The blowing of trumpets seemed to echo in my skull-louder than what seemed possible. I was witnessing a truly remarkable celebration. Why couldn’t this creation of my mind be real?
“He’s dreaming again.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because he’s waving his arms around like he’s making a damn presidential speech or something!”
Brayce made the 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. They had become my three young men. I loved them so much. And I would miss them dearly. The thought of which made me want to cry so 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.
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. In spite of countless failures, you always kept the faith. Be proud of the legacy you leave behind. And remember, lives that inspire never expire.”
Despite repeating these thoughts of encouragement to myself, I still wondered, “Was it really worth it?”
I was scared. Questions about what happens next haunted me. Doubt flooded my mind. Lost in my own thoughts, I heard the boys continue to talk to one another.
“When you guys were kids did dad ask you that question all the time?”
“You mean, ‘THE’ question?” Brayce replied.
“He sure did!” Jett tried to laugh, though the sadness could be heard through his nervous giggle. Jett was my Believer.
That 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 very 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.
After the fire, I was trained to keep my ambitions and dreams a secret. I created that stupid YouTube video (enter video here when ready) and was promptly told that I was delusional. So, I took 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.
“Did you ever wonder why he asked us that? … Was he serious?? … Do you really think he thought we would???” Taylor was my Thinker; always asking questions. Often, he was the little horn in my side that kept me on my toes for he religiously would dissect every word that escaped my mouth.
The room went quiet.
As I again began to feel bad for myself, a comment from one of my boys broke the silence.
“Did you ever wonder….”
“What if…we believed him?”
The question I heard shocked me.
The memories that began flooding my brain created an emotional earthquake in my mind, jolting me out of my slumber.
That question was the same exact one that I had presented to my fictional self in one of the ‘lessons’ in the book.
I had finished writing that book years ago. I called it, “The Little Book That Could Spark a Regeneration.”
Knowing that the title sounded delusional, I entrusted a final copy of it with one of my best friends in the world. This friend was the most genuine, kind, and caring person I ever knew; selfless in every way imaginable. I could always count on this person to comfort me wherever I was at, without judgement. This person never questioned my sanity and was there for me always. When I was done writing that book, I left it with him-with instructions to give it to my sons if something were to ever happen to me.
How had I forgotten about it?
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 sparked inside of me. I slowly opened my eyes.
On my bedside, the digital clock made me aware that I had not yet left this life: 9:11 A.M: April 15th, 2040.
“How fitting,” I thought to myself. I had imagined this day in so many ways, but yet never pictured it like this; I guess that is what living in fear will do to a person.
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; “Am I crazy?”
However, at this moment, when the threat of public ridicule is replaced by the realization of impending death, allowing myself to dive into a world of delusions seemed like common sense: Why Not?
“Maybe my attempt to change things will not be lost? Maybe Y-O-U 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 around. Nothing but silence and blank faces filled the room. Perhaps I was delusional, but it appeared 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?”
Wondering 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 deflated like a balloon….THEY DIDN’T KNOW THE SECRET!!!
Without the secret, it wouldn’t work. The secret would make them read the whole thing over and over again looking for more diamonds in the rough. The secret would make them question everything. The secret would be the showstopper the world needed.
THE SECRET WOULD SOFTEN THEIR HEARTS!!!
Quickly, I sat up. Startling my boys.
Frantically I 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. All three of them 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 to write on. Frustrated, I scanned the room.
Above my head, the Saint Francis Prayer was attached to the wall. Excited, I reached 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.
Exhausted, my head fell to the pillow. With all the intentions of giving up, my eyes once more looked lazily at the bedside table next to me. On it, Billy’s tattered book that had comforted me so gracefully in life laid silently. “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 heard footsteps entering the room. More of my family had now come to be with the boys and me. Looking around, the seven heads staring back at me were frightening; Why did I have to put them through all of this?
This question made me hate myself as I felt like a monstrous beast preparing to destroy their lives.
Debating my next move, I once again turned my head and stared. The rock that caught my eye was about four inches in diameter, with a smooth white finish. Sitting on top of that sacred 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 brother, John.
When I was struggling to keep it together after my diagnoses, he 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,” I said to myself, “Why Not???”
Tiredly, I reached over and grabbed it.
Becoming more aware of my surroundings, almost as if to chronicle them for my future self’s, I appreciated the sound of rain hitting the windows behind the crowd that stood in front of me… How long had it been raining?
Contemplating this question of mine, 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 get blurry. Squinting my eyes, like in a dream, 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 the targets, I was fittingly reminded… “All along the target was Y-O-U.”
Staring into the sunset of this life, if I could speak, I knew exactly what I wanted to say at this moment: “Do not be scared. You are loved, and you are not alone. Though I may leave you today, please know that the sun will come out tomorrow. Your life is long, and I was always only destined to be with you for a short amount of time. Have faith that one day we will be reunited in the light. I love you…”
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 (blank).”
(If we get this published I will fill in the secret…until then……)
“This house is too damn big,” I said to myself as I walked the hallways in pursuit of somewhere quiet to rest before the festivities began.
Outside I could hear the band practicing for the celebration. Cameras were rolling as always- it was part of our platform to invite the world into this house with us; reality-show style. We wanted people to finally learn the truth about what went on in here. This was a promise I greatly regretted making.
Continuing my hunt to find a place to hide, I wondered where the boys were…
Don’t get me wrong, my wife and I loved having the kids all here with us, but the energy they brought with them was exhausting. In reality though, the place was fifty-five thousand square feet, so, who could really blame them for venturing around like four wild tornadoes. You might think that they’d be used to this place after seven years, but even I sometimes got overly excited by it all- it would not be right for me to be upset with them. Truth be told…I often still felt like a marauder in my own home myself (it was weird).
