same since.”

“As we all know that movie was based on the Nobel Prize winning book,” started Brodie, “A book that in itself was inspiring, but one that was propelled to new heights when this movie was released. A movie that then inspired the show that we have come together tonight to discuss: The Teacher.”

The two hosts then turned their focus onto this show. Brodie began by explaining the unorthodox way in which the premise of the show was presented to potential networks; adding, “—Never before did a show attempt to influence life in the real world. It was a challenge that some of the most respected writers, directors, and producers in the business jumped at. Entertainment was always used to tell stories, but now it was being asked to create a future.”  

Evelyne jumped in to explain the show’s story, “The show followed Jose Julian as he used the profits from his best-selling book to create a school of his own; a new kind of school. A school he envisioned would produce students truly prepared to change the world….” 

After reviewing some of the shows more detailed plot points, Evelyne concluded, “Transforming reality began with education, and Jose believed he could elevate education with entertainment. This controversial application of his vision, along with the drama that came with it, made the show an immediate hit with a wide audience. But of course, this was only the beginning…”  

Clips from the first three seasons played, and Evelyne transitioned into explaining the show’s more profound intentions.

“While education was important, This Teacher had greater ambitions that we viewers would discover in later seasons. Privately meeting with some of the most wealthy and powerful people in the world The Teacher and ‘The Squad’ worked in secret to create JoJo Enterprises: A multi-media and multi-national empire that would create a new type of business model and force corporations to conform in order to stay competitive. JoJo Enterprises corporate moto said it all; ‘Creating a future you want for your children: Where progress is predictable, sustainable, and altruistic in nature.’” 

Brodie then took over, “This show simply did not know when to quit. And, come to find out, no one wanted it to. Sprinkled with conflict, drama, and of course humor, the show continues to entertain year after year. But what really keeps us all addicted is the overflowing amount of hope in the future it pumps into our veins. This show is legendary and is now considered the most transformative piece of entertainment today.” 

Smiling into the camera, Brodie held up a picture, “You know the show, but today we are going to tell you the story behind how one actor became known to the world as: The Teacher.” 

The Thinker continued to watch in amazement. Inspired by how one person was changing the world, he dreamt of what he could accomplish himself. It was not just him dreaming about this. Each person watching this on screen was now asking themselves the same question: “What If I Could Change the World?”

QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:

Can a person change the world?

The Teacher’s Playlist:

“You could be the hero.”

—Hall of Fame (Feat. Will.i.am) by The Script

(Click here to continue to next chapter)

Follow us on Facebook: @SocialRecovery101
Read our story at: RecoveryHighSchool.com

(18) B.S.

School in our district continued to be remote after winter break. It was now January in the year 2021, and on this eighteenth week we will not be going to class anyway. Instead you will be spending a night with me and the boys:

Lying in bed with the three boys sprawled all over me, we were watching a movie when my phone started vibrating on the bedside table next to us. I pushed my youngest son off my back so that I could get a look at who was calling. Seeing the name of the person displayed on my screen, I silently got up from the bed to leave the room, shutting the door behind me. 

This call was unexpected and unannounced: normally I would get an email before. Trying to sound excited, but a secretly nervous, I answered, “Mr. Bernard! How are you?”

“Jose—my boy…you have to start calling me Bernie,” he said lightly. 

Bernie did not do FaceTime, so I could not see him, but his voice sounded like he had that goofy smile on his face. 

I never referred to him as Bernie. Everyone knew him by this name; and if people knew he was the one that got me the grant for my program then they would assume things. It was easier to call him Mr. Bernard. It was not a lie, just something I did to prevent awkward questions. 

This Senator and I were first in contact with one another after he received an email from me in November of 2015. That was around six months after the other email that got me in such trouble and ended with my first stay at a mental institution. 

When I had gotten home from the institution, I did my best to act ‘normal.’ I did not talk about my story or how I believed I was meant to do something more with my life. But even though I did not talk about out, I had not forgotten about it. I did a lot of reading during those six months and privately tried to prepare myself to give it another try when the time was right. 

To put it simply: I had not quit on that delusionary dream of mine like everyone wanted me to.

Bernie had popped up on the political scene around this time. When I found out he was from Burlington, Vermont; the place I had runaway to, I decided to reach out to him. I thought that perhaps our stories were destined to be intertwined at the time.

Effing crazy…I know.

I knew who he was when I sent the email, but I really did not know much about him then. And if I’m being honest, once I did learn more about him, I was not a fan at first. This is probably why I’m still slightly ashamed to call him my friend now: People kinda suck and would no doubt call me names if they knew how much I loved and respected him today. 

Bernie and I actually had not spoken personally at first. One of his staffers had responded to that first email I sent which included a short story and a personal mission statement. 

I doubt he ever actually read what I wrote in that first correspondence of ours, but getting a response still made me feel better back then. In that email response from one of his staffers, it read; “Your insight is inspiring, let us hope young people can learn to bring the change you envision to life.” 

Two years after that, in 2017, when I was locked away in the halfway house with nothing but time to think, I reflected on this statement a lot. I was not allowed a computer at the halfway house so a lot of nights I would simply write in my journal. That is when I began designing a curriculum I originally penned: “Social Recovery 101.” 

With some sobriety under my belt, I later put that curriculum into document form and sent it to Bernie. Surprisingly, Mr. Bernard himself responded to me. 

After telling him more of my personal story, and actually meeting him in person, we became more friendly. One thing led to another, and this wonderful man eventually got me a job at Locke Recovery High School in January of 2019 to test out this curriculum of mine: The one you know as “Emotional Intelligence.”  

Maybe you can now understand why I just told you that I loved this man….

 “So…” he said, “In front of me I have some letters from your students about you and your class. It looks like you are really making a difference over there.”  

I assumed Lily or the Principal must have forwarded what they had put together to him; I responded, “Thank you, it’s been a crazy year, but I’m trying.”

As soon as I said this, I felt dumb. The day before this conversation, on January 6th, 2021, I; along with the rest of the world, watched the news in horror and embarrassment as riots broke out at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. by supporters of the soon to be past president. They were disputing the election results. Fueled by outrageous claims and poor leadership, the scenes witnessed on television were scary and…well…sad. Knowing that Mr. Bernard must have been right in the middle of all of this, my comment made me feel a bit self-absorbed.

“You aren’t kidding, it’s been a hell of a year for me as well. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch with you. With the election, and this virus, and well-pure craziness…I fear I’m feeling my age…” Pausing before continuing, he started to tell me why he had really called, “Listen, I’ve heard the program didn’t get additional funding. I’m calling to make sure that you don’t give up. You have something special there Jose… Are you almost done that book?”

This was a question I did not want to answer. Between being a dad, focusing on my students, and simply surviving, it was easy for me to put the book on hold. Writing it always had me questioning my sanity anyways. Not to mention I had no idea how to finish it. In truth, I had stopped working on it all together once I began teaching again. 

Not wanting to admit to all of this, I said, “I’m working on it—Not really sure when I’ll be done though.”

“Jose, I think the world needs it. I really do. I want to read you something:

‘…. They will use what is happening now to improve future life on this planet. Because of this, I propose a full out assault on society using every weapon of entertainment at our fingertips. We need to entertain to transform. We need to accept that this is our responsibility. We need to take pride in how we effect human psychology. We need to get people dreaming again. We need to give people hope. We need to create a spark. It will take a lot of work, but it will have two major advantages: One, it will be fun; and Two, it will save the world.’  

“Do you remember writing this Jose?” he asked me.

“Honestly, not really.”

I was being truthful, not modest. Writing that had gotten me in a lot of trouble and I had blocked it from my memory. Hearing him read it at that moment was embarrassing. This was a writing from the original manifesto of mine: Journey To JoJo; A Trip To Insanity And Back.

“I appreciate your desire to be in the classroom Jose, I really do, but I don’t think you can accomplish what this world needs by just being a teacher. Maybe this hiccup with your program is a sign that you should be doing something different to get your message out there. Have you ever considered getting into politics?”

***BREAKING KNEWS***

In the spring of 2015, after getting my diagnoses, Sirena had been able to get me approved for disability payments. This is not something I announce excitedly to you, but it took some pressure off us at the time and for that I was grateful. 

We were also forced to file for bankruptcy as my troubles had put us in a financial mess. I had cashed out all of my retirement after losing my teachers job in June of 2013. Having done that, and allowing Sirena to sell all her jewelry, we were still constantly struggling to stay up with mortgage payments and utility bills. I had amassed a lot of credit card debt as well. 

I do not think it necessary to explain how affording my medicine over the prior years led us to that point: And remember…by ‘medicine’ I mean drugs and alcohol. 

In order to keep the house and our single vehicle, we were advised that filing bankruptcy was our best option. This was not something my family approved of as my father and mother had been through some very difficult times keeping my father’s construction business afloat over the years and never took this “easy way out” themselves. Knowing this, you can imagine that this decision of ours was met which much criticism. While embarrassing as it was, I no longer felt prideful, so I did what was best to keep my family from losing everything. It was not easy, but it had to be done.  

The summer after all of this went down, in 2015, I was visiting my father’s jobsite. While I was there my phone rang; it was an old psychiatrist of mine calling me back. This was the guy that would charge eighty bucks a session on top of insurance (you heard me reference him earlier on in this story when I was explaining how helpful he was). 

At the time of this call I was having a hard time accepting my diagnoses and had called him to ask for his opinion. Having rapidly regurgitated all the events that had transpired since our last meeting, I asked him shakingly, “Do you think I’m as sick in the head as they all tell me I am?”

