Email Titled: One Last Email
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“There is only one war that matters, The Great War. And it is here.”
—Jon Snow in Game of Thrones.
Email Titled: One Last Email
(Please follow our Facebook page for news on when this will be available to read)
“There is only one war that matters, The Great War. And it is here.”
—Jon Snow in Game of Thrones.
dIverge: (1) separate from another route, especially a main one, and go in a different direction. (2) create a future brighter than this reality. (3) break the frozen hearts.
The date is Friday April 15th, 2050 (The Dream?):
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The Teacher’s Playlist:
“There’s a storm coming the weatherman couldn’t predict.”
Cinderella Man by Eminem
The date is Saturday January 23rd, 2021:
I am driving when Nel speaks from the back seat of the van. “This food is amazing J-Man,” he says giggling to himself, “It’s doing a little dance right down my throat.”
In my rear-view mirror I see Nel smile at me with a mouth full of food; he seems to be a in a very silly mood today. Despite some of our differences, seeing this side of him reminds me of how alike him and I really are.
We are in my hometown of Leominster, Massachusetts (Pronounced Lemonster). I had promised to buy my students lunch on this day and am making good on my word.
Originally, we had planned to go to Lance’s American Grille, but when we got there, I was shocked to see it had closed. Another small business that did not survive this pandemic…
This pandemic continues to stir rage in people everywhere. It is not bringing us together, instead it is just another thing tearing us apart. Fights on airplanes have become a regular thing as of late. All of it videotaped on phones and shown to us on the news and on social media. Fights in classrooms, same thing. It’s scary, disheartening, and annoying all at the same time. If this was truly the end of the world, it sure is dragging its feet—in the movies it would have been over by now one way or another.
Finding Lance’s closed, I took my students to Paisanos just down the road. From what Nel just said, their food did not disappoint. They are all eating while I drive.
It is a very cold day, but here in the van we are all warm and the weather outside is not discouraging any of us from enjoying this time together. I have also given them all a small parting gift. A friend of mine recently began his own business making custom decals. He made a small one for us that reads: The J-Squad. What my students do with this gift, I have no clue, but it looks cool and they thought it was awesome.
Finding what Nel just called me funny, I look in the mirror again and ask him for an explanation. “No one has ever called me J-Man before Nel, is that my super-hero name now?” I say sarcastically.
From the passenger seat beside me Lauryn speaks for Nel. “It’s your nickname,” she says. “We’ve been using it for a while. You started as our teacher, then you became our friend, now we think of you as family. So, you’ve earned it…Shut up and just say thank you alright?”
Understanding that this is Lauryn’s way of being sweet, I oblige. “Thank you,” I say, grabbing my drink and holding it up to her for a toast.
Lauryn lifts her drink to mine, “You’re welcome,” she smiles, clapping her drink against mine.
As I continue to drive, I reflect on my new nickname…The J-Man… I like it.…
“—Where the heck are we?” says Pras from the back.
He is clearly confused as driving through a residential suburb probably seems strange to him. “We are here,” I reply, pulling into the driveway of a large brown-brick house sitting upon a hill; a mansion in my students’ eyes.
Amazed, Nel wonders aloud, “Who’s house is this?”
Not wanting them to get excited I answer. “My friend lives here. We are not going inside though. We are going to have our last class together right here in this van.”
Parking the van, I tell them one of the reasons I chose this location.
“I brought you here because in historical literature many important lessons are taught on top of mountains. Do you know why that is?” I say to them; marking the beginning of this unorthodox last class of ours. No one offers an answer to my question, so, I continue. “The mountain is symbolical. It means that great feats in life take hard work and dedication.”
Unbuckling myself, I turn to look in the back seat. “I actually brought you here to tell you a few secrets—” I say excitedly, “Are you ready for the first one?”
My students smile and nod their heads. And I waste no time making my grand declaration to them.
“Alright then, here it is…” I begin, then pause for a slow second. “The adults in your life have no clue what the hell they are doing.”
I look at Pras as I say this and see his face light up. “That’s why we love you Mr. J,” he announces loudly, “You get it!”
Pras leans forward in his seat to offer me a fist bump. I give Pras his bump and everyone in the van jumps in on a brief celebration; chatter amongst my students fills the van.
I watch and laugh to myself. Adults have always hated hearing this line and kids have always loved it. Like thousands of teachers before me, I use it to create a bond between my students and I… right before telling them the truth.
“Alright—”I say loudly; interrupting their celebration of superiority. “Deflate those egos kiddos…Because none of you know what the hell you’re doing either…”
The noise in the van fades to silence and I give them an explanation for what I’ve just said.
“Social media and all forms of entertainment is tearing everyone apart. Someday your children’s children will look at our mistakes and learn how to use these tools more productively…They are the ones who will put this world back together for us.”
Their eyes study me. “I know that’s a bit heavy,” I say to their silence. “So let me change gears by asking you this—” I turn my head to look at Lauryn beside me. “What do you think I consider to be my number one priority as a father to be?”
Lauryn is quick with a response. “To make your kids smile,” she says confidently.
“No,” I reply, offering her a respectful nod, “but that’s a big priority also.” —Lauryn will one day learn how hard it is to make a kid smile all the time; but only life will teach her that— “I want to make it so my children aren’t scared of this world Lauryn….”
I am no father of the year, that’s for sure. Many people have helped raise my children and for them I am grateful. It’s helped me learn that children act like mirrors, which means all adults play a role in their life. It’s why I appreciate anyone who plants seeds making them stronger, more understanding, and kinder human beings. That said, I’m rather certain of the role I’m to play in their lives going forward.
With my history, there are a million things for me to warn my boys about. I can tell them these things like a confident weatherman preparing them for some disastrous storm, and micro-manage each of their decisions to help them avoid making the many mistakes I’ve made myself. If they question me, I can justify each warning I offer them by muttering two simple words: It Happens. As a storyteller, I rely on these two words often, but I’m no weatherman, so I try not to act like one with my kids.
Lauryn looks at me and continues to listen.
“We are constantly preparing one another to survive in this scary world Lauryn—Just look around you—”
I look out the windows of the van and my students’ eyes follow. This was the real reason I brought them to this house…
The beautiful home towering above us has white cameras attached at each corner and a gorgeous black fence surrounds the property. This van probably looks a bit strange from those cameras; and I can’t help but wonder if we are being watched at this very second.
“We lock all our doors and video tape everything nowadays,” I say to my students who are now looking outside with me. “To protect ourselves we put up fences and walls everywhere and take endless precautions to feel safe.”
I hold up my phone and all eyes in the van return to me.
“With these phones in our hand 24/7 getting away with anything is nearly impossible today. Yet we live in a time of unmatched paranoia, and there is more fear in this world than ever before.” I take a purposeful breath and speak not only to my students, but to myself. “Something about all of it simply doesn’t add up to me…”
I look at my students to see if what I’m saying is resonating with them. Maybe it doesn’t now, but I still feel as if I needed to at least say it. I consider offering them examples as I think of all the warnings we give to our children. Every trauma we have heard about or lived through ourselves…or seen on a screen. Each and every crisis that has ever happened or could ever happen in the future. Validating everything we say to them with those two words—It Happens.
I am again reminded of the Four Entertaining Truths I shared with them just last week and wonder to myself if perhaps all this fear is a product of something else entirely. Not telling my students what I’m thinking, I continue to talk—giving them only teaspoons of the truth.
“Of course, there are good reasons for a lot of the advice and warnings we adults offer you,” I say. “But if I feed you my fears then my scars become yours and your dreams become like ours…dead.” Pausing, I clear my throat. “I just think my children need me to against the norm and help them see things differently, so that they are not swept up in this tsunami—”
I stop mid-sentence. I can feel myself talking too much and it registers just how quiet it’s gotten in this van. What I want to say is only my opinion, and if I say it, I am doing exactly what I don’t want to. Realizing this, I break the tension in the van with a smile.
“On a lighter note,” I say, “I’ve figured out how to make my story work…but there’s a catch…”
“—And the catch is?” Nel says impatiently after an awkward silence had set it.
I had choreographed this conversation in my head and wanted to play it up a little.
“One of you is going to have to die,” I say, looking directly at Nel.
There is a moment of stillness; something I had anticipated. I am about to explain myself when a hand shoots into the air and an eager voice breaks the silence.
“I’ll do it!” Candace says to the group, smiling that wonderful smile we had wrestled out of her throughout the last five months together. (She has beautiful teeth.) Candace volunteers. “Can it be me?”
I smile back at her.
“Of course it can,” I reply, “—Candace, you’re going to die. I promise you’ll be remembered.”
I didn’t expect my students to trust my crooked mind so eagerly and force myself to shut up. Putting my explanations away, I get to the point. “I have to work on putting the pieces of my story together,” I tell them, “But the ending is always the most important part and I’ve written the first draft so that I can share it with you today.”
I reach down between the two front seats to grab a folder containing the copies of the three-part finale I have written.
“Now listen,” I say; as I begin handing them the pieces of paper, “When we read this, keep in mind that it’s a work in progress and that our stories endings often change.”
Their eyes begin to focus on the pages in front of them. They are all looking at the picture and I see curiosity begin its tickle. I watch them and think about what we are about to read. The secret at the end is what has me most worried.
“When we are done reading this,” I add—preparing to give them one last disclaimer before we begin, “Regardless of what you think…you all need to promise to laugh at me…”
They all look up from the papers in their hands to see me with a stupid looking smirk on my face. I know what I’m talking about, but they have no clue—yet.
They’ve all seen me do some interesting things to keep them entertained throughout the year, I watch their eyes widen with anticipation before speaking seriously. “Swear it?” I say to them.
Once they have all sworn to laugh at me, we get ourselves comfortable, and I begin to read…
I had a dream.
Actually, it was more like a vision; or maybe you’d call it a premonition. Who knows what it was exactly, but I’ve been told that I intellectualize too much, so let’s just start by calling it a dream.
In this dream we had discovered something that was more valuable than all the money in the world. More powerful than any government that ever existed. More inspirational than any story ever told.
You know what—I know what to call it now… it was an IDEA.
Was it delusional? Perhaps. But really, who cares. An idea is nothing more than a dream by a different name, and dreams do not have to live within the confines of our reality. This reality sucks anyway… Am I Right?
“Ideas are the starting point of everything else in history.” —From the book Out of Our Minds by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Ideas are symbolical…They are everlasting… Ideas can transform reality…
Excited by this idea of mine, I tried to explain it to my friend Billy Preston the best I could. Billy was that friend of mine from the detox facility. The friend that told me that everyone is recovering from something and to hate nothing in life.