Turning the corner, I stopped, as my eyes were briefly distracted by the picture of myself and Patrick Mahomes- reminding me of how this whole roller coaster began…
After releasing that story on our website-RecoveryHighSchool.com-I had received an email from an N.F.L. Representative: “We would like to have you attend this year’s Super Bowl. Please contact us immediately.”
I remember thinking it was a joke. That was until I received the call from this super bowl quarterback inviting me to be his personal guest. Somehow-amazingly-he had come across the story. It was truly incredible-a miracle more like it.
Reflecting on that memory, I said a silent thank you to all the people that supported me at the very beginning on our Facebook page; ‘Social Recovery 101’. Only by them sharing our message was all of this possible. Looking at this picture of my now friend-Patrick-it all seemed more unbelievable than ever.
For so long I had hibernated in fear. Until finally, I let myself live this dream. Good-God did it feel AMAZING!
“Hope is definitely the best drug of them all,” I said out loud in the deserted hallway.
Shaking my head in an attempt to come back to reality I walked towards my office door. I longed for the couch at the center of the circular room.
Approaching the door, 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 outside my office. They had fought so hard to see this dream of mine become a reality, and I made sure that I would forever remember them for it…. “Lives that inspire never expire, until we meet again,” I said out loud, touching the picture of them; 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 simply have some peace and quiet. Sitting down, I was distracted by yet another picture; this time of my wife-Emma. Looking at it, I knew that I needed to make this day special for her.
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.
…For a quick second this moment was mentally side-tracked by a responsibility that popped into my mind; distracting me. “I needed to call M.” Our annual Transcending Concert needed another performer…he had told me he had an idea on who he wanted to ask…I needed to call him and find out who would be joining our squad…
Bringing myself back to the moment at hand, I wondered, “Who could have imagined that so many people would unite over a simple idea?” I laughed at the thought… “You’re a crazy A-hole! From the Pathway House in Gardner, Massachusetts-to the White House in Washington D.C.!! You fn’ did it!!!”
Was all of this destiny? Or did I create it?? Who could know for sure???
Honestly…I did not really care at this moment. As being the first ever third-party candidate to be elected President of the United States- the Divergent Party-was now simply a notch on my belt of accomplishments. It sounded crazy back then…but as we discovered…the world WAS crazy. And they loved me for making them realize it. I could do anything-I was unstoppable.
Lost in a world that once only existed in my mind, I brought myself back to the task at hand. The speech I intended to give today was going to be epic. It was crucial I presented every word of it perfectly.
Visualizing myself doing something was important to getting it right. I kept my eyes closed and began to imagine myself giving the 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. (Pause 3 count). 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. (Pause 3 count). Y-O-U are changing this world. Our progress continues to rely on YOUR actions. They were, and will continue to be, what changes this world. (Pause 2 count). You are the miracle, let us never forget that. (Pause 2 count). I am simply here to show you that there is far more good in this world than there is evil. That there are more people you can ask for help, than there are people to be scared of. That there is more reason for you to learn how to love, than there is for you to learn how to hold a gun. (Pause 2 count) It is my responsibility to help you see this. (Pause 1 Count). I can open your eyes. (pause 1 count). Take you wonder, by wonder. (pause 1 count). Over…Sideways…and Under. (Pause 1 count). On a-”
(to be continued…)
“This is amazing J-Man,” Pras professed from the back seat of the van, “That dude is magic on the grille….the food is literally dancing down my throat.”
We had just stopped at THAT American Grille in Leominster. I had promised to buy them lunch on my last day and was making good on my word. Sitting in the school’s mini-van, I let them eat while I drove. The bitter 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 Pras for an explanation, “No one has ever called me that before Pras…am I a super-hero now?” I laughed.
Jumping into the conversation from the seat beside me, Lauryn spoke, “We gave you a 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, taking my drink and holding it up to hers for a toast.
“Where the hell are we?” asked Nel 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- better described as a mansion rather than a house.
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. This friend was the most successful person I knew. He had life by the balls…and this house served as evidence.
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 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 bought this house…spent all that money…worked all those hours…all so that he might be able to go back and relieve his youth.
Knowing that time was short, I explained all this rather quickly to my students before saying, “I’ve actually 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.”
Telling them this, I transitioned seamlessly into the lesson, “I actually 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?”
Seeing nodding heads looking back at me, I wasted no time making my grand declaration to them: “Adults have no clue what the hell they are doing,” I said to them very matter-of-factly.
“That’s why we love you J-Man…you get it!” said Pras victoriously from his seat; offering me a high-five.
Everyone else jumped in on a brief celebration before I took over again, “Either do you however….so deflate those egos kiddos.”
I then explained to them that our civilization has advanced so rapidly that all of us are merely children playing in the dark ages. “We have discovered fire…but are using it to burn down our own houses with it. It is going to be your children that learn how to use technology properly. I hope that you accept this truth and learn to listen to them better than we listen to you…. they will put this world back together.” This was the first secret I came here to tell them.
Returning our conversation to something more tangible, I asked them, “Do you know what I consider to be my number one priority as a father?” Not allowing time for a response, I answered my own question, “To make it so my boys are not scared of everything.”
I explained my reasoning, “So many people are making sure that my boys are scared of everything. It’s not one individual that I blame for this-it is society in general. It is everyone and everything. Of course, there are justifiable reasons for a lot of it, but they need someone…me…that goes against the norm to show them that the world is not as scary as what they have been trained to believe. There is far more good in this world than there is evil. There are more people that they can ask for help, than there are people to be scared of. There is more reason for them to learn how to love, than there is for them to learn how to hold a gun. …. It is my responsibility to help them see this.”