There was a pause over the phone, after which this amazing doctor spoke, “Jose, I can’t make that determination right now.” 

He then stopped talking. I waited to hear more, assuming he was thinking of something to say that would calm the scared little boy on the phone; he had to have heard it in my voice. After a moment he resumed, “My records indicate that you never paid for your last two visits with me. If you can pay those, maybe we can meet and discuss this further.”

With my heart in my throat, I hung up the phone on him that day. 

Medicine (the real kind) had not seemed to be helping too much. In fact, I remember thinking the medicine was not worth taking because on top of still feeling anxious as ever, I still believed in this dream of mine. 

I never expressed this back then, but I fought with it constantly. After hanging up the phone with that doctor, I stayed in the attic that I had crept in to have this conversation. I crawled into that attic so that no one on the jobsite would hear me talking so pathetically. Even though I was no longer on the run, I was still in hiding.  

In that attic, alone, I cried like a little bitch after hanging up that phone….

Maybe I am crazy—Or maybe I just don’t fit in this world…Can I start this life of mine over…. Please…???

At the time, I was truly lost. I did not know how my life would ever be put back together. Full of fear, there was only one thing I knew for certain as I stayed hunched over, crying in that attic: “People suck.” 

***End Of Breaking Knews***

Bernie had called to simply check on me. Unfortunately, he had no magic solution to the problem of funding. His hands were tied at the moment as everything seemed to be on hold until this virus stuff was over. And I was not anyone special.

“Listen Jose,” Mr. Bernard started, as a sign he was about to change the topic again, “The other day a few college students had scheduled a meeting to ask me some questions. They were doing a study on who was more popular with members of Congress: Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Underwood… you know, the character in that show ‘House of Cards.’ When they came in and explained the purpose behind this study of theirs, you immediately came to my mind.”

Not really knowing much about either of the two people he was talking about right then, I simply said, “Well, thank you?” Not really sure if he was complimenting me or not. 

“I don’t believe in coincidences Jose, after that meeting is when I got the email from your principal. She is very impressed with you by the way. That being said, the meeting with those college kids made me realize there is an army of people out there waiting for you.” I remember thinking this was some strong language from a guy that just witnessed the attack on the Capitol but stayed quiet. 

“There is no doubt in my mind that your program will get funded again, but you may have to wait till next September. Use this time to write Jose. It’s time. With the contacts I now have after writing my own book I really think I can help you get published. I need something to get me excited again Jose. I hate to say it…. But my faith is waning, my boy. With people across this country displaying banners of our President dressed as Rambo holding an assault rifle I worry about where things might be headed if something unexpected does not come along soon. There are a lot of good people in the world that will gather and fight if the right leader comes along: Maybe that’s you. Please finish your story Jose… will you do that for me?”

 “I will try,” was all I could think to say.

“I’ll take that…”

Hearing a pause, I attempted to change the topic myself, “—Hey, did you get those mittens my grandmother sent you?”

“Yes—I did! In fact, I’ll wear them to the inauguration next week. Tell her to look for me…”

Mr. Bernard and I did not talk for very long after this. 

Our conversation was enough to get my head spinning, however. I did not want to think of writing my book in that moment: that was just too scary. All I could think about was being out of a job and whether or not I’d be eligible for unemployment benefits. It was nice to hear him say such nice things about my writing, but right then I was not ready to deal with all that. 

After hanging up with Mr. Bernard, I went back into my bedroom. The three boys created a sliver of space for me to cram my body into on my bed. Once huddled in, I began reflecting on the conversation I had just had.

Bernie was a dreamer, asking me if I had ever considered politics validated this fact. But I respected him, so any word that escaped his mouth I took time to consider. Worried about being out of a job, I found myself pondering the comment he made about me getting into politics.

How would a life in politics fit in my life? … What would I be? … How would it even begin? 

I could feel my mind escaping into the realm of impossibility. This was a dangerous area for it to go and I had learned how to identify and avoid it whenever possible. Literally shaking my head to bring me back into the real world, I watched the movie that was playing in front of me: A Disney movie named Big Hero 6.

“Shake things up—Use that big brain of yours to think your way out!” 

The big brother on screen was talking to his younger brother. Holding him upside down by his ankles, he told this young mind to, “—Look for a new angle!”

Contemplating what I had just heard, my imagination manically began putting the pieces of the puzzle together.  

IT WAS LIKE FIREWORKS EXPLODING IN MY BRAIN.

Ideas began to come together. My past, my present, and my future collided. Visions that were blurry began to come into focus. My dream, long asleep, began waking back up.  

It was at that moment my mind decided to let me know I was finally ready….

I had it: I knew how to end my story.

Laying there, I smiled to myself. That lunatic smile I had packed away like a good little boy.  

Excitement began growing inside my body; inside my mind; inside my heart. While I allowed myself to enjoy this adrenaline rush, there were three pieces of reality comfortably laying on top of me to keep me from floating away. Looking at each of them, I began the process of playing the tape out in my head…. I wondered… 

What if it could work?

Week 18 (1.8.21): 

“B.S.”

The only thing you have control over is your thoughts….

Your thoughts control your emotions…

Learn to control your thoughts and you can control your emotions.

“—BULL…. SHIT!”

When I was young and focused on living the ‘American Dream’ I read a lot of personal success and business books. Educated and full of enthusiasm, I prepared to conquer the world. Then I failed; over and over. Actually, first the economy failed, then my life followed suit. That is when life initially diverged on me.  

Many of the books I read in my youth told me to expect failure. Yet still, it stung like a bitch. Maybe mental toughness was not in my DNA, or maybe I was just destined to be a failure…who knows.

Failure made me frustrated. It made me sad. It made me mad. It made me depressed. It made me anxious. It deflated my ego. 

Simply put, failrue beat the living shit out of me. 

Over time, it made me quit. At some point it made me detach from caring about anything in this world.

“They did not teach me how to deal with these feelings in school!” I screamed in silence to a universe that did not care.  

Call me weak…whatever.

Eventually I traded my “Get Rich Quick” books for “Mental Health” books. In many of those books I read things like the quote I started today’s article with. At first, I listened and shook my head in agreement like any good student. Only over time did I start calling ‘B.S.’ on things that I once accepted as common sense.

Maybe you agree with the statement about having control of our thoughts and emotions. I could agree with it as well…if we lived in isolation. Some place separate from society and everything that comes with it today. Unfortunately, very few places like that exist. 

After asking myself many questions, I’ve concluded that this statement used by thousands of people to sell books and make people feel optimistic about getting control over their emotions does not work all the time. Sorry if you do not agree. I realize that many people pride themselves on looking at life this way. But this article is about ME…so, shut up and let me finish!

It is my opinion that we have so many responsibilities in our evolved society that it is nearly impossible to sit alone with our thoughts. For example, focusing on the bright side of things all the time like we are told is nearly impossible if you cannot pay your electrical bill. 

As an adult, most of us have to go to work. We have to deal with bosses, customers, and other employees: Some of us have to deal with students (good luck with that!). Silence is not an option here. On top of that, a lot of us have families. Being quiet to focus on our thoughts cannot happen if we want to raise our children properly or be a caring partner.

I could argue that we are expected to talk all the time. If we don’t, many people would think something is wrong with us. 

As a younger person reading this and having to deal with us adults micro-managing you all the time, I have to assume you can relate to what I’m saying right now. It is the truth of world we live in today—Am I right?

And when we are not talking there is that phone in your hand…and television…and the radio… and… and… and… and… and…

Being able to focus on our thoughts in an environment so full of noise is nearly impossible.  

My conclusion: Our environment effects our thoughts, and our thoughts effect our emotions. Therefore, to improve mental health on a global scale we must change our environment. Period.

This conclusion of mine goes against everything I am supposed to teach you at a Recovery School. But since I will not be with you much longer, I bring it up now because I think at this point you deserve to know. I’m going on a limb and hoping that you can handle the truth. With that said, let me explain myself a little further.

When I was in early recovery and my life was changing without my permission there was something I said that helped me survive the experience: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

This was part of learning the principals of ‘Acceptance;’ a key attribute in recovery. Saying this over and over; and believing it, helped me more than I could ever explain to you. But there was always something about the word ‘Acceptance’ that bothered me.

What if everyone just ‘Accepted’ the world the way it is; and simply ‘Accepted’ that things would never get better?  

Questions like this haunted me. But I was told that acceptance was the answer, so for a very long time I just nodded my head in agreement.

“Bull-shit.”

I have since ‘Accepted’ that like everything in life, exceptions exist. Acceptance is not always the answer. (Sorry again)  

In recovery, I became a better person: there is no denying that. And acceptance was a key ingredient to my success. For that I am grateful. The stability in my life has allowed me to be there for my children. And these children of mine give my life purpose. For that I am also grateful.  

But, here’s the thing: The world that waits for my children in adulthood worries me sick.

Am I supposed to just accept the way things are—What if I could make this world better for them—Was acceptance truly the answer; or was it merely a chapter in a larger book???

Troubled by all of this I confided in my councilor, John. This man had helped me immensely and I respected him greatly for that (He was the councilor at the halfway house I’ve told you about). 

I stayed at that house for six months, finished its program, and then went on to stay at a sober house for an additional month as John had suggested at the time. Prior to all that, I was constantly rushing through life. It was John who helped me learn how to slow the hell down and see patience as a virtue; especially in recovery.  