Showing Billy this hand drawn ‘Octagon of P.A.I.N.’ I explained to him how I would use this image to bring us together in this future world I imagined…
“We all care Billy,” I said to him. “But we are in such a battle with these emotions that we end up fighting—with ourselves—with other people—with life. Our hearts turn cold Billy. The fight to stay positive is just too much.”
Billy listened to me ramble on as I tried to explain everything to him. He was a great listener and I loved him for it.
“…I’m gonna write a book Billy. About everything I’ve learned and how we can fix things using all the resources at our disposal today.”
At the time Billy did not call me crazy, but I knew what he was thinking when he used one word when I was done explaining this idea of mine: Patience.
Billy was right when he warned me to be patient. Ideas sometimes take a long time to get out of heads and into the world. This was something I’d have to learn the hard way. But I did not give up. And now we have finally made it to that ever-extending finish line; or starting line depending on your perspective.
Everything in life is a lesson and my failures getting to this point are proof. Failing helped me realize that people are unlikely to push you forward until you have momentum, and that people you know are often less likely to listen to you than a stranger. This is not applicable to all things, but if you ever find yourself reaching for the stars, attempting the improbable, or dreaming for the impossible, then you are destined to discover that most people you know will not be capable of supporting your endeavor.
Whether this is out of fear for your well-being, embarrassment over your behavior, jealousy over your ambitions, or simply because they dislike you, is unimportant. It might even be that you are simply not yet ready for them to support you; though this can be a tough pill to swallow…trust me. In times of doubt and frustration just remember this: The reason why many we call successful in this world are often not the nicest people is because being an asshole is either a pre-requisite to achieving greatness or simply an inevitable bi product of getting there. If you do ever make it, someone is going call you an asshole. You might as well accept it (asshole).
Today I have done exactly that. But unfortunately, Billy is not here with me as I move forward. He died on August 8th, 2016. Less than three months after he left me that card in my mailbox when that fire happened. He was thirty-seven years old when the disease of addiction stole him from us.
Billy played his role in this world and he will not be forgotten. I dedicate the rest of this story to him and all the other people we’ve all lost on this journey towards recovery. I love you Billy (aka: The Kid).
The Teacher’s Playlist (Bonus Track):
“Let’s have a blast…”
—And We Danced by Macklemore
“What goes inside the Octagon?”
Before he passed away, Billy and I spent a lot of time discussing things. When I first showed him a sketch of the ‘Octagon of P.A.I.N.’ this is one of the questions he had asked me.
It did not hit me right away, but later I came to realize that whatever we put inside the octagon would become the foundation to what we would one day build.
In reality we were just two kids trying to stay motivated in sobriety those days. Most of the time we would just have fun talking about what we could do in life once I figured out how to make the whole thing work; kind of like people talk about all the things they’d do if they won the lottery.
“Billy, we have a message to share, and we are the right people to deliver it. Once we figure out how to tell people this story, they are going to listen to us. They are going to want to believe us. Yes, I know it’s a little crazy perhaps—but it’s gonna work!”
Most of the enthusiasm came from me at first, but Billy did eventually get infected with the virus, as my hope spread to him over time. I remember realizing this the day he suggested that the word we used for the Octagon could one day spark a “revolution”. At which time I was forced to put my teacher’s hat on in order to talk some sense into him.
“A revolution is run on the premise that breaking a system will fix our problems Billy. This will never work. The only option is to evolve our current system into something better. Something for everyone. It will take time Billy, but it’s going to be fun creating it together.”
He may have thought that this was just a bunch of bs at the time, but he did a fantastic job pretending to listen to me: “You cannot save the world by destroying it, Billy. You must give it hope and let it heal.”
These were not all simply ideas that I had come up with on my own. I was merely channeling all the things I had seen and read over the years. It was all now making sense to me. Everything I saw, everything I did, everything that happened, all of it seemed to have happened for a reason.
Around this time, I had begun studying the work of Yuval Noah Harari. He had written a book called Sapiens where I read something that would help me remember the most important element to this mission: “The most valuable economic resource at our disposal is trust in the future.”
I spent a lot of time debating how to use my ideas to build something that would help create this trust and decided it all had to start with the word we would put inside the Octagon. In an attempt to figure out the perfect word to use, I asked myself what would be important in this future of ours… Love? …. Compassion? … Empathy? … Forgiveness? … Altruism? …
There were endless possibilities to be considered. Too many to try and remember now.
I owe it to my friend Billy to tell you how important religion was to him. Because of this, Billy fought very hard to have the word JESUS put inside the Octagon. Once he lost that battle, he ended up fighting hard on behalf of using the word Faith; as this was the only word I would even consider at the time.
“What is this whole thing meant to do Jose?” he said to me.
“Wake people up Billy…give them hope.”
“That’s what faith does Jose!” he said. “You have a scientific mind and you’re too worried about how things will look. Concerned about everyone that will weigh in on things that they don’t understand. You’re trying to get people to have faith in the future…don’t you see that?”
I spoke confidently to him back then. Like I actually knew what the hell I was talking about.
“People will hear faith and think religion Billy, and I fear religion is putting too many people to sleep and making too many others angry. People feel disconnected with religion today Billy—”
“—Those people don’t know!” he hit back at this attack from me.
“Faith and religion are just too interchangeable, I think. It just doesn’t fit. People are sick of reading about good things. They need to see them happen. We need to throw it in their face. I don’t think telling them to have faith is enough Billy.”
At this point in my life I did not yet understand this word “Faith”. The word confused and scared me. Sometimes it even made me angry (though I never told Billy this).
At the time Billy was never going to convince me to use any word that would potentially create a divide between the people in this world I wanted to help. I’d often repeat myself to him. “Our mission is to unite anyone and everyone in creating a future brighter than this reality. We must find a word that fits.”
To Billy there was only one book that a person needed in their life: The Bible. Writing a book of my own went against this philosophy of his. I appreciated the internal struggle he had regarding this and never dismissed it. Instead, we worked through it; like good friends do when faith and friendship war against one-another. I am certain that if he were alive today, we would probably be arguing over politics too.
Billy helped me figure out many things. In the end, he was the person that helped me realize that disagreement is as dependable as the funny bone.
Though we discussed many things, faith and religion was always a constant regarding this Octagon of mine. This great stubborn friend never gave up on it, and I often wondered if I was simply adding fuel to his fire by being so against it. Back then I found myself constantly trying to convince him to see the bigger picture: “We must use a word that everyone can relate to. A new word. With new meaning. One that will unite people by representing a common desire in us all. A word for the future.”
“That’s faith Jose!” he repeated to me over and over. But I was a student deaf to his message at the time—and we all know how those types of students can be (winky face).
“Do not think of what we are doing as replacing religion, Billy. Instead consider what we are doing as adding to the wonder that makes it so important to its believers without deterring non-believers. We need to have some shared sense of reality to bring people together. Faith and religion cannot do this alone.”
Most of these discussions of ours would occur in my minivan. We would drive around playing with ideas and talk about a better world. While Billy could never have understood my vision completely, he very much appreciated the optimism it had awoken inside me.
Looking back on our time together, I often struggle with how much of what I said back then he actually believed. Of course, I can’t ask him now, but today I wish I could simply thank Billy for listening to me back then. That was all I ever needed in those days.
On those drives, Billy and I would always have the music on. I had told him the role music would have in this mission, so we were constantly working on putting together our soundtrack. It was on one of those drives together that it hit me…. I had it.
“Billy… I know the word we should use!”
A song titled Ooh Ahh by Grits was playing. I remember that clearly. Turning the music off completely I looked to my friend, and in that moment—in the silence of that van—I first spoke the word that would change EVERYTHING…
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“I came to win.”
—Fly (featuring Rihanna) with Nicki Minaj
It is Friday January 22nd, 2021. Week twenty has arrived and I am at school for my last day. Students will be coming into school for in-person-learning next week so the building is filled with other teachers preparing to welcome them back into the classroom. With nothing to prepare for myself I am alone with Lily in her office:
Putting the papers down, Lily speaks with tears in her eyes. “That’s amazing Jose. I didn’t know she had this in her.”
Lily was reading something Lauryn had written for my class. My students had watched a movie titled Finding Neverland and as their final assignment were required to write an essay or a short story that referenced this movie in two different and unique ways; Lauryn titled hers Through Those Eyes.
“I know,” I say to Lily, “It’s amazing right It? It brought tears to my eyes too.”
A knock on the office door interrupts us. Principal Sam leans her head in and tells the two of us to come meet in the break room. I watch Lily throw a tissue in the trash and walk out the door.
I stand up and follow Lily. Walking down the hall behind her I can’t help but admire how truly beautiful she is. And I also can’t help but notice that smell of hers…kinda cinnamony. Since I was a kid the smell of cinnamon has been my favorite, and smelling it now makes me again think that Miss Lily was brought into my life for a reason.
As Lily turns into the breakroom a loud song begins in chorus. “For she’s a jolly good fellow… For she’s a jolly good fellow… For she’s a jolly good fellow … WHICH NOBODAY CAN DENY!”
A few of the students have come to surprise Miss Lily on this day. All of the staff knew about this, yet it is now clear Lily had no clue herself. I watch her cry happy tears for the second time in under two minutes.
Balloons surround a dressed-up table holding a few cards and a fancy looking cake. On the cake is written “Congratulations Lilia!”
Standing next to Lily, I lean in close to her and say, “They could have at least spelled your name right.”
Turning to look at me, she pushes me in the shoulder, then hugs me. “That’s my legal name you idiot,” she whispers in my ear.
Miss Lily has gotten engaged. That boyfriend of hers finally proposed after a short little break in their relationship earlier in the year. She has gotten the ring she had been so eager to get, and I am very happy for her.
The breakup between the two of them had happened over some pornography Lily found on her boyfriend’s phone. “The shit he was watching looked so mean to me,” she cried telling me the story that day; looking heartbroken. Lily then did some research and I watched her casually incorporate what she learned in a class with our students; “What might excite some visually is not often the same as what excites most in reality—and what we think we want and what we really want can be two different things,” she said to them. Lily said that during a lesson we titled, The Grass is Always Greener.
She is amazingly gifted and will be having small meetings with my students to continue my class when I’m gone. Her fiancé and her obviously worked through their issues and things seem to be going really well for them today.
“You had your chance…” Mr. Henry says to me. I sit with him eating a piece of cake. “I still don’t get why you never went after that.”
I have come to realize that Mr. Henry is always thinking with his dick. I don’t say this to him but hearing him now makes it more obvious than ever.
When you’re young everything is about sex. Mr. Henry and I are close in age, but he hasn’t grown up much. Perhaps I would have ended up more like him if things would have gone different for me. He fancies my single life. But what he doesn’t understand is my single life isn’t what he imagines. While being single does have its benefits, he can only think of one.