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. There was no way I could make what I said change their perspective on life. I merely hoped to plant a seed so that perhaps it would one day grow into something later.
With that business out of the way, I was itching to share with them another-more exciting-secret.
“I’ve figured out how to make my story work,” I said before telling them the twist, “But…one of you is going to have to die.”
There was a moment of stillness in the car; 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 going to 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. But I can only share it with you if you promise to keep the secret that you are going hear at the end.”
“We promise,” they all said together.
After spending a few minutes setting up the story I was writing, I needed them to agree to one last thing, “Promise me this…that when we are done here today…you will laugh at me.”
A look of confusion spread to the four faces in the van. Knowing what I had in store for them, I smiled as I handed them the last three chapters of my book:
– Fight P.A.I.N.
We would read them together….
Week 20- (1.22.21) – “Fight P.A.I.N.”
I had 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…. More powerful than any government that ever existed…. More uplifting and inspiring than all religions combined.
It was an, “IDEA!”
Was it delusional? Perhaps?? But…WHO CARES???
It was a dream! So, it did 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 by showing him the hand drawn ‘Octagon of P.A.I.N.’ that I had seen in this dream of mine. It was this drawing that first got things started in this future world I had imagined. Billy listened to me explain everything very intently. He was so good at listening, and I loved him for it. At the time he did not call me crazy, but I knew what he was thinking when he said one word to me 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 (perhaps ‘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 no exception.
Failing helped me realize that people are unlikely to push you forward until you have momentum. 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, embarrassment, jealousy, or simple dislike is unimportant. Just know this: the reason why many of the people we call successful are not the nicest people is because being an A-hole is either a pre-requisite to achieving greatness or simply 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. Sadly, Billy will not be here with me as I embrace this reality. He died a year or so after I first had this vision of mine. I dedicate the following to him; “I love you my friend.”
“What goes inside the Octagon?”
Before he passed away, Billy and I spent a lot of time discussing ideas. When I first showed him the picture of the ‘Octagon of P.A.I.N.’ he asked me this question.
It was a great one, as we knew that whatever we put inside would become the foundation to what we would build. Over time we had come up with a lot of thoughts on what we could use…but nothing ever really stuck.
We would find ourselves talking for hours about what we could do once we figured out how to make the whole thing work. See, we had the message; and we felt like we were the right people to deliver it, but we needed the story to get people to listen to us- to believe us. Until we had that, it was all merely a dream. A dream that Billy and I became obsessed with.
Billy eventually got infected with the virus. As my hope spread to him, he began asking ‘What-If’ questions himself. I vividly remember realizing this fact the day he suggested the word we used could one day spark a revolution. At which time I got to be the one teaching him something for once, “A revolution is run on the premise that breaking a system will fix our problems. However, 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… “You cannot save the world by destroying it. 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.
At the time 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 Billy and I use our ideas to build something that would help create this trust?
It all had to start with the word we’d put inside the Octagon.
In an attempt to figure out the perfect word to use, we asked ourselves what would be important in this future galaxy of ours?
Faith? …. Love? … Forgiveness? … Family? … Friendship? … Dreams? … Spirituality? …. There were endless possibilities that we considered. Too many to try and remember right now.
At this point of the story I must tell you that religion was super important to Billy. In fact, he fought very hard to have this word put inside of the Octagon. I understood, respected, and admired his love for religion-and all the good it offered the world. However, I believed that religious pride could possibly deter humanity from our greater mission: Which was to unite anyone and everyone in creating a future brighter than the reality that was currently being lived.
To Billy there was only one book that a person needed in their life. A lot of what we were talking about went against this philosophy of his. I appreciated this internal struggle, and never made fun of it. Instead we worked through it together…like all good friends do when faith and friendship war against one-another.
The religion discussion was a conversation we had many times. Each time it would come up, I’d have to convince him to see the bigger picture, “We must use a word that everyone can relate to. A new word. One with new meaning. One that could unite people by representing a common desire in us all. A word for the future….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-religion cannot do this alone.”
As we drove around, playing with ideas, talking about a better world, dreaming about the future…arguing…Billy would always have the music blasting. Music would be important to our mission, so we had been working on putting together our ‘soundtrack.’
It was on one of those drives together that it hit me….
I had it!
Turning the music off completely, I turned to my friend.
It was in the silence of that moment that I first whispered the word that would change everything…. “dIverge.”
Week 20- Question for Reflection:
What does dIverge mean to you?
It was now halfway through the month of January 2021. Knowing that next week ended semester two, and therefor would be 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. This was a lesson I was looking forward to teaching for quite a while…
“Did you all have time to read the short story and write your reflections?” I said to start our Friday class, “I’ll leave it on the board for us to discuss.”
Thirteen-point-five 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. In the face of 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 DNA. 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 stories 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, the purpose behind this was to increase their cognitive ability to interpret ‘stories.’ Rather than simply watch and believe, I hoped that I could teach them to watch and decipher. In my earlier “manifesto” I referred to this ability as an individual’s ‘C.S.I’ score (Common Sense Intellect).
As our time together was coming to an end, I was going to put it to the test….
Standing in front of them, I spoke a statement that I had spent a lot of time preparing and did my best to deliver it with purpose, “Writing allows me to detach from my time and think of a world that has healed. 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 all could one day live in.”
I then paused before asking the question that would get this lesson started, “Now, can you all please share with me what you think this short story means?”