John and I had become extremely close, so, after listing all these questions of mine, I asked him, “Am I crazy to think I can change things?”

When I asked him this he did not speak right away. Instead he reached down and picked up a bowl of M&M’s that were sitting on his desk. Picking up that bowl, he shook the candy in my face. Looking at me, he spoke sternly, “You are saying ‘I’ a lot; have you noticed that?” 

He did not give me time to respond before continuing, “All of society has come down with a severe case of the Me’s. I was once told this by someone else, and now I’m passing the knowledge on to you.”

Truthfully, what he said really offended me. I disliked being called selfish, and basically that is what he was saying right then. Shaking the candy in my face was a routine the other guys in the house said John had done to them, but never had he done it to me until right then. (He taught the residents that the letters on the candy stood for Me and Me: Not the truth, but it got his message across.) 

This routine of his was cute, but he still had not answered my question, so, I pressed further, “But I have ideas that I think really could help people John…does this make me crazy?”

He laughed; pissing me off even more at the time, and then pointed at something behind me. Turning around in my seat, a picture he had referenced many times hung on the wall. It was a picture with a quote that read, “Acting on principles costs money.” John loved comedians; George Carlin was his favorite. 

By pointing at this poster, John was kindly reminding me of the fact that addicts often struggle with delusional thoughts of grandeur. What John was saying, without actually using the words, was, “You are (a little) crazy.”

On that day I sulked out of his office feeling defeated. The tough love this man had showed me in the past got me through a lot, but at that moment, it destroyed me. Looking back on it, it was something I needed to hear, as it broke something inside of me that needed breaking….

“—He did not know!” I later announced to myself, reflecting upon that conversation.  

The truth was only I knew what had to be done. In reality, I knew this for a very long time. However, it had been called delusional so many times, by so many people, that I had learned to accept it.  

Not anymore: I call Bullshit.

I’m not crazy: I just finally know what I have to do…and I know it my heart that it’s right.  

SO… listen carefully… 

I can do this: I can make a difference—Accept it!

Dear Squad,

We must accept that my time as your teacher is coming to an end. Please know that I will be here for you always and remember that you have now made yourselves heroes in the eyes of my children: I know you will not let them down.

With that said, I want you to be the first to know I’ve decided to attempt writing my book again. This is something that could never have happened without you; and for that I am eternally grateful. Thank you all for reminding me what strength looks like.

—With Love, Mr. J.

QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:

Can you make a difference?

The Teacher’s Playlist:

“Because all this bullshit made me strong…”

—Drop the World by Lil Wayne with Eminem

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(17) P.A.I.N. Through Hate

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.”  

***BREAKING KNEWS***

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

(Click here to continue to next chapter)

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(16) Age Of Reason

Week sixteen finds us at my place on Christmas day; a Friday in the year 2020. Nell, Pras, Lauren and my three boys are spending the afternoon hanging out together:

Looking out the window, a flock of pelicans were scattered across the snow-covered front yard. Pras, Nell, and my twins had taken the collection of plastic pelicans from the garage and were sticking every one of them in the ground around the house. 

These boys were clearly not impacted by the cold as their laughing faces had shed most their winter attire to complete this endeavor of theirs. Part of me worried about what the neighbors were thinking as I watched them from out my second story window moving below me. 

A few summers ago, my family had used those sixty pelicans to celebrate my mother’s birthday. At that moment, however, they found themselves taking a stroll in a winter wonderland on Christmas day.  

This small get together of ours came together very last minute….  

Despite knowing it might not be true, I had made the mistake of telling my students that my last day was going to be on January 22nd. By doing that, all of them had been counting down the days until they would never see me again. Like a broken record, I told them over and over I would be back in one way or another. 

What they were most interested in however was knowing when they would get to come hang with my kids again. Being constantly reminded that my teaching days may be over was annoying, but it was an endearing site to see my high school students so excited to play with three little boys: It made me wonder when we adults stopped being children for good.  

Nel and Pras talked about my boys constantly since they had come over a few weeks earlier. That was prior to Candace’s memorial service at school. Now that things were beginning to feel a bit more normal, Lauren made sure I knew that my boys should someday be introduced to her as well; “Don’t you want them to meet Mama, Mr. J?” 

When she said this to me, I felt as if I could still see the sadness crack between the space in her words. But the fact that she was trying to act cheerful allowed me to tell myself that she would make it past this difficult time; that I would make it past this difficult time.

On Tuesday, the last day of class before break, the mood was a somber one as we spent some time reflecting on how one of our classmates would not be with her family on Christmas this year; or any other for that matter. The four of us got to talking about what little plans we had for that day; “I’ll just be hanging with the kids later in the day after they open their presents from Santa,” I said.

“What do they want for Christmas this year?” Pras had asked.

“A Tesla,” I laughed; before telling them I was serious.

The three boys had put this on their lists that year. When I explained to them that Santa did not buy little boys real cars; and told them they’d have better luck writing a letter to Elon Musk, the three of them decided that they would be writing this guy a letter next year if Santa didn’t come through on Christmas…

“The twins still believe in Santa?” Lauren asked me, interested.

“They have no older cousins, or brothers; and two younger sisters at their moms. No one wants to tell them,” I said, “And the fact that they are learning remotely in seventh grade means none of you little shits are beating them down with all life’s realities at school—Do you think I should tell them?” 

“No.” Was the unanimous decision of my students, “Let them be kids for as long as they can!”

Somehow this conversation led to me inviting them over my house on Christmas day to hang out with us. With the pandemic, family gatherings were still not happening so I knew my boys would welcome the surprise of my students coming over. They had absolutely adored the time spent with them on Thanksgiving and had been bugging me to have them over again anyways. It all just kind of worked out.  

Looking out the window at the twins playing with Pras and Nel, I smiled and became a bit emotional as I reflected on past memories…

When the twins’ mother and I were separating they were only two years old. The day I pulled out of the driveway to leave the house for good, I remember seeing their two heads popping up from the bottom of the window panel to watch me drive away. Their identical little faces in this memory of mine tormented me for a very long time. 

When they were nine, I remember the confused looks they gave me when I explained I wouldn’t be able to see them for a while as I left to go stay at the halfway house. At the time I told them it was for a ‘Sleep Study;’ as this was easier to explain and seemed to fit since I appeared tired all the time back then. If I had a hard time telling them Santa was not real, how could I tell them the truth about their dad? I had hated myself for having to leave them again.

The third memory I reflected on while watching them out the window was of their fifth-grade graduation. At that point I had just gotten out of the halfway house and sat alone on the bleachers in their gymnasium while the song “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars brought tears to my eyes. The boy’s grandparents on their mother’s side were there on that day. For a lot of my life they were like a second set of parents to me; honestly, they were my best friends. At the graduation they barely acknowledged I existed. This always hurt but was something I had finally come to accept because I knew how much I had let everyone down in the past. Looking out at my boys at this graduation, I feared letting them down again…. 

The two twelve-year-old identical twin boys I watched playing in the snow knew none of this. They smiled and laughed and were acting like the goofballs I loved. Maybe one day I would tell them about everything that happened before. Maybe one day I’d tell them about Santa. But right then I was not worried about any of that. 

I was just trying to iron in the memory being created with those pelicans: Hoping that one day…perhaps… I’d be remembering the good days and not the bad anymore… 

***BREAKING KNEWS***

In April of 2015: that was one year before the fire for those trying to keep up, I got in my family mini-van and started driving. This was after the argument with Sirena. 

Without my cell phone, no one could contact me to ask when I’d be coming home; or to see if I was okay—or to ask me if I had gone crazy after writing that story and sending that email out.  

I drove north from my home in Central Massachusetts for almost four hours with no destination in mind. I just wanted to be left alone for a while.

Arriving at my unplanned destination, I parked my van at a public park overlooking a great icy lake. Wherever I was, it still felt like the dead of winter despite it being spring at the time. Without my phone I had no clue where I was. I walked around, freezing, until I found a map posted on the side of a building in this park I was at. That is when I first discovered I was looking at Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. 

This entire trip of mine is a blur if I’m being honest, but I will fill you in on what I can.  

First off, I remember that I had around fifty dollars in my wallet and had made a conscious decision not to use my debit card anywhere so that my wife would not see where it had been used. I wanted to stay lost for just a little while. 

The city was beautiful and peaceful. It had kind of had a hippy-vibe, I remember that. Like I said, it was very cold though, so most of my time was spent in the van. I needed to make certain I had enough money for gas, so I remember that I did not spend money on food.  

This all sounds crazy, I know. What a selfish a**hole I was.

Back home my family must have been worried sick. But I had already made this move and there was no going back. I remember sitting in a parking lot and listening to the radio thinking that maybe the email I had sent out with my story would now get some attention—That maybe I had to run away in order for people to finally listen to what I was trying to tell them.  

Effing crazy…I know…

That first day, I remember a security guard coming up to me and telling me I had to move my van because the parking lot was closing for the night. I remember being scared for a moment that he had come to arrest me, but he didn’t. I remember I left that parking lot and drove to a highway rest stop and slept in the van overnight. When I woke up, I remember knowing that I’d have to go home that day. But I remember telling myself that I’d first spend a day in Burlington, Vermont; enjoying being disconnected from the world a bit longer.

On that day, a Red Cross Blood Bank was set up downtown and was providing free lunch and a movie ticket to donors. With no money to buy food, I decided to give blood. I am not good with blood. But it was a free lunch, so, I did it… and nearly passed out. 