Explaining to him all the reasons why Lily and I could not happen is pointless, so I try to think of something to say that will satisfy the requirement of idle conversation.
“Have you noticed Lily is always wears sunglasses?” I say to him.
“What the hell does that matter?” he replies.
“Sunglasses intimidate me.”
At these words, Mr. Henry lazily drops his fork to his plate, looks at me, and then shakes his head. “For a decent looking dude Jose, you’re a real pussy, you know that?”
I recall Uncle Marshall calling me this vulgar name earlier in the year.
“Yeah…” I say in response to his allegation, “I’ve been told.”
This zigzag journey through the ashes of my past is about to come to a close. While this will not be the last chapter in this story, it will be the last of these flashbacks. It’s been a bumpy ride…let’s hope it was worth it.
Back on that morning in May of 2016—when I saw the fire growing up the side of the house from out that kitchen window—I ran back into the basement where our bedroom was and told Sirena to grab our son and get outside. As Sirena does that, I frantically grab my laptop and a few notebooks off a small desk I have been working at. I then hurry out of the bulked exit and find the garden house. I turn on the water and try to stop the fire from spreading. The fire staring at me moves slowly. There is a chance I can put it out—there is a chance no one will find out about this…
A fireman eventually grabs me by my shoulders from behind and pulls me away for my own safety. A propane grille is very close to the flames that are growing in front of me. Once he has pulled me away, all I can do is watch.
The sound of shattering glass wakes up the panic inside me. I had just put those windows in a few months ago. Terror hits me like a wave crashing down. This is bad! — THIS IS REAL BAD!
The house I watch burn is full of stuff I have been working on to create that video of mine; the one that would entice people to read my story. Watching the fire, I am unsure whether to be upset or scared. Both! — DEFINETELY BOTH!
I had been letting my hair grow as I made a deal with myself not to cut it until I made my dream of becoming a writer real. With my hair in a ponytail; and a gruffy looking beard on my face, I smell the smoke from the fire and know that very soon everyone will discover what I’ve been up to in that house.
Sirena holds our son and watches the fire from a few feet away with some neighbors. We exchange a look and it immediately registers how cold it is outside. I step towards her and a song by Cold Play begins to play in my head: The Scientist. When things were good Sirena and I loved listening to music together, approaching her, a lyric from that song repeats: “Nobody said it was easy.”
Standing beside her, I recall the question she asked me once: “What if your story doesn’t work Jose?” This was a question I never let myself consider then. I put my arm around her and consider it now.
Sirena wears only a purple tank top and my warm hand feels the cold on her shoulder. Squeezing her, I look at the side of her face and see that she lost in her own concerns. I want to say I’m sorry to her—I want to say I’ll fix this. I want her to look at me and say everything will be okay… I want her to lie.
Her head turns and her eyes stare into mine. They are beautiful… and loving… and sad… and scary… all at the same time. Our entire life together is told in these eyes.
This girl I hold stood beside me in this fight day after day. When I decided to pursue this dream of writing she supported me, and I’m rather certain she even believed in me for a time. Looking into her eyes at this moment I’m absolutely certain she doesn’t believe in me anymore. I don’t blame her of course, but I also know that not believing in one another is never a good thing.
Sirena looks back towards the fire, but I continue to look at her. I lean my face into the side of her head and kiss it, taking in the smell of her hair. As I pull my lips away, I can’t help but question whether or not we will survive this. (We won’t.)
“Sometimes things have to fall apart to come together.”
Eighteen months after this moment with Sirena, my councilor John said this to me at the halfway house. (He was right.)
After the fire Sirena and I stayed at my parents with our son. No one went into the house those first few days after the fire, but I knew that once they did people would find all the work I had been doing for that video and I’d have some serious explaining to do.
My life was crashing all around me. Everything seemed to have converged in a single crisis and I felt as if a miracle was needed to survive it. Contemplating what to do next, I determined that I had one shot to make things right…I was going to make my video.
In desperation mode, I put on my headphones and let Eminem sing Beautiful Pain, Lose Yourself, Til I Collapse, and Phenomenal into my ears on loop as I diligently worked to put it together on my laptop. As I worked, a part of me wanted to believe the fire was allowed to happen so that this story of mine could get discovered. I wondered: Is there really some higher power working on my life I can’t understand?
Upon reflection, if there was some higher power working on my life at that time, I think it might have been telling me to stop.
On Saturday June 4th, 2016, one week after the fire, I downloaded this fifteen-minute video of mine onto YouTube and gave it a REMARKable title: JoJo Apocalypse. This was the day before Sirena’s birthday. If the video went viral, I was going to give her a new life as a present. I then shared this video on my social media accounts…in my mind: The Time Had Come!
(Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.)
Over four-hundred people watched my video the first day. Two of them were so inspired by it that they clicked the “dislike” button on the bottom of the screen. Not one person clicked the “like” button.
To this day I still don’t know who actually watched the video. It is another part of my life the people that love me have allowed me to forget. Unfortunately, those two dislikes still haunt me…I think I know who they may be, but the truth is I will never know for sure and everywhere I go now I imagine they might be looking at me.
My family saw the video of course and they wasted no time encouraging me to seek help. Embarrassed, I took their advice and voluntarily admitted myself to a psych hospital the very next day (Happy Birthday Sirena).
Within the first few hours of being at the hospital, I left; signing the A.M.A. paperwork (Against Medical Advice). The patients I sat with in the psych ward were arguing over politics. That’s when I left.
I then wandered aimlessly around the city streets in one last-ditch attempt to hide from my problems. A few hours later some friends found me and forced me into their car. After a lot of crying, I let them bring me back to the hospital. With all that had transpired I had absolutely no choice but to accept their analysis of my behavior.
The world that year went forward without me as I struggled to accept how crazy I truly was and fix that house of ours. I spent most of this time lost in a deep and dark depression. That is when I participated in the electronic shock therapy I told my students about. During all this I did my best to present a strong face, but I was beaten by life and had to constantly fight to endure another day.
Rock bottom for an addict—or anyone trying to navigate life—is not a moment in time or a single event. When we tell our stories, it might be easier to tell ourselves there was a single event, but more often than not rock bottom is a sequence of events and a duration of time.
On September 25th, 2017, more than a year after the fire and my second trip to a mental institution, I finally began my journey into true sobriety. To me, that means: No Drinks—No Drugs—No Choice: It is simply what I must do in order to truly live.
Writing this now, I am almost four years sober, and while I’m not yet the man I want to be… I’m working on it: Progress Not Perfection. Everyone’s recovery is different. But this is mine. Thanks for letting me share.
***End of Breaking Knews***
On the drive home from school after Lily’s mini celebration my phone rings. I press a button to answer it.
“Hello there my girl—What’s up?”
“Just wondering how the day went. Are you doing okay?”
“Yes, I’ll be fine. Tomorrow I’m taking the students out to lunch and letting read the end to my story, so I’m just thinking about that right now…” I smile into the phone. “You know they all refer to you as X2 now by the way?”
“Real nice asshole,” laughs Sirena.
I had told Sirena about the lesson from a week earlier. Teasing each other is part of the relationship we have nowadays.
“Oh—I love you,” I say, making sure she’s not really upset. “You know that.”
“I know you do…”
Sirena and I still talk regularly. There’s no question I knew who she was much better than I know who she is now, but people change, that’s just life.
Our lives were destined to crash into one another’s the day she moved down the street from me in sixth grade and we started riding our bikes together. Are we destined to be together forever? In a way, yes. But not like I thought at one time—I don’t think.
As a teacher, Sirena is honestly much better in the classroom than I am. I think it has something to do with her angry eyes. Or maybe it’s because she’s attractive and the kids think she’s cool. Or it could just be that she’s a really good teacher. Regardless, teaching was her calling and the world is filled with children that benefit from having her.
Motherhood, on the other hand, might not have been Sirena’s calling. But really, that’s okay. My son loves her, and she loves him. She would do anything for him. Even if that means stepping aside at times. Which is exactly what I do myself with my twins since they have a stable and happy environment with their mom and other dad: Loving a child takes many forms.
Whether or not Sirena is a “Good Person” is not for me to decide. My perception of her is skewed because she broke my heart. Today I simply choose to believe that my life’s story needed an antagonist and the role fit her well. That being said, if someone was to ask Sirena if she was a good person, she would confidently say she is a “fabulous person.” The same words the other antagonist in this story of ours would probably use, Donald Trump.
All I can say for certain about Sirena today is this: She is infatuated with mirrors. She is always looking at herself in them. Any chance she gets she’ll sneak a glimpse. The reason Sirena does this is another lesson for another day, but I bring it up because I imagine The Donald is the same, and it makes me wonder what those mirrors might say about these characters… (“Karmas not a bitch Jose, it’s a mirror—remember that.” Thanks Lily. I did.)
Sirena has helped me learn a lot of things about myself. The most important thing she’s helped me learn about myself, however, is this: I am merely a product of my own insecurities: so is she and so is he (and so are you).
For a very long time I have been ashamed of my life. Part of me blamed Sirena for this. It is easy to avoid telling people about my struggles with drugs and mental illness but being divorced twice is something one cannot hide from, especially with kids in the equation. Yet, I must remember the question I would often ask myself that has kept me alive this long: What would happen to them?
Thinking about my three boys, I asked myself this question multiple times over the years when I felt like giving up. For that I owe my life to their mothers who I will forever love for bringing them into this world. Yes…I do still love Sirena. I can’t help it—Love is more powerful than reason. And while I don’t ever envision a grand reunion for us, I also know that I cannot predict the future.
While it took some time to get here, I now know that this life is not the curse or punishment I once believed it was. Perhaps I messed up. Perhaps I made mistakes I wish I hadn’t. Perhaps my life would have been better if I had done this differently, or not have done that. Today, none of it matters because I now feel as if everything happened for a reason.
Of course, people will still judge me. To some I may be a twice divorced father of three boys, a drug addict, a dirtbag, a forever failing father—a mentally-ill-psychotic-asshole-loser who burnt down his house. But I am more fortunate than those people could ever imagine. I have my issues, yes, and I am not exactly normal, fine, but I am me, and if I can’t accept that then this life is going to be really painful.
As far as relationships go, no one has been knocking down my door lately—my mommy and daddy’s door to be more specific. Maybe that’s because girls just see me as a poor investment? But that’s okay too, because today I’m trying my best to stay focused, which means I’m trying very hard not to be like Mr. Henry; though that extra limb and tiny brain of mine does still distract more than I’d like—I am only human after all.
Maybe Lily was right though. Maybe there really is some girl out there looking for me…who knows. For now, however, I’ll keep myself focused on that dream girl of mine…the one just bit out of my reach at the moment…
“—But hey—If you ever do get published, you better not forget all I did for you,” Sirena says through the phone.