I spent the next half-hour listening to them share their ideas. The conversations were even more intense than I expected. All of them had put some real thought into what the story could mean. Some of them got offended by what the others perceived it to mean…and they argued. As I had anticipated, religion was a key discussion point; not normally encouraged at school but something that I permitted to take place just for today. Listening to them, I kept the conversations on track when necessary but hardly muttered a word. As I watched them all ask one another, ‘What-If-Questions,’ I knew that I had done my job well.
Recognizing that time was short, I brought us back together as a class to teach them the day’s lesson.
“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 that we wish to freeze in time, to remember so that we may one day reflect on and smile upon 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?” I asked the class, in order to set it up. Seeing them all shake their heads and throw a few jokes my way, I knew I was about to get them….
Focusing on a special student up front, I could not help but smirk as I looked her straight in the eyes to say, “I wrote the story so that one day the world might learn that my second x-wife was a creation of the devil.”
A brief moment of shocked silence was followed by an announcement laughed from the back of the room, “You’re a real A-hole you know that!”
I had been working on limiting the swears used in my class, but at that moment, strong words seemed necessary in order for this message to be properly received. I was not mad.
Nodding my head…agreeing with this declaration…I smiled and responded proudly, “Yes…I am.”
Knowing that I had gotten the message across successfully, I gathered myself in order to present them with the lesson that 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??? …. Can any of you relate to feeling like this?”
Social media has successfully offered individuals across the globe a tool allowing them to create their own personal war-against-the-world. There is no doubt humanity does not yet understand how to properly use this weapon…and the psychological effects can be seen anywhere and everywhere you look. I knew this when I asked them these questions….and I hoped that they recognized it as well.
Not wanting to lose control of the class I let them all nod their heads as a sign of understanding, but did not let them speak so that I could finish, “I wrote that story in my own personal journal in the middle of the night some time ago. My second x-wife was selling the house I had built her, and she was moving in with her boyfriend. I was broken. I was sad, and I was angry- a dangerous mixture of emotions to cope with. If I would have jumped on Facebook and wrote how I felt about my ex-wife at the time…do you think I would have regretted it?”
I turned to the board and wrote one last acronym for the class to remember:
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 can bring darkness into your life- this darkness can spread through social media and is very hard to control if you permit it to.” Pausing for a moment so that they could agree, I continued, “The fact that my ex-wife chose to leave did not make sense to me. I did not know how to accept it. My ‘false-pride’ would not permit me to. As she moved on in her life to discover happiness again, I wanted justification for my hurt…I wanted revenge. I loved her…and if she chose not to love me back then I would one day make her regret it. Now, let me ask you this: Would social media have given me the means by which to voice such heated desires? – Of course!”
Sprinkling this lesson with truth, like all the others, I worked towards the conclusion, “Now that I am past that difficult time in my life, 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. This is one of the many reasons I encourage you to keep personal journals-so that you can vent there instead. If I had said something about her using that weapon at my fingertips-the internet-would people have ever forgotten what I said? …. As you consider that, let me ask you this: Will you ever forget the meaning being X2?”
Wanting them to accept one more thing before their minds drifted off, I said, “We are all children when we encounter new things. New emotions…new ideas…new fears…new dreams…new whatever…. And common sense can only take you so far. In such a world the internet can be a dangerous place.” By telling them this I was ready to finish the day’s lesson, “Unable to decipher what is real from what is fake, people are often left wondering what to believe- in fact, some of us fight with whether or not we should believe at all. Do not be discouraged however, as there is magic in this…there is magic in knowing that we just do not know.”
To end the lecture, I wanted to clear up a few things, “Before you leave here today, I need to make sure that you all know that X2 is actually a wonderful person-what I have shared with you today I can only hope stays between us for that reason. This great woman stood by me through some very dark times in my life, and I would not be who I am without her. She found a happiness that I could have never given her. In return, the Universe had freed me in a way that hurt but in a way that was necessary; a reality I needed time to understand and accept. 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. Please use this lesson as proof of that.”
There was so much I wanted to say to clear things up in that moment, but sometimes we talk too much…so, I tried my best to make it simple for them, “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 with all sincerity that I do still love her. The story I shared with you today was not an attack on her, but merely a means to educate you. Some people hold onto grudges their entire lives. Thankfully I was blessed with a short memory-it allows me to forget. Forgiving, however, is a choice. One I hope you are strong enough to make as a lot of people in this world need it. Me included.”
Leaving the classroom that day, I felt accomplished.
Unlike all previous Fridays throughout the year I did not have an article to share with them this day. But seeing how the class had just went, I thought that perhaps I had taught them enough or one day.
The reason I did not have an article for them was because I was working on something else that was consuming most of my free time…I was working on my book. This was something that I had told my students already, along with the promise to share with them the ending when we met on our last day together.
I had my work cut out for me, but I would not let them down. They had learned to ask questions. They had been patient. Now it was on me to reward them for their faith.
Week 19- Question for Reflection:
What are the D words?
Lying in bed with the three boys sprawled all over me, I pushed them off so that I could answer my phone. Seeing who it was, I told them I’d be right back as I left the room….
This call was unexpected and unannounced-normally I’d get an email before. Trying to sound excited, but secretly nervous, I answered, “Mr. Bernard! How are you?”
“Jose-my boy…you have to start calling me Bernie,” he said lightly. He didn’t do Facetime, so I could not see him, but his voice sounded like he had that goofy smile on his face. Which hopefully meant I was not in trouble; making me feel a little better about this surprise phone call.
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 people would “assume things.” It was easier to call him Mr. Bernard. It was not a lie…just something I did to prevent awkward questions.