The nice girl that took my blood waited with me until I got my strength back. And off I went.

Soon I would have to go home, but I had a free movie ticket, so first I would go see a movie. I used my ticket to go see a movie titled “Run All Night.” I’m not making this shit up by the way. That was really the movie I saw. If that is not the definition of ironic, I do not know what is. 

In fact, the only way I can remember when exactly all this happened is by checking the release date of that movie. Go check for yourself if you don’t believe me. 

Effing crazy…I KNOW!!!

Understanding that no one knew where I was the feeling of being alone in that theatre was liberating at the time. Sitting there, in a small theatre four hours from my home, I remember feeling calm. On the run…this was an ideal place to hide out.

I must tell you that I love going to movies by myself. I’m not really certain why. I grew up being in groups of people all the time. Doing something like going to the movies alone would have seemed super weird to my younger self. But as I have grown older the less comfortable I feel being around people. Movies seem to be the perfect fit as I can do something alone and no one really knows about it. Perhaps I was always this introverted but was never allowed to be this way given how successful I was growing up.

“Successful” — That word makes me laugh just writing it.  

Sitting in that theatre, success was a thing of the past. Something that would no longer be associated with me once I went back and dealt with the real world again. 

Maybe the universe was sick of seeing me successful—Maybe the universe had decided my life was a joke instead—Maybe I no longer gave two shits about what the Universe imagined for me???  

I’ve literally never seen the entire movie I began watching in the theatre that day. 

Halfway through it, something happened that I had never experienced before in my life. Something completely unexpected. In the middle of a scene all the lights in the theatre were turned on. Confused, I, along with everyone in the theatre, looked around to see what was going on. My eyes adjusted to the light and focused on the door to the theatre as it began to open. Like three angels they glided through the door and into the theatre. Though they were not angels. They were police officers. 

They had found me….

***End Of Breaking Knews***

Behind me, the sound of wooden alphabet-blocks being played with filled my ears. Lauryn and my youngest son had come inside to get warm. I had come with them, which was the reason I was looking out the window at the twins sticking those pelicans into the snow with Nel and Pras.  

Turning away from the window, I watched Lauryn help my son spell his full name with the alphabet-blocks. Seeing it spelled out in front of her I watched her ask him how many letters were in each part of his name. Answering her question, he said cutely, “Six…Six…Six.” 

At that moment, Lauryn looked up to me with shocked fear in her eyes. I simply shook my head at her, gave her a knowing grin, and then let my son watch us both laugh at something he could not have understood.  

Looking past them, towards the kitchen counter, the mess I would have to clean up later did not discourage me. Earlier on, all the kids (students included) had combined various soda drinks and juices to make their own version of ‘moonshine.’ 

Something Nel taught my boys about by saying; “Back when alcohol was illegal, people made their own in their homes… they called it moonshine.”

We had all taken little plastic cups full of this moonshine with us when we first went outside. Standing in a circle, we all dripped a sip of our drinks on the concrete; “For the deceased,” we said together (my three boys included).   

While we did not announce why we did this, the students and I looked at one another at that moment and said a silent prayer to the Universe for the student that should have been there with us: For Candace.  

My three boys found hanging out with my students fascinating. Perhaps my kids were being exposed to knowledge beyond their years, but seeing high school kids act like children made it all okay with me. On that day, the serious business of growing-up was put on hold. And I could not have been more grateful.  

We had all been through so much and I was making sure to cherish the memories that were being created right then. With Lauren and my youngest son playing on the floor in front of me, the only worry I had at that moment was how much popcorn to make: The next event on our agenda for the day was to watch the new movie on DisneyPlus, called “Soul.”

It seemed fitting.

Week 16 (12.25.20): 

“Age of Reason”

For this week’s article I will be putting my lightsaber away for a little while. I no longer wish to fight. Instead, I will agree with your assessment that the darkness in our world is winning today. 

Now that you have won this battle between us, allow me a few minutes to transfer a bit of my energy and force it upon you. I do this hoping that when this war is over those darkened dreams of yours will see the light of a new day and maybe then these lessons of mine may help push them forward.  

I must start with a definition: Impermanence (noun): The state or fact of lasting for only a limited period of time.

Here is what Wikipedia says about this word: Impermanence, also known as the philosophical problem of change, is a philosophical concept addressed in a variety of religions and philosophies. In Eastern philosophy it is best known for its role in Buddhist three marks of existence. It is also an element of Hinduism. In Western philosophy the concept is called “Becoming.”  

Idiots like me keep the meaning of the word simpler. I believe it means, “Everything Is Temporary.”

For the past two weeks our classes have revolved around a topic I introduced to you as, “The Age of Reason.” 

When we began this topic, I told you that I would tell you the purpose behind it when we were done, well, here it is: My goal was to help you see the world we are living in today with a sense of impermanence.

If you remember, we began by trying to imagine our world three-hundred years from now: “A world that has healed; and a world that has advanced beyond today’s chaos.” 

This was how I introduced it to you. To which Lauren told me, “In three-hundred years this world will be on fire Mr. J.”

Respecting Lauren’s opinion, we all decided that this world we would envision in three-hundred years could be on a different planet. Pras gave us a quick little astronomy lesson and you all decided to call this imaginary planet of ours: “Planet Rasta.” 

We had some really great conversations about how this civilization would be better than the one we have today. However, when I asked you to Reverse Engineer the process by which this utopian like civilization came into existence, we faced some very difficult questions.

In the end, you all did a great job creating a story that explained how Planet Rasta became “Stable, Prosperous, and Predictable.”  

Let me just say that I cannot thank you all enough for taking this mission of ours as serious as you did. In truth, the exercise was simply intended to test the boundaries of your imagination (which you all passed with flying colors), but the story you all created was so inspiring that I would like to take a moment and summarize it here:

Life on Planet Rasta was not always peaceful. Much of the conflict that existed on Earth came to this new planet with its first inhabitants. Early on the leaders of this new civilization feared a collapse like what had happened on Earth; which would lead to chaos. To try and prevent this, the wealthiest of its inhabitants secretly placed members of their own family within the working class. Their mission was simple: Discover a way to bring sustainable peace to the greatest number of people.  

A girl by the name of Jaleen (Code Name: The Buffalo Soldier) created a theory she penned “Recycle Economics.” Her theory proposed that the cause of unrest in civilizations was a result of Wealth Discrepancy: an argument that had been heard by the elite forever. However, she suggested this: “If you give the people more money it will all simply be recycled back into the hands of the wealthy inevitably anyway…” 

In her opinion, the wealthy could not only keep their money in the long run, but also become revered by the lower income population at the same time. Her theory concluded; “In the end, most of the population will die without amassing much wealth; but their lives would be lived more happily.”  While her theory was interesting, she won the support of the elite with one simple prediction: “You will be heroes in the history books of forever, a more valuable asset than all the wealth in the Galaxy.”

WOW—What a story—If only you three could be heard by those living on planet Earth today!!!

Everything we did that first week was to get us thinking outside the box. There was no real end goal I had in mind except to simply take you away from today. To get you fully emersed in this concept of impermanence that I have now just explained to you.  

At the end of last week, knowing we had Christmas break coming up, I gave you one assignment: Imagine yourself on our planet three-hundred years from now writing a report about Earth in the year 2020.  

What you all wrote was very fun to read. In fact, your essays were so good that Lily and I will be asking your permission to share them for a personal project of ours. With that said, here is how I’d summarize these reports of yours:

“A Long Time Ago…In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…People Believed People Sucked…”

Putting aside the humor in how I present this summary of mine, I contend that it is a rather accurate description of the reports you all provided me. This is not to say they were bad. They were great; and I appreciate all your hard work.

Pras titled his essay; “When Hooligans Ruled the World.” The insight into today’s political conflict was wonderful. Pras: While I personally try to stay clear of this topic in my daily life, I can appreciate your view of how destructive the atmosphere has become. The section of your essay about name calling was amazing. I personally will not allow myself to be called any of those names in the future. Nicely done my friend!

Lauryn titled her essay; “Filter This.” Her report focused on social media and the psychological impact it was having on the world at this time. Lauryn: There is a future for you in helping people. Understanding the trauma that is being inflicted on young people is going to be a valuable skill down the road. This world is going to need your wisdom very soon. Good work my dear!

Nel titled his essay; “Plastic.” My favorite line from his report, “Killing our planet, but fixing your face…” made me literally laugh out loud. Nel: I was really happy to see you talk about ‘Consumer Culture.’ This was not something we have talked about in class but seeing you discuss it and identify it on your own gives me hope for the future of this planet. In a time when many people spend their days dreaming of owning bigger closets rather than cleaning out the ones they have, your perspective was illuminating. Way to go kid!

Now, where do we go from here?

We cannot live in the future forever. While this exercise over the past two weeks has been fun, we must come back to planet Earth and deal with all this ‘Suckiness.’  

Here’s some truth for you. Things on this planet of ours, Earth, will not get better overnight. In fact, the time it will take for us to get to some resemblance of a healed world could quite possibly take more time than you and I have; meaning, we may never see it in our lifetimes. 

That is how evolution of any species or civilization works. But that does not mean this life of ours is lost. Someday people on Planet Rasta may be discussing the role we played in creating their paradise. The question therefore becomes: Will you be the superheroes in their stories; or the supervillains?

How does this evolutionary process of healing begin—How do we unlock our superpowers?