There are so many things wrong with the statement Sirena has just made but she just doesn’t see it the way I do, so arguing with her is a waste of time and not healthy for me mentally. Really, I don’t give a crap about money. All I want is an opportunity to do something meaningful with my life. If I ever do make it, I have no doubt I’ll end up taking care of her; and my twins’ mother as well. There is one gigantic worry I do have however: My Greatest Fear. I reference it now so that maybe she’ll remember down the road.
“Sirena…if that day ever does come, I promise to take care of you as long as you do what’s right for our son.”
My phone sits attached to a stand on my dashboard and I see her look at me through it. I see her want to say something, but she lets this statement of mine pass without addressing it and moves on.
“Jose, I know your excited about giving your story another shot but please be careful. You’ve come so far, and I just don’t want to see you lose everything again.” Those eyes of hers look at me caringly. “I’m very proud of you. You know that right?”
“Yes. I know. And yes. I’ll be careful.”
Even though I say the words, I know they are a lie. What I am about to attempt is dangerous, and I have some real concerns about it, but Sirena does not need to hear them: The Universe has made it so.
At this point in my journey I know what has to be done, and I know that YOU are worth the risk….
Week 20: Friday January 22nd, 2021
“P.A.I.N. through Fear”
For some, living in fear is comfortable. For some, being told “don’t be afraid” or “don’t worry” is annoying, frustrating, and condescending. Why do you think that is?
Last week I described a future where I had changed the world with the book I plan to write. While I painted a grandiose image for us to consider, the short story I’ve written for you today is intended to illustrate one undeniable fact of life: Things rarely happen the way we imagine.
With that in mind, try your best to stay in the present moment and touch this life as deeply as you possibly can. There is no greater advice I can offer you. And with that, let us get to this week’s story: P.A.I.N. Through Fear….
Sitting in my chair, the lights shining in my eyes are blinding and it takes a few seconds for them to adjust. When I can finally see clearly the sight before me is nothing short of a miracle.
What I am looking at cannot be real. After everything that happened, was I right to believe?
There is no way I can guess how many people are in the crowd I see in front of me. Slowly, my attention is brought to the people sitting in the first row; only a short distance separates us. It is then I realize that everyone from my school is here supporting me. My heart is full.
Music plays and the crowd stands together dancing with the host right in the middle of them. I, on the other hand, do not move from my seat as fear of this day has overcome me and I now feel paralyzed.
As the song ends, the crowd stays standing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people smiling at once.
The host makes her way towards me on stage. Sitting down across from me, she folds her legs beneath her and shimmies herself up against the back of her comfy armchair. I watch this woman take a deep breath and wiggle both of her arms to the side. She then reaches out and grabs a sip of water while the crowd and I wait for her to gather herself.
I have watched her on television, and I knew the environment she brought with her was electric, but never did I dream that I would experience it like this. The host and I lock eyes with one another. As we do, we both smile. The type of smile where both people are trying to stop themselves from bursting out in laughter…
This is really happening— Ellen DeGeneres is about to ask me a question on live television!
Once reality settles in, Ellen begins to talk.
“So, Jose, the question everyone wants to know the answer to…. Have you gotten the girl?”
Ellen offers her signature mischievous smile. I feel my face turn red but do not mutter a word. Instead I let Ellen continue.
“Of course—I’m joking…Everyone knows that story already.” She moves her hand in a way that might swipe the question out of the air. “What I’m really dying to know is what these secret meetings between you and Dwayne Johnson are all about. Would you mind filling us nosey peeps in on that?” She looks at me quizzically.
This is theatre.
The truth is, she knows what these meetings are about as she is very much part of the plan. She also knows that at this moment I cannot tell her in front of all these people. Acting nervous, I shake my head to say, “Please No!” without having to actually use my words.
On cue, a large man walks out from backstage wearing a black butler suit and bowtie. It is Shaquille O’Neal.
Shaq walks past Ellen without saying a word—between her and the audience—and then places a large silver serving tray on the table between us. Using a crisp white glove, he removes a lid on the tray revealing a ham sandwich sitting on a single white napkin.
“In case you get hungry…” Ellen giggles; looking back and forth between me and the audience with wide eyes.
Shaq puts a few white fingers over his mouth, gives a funny face, and then walks away without saying a word.
The crowd roars with laughter.
As the joke recedes, Ellen speaks again. “Well then, let’s get right to it shall we. You have come here today with the promise of telling us this the secret of yours…. So… What is it?”
Ellen leans back in her chair and eyes me. This question was a planned part of this interview as well. I sit hoping that I can deliver the showstopper-type secret I had promised.
My stomach jumps to my throat as I try to remain calm. Are they ready? I wonder.
I consider this question but realize that I have no choice and will find out soon enough.
In a second I will be telling the audience to reach below their seats. There they will find my secret written with a black-sharpie marker on a small, smooth, white rock. Attempting to give this a climactic feel, I do not say a word as I reach down to take a sip of water.
As I lean forward for my water, I realize my hands will not do as I want. I automatically look down to see what is going on. A white straitjacket is holding my limbs in place. I cannot move. Lifting my head to look up, everyone begins to laugh at me. This was always my greatest fear: that I would be a joke.
How could I be so dumb? … How did I let this happen again? … WHY DID I BELIEVE!?!
The room I’m in turns pitch black and becomes suddenly silent. The lights then snap back on and I see a single man left in the audience. Standing in a shadow, this man is wearing a crown on his head.
I watch the crowned man move towards me on stage and realize who it is. Standing in front of me, this large man grins down at me; his lips are glistening with sweat. The crowned man then slowly begins to pull his right arm out from behind his back. In his hand is a metallic looking gun. Despite the shock of seeing a gun, I can’t help but notice that this man’s hands are really big.
Calmly, the crowned man lifts the gun…aiming it directly between my eyes. With the barrel of this gun staring at me, he speaks, preparing to pull the trigger, “You’re Fired.”
Waking up from this nightmare, the bed I was sleeping in was soaked with sweat. Sitting up, fear again forced me to face the question that has haunted me ever since I came up with the idea: “Do I really believe I can do this?”
This dream with The Crowned Man had me feeling intimidated and I considered quitting before I even got started. That’s what intimidating people and fear do to a person: Drag you down in a public way so you destroy yourself in the dark.
Despite this dream—this warning—curiosity has trumped my fear and I have decided that I am going to have to find out if I can pull this off.
But before I do, let me share with you my FOUR ENTERTAINING TRUTHS:
One: What we learn as children stays with us forever.
Two: Children believe anything.
Three: We are all children.
And Four: Disagreement is as dependable as the funny bone.
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“Disagreement is as dependable as the funny bone.” Why do you think this is?
The Teachers Playlist:
“Gonna Find You…”
—Ready Or Not by the Fugees
Week nineteen has us on our computers again. Knowing that next week ends semester two, marking the end of my tenure at the school, there is one more lesson I want to share with my students before we run out of time. Lily is sitting in on this class, her face has its own cube on screen:
Yesterday I had given my students a short story at the end of class. I did not ask them to write anything, only to think about it overnight:
Thirteen-point-eight billion years ago, in a computer lab before time, two Engineers were in fierce competition with one another. One, named Alya, had a creation that far surpassed the others (though you’d call it more of a simulation than a creation). As the competition came to a close the other Engineer, named Lucifer, became overwhelmed with jealousy. Facing inevitable defeat, Lucifer snuck onto Alya’s computer and punched two buttons: X followed by the number 2. By pressing these keys in combination, ‘X2’, Lucifer added an element into Alya’s model of D-N-A. Undetectable to this Great Creator, Alya, the element added would infect the creation with something called DECEIT… forever sabotaging the experiment.
Throughout the year I have written articles and asked my students to answer a Question for Reflection. Besides wanting them to get in the practice of keeping a journal to chronical their personal development, one of the other purposes behind this was to increase their cognitive ability to interpret stories. Rather than simply watch and believe, I hoped to teach them to watch and decipher. In the outline for my curriculum I referred to this ability as an individual’s C.S.I. Score: Common Sense Intellect: One’s ability to separate truth from fiction when presented a piece of entertainment in the real world. As our time together is coming to an end, I was preparing to put my students’ ability to do this to the test.
“What are your thoughts on the story?” I say to the class.
Listening to them, I keep the conversation on track but barely speak. I watch as Lauryn gets offended by what Pras perceives this story to mean. As I have anticipated, religion has become a key discussion point. A topic not normally discussed at school but one I welcome on this day….
I made the decision to go forward with this controversial lesson the day I had pulled behind an SUV in a grocery store parking lot. This SUV had stickers on its back windshield. On the bottom left was a stick-figure illustration of a mom, a dad, and three children holding hands; beside them was a small dog. Directly to the side of this was a separate sticker with the letters WWJD (What Would Jesus Do). On the opposite side of this same window—less than five feet away—was another sticker: “Trump 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again.”
Later on that same day, while on a walk, I saw a similar scene. Draped over a porch railing was a large banner that read, “Jesus Is Lord and Savior to All Men.” Above this banner, to the right—less than five feet away—a flag flew: “Trump 2020: Keep America Great!”
Seeing these things that day truly irritated me. While I had avoided these conversations in my class I decided then that I could avoid it no longer. (“Separation of church and state?” — less than five feet away.)
When I wrote the short story I purposely intended to spark the debate Lauryn and Pras are now having. Watching them get annoyed with one another, I secretly congratulate myself at a job well done.
Knowing that time is short, I take back control of the class.
“—Alright my friends,” I interrupt. “Like all the stories you’ve read this year, I created this one also. And now I’ll tell you why I wrote it…”
Pausing, I take a mental picture of the faces I see on screen.
“You all know that I’ve been married and divorced twice correct?” I say to them.
“Third times the charm!” chirps Nel from his cube.
His audience; Pras and Lauryn, simply nod their heads in response to my question; clearly not in the mood to laugh at Nel’s comment. I can see in the faces of Pras and Lauryn that the two of them are still upset over their argument from a few seconds prior.
Focusing my attention on Lily, I can feel a smile turn up on the edges of my lips. I look at her eyes through the computer screen and speak to the irritated silence. “I wrote this short story so that one day the world might learn that my second ex-wife was a deceitful b—”
Heading into 2016, the inescapable idea of sharing my story with the world would not leave me alone. It is a scratch on my mind that is impossible to itch.
Even if I was suffering from delusional thinking, even if my vision broke from reality—even if I was crazy: Did that mean I was supposed to just throw the story I felt called to share in the trash and forget about it forever?
No one wants to hear me say it, but that is never going to happen.