Four years ago, this Senator saw a video I had made on YouTube and contacted me. Ironically, we met when I was in the hospital (A long story). I knew who he was, just like the rest of the world at the time, but really was not a fan. Which is probably why I’m still slightly ashamed to call him my friend today (people kinda suck…and they’d call me names if they now knew how much I loved and respected this person).
Hearing his voice on the phone, all I felt at this moment was admiration and appreciation for what he has done for me in my life.
“So…” he said, “In front of me I have some letters a few of your students wrote about you and your class…it looks like you are really making a difference over there.”
Someone must have given him the letters the students had written.
I assumed it was Principal Sam as she was the only person in direct contact with him; as far as I knew. I responded, “Thank you sir, I’m trying…it’s been a crazy year.”
Soon as I said this, I felt kind of dumb. Yesterday, 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 felt selfish.
“No kidding…I’m sorry I have not been in touch with you. With the election, and this virus, I fear I’m feeling my age…” Pausing before continuing he started to tell me why he’d really called, “Listen, I’ve heard the program didn’t get added funding. I’m calling to make sure that you don’t give up. You have something special there Jose… Are you almost done your 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…so I simply had stopped working on it all together.
Not wanting to admit to all of this, I said, “I’m working on it…not really sure when I’ll be done though.”
“Listen…I think the world needs it. I really do. I want to read something to you….
‘They will use what is happening today to improve future life on this planet. Because of this, I suggest 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 the 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: It will be fun….and…it will save the world.’
“Do you remember writing this?” he asked me.
Throwing up in my mouth slightly, but maintaining my poker face, I responded, “Honestly…not really.”
I was being truthful-not modest. Writing this got me in a lot of trouble. I had blocked a lot of away. Hearing it simply embarrassed me.
“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 you to by being a teacher. Perhaps the lack of funding for your program is a sign that you should be doing something different to get your message out there…. Have you considered politics?”
We talked for a while after that.
He had called to simply check on me. Unfortunately, he had no magic solution to the problem of funding. Just like the rest of the world…everything was on hold until this storm blew over. I was not anyone special.
Bernie was a dreamer, asking me if I’d ever considered politics validated this fact. But I respected him, so any word that escaped his mouth I took time to consider. How would a life in politics fit in my life? What would I be?? How would it even begin???
Laying back in bed with my boys I considered these questions as the movie played in the background. 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 feet, he told this young mind to, “Look for a new angle!”
That is when my mind woke up.
I had it!
I knew how to end my story!
Lying there, I wondered…would it work?
Week 18- (1.8.21) – “P.A.I.N. through Fear”
This 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. Trying to identify those I recognized was difficult at first. So many faces I had never seen before looked back at me. As I looked more closely, I saw family and friends of mine were scattered everywhere.
Slowly my attention was brought to the people sitting in front; only a small distance separated us. It was then that I realized everyone who had helped me get to this point in my journey were there to support me.
I had to smile to myself as each and every person I saw had our trademark red hat on.
For what seemed like an eternity the music that made this a reality played for all to hear; they chose a Macklemore song…interesting choice, I thought. As it played, the crowd dance; with the host right alongside them. I on the other hand could not move; I was glued to my comfy seat on stage.
The ironic thing about all of this was I was not anyone special. If anything, you could call me a modern-day pirate. 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 do it. I was simply 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. The environment that this show created was electric. Never did I dream that I would experience it like this.
Our eyes met, and we both smiled. 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,” waving her hand like she was dismissing the question she added, “We won’t make you take valuable time discussing it any more than it has already….can we talk about this YouTube video?”
Nervously, I shook my head in an attempt to say, “Please No” without having to actually use my words.
At that moment, an assistant appeared from backstage.
Wearing a black butler suit and bow-tie, this handsome man walked past Ellen and placed a large silver serving tray on the table before us. Using his crisp white gloves, he took the lid off of the tray to reveal a ham sandwich, “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, “Well then, let’s get right to it shall we….What is the secret???”
This question was a planned part of our interview. I sat hoping that I could deliver the show-stopper I had promised. My stomach jumped to my throat as I tried to remain calm.
Were they ready though?
In a moment I would be telling the audience to reach below their seats. There they would find my secret written on a small, smooth, white rock in black magic marker.
In order to give the moment a climactic feel, I did not say a word.
Stretching the moment out, I stayed silent and went to reach down to take a sip of water…in just a few seconds they would forever laugh at me….
As I leaned over, I realized that my hands would not do as I wanted.
I looked down to see what was going on. A ‘straight jacket’ was holding my limbs in place. I could not move.
When I looked up in horror, all the faces in the crowd started to laugh.
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. Looking up, frozen in fear, a single person was left in the crowd. From this distance all I could tell was that this person glowed orange; perhaps it was a clown?
Moving at super-human speed the character rushed me on stage. Recognizing who it was by his cotton-candy hair, I watched him smile as he lifted his right hand and pointed it at my head like he was holding a gun….calmly, he spoke, pulling the imaginary trigger in his hand he said, “You’re Fired.”
I QUICKLY WOKE UP FROM THIS NIGHTMARE OF MINE….
Sitting in my bed-soaked in sweat- 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-this sign from the universe warning me to stop-my curiosity trumped my fear I was going to have to find out….
The truth is, things rarely happen the way we imagine them happening in our minds (or in our dreams). Most of the time, how things unfold in real life is completely unpredictable. 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.
As I leave you this year, and prepare for what lies ahead, I need you to know that you have all helped me realize that I have been living in fear for far too long myself.