It’s simple, and you’ve heard it many times before: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Smile at one another. Wave. Pick up after yourselves. Help others if you can. Say things like: “Thank You”, and “You’re Welcome,” and “My Pleasure.” Push yourselves to be nice even though no one will place a medal on your chest for it. Do it because that’s who you are. Let that car pass you even if they are being an asshole. Let that person be right, even though you know they are wrong. 

Forgive if you can. Forget if you must. Stay grateful. Keep growing. Be patient. Be kind. And lastly, but perhaps most important… learn to be a bit quieter. (Yeah—I said it!)

Maybe you think doing these things makes you a loser. Maybe you prefer to fight. 

Well, to that I say: The best losers become the most dominant winners in this world—It’s true. 

These winners you read about in the pages of history, or watch on those screens of yours, knew that to become a successful loser takes a lot of practice. Consequently, don’t ever be scared of admitting you need more practice!

As we head into this holiday break and invite another new year in, life might have you believing that all hope is lost. I’ve been there and I know how this can feel. 

But do not get lost in the dark; “I know the rest of your story—I can see what you become.”  

My experiences in life, as well as getting to know all of you the past few months, has reinforced my belief that many good people still exist on this planet. 

Do bad people exist? —Well, I’d prefer to say they are created—but Yes, they do exist.  But never forget that there are many more of you than there are of them:  

“They win by making you think you are alone—We are not alone!”

—From the movie, Rise Of Skywalker (Star Wars reference)

Dear Squad,

Let me close by saying that I’d like to think that I know you. But that’s a lie. The truth is, no one knows you. This world was not ready to know you. It is time that you made it ready. You are a storm this world could never have predicted. A storm that will blow everyone’s mind. Your time is now, and I know you will make me proud.

With that said, Merry Christmas.  

Enjoy this break from school, and let the force be with you all!

~With Love, Mr. J~

QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:

Are you a good loser?

The Teacher’s Playlist:

“These are my dreams.”

—So Far Away by Staind

(Click here to continue to next chapter)

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(15) The ‘D’ Words

Now approaching the middle of December, week fifteen finds me at school for an evaluation meeting. Classes were still remote, but many teachers did their lessons from the classroom at this point, so the building was not empty: 

Sitting in the Principal’s office for the third time, my anxiety was kicking in as I waited for this meeting of ours to begin. The interior of the office in front of me looked different. The desk that once sat in the middle of the room was now turned facing the windows so that I could see the computer screen that sat upon in. 

This change was school gossip a few weeks ago. Supposedly the Director had made a comment to the Principal on one of her visits: “It seems suspicious that students walking the hallways cannot see teacher’s computers.” 

As a result of this comment all teachers were told by the Principal to reorganize their rooms so that their computers were visible to students at our last staff meeting. Everyone was annoyed by this but rallied around our Principal in order to stick it the Director. None of it affected me because I did not have a classroom, but the whole thing annoyed me. 

I had seen the same behavior in my time in the corporate world: No one trusting one another and everyone thinking someone was out to get them, so they’d get them first. It was a game everyone seemed to be playing in order to justify their importance and someone else’s irrelevance. I found it exhausting.

The clock on the computer flashed “7:00 AM.” It was early in the morning and the building was still cold. I was warming my hands by blowing on them when the Principal walked in. I got goosebumps…

Principal Sam put a few papers on the desk, sat down, and turned to talk to me, “I owe you an apology.”

Removing her mask; in what I perceived as sign of softening, the Principal continued, “I’m a tiny, frosty-haired, old lesbian. I think that makes me a little rough around the edges sometimes. Regardless, I haven’t been really nice to you while you’ve been here. I’m not making excuses, just stating the facts.”

Taking off my own mask, I smiled, and continued to listen to the Principal, Samantha, talk, “Your students love you. I don’t pretend to understand everything you are doing with them, but I was motivated the other day to go and read your curriculum proposal. You know, that thing that got you this grant in the first place—whatever you call it. A lot of what you wrote about entertainment’s role in education makes a lot of sense.”

“Thank you,” I said, “Honestly though, I can’t even remember everything I wrote in that. I’m a little nervous knowing you read it. Did Mr. Bernard give it to you?”

“Actually, yes. He emailed it to me a long time ago but I had never actually read it,” she laughed to herself, then continued, “By the way, I was there the other day when you suggested to Mr. Henry that advanced mathematics should be an elective in higher grades. Even though I can see a lot of valid arguments in your vision for education, his heated response to that suggestion should tell you the world probably isn’t ready for all your ideas quite yet. I only bring it up so that you may be more careful with your words in the future.”  

Remembering that conversation, a feeling of shame came over me. Even though Mr. Henry and I had become more friendly, that altercation had reminded me why I still did not really like him very much. In my opinion he took himself too seriously. This was something I thought of a lot of people; whether or not this was real or simply a figment of my own insecurity is unknown. 

Whenever people talked down to me like Mr. Henry did that day, I felt like Matilda being yelled at by her father in her movie; “I’m smart, you’re dumb. I’m big, you’re little. I’m right, you’re wrong—And there’s nothing you can do about it!”

I had learned to avoid letting people make me feel stupid like this by avoiding the temptation to assert my opinions whenever possible. On that day however, I had clearly slipped. Not telling the principle any of what was going on in my head, I responded, “You’re right, I beat myself up for saying that. I’m usually really good at editing what I say. I’ve had a lot of practice.”

Looking like she understood what I meant, the tiny, frosty-haired, old lesbian continued to open up to me, “I know that I often sound like a broken record Jose, but getting these kids to graduate has been my number one priority since I began working here. I believe in rigorous standards-based education. This is how I have been trained….” Stopping to think about something, she paused, then added, “Maybe it’s not the most important thing.”

No one spoke for a moment as we both considered the words that escaped her mouth.

“If you tell anyone I said that I will deny it completely!” she said loudly, smirking at me.  

I appreciated her confiding in me at that moment, and decided that this was as good a time as any to ask the question that was drilling away at me, “Have you heard anything about funding yet?”

Grabbing some papers off the printer, she threw them in my direction. I reached down to see what they were. It was a printout of an email correspondence between Principal Sam and someone that I did not recognize. I did not need to know who it was to understand what I had just read.

“Your last day is January 22nd, the last day of term 2,” she said; as she had seen that I had completed my reading.

My heart sank. 

I knew that the chances were slim that my program would see additional funding. Between the Candace tragedy, and bouncing back and forth between remote and in-person learning, the year was just too chaotic for my program to gain any traction. Still, I had held out some hope for a miracle. But by this point I had not heard from Mr. Bernard either, so, what the principle had just told me was not too surprising.  

***BREAKING KNEWS***

Alright My Friends, this part of the story will be interactive as I am going to be asking you some questions, so pay attention. My Readers, I am talking to you by the way. If you have made it this far in my story, I am hoping that we are friends, because there is no way I would be telling you the rest of this story otherwise. In fact, I do not even tell friends this part of my story—So buckle up!

Welp, here goes nothing, there’s no turning back now….

After the shovel incident with my dad, and that ‘revelation’ I had while snow-blowing, I was inspired to prove to the world that I was a writer: With a story and a vision of the future people needed to hear. 

For a month I spent my nights manically putting together this vision of mine into words. During this time, I would smoke my weed and drink 5-hour energy shots to keep myself awake and motivated to finish what I had started. Once I was done with my writing, I purchased a domain name: JourneyToJoJo.com. 

On that site I placed the short manifesto that you have heard me reference (The one Sirena complimented me on and the one that subsequently got me fired from that tile job) and also a separate link to a short story that I had newly written, titled; “The Octagon of P.A.I.N” (It was just the beginning of a story I proposed completing at a later date).

Once I had the site looking good, I created an email. The title of the email read: “There Is A Problem.”

Inside that email was a quote I pirated from a show called The Newsroom; it read: “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one.” 

The email contained this one quote and a link to my website. That was it.

Alright Dear Readers (I mean friends), if you were me back then, who would you have sent this email to? 

“NO ONE!?!” 

Alright smart ass…pretend you’re an idiot like I was…who did I send it to???

Before you answer, you need remember that at this time I was a carpenter, a teacher, a numbers guy, a husband, a father; and then an aspiring writer. I knew very little about social media then. And in my mind at the time, there were people that I wanted to save with this vision of mine. Therefore, I was in a rush and could not take the time to figure out how to use any of those platforms to help with my mission. 

I didn’t even have a Facebook account back then. Sirena didn’t let me. With that said, email was how I was going to announce to the world that I was a writer…  

What I did was look up every major newspaper email address I could find across the country; every news channel; every talk-show on television and radio; anything I could think of that had an email publicly available. The logic behind this maneuver of mine was simple: “If I send this email to enough people, someone will discover me.” 

Oh—And I sent it to family and friends: Asking for their help getting my website some attention.

Damnit!

Just telling you about this is giving me anxiety. (I may or may not have just thrown up in my mouth.) To anyone that ever got that email back then…I’m sorry…. 

“Jose, everyone is calling worried about you.” 

Poor Sirena; rather than calling me, most of the people that got my email contacted her. To this day I do not know what they read or did not read. This is a chapter of my life no one talks about. My family and friends do me the favor of pretending like it never happened. 

But back then I was furious no one took the time to actually read what I had created. Everyone was concerned for my well-being and my mental health—But had they heard what I was saying—Did they take time to read what I had created—DID THEY REALIZE WHAT I WROTE WAS GENIUS???

These questions drove me crazy back then…literally: Crazy.  