Sirena and I use my small disability payment to help us make ends meet. While she goes to work teaching (a real job) I stay home and prepare to give my writing career another shot—without letting anyone know of course.
At this point I have accepted that people do not read and that I’ll have to get their attention before they dedicate the time to read what I’ve written. I decide that making a YouTube video will offer the most productive path forward.
In the basement of our house I spend time reading and studying up. I then begin making visuals and videotaping scenes from movies and television that I will use in this video. A video that will get people excited to read my story and eventually discover the world I envision or us.
I also decide to take some pictures of places around my town; hoping that any person or business I reference will benefit when I’m successful. My thinking is inspiringly delusional: I JUST WANT TO HELP PEOPLE!
This obsession with wanting to help people is an identifiable symptom of my diagnoses. This presents a problem for me as I do not want to accept my diagnoses. Nevertheless, I can’t stop myself—I need to prove to people that I’m right (another symptom of my diagnoses).
Despite being embarrassed of who I am, I press on and tell myself that I am not the crazy person that ran away anymore. Instead, I now think of myself as just a messenger: the one responsible for bringing those crazy yet relevant ideas into the world.
All of this is happening the first few months of 2016 and everyone is talking about the upcoming election. Donald Trump has now entered the scene and I am not a fan of his from day one. I, however, have been in the trenches and know first-hand how frustrated people are. I, therefore—unlike the rest of the country then—believe it entirely possible that he will win this election.
The election that year was like watching a real-life Game of Thrones. Where deceit and manipulation and belittling was rewarded with votes. Some of my fellow Americans—in love with their entertainment—imagined Donald Trump as Harrison Ford’s character in the movie Air Force One: A real man’s man sent to take control of a weak nation to save us from THEM. Others imagined him more like Joaquin Phoenix’s character in the movie Gladiator: A spoiled rich kid taking control of a corrupt nation to keep it for THEM.
At this point, people had been calling me crazy for a year, but the behavior I was watching on television appeared insane. I am on medicine at this time—I swear! —but clearly my dosage must be off as I believe that I can burst onto the scene and become a voice people can trust.
By May 27th, 2016, my entire basement is filled with visuals that I’ll use in my video. I will use this video to introduce myself to the world and then begin talking some sense into my fellow Americans.
The plan is simple…What could go wrong?
Around two in the morning I wake up and have a cigarette on my back porch. The moon is bright, and I look up at it hoping that this time around I get things right.
My feet are planted firmly on this big blue ball beneath me, yet my dreams float high above with those stars. Looking into the vast emptiness I reflect on how truly small and insignificant I really am. But I tell myself that I can still make a difference. That even a small person like me can cast a very large shadow. But I’m not sure I believe it.
Staring up into that void, it’s as if something was calling me. Like there was a place for me beyond all this.
Crawling back into bed with Sirena, I have just fallen back to sleep when the fire alarms begin going off. I snap to life and my heart pounds against my chest as I rush out of bed and race towards the kitchen.
Through the small window over the sink I see it… A glow that should not be there— The fire outside moving up the side of the house… What the hell have I done now? ….
***End of Breaking Knews***
“Yo, Mr. J!” explodes Nel, with a loud laugh.
I have been trying to limit the swears used in my class and calling my ex-wife the b word clearly broke from this, but strong words were necessary in order for this lesson to hit its mark… it was all part of the plan.
“You’re an ass,” Lauryn adds, not laughing.
Pras is quiet but I see him smile lightly. He is probably again wondering what exactly is wrong with me.
Lily has conveniently disappeared from her cube on screen in the midst of my students’ reactions. My phone lights up on the desk in front of me. Looking at it I see that she has sent me a message: A Cry-Laughing-Emoji—followed by a red heart—followed by two more Cry-Laughing-Emojis.
After looking at the message, I notice Lily sneak back into her cube on the computer screen in front of me. She tries hiding it, but her smiling face does not go unnoticed.
“Miss Lily—Don’t encourage him!” Lauryn says angrily.
It is not what I said about my ex-wife that Lauryn is upset about. She is mad I let her argue with Pras over something that now seems irrelevant. “You’re really an ass Mr. J,” Lauryn adds.
At this, Lily breaks her silence. “I’m sorry Lauryn, but that was funny. Are you really gonna call Mr. J an ass for making us laugh?”
“Yup!” Lauryn responds with a smirk, “I am.”
Knowing that I have gotten the message across successfully, I gather myself in order to present them with the lesson this class was designed to teach.
“How many of you want revenge?” I ask, rhetorically. “To get back at those that have wronged you. To show the world that you were right, and they were wrong. That they suck, and you don’t…”
Humans have a crippling desire to be heard. Virtual socialization has satisfied this desire of ours while at the same time creating a paradox: in a world where everyone can be heard, no one is. Nonetheless, it is still a useful tool. Though sometimes it is used as a weapon to start one’s own personal war-against-the-world. And like all weapons, this one can often hurt oneself more than others.
Keeping all of these opinions to myself, I continue speaking to my students.
“I wrote that story in my own personal journal in the middle of the night a few months ago. When I wrote it, I was sad and angry. A dangerous mix of emotions to bring online with you.” I stop and focus on Lily; her face appears encouraging. “My wife leaving hurt me a lot. When I was upset I wanted to scream…I wanted revenge…”
Saying this, I pause again. The word revenge is so powerful that just using it seems to wake something up inside me; and the students looking back at me seem to feel it too—their eyes are fully present.
“But here’s the thing,” I say to them, “If my wife never left I would not be here teaching you this class. It’s proof that losing often creates opportunities in life. Chances for us to become more productive losers. In fact, someone might even say I won the lottery the day she left…”
I am about to show them a piece of paper I have on my desk when Nel interrupts me from his cube on screen.
“I don’t mean to be a jerk Mr. J,” he says, “But that’s a load of crap. It’s just Teachers’-Talk. There’s nothing more important than winning…we aren’t stupid.”
Annoyed at the interruption; and his opinion, I consider where to take this discussion. Eyeing Pras; still looking quiet from his argument with Lauryn, I decide to manufacture some drama for him.
“Nel—” I begin, “did your President lose this year’s election?”
Nel does not hide his love for Donald Trump in our class. He is the loud and proud voice we’ve been listening to since the day he took office.
“That’s really nothing we know for certain Mr. J,” he replies diplomatically.
“Bullshit Nel! He lost. As far as votes are concerned, he did—I don’t care what that rabid-fox-blood coursing through your veins tells you otherwise…” I see Nel look unsure of how to respond to this verbal attack from a teacher. “But really, was losing a bad thing?” I ask him seriously.
Nel does not immediately respond to my question and I quickly find myself wondering if that attack was just a bit too real.
I decide to keep talking. “We are all fighting amongst ourselves,” I say, in a strong but less combative voice. “This pandemic will have financial implications in the coming years that no president can prevent. There is hate bubbling up and blame being cast in all directions. It’s an absolute shitshow. And there is certainly a collection of people out there preparing to capitalize on the division in this country…”
I take a deep breath and look solemnly at Nel through the screen. “Nel—I one thousand percent believe that your President won this election by losing…and honestly…I think a part of him knows it.”
Pras walks into the conversation before Nel can respond. “He’s a narcissist, Mr. J. He doesn’t think logically. He wants to win no matter what.”
“—Name calling Pras,” I interject.
I started this discussion and realize that I need to temper it before things get out of hand. I had planned on my students talking religion to start this class, but politics was not on the agenda. Separation of church and state…
“Even if he is what you say Pras, you don’t change someone like that with name calling. You create something they want, and then tell them that they are no longer needed. Make them change in order to be wanted again. Right now, there is nothing that is going to force Trump, or his supporters, to change. And that’s not Trump’s fault. I’m sorry Pras, but it’s not.”
Pras knows my feelings about Donald Trump, and I know he can handle what I am saying to him. Nel is different animal, however. I tread carefully in order to avoid creating a purgatory type chasm between him and I: This is politics.
Waiting for one of the boys to speak, Lauryn jumps in instead. “Then who’s fault is it Mr. J?” she says seriously.
God do I love this girl. Her speaking immediately puts the boys on a leash. They have no choice but to listen now; and I need to make sure that whatever I say at this moment leaves a mark.
“Well, really…” I answer, “I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault Lauryn. With the rise of the internet and social media, hate dividing us so loudly was bound to happen eventually. Perhaps one day we’ll be thanking Donald Trump for ripping off the band aid. Let’s just hope all this insanity forces us to build something—something better….”
Week 19: Friday, January 15th, 2021
“The Three Young Men”
Earlier this week we joked about what would happen if I ever became a successful author with the book I plan to write. While Lauryn claims I am “too old to make it big,” I have decided to play with your minds a little and imagine a world in which she has been proven shockingly wrong.
In this future world Tom Brady and I are great friends. Tommy has put me on his TB12 diet, I have stopped my midnight snacking, and the G.O.A.T. has set me up with his doctors—making my age irrelevant.
With that said, let me bring you all into a future where your teacher, Mr. J, has changed the world. I do this by telling you the story of The Three Young Men….
In a galaxy far-far away,
Three Young Men; The Joker, The Believer, and The Thinker,
Lay in front of their screens preparing to watch their favorite show:
“The Sunday Roast—A JoJo Enterprise Production.”
Sitting in a simple chair in front of a large window, the host begins his introduction.
“Hello everyone, my name is Brett Fever and today’s date is Friday, April 15th, 2050. Thank you all for joining us as we prepare for tonight’s big celebration… a night long anticipated. We promise you won’t regret it.”
The pony-tailed host crosses his legs and speaks through the screen.
“We wish to begin this show with a quote: ‘Retain even in opposition your capacity for astonishment’. On this day in history, in 1865, Abraham Lincoln died by assassination at the age of fifty-six years old. This quote was taken from a movie titled Lincoln that depicted his life and achievements. We use the quote to remind our viewers that: ‘Lives that inspire never expire’. This quote we have stolen from a different man. The man who will be our primary focus of our show today: The Teacher—Jose Julian.”
Pausing, the host pushes his glasses to the top of his head and finishes. “Now, before we begin, let us get The Disclaimers out of the way. Shall we?”
Out of all of the shows segments The Disclaimers is The Joker’s favorite part. He leans in mischievously to watch…
“The show you are about to watch has two primary objectives. One. To entertain you. And two. To sell you shit. With that in mind, please understand that what you will see and hear is extremely biased and influenced by our own selfish agendas. That being said, there are many things you will want to investigate individually. As always, we encourage this. With these disclaimers out of the way, today’s Sunday Roast is brought to you by The Extender: Encouraging you to stay the person you were meant to be.”
The Joker giggles louder than the other two young men as a commercial for The Extender plays on their screens.