It is because of you that I now confidently prepare to take on the unknown. You are my super-heroes. The faces of the future. The blood in my veins….
“In the vacuum of time. All possessions are merely things. Ideas and dreams are the only investments you need consider.”
You have all made me a believer.
Thank you! – Mr. J
Week 18- Question for Reflection:
What are you scared of?
“Happy New Year … Happy New Year … Happy New Year … HAPPY-NEW-YEAR!!!” I spat repeatedly to each of 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 today, 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 this year seemed to be catching on.
Personally, I had other things on my mind when this meeting began. Last night both of my grandparents had been brought to the hospital by ambulance. My grandfather had been diagnosed with Covid, 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 now…so I did my best to focus….
“From The Ashes, A New Life Is Born,” something a friend once said to me, was the quote now stuck to my head. All of us came to this little in-prompt-to meeting with a quote we hoped would describe the year 2021. We all wrote the words on a sticky note and stuck them to our foreheads to wear. It was silly, yes, but we were all feeling comfortable enough to be silly together…which meant I was making progress. Reading all of their quotes, I could see that they had taken my instructions seriously. Every-single-one satisfied our objective: “Pick a quote that will feed the 400-Pound Mate in your head.” A reference I could now see clearly that they understood (it meant to pick something that would help keep them mentally tough).
“Yo, Mr. J.” started Pras, “we all wrote letters and gave them to Principal Sam about how important your ‘Emotional Intelligence’ class been to us. She told us she’d give them to the school board. Do you think maybe that might convince them to keep you on for the year?”
This was not news to me. The principal had sent me an image of the handwritten letters Lauryn had dropped off just two days ago. The principal was going to share them with the school board, but as she told me, “they don’t really have any say over funding.”
The principal and I decided that sharing them would not hurt though; we hoped that perhaps it might help us get the program back for the next school year.
I responded to Pras, “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. Principal Sam can’t officially approve our meetings…but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Do you get what I’m saying?”
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?”
Jumping in, Lauryn spoke, “I’m gonna stop swearing.”
“Get the f*** outta here!” I said to myself, but NOT out loud.
Knowing what was in the article that I would be sharing with them shortly, I would not be able to join Lauryn on this quest of hers quite yet. 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!”
Week 17- (1.1.21) – “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.”
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? Maybe I was 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, it beat the living shit out of me. Over time, it made me quit. Over time, I detached.
“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 hundreds 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, be quiet 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 you know, most of us have to go to work. We have to deal with bosses, other employees, and, of course, customers (maybe even students…sorry kiddos). 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. That is the world we live in today. Am I wrong?
And when we are not talking there is television…and radio…and apps…and podcasts…and…and…and…and…and…….
Being able to focus on our thoughts when the environment around us is so distracting 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.
I bring this up because I think at this point you deserve to know. This conclusion of mine goes against everything I am supposed to teach you at a Recovery School. But seeing as I will not be here much longer, I’m going out on a limb and hoping that you can handle the truth. So, let me explain…
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 sobriety. Saying this over and over, and believing it, helped me more than I could ever explain to you. But there was always a part of the word ‘Acceptance’ that bothered me.
What if everyone just ‘Accepted’ the world the way it is? What if we all just ‘Accepted’ that things would never get better? What if???
These questions haunted me. But I was told that acceptance was the answer, so I just shook my head in agreement.
I have since ‘Accepted’ that like everything in life, exceptions exist. Acceptance is not always the answer. Sorry.
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 boys. They are what give my life purpose today. But the world that waits for them in adulthood worries me sick.
How am I supposed to just accept the way things are? What if I could make a difference? What if making a difference brought me the peace I so desperately wanted? 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, Mr. Cardinal. This man had helped me so much, and I had come to respect him immensely. So, after listing all these questions of mine, I asked him, “Am I crazy to think I can change things?”
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 a severe case of the “Me’s” so don’t feel like I’m criticizing just you. Everywhere you look someone is playing the victim. 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 hated being called selfish, and basically that is what I felt like he was saying to me. The knowledge he shared did nothing to answer my question. So, I pressed further, “But I have ideas that I think really could help people…does this make me crazy?”
He laughed, (pissing me off just a little bit more) and pointed behind me. Turning around, a picture he had referenced many times in the past hung on the wall. It was a picture with a quote that read, “Acting on principles costs money.” Mr. Cardinal had referenced this picture many times in the past. “Comedians are geniuses,” he would say-George Carlin was his favorite.
Struggling through the stages of grief when my wife left me, Mr. Cardinal once told me, “your actions went against your morals.” He used this to try and explain why I struggled so mightily with feelings of guilt in the past. I was an absolute mess in those days. A broken man shattered in a million pieces. So many things he taught me back then now made sense upon reflection…
By pointing at this poster, he was kindly reminding me of the fact that addicts often struggled with delusional thinking. Realizing this, I knew what he was trying to say: “You are- a little- crazy.”
On that day I stormed 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 all something I needed to hear…as it broke something inside of me that needed breaking (this happens a lot if you learn to look for it).
“He did not know!” I later announced to myself thinking about our 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!!!
Week 17-Question for Reflection:
Can you make a difference?
It was Christmas day.
I looked out the window to see a flock of pelicans scattered across the snow-covered front yard. Pras, Nell, and my twins had taken the collection of plastic pelicans from the garage and were now sticking every single one of them in the ground around the house. Over the summer my family had used these sixty pelicans to celebrate my parent’s birthday-now, however, they found themselves taking a stroll in a winter wonderland.
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.
Lauryn was now helping my son spell his full name with the 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, and we both laughed at something that my son could not have understood.