THAT event then became the most embarrassing moment of my life. But THAT would not be the case for long….Dumb, Dumb, Dumb….

No one responded to my email…literally: No One.  

It was the day after I sent it that Sirena and I got into an argument over a family thing we were supposed to go to. 

“You should go so that everyone knows you’re okay,” she yelled.  

I refused to go, and it led to a loud fight. 

I simply wanted to run away from my problems—So, I did. 

Leaving my phone on the counter so that no one could contact me, I jumped in our family minivan and started driving…

***End Of Breaking Knews***

After leaving the Principal’s office I went to see Lilly.  

“How’d it go?” she asked; knowing where I had come from.

I shut the door behind me, “Good and bad,” I began, “The Principal was really nice to me, but funding for the program did not come through. My last day is January 22nd.”

Without delay, Lily responded, “Listen, I figured that would happen. I have a few ideas on how to get you funding that I’ve started working on already. Don’t give up on me Jose—I got you.” She smiled confidently but did not elaborate, in fact she purposely changed the subject, “So, did you talk to Sirens yet?”

Sirena had sold her house (our house). It had become official the week before when she closed on the deal. It was hard to believe the housing market was still as high as it was since the pandemic began, but it was; if not higher: Sirena made an absolute fortune on the sale of the house.  

By the way, Lily had begun calling Sirena, ‘Sirens.’ This was a reference to a story I told her about when I was staying at the halfway house. The guys at the house jokingly began calling her this whenever they saw me on the phone. They claimed that if I did not leave her alone, she’d call the cops and have a restraining order put on me: Hence the reason they called her “Sirens.”

Selling the house, Sirena had secretly made plans to move in with a boyfriend that I did not even know she had at the time. He was a tall, handsome, older man that was actually a local football coach of mine back in the day. Despite my lingering feelings for Sirena, I really had nothing against the guy—Alright, let’s be real, I did think he was a bit of a SAP at first, but that was just my pride talking. 

Once people learned about the two of them most agreed they made a great pair. Keeping everything super secretive made this relationship of theirs much more scandalous than it had to be. In reality, if she would have just told me about it, coping with it would have been much easier on me. Unfortunately, Sirena no longer seemed interested in what would make things easier on me. 

Over the last two months; while all this was going on, Lily was who I vented to. So, I answered her question, “Yes, I did talk to her. She gave me a check for the tax credit like she promised.” 

“That’s it!” she said surprised. “Not a dollar from the house?! What did she say…exactly?”

“A lot that I don’t want to remember. Things like…I’d forgotten all she’s done for me…that she owed me nothing for all that I put her through…that I spent all her money…that she took care of me and my kids…that I’m f***ing crazy—Oh, and that I’m an addict and giving someone like me a lot of money was not a smart thing to do.”

“What a cunt.” 

“Lily!” 

“I’m sorry but I can’t believe she gave you nothing—sorry, not nothing…tax money for the kid you have all the time!” She frowned, “Did you at least stand up for yourself?”

“I’ve told you, every time I try to, she just raises her voice and threatens to take my son from me. When she does that I just shut down and quiver like a little bitch,” I said truthfully. “It’s not worth the fight anyway. I’m fine. She can keep the money. I think I just really wanted to believe she’s a nicer person than she is.”

“But Jose—” started Lily.

I interrupted, “Can we just drop it? I’ve fed you a lot of crap over these past few weeks about her; and that’s on me, but she really did go through hell for me. I just want to leave it in the past. I’ll get over it.”

Lily is many things, but her ability to be understanding is what I like about her most. I watched her take a deep breath after I spoke: sucking in the words she wanted to say. She then slowly interlocked her hands and placed them gently on the desk in front of her and sat up straight. Turning her frown into a big teethy smile, she looked at me and agreed to my demands, “Alright Jose, I’ll drop it. I will not talk about cuntface again.”

“Thank you,” I smiled back.

Week 15 (12.18.20):

“The ‘D’ Words”

Before we begin today’s lesson, you are gonna need to jump on those broomsticks of yours because I’m about to take you for a ride. If you are scared of heights simply grab a partner and close your eyes, because you are coming whether you like it or not!

This world needs saving. At this point I think we can all agree on that. In these United States the fallout from this pandemic and the turmoil over this election has many people theorizing that humanity is, in fact, in its final days. 

Religious groups, conspiracy theorists, bloggers, news networks, leaders of many kinds—and their followers, have their megaphones in hand making certain we all know….  “THIS WORLD IS F***ED!”

Well, I’m sorry kiddos, but I just don’t buy it.  

Do we need superheroes to save us? —Yes. 

But lucky for all of us, we have them. Plenty of them. And they are everywhere.  

Confused?  

It’s okay, it will all make sense in the end. Just keep holding on…

Here is a short history lesson for you. Superman, the character, was created in the 1930’s by two teenagers. The first issue highlighting this man in tights was released on April 18th, 1938. The Great Depression; which was a worldwide economic downturn for those that need reminding, began in 1929 and lasted until around 1939. Was it a coincidence that this superhero showed up right around the time the great depression was ending?

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two teenage creators of Superman, were both born to Jewish immigrants. There was no way anyone back then would have predicted this superhero of theirs would bring such hope to a beaten down world. The story behind how they created this character and how they sold the rights to everything connected to him to Action Comics for a total of $130 is comic legend today. In truth, these two young men got screwed in this deal—BIG TIME. However, when someone forever attempts to discover who created this hero, their names will show up, which I argue is more valuable than all the money in the world.  

I once heard someone say that not just anyone can be great, but that someone great can come from anywhere. The story of these two young men validate this statement. Their ability to inspire others with a creation of their minds makes them the real superheroes in this little history lesson of mine: Not a man in blue tights, with a nice ass that can fly—Though the nice ass helps…just ask Captain America. (That’s a joke I know you’ll get Nel.)  

My argument today is this: Entertainment is the purest type of Magic on the planet. 

You’ve heard me say that to you before in this class of ours, and I’m going to say it over and over until you finally accept it as the truth. For as long as humans have walked this Earth, the ability to tells stories that inspire people, that give people hope, that teach people, that motivate people, that transcend the way we think, is Magic: Pure and simple.

That being said, the ability to tell stories that scare people, that give people anxiety, that make people worry, that frighten people, that corrupt the way we think, is also Magic: Pure and simple.

Superman had super strength. The image in his first publication had him lifting a car above his head. This was only one of his special gifts, however. His most fascinating talent was the ability to fly at superspeed across the globe. This gave Superman the ability to save anyone, anywhere on this planet. Can you imagine being alive back then, reading this story about a man that could fly, then looking up into the sky and imagining him in his cape coming down to save you?

This hero was born into the world when many felt things were broken. The depression, back then, is something most of us cannot imagine today. It was a different time. But one where many probably believed like we do today: That the world was F***ed! (Though they probably did not use this language back then Miss Lauren.)

Today we can watch superheroes on our screens anytime we wish. Nevertheless, the thought that they will pop out through the screen and actually save us in the real world has become laughable. There are no superheroes that can save this world of ours. Nowadays, most of us would rather watch the Kardashians than flying men in tights (Isn’t that right, Pras?).

In a world this fake: We are now truly F***ed! 

—But are we, really?

What made Superman a hero in 1939 was his ability to help anyone, anywhere on the planet. Whether a high-tech missile was headed your way, or you were in an intense battle against some secret-agent Russian spy, he could be there. There was not a threat he could not handle and not a place he could not be.  

Today, millions of people are on a ledge. They are about to fall, but there is no one pushing them. Their toes are slowly creeping forward. They are getting closer and closer to just doing it. These people are sick of fighting against fake enemies and are simply scared of this world in general. Without some miracle, too many of these people will jump…and they cannot fly, nor are they on broomsticks. 

I know I just went really dark on you there, but I’m speaking truth. The fact is, there are more people standing on a ledge contemplating suicide today than there are people in actual danger of a missile will being dropped on their head. Do some research: Find out how many people a year die by suicide and compare it to the number of deaths caused by crime. I’m not going to do it for you. If you don’t believe me, prove me wrong. But if you’re going to keep reading then you need to trust me when I say this: We are more likely to die by our own doing than at the hands of a “Bad Guy.”

With that said, think about this…

What makes a story compelling—What makes us want to keep watching—What do most all good stories need???

In literary circles, it’s called an “Antagonists.” Also known as a “Bad Guy.”  

The point I’m trying to make is that entertainment over the last one-hundred years has fueled the belief of ours that “Bad guys are everywhere.” Let me make it plainer: “Bullies are everywhere.” 

Following this line of thinking, if everyone is a bully, then we are all bullies. And it appears that all of us have been humping like rabbits resulting in a world full of bully rabbits— Are you a Bully Rabbit?

Sorry Kiddos, my broom got a bit out of control on me there for a second. Give me a moment to gather myself and let’s finish this class strong.

There is no stronger weapon in the world than entertainment. It distracts us from the mundane and molds us into the unknown. With the internet today, our entire lives revolve around entertainment. We are utterly consumed by it. 

In 1939, this ability we have to communicate with one another instantaneously from anywhere would have been considered science-fiction. The internet would have been a superpower beyond comprehension; like seeing a man lifting a car above his head.  

Here is what I’ve come to believe: Our world needs saving, entertainment is a superpower, the internet is a form of entertainment; therefore, we are all superheroes.

So, what can we do?

We must train our future entertainers to be super-heroes. We must train you. We must empower you and make you responsible. 