After a short scene from an old Austin Power’s movie, the commercial is a cartoon skit depicting reality style ‘Where Are They Now?’ interview clips with some of the loudest anti-vacs critics from the early 2020’s. People had refused vaccines for many reasons then—both good and bad—but today the fighting over those personal choices has subsided. The commercial concludes with a mustached man painted red from head to toe attacking the camera filming him with a MyPillow while squealing the word “Traitors!” repeatedly.
The commercial ends and the words “Breaking Knews” fills the screen. A YouTube video begins to play. Its title is: Black Sails—True Victory.
This is The Believer’s favorite part of the show. He leans in excitedly to watch…
The three-minute video ends and is followed by a scene from the 1953 film, The War of the Worlds. The fear expressed by the actors on screen appears laughable to many viewers. To The Believer watching, however, this fear—though ancient looking—still speaks to him.
This Believer always worried about what was out in the vastness of space. The idea that a far-off civilization would one day come, and attack, makes perfect sense to this imaginative mind. Once the scene from the old movie comes to a close a montage of films displaying the end of the world appears as a rolodex on screen. As the pages of this rolodex turn, the viewer is taken through all of Hollywood’s attempts to make money by entertaining minds with the belief that a catastrophic end to the world was imminent.
The rolodex disappears and is replaced by a woman on screen: Dani Owen; the host of this segment.
“We humans use a lot of energy,” Dani begins. “Today’s guest is a foreign exchange student who is doing amazing work to make this energy clean.”
The screen splits. Dani is now on the left and a female guest is on her right. Below the guest is her name: Eveileb Htiaf—Student at JoJo University.
With the ocean in the background this guest explains how wave currents are being used to produce renewable energy.
Once this guest is done talking, Dani says, “Friend, could you please tell our audience what the word Apocalypse is taught to mean at your University?”
This guest is wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘Apocalypse’ written across its front. At this question she turns around so that the camera can film the back of the shirt: “An Awakening Period For ALL Humanity.”
A few more questions are asked by the host and a few more answers are given. The Believer watching smiles to himself; hoping that he has been wrong about what this word meant his entire life.
The segment ends and the viewer is magically transported to a beautiful modern-day city. In front of a tall building appears a makeshift living room set within a rock garden. Two comfy chairs sit a few feet apart from one another. Between the two chairs is a round table with two coffee cups on it; both coffee cups display a fancy-looking ‘J’ intentionally facing the camera.
In the chairs are the two hosts: Evelyn and Brodie. At Evelyn’s feet sits her adorable black dog: Winston.
This is the show’s main event, called Mind-Molders. During which these two hosts discuss how entertainment is shaping society. This day’s segment has been long anticipated, as today they will be discussing The Teacher—Jose Julian.
This is The Thinker’s favorite part of the show. He leans in attentively to watch…
Evelyn speaks into the camera. “Regardless of what you think about Jose Julian, the entertainment he has helped spark over the years has helped create our world and continues to shape society today.”
Brodie takes over. “As you can see, we are sitting in the heart of Detroit, Michigan for today’s show. The home of JoJo Enterprises.” A different camera shows Brodie from above. Waving up at the camera Brodie continues to speak; a little louder. “This place is beautiful, but not as beautiful as its people. Who will tell you this city was brought to life when it appeared in Jose Julian’s book that first surfaced back in the year 2022.”
The camera changes back and Evelyn takes over. “Offering his story to the world for free that year on his school’s website did eventually lead to a substantial book deal for Jose, but what truly catapulted this book of his into the stratosphere begin with a trip into space…”
A clip from the day Jeff Bezos brought Jose into space is shown on screen as Brodie speaks. “Mr. Bezos had begun giving away large donations just a few years prior; claiming ‘the world needed more unifiers not vilifiers’. When Mr. Bezos read Jose’s story, he decided that this unknown author understood this and wanted to help. The two of them made quit the spectacle of it by taking a trip into space together in order to promote unity.”
The video clip of that day ends and is replaced by another video showing a large boardroom meeting. Many of the faces sitting around the table are very well known by the viewers. It is a collection of people respected and admired by those watching.
Brodie’s voice continues to be heard. “Following Mr. Bezos example other wealthy individuals stepped up to help; including (enter names here)…. These great people flooded Jose with so much capital that the only limit to realizing his dream became his imagination.”
The clip ends and Evelyn’s face beams on screen. “For more than twenty years now this book has been given away to every high school graduate across the globe,” she says; holding the book up in her hand. “Along with a personal journal that includes words of wisdom from all the wealthy donors that make the gift possible each year.”
Brodie speaks again. “The book is great but it’s the show it inspired that most of us remember: The Teacher. A showed that proved that whatever humans can imagine they usually can create.”
“Entertainment was always used to tell stories, sometimes it tried to teach us lessons, but Jose challenged it to create a future.” Evelyn smiles at the idea and continues to speak. “Sprinkled with conflict and humor the show his book inspired entertained us year after year. Yet, what really kept us all addicted was the hope it pumped into our veins. Hope that became realized in the real world as the show on screen became real classes for students to participate in and experience themselves. This show is now legendary and is considered one of the most transformative pieces of entertainment ever created.”
Brodie takes over again; looking serious. “You know Jose. And you know of his book and this show. But today we will be introducing to you some of the first believers that helped bring it all to life…”
The Three Young Men continue to watch in amazement…
Inspired by how these people on screen changed the world they dream of what they can accomplish themselves. It is not just them dreaming about this. Each person seeing this on screen is now asking themselves the same question: “What if I could change the world?”
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
What would you need to change the world? Explain.
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“You could be the hero.”
—Hall of Fame (Feat. Will.i.am) by The Script
It is now January in the year 2021. On this eighteenth week I am home spending a night with my kids:
Lying in bed we are watching a movie when my phone starts to vibrate on the table next to us. I push my youngest son off my back so I can get a look at who is calling. Seeing the name of the person displayed on the phone, I quickly get up from the bed and leave the room; shutting the door behind me.
This call is unexpected and unannounced; normally I would get an email before. Trying to sound excited, but secretly nervous, I answer the phone. “Mr. Bernard! How are you?”
“Jose,” he chuckles, “you have to stop calling me that.”
I never refer to him by his real name because everyone knows him by that name. And if people knew he was the one that got me the grant for my program then they would assume things. It’s just easier to call him Mr. Bernard and avoid awkward questions; I’ve told him this a million times.
“So—” he says through the phone, “In front of me I have some letters from your students about you and your class. It looks like you’re really making a difference over there.”
I assume Lily or Principal Sam forwarded what they had put together to him. “Thank you,” I say, “it’s been a crazy year, but I’m trying…”
As soon as I say this, I feel dumb.
Yesterday—Wednesday, January 6th—the Capitol in Washington, D.C. came under attack. Supporters of the soon to be ex-president were disputing election results. Knowing that Mr. Bernard might have been right in the middle of all of this, my comment makes me feel a bit self-absorbed. I want to ask him if he was there when it happened, but I don’t.
“You aren’t kidding,” Mr. Bernard says, “it’s been a heck of a year for me as well. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch with you. With the election, and this virus…and well-pure craziness, I fear I’m feeling my age.” He coughs to clear his throat. “But anyway, I hear your program didn’t get additional funding. I’m calling to make sure that you don’t give up. You have something special there—Have you finished that book of yours?”
This is a question I do not want to answer. Between being a dad and focusing on my students it’s been easy for me to put the book on hold. Writing it always has me questioning my sanity and I don’t know how to end the stupid thing anyways.
Not wanting to admit any of this, I reply semi-honestly. “I’m working on it,” I tell him, “Not really sure when I’ll be done though.”
“Jose, I think the world needs it. I really do. I want to read you something…”
Mr. Bernard pauses, then his voice changes slightly as he begins to read: “‘Future civilizations will study how technology transformed our world. They will analyze how humanity was molded by television, literature, and all forms of entertainment. They will be able to look at our behavior differently with an advanced understanding of which we cannot comprehend today. They will use what is happening now to improve future life on this planet. Because of this, I propose a full out assault on society using every weapon of entertainment at our fingertips. We need to entertain to transform. We need to accept that this is our responsibility. We need to take pride in how we effect human psychology. We need to get people dreaming again. It will take a lot of work, but it will have two major advantages: One. It will be fun. And Two. It will save the world.’”
My stomach tightens as he reads this to me. Once he is done, Mr. Bernard says, “Do you remember writing this Jose?”
“Honestly, not really,” I admit.
I am being truthful, not modest. Writing that had gotten me in a lot of trouble and I have blocked it from my memory. That was a passage from something I wrote more than six years ago now: Journey to JoJo—A Trip To Insanity and Back.
“I appreciate your desire to be in the classroom Jose, I really do, but I don’t think you can accomplish what this world needs by just being a teacher. Maybe this hiccup with your program is a sign that you should be doing something different to get your message out there. Have you ever considered getting into politics? … You know politics is a form of entertainment too.”
***Dear Reader, what Mr. Bernard says here is going to change Jose’s perspective on many things in his life, and it also is one of the key reasons I was asked to bring you this story.
You humans are creative creatures. Proof can be found in your ability to turn practically anything into entertainment. This is all in good fun and can even be educational, but it has become more and more M.E.A.N. as of late (Misremembered, Embellished, Agitating, and Not-exactly-true). Your creative minds do this for Entertainment Purposes, but here we’ve found it can be counterproductive to your overall progress as a species. Something you humans needed to be reminded of. You’re welcome.***
It is the summer of 2015; the summer after getting my diagnoses. Sirena has gotten me approved for disability payments somehow. The fact that I was approved for disability has people that know me surprised. “You must be REAL crazy!” they joke. This is embarrassing, yet I no longer feel prideful, so I try and laugh it off.
On this hot summer day, I am helping my dad at the NEADS Kennel in Princeton, Massachusetts. He had been hired to construct a large addition and needs an extra set of hands putting up roof trusses. My dad has a full-time job at a prison now but still takes on jobs like these to keep his business alive. Mostly he does it so his kids have an opportunity to make a little extra money. This is Poor Dad type of thinking, but I love him for it.
My dad asking me to help was a big deal. He saw my life spiral and had spent the last few months giving me the space everyone advised him to. My difficulties with drugs and whatever was going on with my head was something he could not understand, but he was blessed with a heart that understood he didn’t need to understand—this was his gift.
In construction my dad taught me a lot. Simple things, like how to remove splinters with a sharp utility blade, but also many other things that were even more useful to me down the road. He’s the one who taught me that a boss always has to be thinking at least three steps ahead of his crew. There’s no doubt our minds work alike in that sense.
During lunch, my cellphone that is lying on a pile of plywood begins to ring. It is my old psychologist calling me back; the one that would charge eighty bucks a session on top of insurance (My Mr. Miyage).