Looking back at the kitchen counter, the mess I would have to clean up 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 had taught my boys about, 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 on the concrete, “for the deceased,” we said together. While we did not tell my kids who we had done this for, 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.
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.
Today, the serious business of growing-up was put on hold…and I could not have been more grateful. We had all been through a lot, so I was making sure to cherish the memories that were being made right in front of me. The only worry I had right now was how much popcorn to make, as we were all about to watch the new movie just released on DisneyPlus, ‘Soul’; It seemed like a fitting choice…
Week 16- (12.25.20) – “P.A.I.N. through Regret”
Make no mistake about it, my life is no love story. The truth is that I am not yet forty and I have already been divorced twice. The first was my choice, the second was not. Both of them 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. A sad way to think, I know.
This probably sounds strange coming from the person that has told you how important love is in recovery. If you forgot, maybe now is a good time to go back and re-read some of our weekly articles/stories/lessons?
You will want to catch up, seeing that we now only have a few weeks together to finish this transformation of ours (sigh/sad face).
With so little time left, 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?? Who knows???
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. 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 hard-earned money was gone. The company 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 investment/gamble of mine is just one of many things that I regret in my life-and is something you all will someday be able to relate to as you make your own mistakes with money down the road…
I’m going to stop there, however. As trying to create a list of all of my regrets in life would be pointless (not to mention depressing). Because, honestly, who cares?
Instead, I want to use our time together to have a necessary philosophical discussion with you if I could…
As we approach the end of this course, 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-in my heart- I was a good person. Things I have done have forced me to question this many times however.
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. 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 defined by 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. That is the process. We are all simply watching it play out right now on a global scale.
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; 1) Ask Questions, 2) Be Patient, and 3) Have Faith. Who knows, the miracle this world needs may be tip toeing behind us as we speak. Don’t give up before we found 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?
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 few weeks ago I stopped working to take my youngest son out for an ice-cream. It was a rainy, 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. Her son was with her in line and we all talked while trying to stay warm (my own son had stayed in the car because he refused to put on his mask). She was pretty- yes- 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 (just like me).
In the process of listening to her, I could not help but look down and notice that she did not wear a wedding ring. I started to wonder…what if….
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 could not think of what to say.
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 Facebook? Did she say anything about where she lived?? Would I ever see her again???
Perhaps it was the fear of losing her that helped me realize who she reminded me of…
It was all I needed to convince myself that this was the girl for me. She looked just like my celebrity crush, and I would use that fact to ask for her number. “This is going to work!” I thought as I turned my car around to go back and tell her.
Her and her son had gotten into a black-KIA-SUV. Pulling up beside it, through the falling 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. Sadley, 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.
As we head into a new year, my hope for those of you that no longer believe in miracles is that something unexpected happens in your life in 2021. Something that makes you wonder, “What If?”
It is a great feeling that I hope to be able to one-day share with you.
Week 16- Question for Reflection:
Do you believe in miracles?
Sitting in the principal’s office for the third time, my anxiety was kicking in as I waited for our meeting to begin. The clock on the computer flashed 7:13 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….
“I owe you an apology.”
Removing her mask; in what I perceived as sign of softening, the principal sat down and continued, “I’m a tiny, frosty-haired, old lesbian…perhaps that makes me a little rough around the edges….regardless…I haven’t been really nice to you while you have been here. I say this not to make excuses, rather to simply state the facts.”
I smiled, taking off my own mask 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 inspired the other day to go and read that manifesto of yours…you know-that thing that got you this grant in the first place. A lot of what you said about technology, and education failing to keep up, makes a lot of sense.”
Despite feeling nauseous at the reference of this writing of mine, the compliment warranted a response, “Thank you,” I said, “Honestly though, I can’t even remember everything I wrote back then…I’m a little embarrassed that you were able to find it.”
“That’s the internet for you Mr. J, you should know that better than anyone, am I right?” She laughed.
Moving on, Principal Sam continued, “I was there the other day when you suggested to Mr. Henry that advanced mathematics should be an elective in schools….”
Remembering the conversation, a feeling of embarrassment resurfaced.
“As you could tell by his heated response-I don’t really know if the world is ready for all of your ideas quite yet,” she concluded.
That altercation with Mr. Henry had helped me recognize why I did not like the man-he took himself too seriously; “I’m right and your wrong….I’m big and you’re small-and there is nothing you can do about it!” All my life people like him had made me feel stupid so they could feel smart and I had finally learned to avoid letting people do that to me whenever possible.
Not telling the principle any of this internal monologue of mine, but responding nonetheless I said, “You’re right, I beat myself up for saying that…I’m usually really good at editing what I say…something I’ve had a lot of practice with.”
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, but getting these kids to graduate has been my number one priority since I began working here. It is what I was trained for, and what I need to accomplish in order feel successful.” As if she was thinking about something she added, “Perhaps 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 smiling again.
I appreciated her confiding in me at that moment, and had 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 saw I had completed my reading.
My heart sank. I knew that the chances were slim that my program would see additional funding- the year had just been too chaotic. Add to that, the fact that I had not heard from Mr. Bernard in a long time had me planning for the worst for a while now. Still, I had held out some hope for a miracle. One that I now understood would not materialize.
Week 15- (12.18.20) – “The 3 Young Men”
Earlier in the year I brought you into the future with one of these weekly articles and got myself in a little trouble. Let’s try it again and hope for a little better outcome.