That’s right, Lauren, if you ever write that book what type of role model will you be? Nel, when your band takes off, how will you use your ability to bring joy to people? Pras, when you become that famous politician, how will people know you are truly the person you say you are?

With these questions rattling around in those brains, let us prepare to land those broomsticks.  

Sometimes the world around us is not what we want it to be. But we have the power to change it. If you are up to this challenge then I advise you to remember ‘The D Words’: Destination, Determination, and Deliberation.  

Do you want to know who told me this?

It was J.K. Rawlings. (Her real name is Joanne in case you were wondering)

In her Harry Potter books she was describing the ability to “Disapparate.” Meaning: to magically disappear from one place and reappear in another. 

In the fictional stories, Harry and his classmates had to learn from their teachers how to do this. When they were practicing, they were told to think of the three D’s that I just shared with you.

In the real world, people pay a lot of money to attend trainings where they teach you just like Harry’s teachers did. These are motivational seminars intended to make your dreams a reality. They will teach you how to transform the life you are living into the one you deserve…. 

According to Wilkie Twycross, Ministry of Magic official and Apparition Instructor in the Harry Potter books, one had to recall ‘The Three Ds’ to successfully Disapparate: 

“One had to be completely Determined to reach one’s Destination, and move without haste, but with Deliberation.”

Did this author accidentally include this lesson in her stories—Or, was she perhaps trying to teach YOU something—Did she maybe hope that her story would someday inspire people in the real world???

I think she did: That’s some real magic shit right there!

****

Dear Squad,

Earlier I told you that the Great Depression ended in 1939. With all the theories people throw around nowadays I do my best to try and stay quiet, but for you, I’m going to break my own rule and tell you my own personal theory right now.

I believe all of us have been living in a depression era ourselves. Not a financial one, but a mental one. One where ignorance and cynicism has resulted in a period of time where true progress has been put on hold.

I believe for those in the United States this period began on September 11th in 2001; when people saw the Twin Towers fall. If my theory is true, then that means we have been struggling with this psychological depression for almost twenty years; which has been your entire life.

Well, all depressions end; even psychological ones if you are patient enough. Which makes me wonder: How this one will end—Who is going to be Our Superman—Could it be YOU?

I really, really, really hope it is…. Because I think you’d look amazing in tights!

You may now land your broomsticks. (A true wizard learns to fly without them anyway.)

I hope you all have A Great Weekend!

—With Love, Mr. J

QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:

Can you fly?

The Teacher’s Playlist:

“People say I’m crazy…”

—Watching the Wheels by John Lennon

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(14) P.A.I.N. Through Regret

Week fourteen finds us at school for Candace’s memorial service. She had passed away on November 8th, 2020. It is now Friday afternoon, December 11th, one month later:

Standing in front of her picture, my heart hurt. She was no longer wearing a hood, or a mask, which allowed the young lady looking back at me from the flat, lifeless surface to attack my emotions without restraint.

“She hated her teeth,” said Lauryn quietly from beside me.  

“How could she have hated her teeth,” I wondered to myself, as I continued to take in my surroundings. Our school was holding a memorial for the student taken from us, a student some of us barely new, yet a student we all now realized we loved…. Candace was gone.

A month has passed since the day of the tragedy. The investigation into the incident has left Lauryn shattered more than anyone else. As the story goes, Candace and Lauryn got together that Saturday night and smoked some weed. Our school’s program promoted “harm reduction;” which meant that many of our students still smoked marijuana. Though this was not something we as a school celebrated, it was often the lesser of most evils. The point I’m trying to make here is that what they were doing was not that out of the ordinary.  

This legal substance was available to many at dispensaries in our State, but most people still bought theirs in other ways. Which is what Lauryn originally told the police she had done. Come to find out it was actually her mother’s stash she had stolen from a drawer in her bedroom. Unknown to Lauryn, her mother was still struggling with Fentanyl use: A very strong opiate that is one of the newer drugs terrorizing addicts. Her mother, knowingly, had laced her stash of marijuana with this Fentanyl. The combination stopped the hearts of Lauryn and Candace that night. 

Both of them were found by Lauryn’s mother close to unconsciousness at the time. Luckily, she was able give the young girls a shot of Narcan and call the paramedics. At the hospital they both fought to live. But, as we now had all come to accept, Candace did not survive this mistake.

The pain every person involved had been dealing with was unbearable to think about. 

Let me make this very clear to you right now Dear Reader: This was a tragic MISTAKE. 

I, myself, no longer smoke weed, but not because I imagined it would kill me. There was zero blame being placed on anyone by the time of this memorial service. This included Lauryn’s mother; who had faced a legal battle over the past month and was forced into accepting treatment; leaving Lauren to live alone in that small apartment for a little while.

Like I said, it was a mistake…pure and simple.  

If you, My Reader, want to blame someone, perhaps this book is not for you. I apologize if these words sound a bit harsh, but all of this is just very hard for me to talk about.

Any honest adult will tell you that they did plenty of stupid things in their youth (Lauren’s mother was only thirty-three herself by the way). Surviving mistakes is simply what lucky people live long enough to do. Whether or not Lauryn or her mother will ever accept this is still up to debate. 

At the memorial my mind swelled with all that I reflected on. Looking at all the students, staff, and family gathered around me, I realized then that I had attended far too many of these in my life already. 

***BREAKING KNEWS***

When that homeowner, Rick, fired me I did not go out and tell everyone; obviously. The fact that I am even telling you about it now surprises me. 

Sirena knew about it, and a few other people at the time, but there was one person that I was definitely not letting find out about it…my dad.  

We did not get fired from jobs—And how in the world would I explain why I got fired?

A few weeks after my tools were unceremoniously placed in front of that garage the first snow of the year fell. Visiting my parents at their house, my dad asked the question I had been dreading; “Did you bring my shovel back yet?”

Seems a rather boring question you would think, but it was a loaded one.

My father had this big black construction shovel. It was an old shovel, which meant it was made a lot stronger than the shovels you buy today. This was the shovel I borrowed when I did that tile job. And it was not one the tools Rick had left outside of his garage for me to pick up. 

I could have called my uncle about it, who had taken over the job for me, but I had hidden in shame from him as well. So, I had simply hoped it would be forgotten. My father’s question made it clear that this would not be the case.  

“I’m sorry dad, I can’t find it,” I said; playing dumb.

My dad is the nicest man in the world. When we worked together, we butted heads of course, but that is what happens when you work with family. At home however, he was like a best friend and could always make me smile. What I’m about to tell you he said in response to my playing dumb was completely out of character for him; but it is what he said and what I must share with you in order to tell you this story.  

“Like you care.”

He must have been having a bad day. This response implied that this shovel of his was just something I failed to think about. If he only knew how much time I had spent caring about that God damn shovel!

I was dreading him asking for this shovel because I did not want to tell him I had been fired from that job. I did not want to tell him why I had been fired. But he had no clue about any of this. What he said bothered me more than I can justifiably explain today. 

I have given my past a lot of thought over the years; trying to make sense of what I have been told and that diagnoses I have been given. I have come to the conclusion that it was at this moment something inside me broke….

With this shovel incident something in my head snapped, “I do care—We ALL care—EVERYONE cares!!!”

I don’t remember what I actually said to my dad that day, I just remember that this is the thought that played in my head. 

Maybe some people act like they don’t care. Maybe some people tell themselves they don’t care. Maybe a select few really don’t care. But in reality, most of us care. For me, I know that I care too much.  

“Maybe that’s what’s wrong with this world—We all want to say we don’t care but we really do—What if we all realized how much we really did care?”

Leaving my father’s house, I went home that day and used our snow blower to clear our driveway. While doing this I listened to a song titled ‘FourFiveSeconds;’ by Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCarthy. 

This song played on repeat through my headphones. After I finished snow blowing the driveway, I made a path to our front door. After I finished the path to the front door, I made a path to the backyard. In the back yard, with snow above my knees, I decided to create a maze for the kids.  

I do not know how long I played with the snow blower that day. All I know is that I started doing it because I was angry, or upset, or whatever. But at some point while doing it, fireworks began going off in my mind. The fireworks I speak of were exciting ones, uplifting ones, revolutionary ones…delusionary ones…

“What if I’m a writer—What if this all had to happen—What if other people could be helped by my ideas and my story?”

I was not longer upset, I was inspired. In my head I had put together a vision of how my story could speak to the world—How it could help the world—How it could save the world!

Yup…maybe this is when I broke from reality a bit. But I did not know this then. It is easy to identify troubling thoughts when you look into the past, but when you are living them it is often impossible to see until later: After you have made your mistakes. 

But I had not made my mistakes yet…I would though….

An image in my mind of what to write began that day. Began with that shovel. Was put together in those paths—How would it all come together though?

Once I was done my snow-blowing, I went inside. Looking in the backyard, I smiled. I had a purpose now. I was a writer.  

That is when I saw it: The paths in the backyard all intersecting in a seemingly random pattern. But the boarder of this maze of mine had eight sides to it. Looking at it from out the kitchen window, I saw an octagon: “The Octagon of P.A.I.N.”

***End Of Breaking Knews***

Back at the memorial service Nel, Pras, and Lauryn had all driven together.  

Standing outside their car with Lauryn, I saw Nel sitting behind the wheel, looking strong, while Pras looked to be wilting in the back seat. Prior to this day, most of us had not seen Lauren cry, but now, in front of me and everyone else, she melted away. Unable to control myself, I hugged her.