I’ve been having a hard time accepting my diagnoses and called him out of desperation yesterday to get his opinion. He didn’t answer, so I left him a message. I find myself immediately embarrassed by the call and consider hanging up. “Hello,” I answer.
I climb a ladder and hide in a part of the attic that already has plywood on its roof so that no one will overhear this conversation. I have knee pads on with a plastic strap holding them in place. The strap cuts into the back of my legs as I kneel down. The smell of heat and sawdust surrounds me. I feel a bead of sweat drip down the center of my bare chest as I tell the doctor everything that has happened since we last saw each other.
I have not seen this doctor for a while now. I think I was hiding from him but can’t really remember why. Just add it to the list of things that are fuzzy in this fractured brain of mine. After rapidly regurgitating all the important details to him, I listen to a shaking voice ask the doctor a question: “Do you think I’m as sick in the head as they all tell me I am?”
There is a pause. A long painful pause. This doctor never talked much. Silence was his thing. He made me talk. Remember. What am I expecting him to say to me?
“Jose, I can’t make that determination right now.”
Silence settles itself back in as sweat continues to drip off me. On his end of the line I hear him punching a keyboard. I wait to hear more; assuming he is thinking of something to say that will calm the scared little boy on the phone—he must hear it in my voice.
After a moment he talks again. “Jose, my records indicate that you never paid for your last visit with me. If you can pay for that, maybe we can meet and discuss this further.”
With my heart in my throat, I hang up the phone.
My chest caves on itself. Medicine—the real kind—has not helped much with my anxiety. In fact, I consider not taking it as I find myself still feeling anxious as ever—and because I still believe in this delusional dream of mine. I don’t tell people this, but I fight with it constantly.
I had crawled into this attic so that no one would hear me talking so pathetically. Even though I am no longer on the run, I am still hiding. After hanging up the phone, I don’t move.
A few minutes pass and I hear the machines starting back up and everyone getting back to work. Still, I don’t move. I can’t. Or else they will see. My dad does me the favor of leaving me alone. He probably knows. Now it is not just sweat dripping off me.
I am completely lost and completely hopeless. Hunched over, the hands I see gripping a piece of wood do not belong to me. I don’t want them to.
These stupid hands know how to do many stupid things, but I look at them and realize that they are incapable of putting this stupid life of mine back together.
Maybe I am crazy? … Can I start this life over? … Please…???
I am full of fear and do not want anyone out there to see it. I must crawl out of here. I must face them. I must face life. But I don’t want to.
At this point I know absolutely nothing… except maybe one thing… people suck...
***End of Breaking Knews***
Mr. Bernard had called to simply check on me. Unfortunately, he had no magic solution to the problem of funding. His hands are tied at the moment as everything seems to be on hold until this virus stuff is over. And I am no one special.
“Listen Jose—” he begins, “The other day a few college students scheduled a meeting to ask me some questions. They were doing a study on who was more popular with members of Congress: Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Underwood—you know, the character in that show House of Cards. When they came in and explained the purpose behind this study of theirs, you immediately came to mind.”
Not really knowing either of the two people he is talking about, I stay quiet and just continue to listen.
“I don’t believe in coincidences Jose. After that meeting is when I got the email from your principal. The meeting with those college kids made me realize there is an army of people out there waiting for you—”
I find his choice of words interesting given he had just witnessed the attack on the Capitol, but I keep this opinion to myself.
“With people across this country displaying banners of our President dressed up as Rambo holding an assault rifle, I worry about where things might be headed if something unexpected does not come along soon. There are a lot of good people in the world that will gather and fight if the right person comes along. Maybe that’s you? Please finish your story Jose. Will you do that for me?”
“I’ll try to,” I answer.
“That’s all I ask for Jose,” he replies.
Feeling uncomfortable, I attempt to change the topic. “Hey—Did you get those mittens my grandmother sent you?”
“Yes, I did.” His voice softens. “I’ll wear them to the Inauguration next week, tell her to look for me….”
Mr. Bernard and I do not talk for very long after this.
Once I’m off the phone, I head back into my bedroom and my boys create a sliver of space for me to cram my body into on the bed. Once huddled in, I begin reflecting on the conversation I have just had; paying little attention to the movie the boys are watching.
While it was nice to hear Mr. Bernard say such nice things about my writing, I’m just not ready to think about that yet. He is a dreamer, asking me if I ever considered politics proves this, but I respect him, so any word that escapes his mouth I take time to consider. Thinking about being out of a job, I find myself pondering the comment he made about me getting into politics.
How would a life in politics fit in my life? … What would I be? … How would it even begin? …
I can feel my mind escaping into the realm of impossibility. This is a dangerous area for it to go and I have learned how to identify and avoid it whenever possible. I force myself back into the real world and watch the movie that is 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 is talking to his younger brother. Holding him upside down by his ankles, he tells this young mind to, “Look for a new angle!”
That is when it hits me. Like an anvil falling from the heavens. Directly onto my skull.
Contemplating what I have just heard, my imagination manically begins putting the pieces of the puzzle together. IT IS LIKE FIREWORKS EXPLODING IN MY BRAIN.
Ideas begin to come together. My past, my present, and my future collide. Visions that were blurry begin to come into focus. That dream inside of me—long asleep—wakes up.
I HAVE IT —I know how to end my story!
As a father I’ve learned so much from watching television and movies with my children; how they think and what they believe. How perfect for me to figure out how to end my story while lying here watching a movie with them.
I feel like Hulk Hogan, wanting to rip off my tank-top and warn all his Hulkamaniacs to WATCH OUT BROTHER!
An excited little boy in my head laughs at this image and then smiles to himself—that lunatic smile I had packed away like a good boy.
Elation begins to grow inside my body…. inside my mind… inside my heart…
While I allow myself to enjoy this rush of childhood adrenaline, there are three pieces of reality comfortably laying their body parts on top of me to keep me from floating away (and ripping off my tank top).
With them surrounding me on all sides, I begin the process of playing the tape out in my head…. I wonder…. Could it work?
Week 18: January 8th, 2021
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, I read a book titled Rich Dad Poor Dad and vowed to never be like my father. He is a carpenter by trade and an amazingly good man. He taught me his trade so that I’d always have something to fall back on if I needed to. I never disagreed with this as it always seemed to make sense. Nevertheless, I did not want to be like my father.
Growing up I read many books. I had one focus in life back then: to be successful—whatever that meant. Educated and full of enthusiasm, I set out to make this dream of mine a reality. Then I failed. Over and over.
Actually, first the economy failed, then my life followed suit. That is when life initially diverged on me. After barely surviving, I remember thinking one thing: I’d give anything to be like my father.
Many of the books I read in my youth told me to expect failure. Still, it hurt.
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, failure beat the living shit out of me.
Over time, it made me detach from caring about anything in this world. “They did not teach me how to deal with these feelings in school!” I screamed in silence to a world that did not care.
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 bullshit 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 does not work all the time. While many find these words comforting and inspirational it is my opinion that we have so many responsibilities in our evolved society that it is nearly impossible to sit alone with our thoughts.
For example, focusing on the bright side of things all the time like we are told is nearly impossible if you cannot pay your electrical bill.
As an adult, most of us have to go to work. We have to deal with bosses, customers, and other employees. Some of us have to deal with students (good luck with that!). Silence is not an option here. On top of that, a lot of us have families. Being quiet to focus on our thoughts cannot happen if we want to raise our children properly or be a caring partner.
I could argue that we are expected to talk all the time. If we don’t, many people would think something is wrong with us. It is the truth of the world we live in today. And when we are not talking there is that phone in our hand…and television…and the radio… and… and… and… and… and…
Being able to focus on our thoughts in an environment so full of noise is nearly impossible. By the time we get a moment of silence, do any of us really want to hear what we are thinking anyway? (Someone talk. Please.)
My conclusion: Our environment effects our thoughts, and our thoughts effect our emotions: Therefore, to improve mental health on a global scale we must change our environment. Period.
This conclusion of mine goes against everything I am supposed to teach you at a Recovery School. But since I will not be with you much longer, I bring it up now because I owe you the truth. And while many people claim The Truth is always terrible and boring, in this case I argue it can be awakening. With that said, let me explain myself a little further.
When I was in early recovery and my life was changing without my permission there was something I said that helped me survive the experience: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This was part of learning the principle of Acceptance; a key attribute in recovery. Saying this over and over—and believing it—helped me more than I could ever explain to you. But there was always something about the word ‘Acceptance’ that bothered me.
What if everyone just ‘Accepted’ the world the way it is? And simply ‘Accepted’ that things would never get better?
Questions like this haunted me, but I was told that acceptance was the answer, so for a very long time I just nodded my head in agreement.
I have since accepted that like everything in life, exceptions exist. Acceptance is not always the answer.
In recovery, I became a better person and acceptance was a key ingredient to my success. For that I am grateful. The stability in my life has allowed me to be there for my children and these children of mine give my life purpose. For that I am also grateful. But, here’s the thing: The world that waits for my children in adulthood worries me sick.
Am I supposed to just accept the way things are? What if I could make this world better for them? Is acceptance truly the answer; or is it merely just a chapter in a larger book?
Troubled by all of this I confided in my councilor; John. A man that had helped me immensely. He was the councilor at the halfway house I’ve told you about.
I stayed at that house for six months, finished its program, and then went on to stay at a sober house for an additional month as John had suggested at the time. Prior to all that, I was constantly rushing through life. It was John who helped me to learn how to slow the hell down and see patience as a virtue (especially in recovery).
John and I had become extremely close, so, after telling him how I felt, I asked him, “Am I crazy to think I can change things?”
When I asked John this question he did not speak right away. Instead he reached down and picked up a bowl of M&M’s that were sitting on his desk. Picking up that bowl, he shook the candy in my face. Looking at me, he spoke questioningly. “You are saying ‘I’ a lot… Have you noticed that?”
He did not give me time to respond before continuing.
“All of society has come down with a severe case of the Me’s. Someone once told me this and I am now passing the knowledge onto you. I actually just read a study that says if a person uses the word ‘I’ or ‘me’ in a social media post they will get twenty-five percent less reactions on average. If that doesn’t prove that people don’t like other people talking about themselves, I don’t know what does…”
John taught the residents of the halfway house that the letters on the candy he shook in my face stood for Me and Me. This was not the truth, but it got his message across.
For the record, I have no clue whether or not his social media comment is true or not—I guess it doesn’t really matter.
This routine of his was cute, but he still had not answered my question, so, I pressed further. “But John, I have ideas that I think really could help people…does this make me crazy?”
He laughed—pissing me off even more at the time—and then pointed at something behind me.