In a galaxy far-far away three young men; The Joker, The Believer, and The Thinker, laid in front of their screens preparing to watch their favorite show: “The New News”
“Hello everyone, today’s date is December 17th, 2028. Thank you for joining us on this Sunday evening…we promise you won’t regret it. 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 reports you are about to hear are only one network’s analyses of the situation at hand. Please understand that all news is biased and that what you hear is influenced by certain individuals’ agendas. With that being said, there are many things that you will want to investigate individually…as always, we encourage this. We are here to mold your mind…and to sell you shit. With these truths out of the way, today’s Sunday Roast is brought to you by ‘O’Hare Air’ and ‘The Extender,’ reminding you to become the man you never were…”
The Joker giggled louder than the other two boys as a cartoon commercial for ‘The Extender’ played on their screens. What they watched would be better described as a short skit rather than a commercial. It lasted about seven minutes. Too long for a commercial, but just long enough for a show. Studies had been done concluding that the attention span of individual’s was decreasing drastically. For a long time, people understood this to be a negative consequence of technology. However, recent cognitive brain analysis 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 day’s skit came to a hilarious conclusion. Fading to black…the words “The Sunday Roast” materialized from the darkness on screen.
This segment of the show sent an individual named Brett Fever across the globe to different countries to report on what was happening in the world. It was not intended to be ‘news’ like ‘current events’, but more of a report on what was occurring psychologically to individuals in far off lands.
The words on the screen were replaced by a clip from an old classic movie called ‘Armageddon’. 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 another classic scene from the 1953 film “The War of the Worlds.” It looked ancient to the eyes watching it, yet the fear expressed on the faces of the actors was understandable to the young minds in attendance. The Believer watching always feared 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- taking the viewer through all of Hollywood’s attempts to make money by entertaining our minds with the belief that a catastrophic end to the world was imminent.
Brett Fever now appeared on screen with a man in a yellow robe, “Sir, could you please tell us what the word Apocalypse means to you?”
Speaking a foreign language and assisted by captions across the bottom of the screen, this man described a “Period of awakening for all humanity across the globe.”
What he described was awe-inspiring and heartwarming. Though most eyes that were watching had always understood this word to mean something different, they-for a moment-wondered if perhaps they could have been mistaken. As this segment came to a close, The Believer smiled, wondering to himself, “What If….”
After a brief pause, the viewer was brought back from this far off land and into the living room of Evelyne and Brodie. This was the shows final segment and was called, “Mind-Molders.” During which the two hosts discussed how entertainment was shaping society. Today they would be discussing Netflix’s most successful series ever created. This was The Thinker’s favorite part of the show. He leaned in interestedly to watch…
“Shia Labeouf…I don’t think we can give this actor enough credit. What would this show be without him?” asked Evelyne, 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 in agreement, Evelyne spoke into the camera, “Regardless of what you think about this main character, the fact is this show has become the most watched show on television…EVER. In today’s world, with such a wide offering of entertainment, this reality makes the achievement even more impressive- if not unbelievable. In our segment today we will be discussing how this sitcom is shaping our society right now.”
The two hosts covered the evolution of the show over the past few years. Brodie enlightened the viewers with the story of where the idea for the show came from, and why it was immediately a hit. Evelyne provided a brief introduction to all of the shows characters and explained why they were so relatable. The formula for the show was easy to explain; the mix of drama, humor, and education made it captivating to a very wide audience. But, as these two hosts would explain, it was the “hope” it sprinkled the viewer with that made it a truly transformative piece of entertainment.
“You know the show…but today we are going to tell you the story of how Shia Labeouf became The Teacher….”
Watching how this transformation happened in the real world, The Thinker dreamt of what he could accomplish.
“Could I really change the world?” he thought to himself; as he was being shown how one person actually had done it.
It was not just him that was presenting himself with this ridiculous question. The Joker, The Believer, and The Thinker were joined by every person that was watching this show to wonder….What If….
Week 15- Question for Reflection:
Can a person change the world?
Standing in front of her picture, my heart hurt. She was no longer wearing a hood-or a mask-which allowed the smile looking back at me from the flat, lifeless surface 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 the moment. 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 Sunday afternoon and smoked some weed. 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 afternoon.
Both of them were found by Lauryn’s mother, unconscious. 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 has been dealing with is unbearable to think about.
My mind swelled with all that I now reflected on. Looking at all the students, staff, and family now gathered around me at the memorial, it all felt unreal…
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 wilted in the back seat. Prior to this day, I had not seen Lauryn cry, but now, in front of me, she melted away. Unable to control myself, I hugged her; at the same time, Nel and I locked eyes. In solidarity for the girl we both loved, we fought our own tears so that we could 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 her f***ing birthday,” she cried, shaking against my body. A fact I had known, yet one that provided a fresh circumcision of pain.
Walking to my own car (purposely parked in the far end of the lot), I felt like an exhausted jogger approaching the finish line of a marathon. 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 Hate”
“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…”
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 B.S. 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 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 my first trip to a detox. Billy on the other hand had some previous experience. His battles 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 exactly 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 at their lowest-you often see them as they want to be…as they were as children. They are delicate. They are sensitive. They are open-minded and full of questions. Most of the time they are optimistic…unlike you at this moment,” he smirked.
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. (“Optimism was for A-holes,” was my mantra in those days.)
His 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 Facebook and you will see how they ‘act’ in front of the world. I promise you, there is 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 f’n 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 gave me his own advice rather than quoting someone else’s, “Everyone is recovering from something. 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, 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.”
As we conclude a difficult week for all of us…I want you to remember these words that were once shared with me. Billy referred to his book as the “Mother of All Books,” and though I am personally unable to understand or believe all that it contains, I could not agree with these words more.
I love you all- Sincerely, Mr. J
Week 14- 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?