With Lauren in my arms, Nel and I locked eyes. We talked to one another without words, in solidarity for the girl we both loved. In that moment; fighting away our own tears, Nel and I made a non-verbal agreement with one another: We would be her strength.  

Lauryn is a bigger girl, so she filled my embrace completely. Holding her against me brought a calm that I was unsure how to perceive. “It was Candace’s birthday,” she cried, shaking against my body. A fact I had known, yet one that provided a fresh circumcision of pain to my heart.  

After watching my students drive away, I walked to my own car; which I had purposely parked in the far end of the lot. Approaching it, I felt like a boxer who had just lasted till the final round of a fight. Opening my door, I collapsed into the seat.   

The weight in the front of my skull increased and I looked around the lot to make sure I was alone. Turning on my car, I put the music on loud so that I would not have to hear my own thoughts anymore. I then looked at my own eyes in the mirror. Others may have seen a strong adult, but I knew whose eyes those were looking back at me. Unable to hold it together any longer I placed my head in my hands and let it happen…

Week 14 (12.11.20):

“P.A.I.N. through Regret”

“If you focus on what you’ve left behind you will never be able to see what lies ahead.” 

From the Disney movie; Ratatouille.

An article titled regret, hmmm…. Where should one begin?

Let’s pretend we don’t know each other, shall we…

“Hello there! I’m a twice divorced father of three boys. I live with my mommy and daddy and I’m almost forty now. There are six nights a month that I am not responsible for children. Responsible is probably not the right word though; clearly, I’m not responsible. It’s more like I play with children for all but a few hours a month.”

This personal profile of mine makes the 40-Year-Old Virgin look like Tony-effing-Stark compared to me. 

You joke about me having no girlfriend, but let’s be real, a girlfriend doesn’t exactly fit in my life right now. Even if one did though, could you imagine many Pepper Potts out their eager to jump on this old, wrinkly, uncut Iron Man suit of mine?  

I mean, seriously, come on: Who in the world would sign up to join me in this cluster ‘F’ of a life I’ve put together?   

Have fun with it. Go and try and put this life of mine on a dating site. See what you get…  

“Oh wait…you found someone? … She is willing to have a drink with me?? … Could you please tell her that I’m in recovery and ask if she’d like to go for a walk with me instead???”

“She ghosted me????” 

—Surprise! (LOL)

You can laugh. It’s okay. I’m serious. I know my life is a joke. Just laugh already. 

I see the laugh growing in your belly. Yup…now it’s moving up your chest. There it is, right there, tickling your throat. I can see it in your eyes. Just do it. Your cheeks are about to break. You’re not going to get past this. Just get it over with already. “I—AM—A—LOSER!” 

—Go ahead and laugh at me you little worms!  

“—You’re an idiot Mr. J”

“Well, thank you very much….”

Alright then, with that out of the way, here is my truth: I am twice divorced. This is a hard thing to keep secret; trust me I’ve tried. The first divorce was my choice, the second was not. Both of them, however, were undeniably my fault. 

Regret, and guilt, when it comes to love has been a constant throughout my entire adulthood. To be honest, I am so cynical over it that I often question if true love really exists. Nowadays, I am more likely to believe that a promise of forever is simply a mutually agreed upon lie.  

It is a sad way to think about love, I know, but it is what it is.

With Candace’s memorial this week, why I chose to talk about my failed relationships is anyone’s guess. Maybe there is purpose behind it—Maybe I do it for selfish reasons—Or maybe I’m just a secret mastermind in disguise toying with those young minds of yours???

For now, let’s not think about it and get this class back on track…

I could talk forever about regret (and guilt), as most of you probably could. But we don’t have forever, so, what should we talk about?

Well, love and money are two things that are often discussed when it comes to these emotions. Since I have already told you about my experiences with love, let me give you a quick example of regret as it refers to money for me:

On Friday, March 14th, 2008, I bought ten thousand dollars’ worth of Bear Sterns stock right before the market closed that day. At twenty-six years old, this sum of money was a result of countless hours of physical labor I had done over the years. By Monday, all that back-breaking money was gone. The company I invested in went bankrupt. This event literally marked the beginning of the market crash that year, and I was smacked in the face by it just like so many others across the globe. That unfortunate gamble of mine is just one of many things that I regret in my life.

In your life I can promise you this: You will have money regrets. 

Money is the most powerful force in this world next to only one other thing; power itself. It makes me sad to say, but it is true. That is why I brought up this money mistake of mine from my past; because everyone can relate to regrets about money.

But I’m gonna stop right there—You want to know why?

Because no one cares.

LIE—You care! 

But that is a lesson for another day.    

As we approach the end of this semester, I must remind you that throughout this journey we have been on I have tried my best to be honest with you. Despite some of the things you now know about me, deep down I always believed that I was a good person. Things I have done however, have forced me to question this a lot over the years.

When we look at the world today, I believe a similar feeling can stir within all of us. We have all seen the ‘good’ this world has to offer. Even if you have only experienced seeing it on a screen, we know that wonderful things and wonderful people do exist (Have you heard that MacKenzie Scott gave away 4.2 BILLION DOLLARS in just four months!?!). 

Unfortunately, there is no denying that awful things are happening everywhere we look. And people can sometimes suck. Most of us paying attention want to believe that “good will win out.” But there comes a point when even the most optimistic amongst us has to wonder; “How will it get better?”

You know by now that I do not like to force my opinions on you. This is not the time or place for me to tell you how I think it will get better anyway. So instead, I will try and explain where I think we are at this moment in history. 

Personally, I think the world is currently experiencing a period of regret. Things have changed so rapidly that we are questioning all the things that have brought us to where we are today. 

Well, how do we often deal with these emotions? 

—We fight them.

We fight with our feelings. We fight with our beliefs. We fight with whatever we can to avoid accepting things the way they are. We fight with each other and we fight with ourselves. That is the process: We are all simply watching it play out right now on a global scale. 

It is why ‘Cancel Culture’ has become a phenomenon as of late. Society is attempting to erase everything that no longer makes sense. Trust me when I tell you that this is an impossible task; I know from personal experience.

Like always, I cannot offer a solution to the predicament we are in…I’m just a teacher. But if the world was a person, this is where I would tell it to remember my three tips to survival—Do you remember what they are yet?

Who knows, the miracle this world needs may be on tip toes as we speak, ready to surprise us in some mind-blowing fashion. Whatever you do, don’t give up before we find out what it is. 

Which brings me back to love.

I can understand if you don’t believe in miracles. Like I started this article by telling you, I don’t know if I believe in love like some people do. There was nothing in my life that made me believe that ‘true love’ was a real thing. Infatuation, yes. Lust, yes. Co-dependency, absolutely. But LOVE, I just don’t know anymore…I’d need to see it to believe it. 

Well, as luck would have it, in the process of writing one of these lessons a month or so ago I stopped working to take my youngest son out for an ice-cream. It was a rainy and cold day, not ideal to make a trip for an icy treat, but he wanted it, and I wanted to get out of my head, so we went.  

That is where I saw her…Was this destiny knocking at my door? 

Her son was with her in line and we talked while trying to stay warm. My own son had stayed in the car because he refused to put on his mask. Yes, this girl was pretty, in a very unintimidating kind of way. But over just a few minutes I could tell she was kind, and gentle, and perhaps a little insecure as well—Maybe she was broken a bit; just like me…

While talking, her son made a comment about “getting dropped off to dad’s house.” Being divorced myself, I am familiar with this language and looked down to confirm that she did not wear a wedding ring. That is when I started to wonder if this could be her.

The thought tickled my mind.

“Girl, you look delicious,” the only pick-up line I could think of from the Disney movie I had watched the night before danced in my head. “Probably not the best thing to say…” I silently told myself; even if her son was not right there.

Fighting off the temptation to say this to her I struggled to find the right words. She looked like someone famous…who was it?  

I could not figure it out. 

What can I say—Do I ask if she’s single—How do I do this—What is her son gonna think—Will I look like a jerk?

Unfortunately, I’m a wimp, and could not think of what to say to move our conversation past the friend zone in that moment.  

Driving home; with ice cream on the seat beside me, her smile had my mind spinning. 

Is there any way I can find her on social media—Did she say anything about where she lived—Would I ever see her again??? 

Maybe it was the fear of losing her that helped me realize who she reminded me of. Figuring out that she looked just like my celebrity crush I decided to use that fact to get her number. I quickly turned my car around to go back and find her.  

Her and her son had gotten into a small, black car. Pulling up beside it, through the sprinkling rain, I rolled down my window. She smiled and rolled down hers, interested to find out why I had driven back…

“You look like Emma Watson.” 

This is how the encounter was going to play out. This is what went through my head as I drove back to find her. Sadly, she was gone by the time I got back to the parking lot. I was devastated having just built up the courage to give it a shot. I was back on empty.

Maybe it was not meant to be—Maybe it was just meant to teach me a lesson—Maybe…

The thought of what could have been stuck with me long after. How she made me feel was unexplainable to someone that no longer believed in love. The experience forced me to question my beliefs on the topic completely.

Dear Squad, 

With a new year approaching, my hope for those of you that no longer believe in miracles is that something unexpected happens in your life in the coming year. Something that makes you wonder, “What If…”  

This is a great feeling that I hope to be able to one-day share with you; and one I know Candace would want for all of us as well.

—With Love, Mr. J

QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:

Do you believe in miracles?

The Teacher’s Playlist:

“I’m gonna make you see…”

—Give In to Me with Garret Hedlund & Leighton Meester

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