Turning around in my seat, a picture he had referenced many times hung on the wall. It was a picture with a quote that read, “Acting on principles costs money.” John loved comedians; George Carlin was his favorite.
By pointing at this poster, my councilor was kindly reminding me that addicts often struggle with delusional thoughts of grandeur. What John was saying, without actually using the words was, “You are (a little) crazy.”
On that day I sulked out of his office feeling beaten. The tough love this man offered in the past got me through a lot but right then it felt as if it had defeated me.
Ultimately, however, it turned out to be something I needed to hear.
In my bed that night, I curled into a ball and thought about that conversation…
“He doesn’t know,” I said to myself, “Only I know what must be done.”
I must create a class. Not a class that will help people discover who they are—People already know who they are. I must create a class to help them get a glimpse of what they could become… Not an illusion— But something real.
This insight shook me to my core and the very next day I began working on the curriculum for this Emotional Intelligence class. A voice from somewhere had finally given me the answer I’d been looking for…
People need to believe in something again. Many of them need to believe in someone again— B.S. Jose—make them B.S.
I want you all to be the first to know I’ve decided to attempt writing that book of mine again. This is something that would never have happened without all of you reminding me of what true strength really looks like. Thank you.
Sincerely Yours—With Love, Mr. J
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
Can you make a difference in this world? Why or why not?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Because all this bullshit made me strong…”
—Drop the World by Lil Wayne with Eminem
It is New Year’s Day. We have said goodbye to the year 2020 and now welcome year 2021. With school still on break, week seventeen is a quick virtual meeting between the students and I on our computers:
“Happy New Year—Happy New Year—Happy New Year—Happy New Year.”
I repeat the phrase to the faces looking back at me on the computer screen. It is eleven in the morning and my students scheduled this little check-in, not me. While I attend this meeting for them, my mind is elsewhere….
Last night both my grandparents were brought to the hospital by ambulance. My grandfather was diagnosed with Covid-19 a few days ago and now my grandmother is not feeling well either. Even before this pandemic, family gatherings had not been happening as often as they once did. The last time we got together it felt as if a collection of people had simply gathered to share complaints about the world with one another. This saddened me and made me wonder if the rest of society was experiencing a similar fate.
Sitting at this computer all I can think about is how scared my grandparents must be at the hospital. But these faces on screen need me, so I do my best to stay present.
My students and I all came to this meeting with a quote we hoped would describe the year 2021. We all wrote our quotes on a sticky note and stuck them to our foreheads. This is silly, but we are all feeling comfortable enough to be silly together.
Each of the quotes we now wear satisfies the objective we set for this meeting: Pick a quote that will feed the 400-Pound Gorilla in your head next year. This was a reference to a lesson earlier in the year. It meant to pick a quote that would help keep us mentally tough.
“Hey Mr. J, did Miss Lily show you the video she made about your class?” Lauryn says; she is looking at me from a cube on screen that she shares with Nel; the two of them are together at Nel’s house.
Having seen the video, I respond. “Yes I did. Really it was amazing. Thank you all so much.”
Lily plans to send this video of hers, along with a course outline and examples of student work to the school board. Her hope is that they will see what we are doing in this class and extend funding throughout the rest of the year. I am not optimistic about it.
“Just so you all know,” I add, “I’ve offered to stay on and not get paid, but it’s a liability to have me in the school with you like that. We can still have check-ins like these if the funding doesn’t come through though.”
After a short discussion, they accept the reality of the situation: There is very little chance that I will be seeing them at school after term two comes to a close.
Moving on, I ask the group, “Does anyone have a New Year’s Resolution for themselves?”
Lauryn is the first to speak. “I’m gonna stop swearing,” she says proudly.
I say this to myself, but not out loud. The voices in my head find it funny. Lauryn’s resolution is not one I can make, but her desire to better herself is not about me, so instead of making it that way I speak genuinely to her through the computer screen.
“You know Lauryn, swearing makes it really hard for some people to see how special you are. I think trying to stop, or limit your swearing, is a wonderful idea.”
“Mr. J—” Nel interrupts from beside Lauryn. “We are watching Ted Lasso. The guy reminds us of you. We both think so.”
“If you didn’t have so much gray hair and could grow a decent mustache, you’d even look like him Mr. J!” Lauryn adds… sneaking this jab in with a glorious smile on her face.
The angels—I mean police officers—walk me out of the movie theatre in Vermont with handcuffs on my wrists and bring me to their local police station. My attempt at Running All Night has come to a disastrous end.
The family van I was driving was under Sirena’s name. When I did not come home that night, Sirena was advised to report the car stolen. A warrant was then put out for my arrest and an official search for the van ensued.
When I gave blood, they had taken my license. This was how they tracked me down. I later learned the police showed up at the blood bank and talked to the girl who’d been with me when I almost passed out. She is the one that told them I was planning on going to the movies.
My parents then drove the four hours to Vermont and I’m released from the jail I had been taken to. I am not relieved. I am not sad. I am not embarrassed. I—AM—ANGRY!
I am angry at myself. I am angry at them. I am angry at Sirena. I am angry at the world.
No one read what I wrote. No one understands how I feel. No one wants to help. They all want me to stop fighting and give up. To admit that I am wrong—To admit that I am sick. They all want the “Old Jose” to come back to the real world. Unfortunately for them, no one realizes that this person they want back is dead.
My parents pay to have the van towed back so that they can keep me company on the drive home. The entire four hours I refuse to talk to them. When they try to say something when we get home, I yell at them and tell them to, “Leave me the f*** alone!”
Sirena is waiting for me. Before we can fight, or hug, or cry, or do whatever, two police cars are in front of the house with their lights flashing. A tall police officer in his twenties kindly invites me into his cramped backseat. My youngest son cries in the doorway….
A few hours earlier, in that theatre in Vermont, I felt calm. Not anymore. Life has now come to judge me. To crush me. I am now the furthest thing from calm.
In my mind, I was on a journey discovering who I was meant to be, to everyone else, I’d lost a grip on who I was. Under much pressure, Sirena had sectioned me: a legal process through which an individual who is deemed by a qualified agent to have symptoms of severe mental disorder is detained in a psychiatric hospital where they can be treated involuntarily.
I am brought to our local jail and placed in a padded cell for safekeeping.
In this cell a troubled boy I knew from my high school has carved his name in this white plastic bench I sit on. This cell was designed to keep unstable people safe from themselves, I, however, do not feel safe in this cell. Sitting completely alone, I know my life is never going to be normal again: I am now that troubled boy from high school.
Eventually I am shipped to a mental facility for evaluation. This would be the first time I got locked away—my first trip to a mental institution for psychiatric treatment.
And just like that, my running days are over.
Anvil. Anvil. Anvil.
I am actually taken to two separate facilities. The first is just a regular hospital, I think, but later I am taken by ambulance to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts where I am pumped with anti-psychotic medication and mood stabilizers. This is where I will be diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
It does not take me long to realize that the people in these hospitals are not like the characters you see on tv. While their ailments differ in severity, most people I meet are just temporarily broken by life, like me. All of them, regardless of diagnoses, are good people.
At McLean, my roommate is a younger kid, his name is Joel Jorrado (though I am not certain of the spelling). Joel and I have some eye-opening conversations during the time we spend sharing a room.
This young kid has a huge heart. He wants me to talk about the story I had written that no one would read. He listens to me and does not call me crazy. I am grateful for this, and I am grateful for him.
Joel is realistic though. After hearing all that has transpired, he says something to me that I need to hear: “Jose, no one reads anymore. You aren’t gonna change the world by writing a book. You’d have better luck making a movie or something. You’re a man on the rise Jose, but maybe you just had the wrong dream?”
I do not give his words much consideration at first. You need to write a book before it turns into a movie. Joel is obviously too young to understand how it all works.
Later however, alone in that room, I start to wonder if perhaps Joel is right.
By the time my stay at this hospital is over, I am completed deflated. No one wants to hear about my story anymore or about how I think I’m supposed to be a writer. Everyone just wants me to take my meds and get back to the “old me”.
Once I have calmed down and am no longer angry with everyone, the embarrassment of what I have done—and who I am—really sinks in. Over time, I—just like everybody else—begin to hope that I can find the “old me” as well.
Despite everything I was wrong about though, sadly there is one thing I had right: The old me was dead. Now, there was just me, and that person has no clue what to do next….
***End of Breaking Knews***
Lauryn and Nel have just left our virtual meeting. At this point Pras and I are alone, looking at one another through the computer.
“Mr. J,” he begins, “Why don’t you support the Black-Lives-Matter movement?”
“What are you talking about Pras?”
“On Halloween, when we were back at school, I overheard you talking to the other teachers and you said you weren’t a fan of the movement. I’m just curious why?”
Thinking back to that day, I quickly remember the conversation he is referring to. “First of all, Pras,” I say, “I do so support the movement. Racist hate makes me sick to my stomach. But what I actually said that day was I’m not a fan of the slogan.”
“What’s the difference?” Pras replies; with a face of annoyance that I’m not used to seeing on him.
For a brief second I feel uncomfortable, but then, I’m not. By now Pras and I know each other. He must have been struggling with what he heard me say for some time. Him asking me about this means he is comfortable with me.
Above my computer screen, to the right, is an eleven by seventeen poster of Martin Luther King Jr. The quote Mr. King overlooks reads: A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.
Looking at these words, I debate where to take this conversation. And I wonder what is safe to say and what I should keep to myself. This is thin-ice I’m about to walk on with Pras, but it’s just him and I, so I decide to just go for it.
“There’s a lot of people in the world Pras,” I say, “and most of them are fighting over words even if their hearts are in the right place…”
On Halloween the conversation Pras overheard began when a fellow teacher said, “My jerk neighbor is selling signs that say, ‘All Lives Matter.’ He thinks he’s so smart, but he’s just a racist in denial.”
In response to this statement I said, “I’m not a big fan of the BLM slogan—it’s made me critical of any other sign I see now. Like someone is being passive aggressive in not supporting the movement.”
I used big words and big opinions to fit in with my other teachers that day. The entire discussion was annoying and is just another example of why I prefer to keep my mouth shut. Nevertheless, I said what I did and have to now try and make it right with Pras: this black-colored student of mine that I see looking back at me on my computer screen.
I continue talking. “I fear words are feeding the hate in this world Pras. And I fear that in a world where injustice is everywhere—a world full of people that think they are more of a victim than the next person—that putting this slogan out into the Universe might be promoting more division than anything else.”
Pras looks at me with desperate eyes. “If we can’t talk about it then how are things gonna get any better Mr. J?” he says.
I think of a book I read about this. It explained how traditional racism on our planet is waning and how racism today is based more on culture differences than anything else, and that with the internet, in time, even this type of racism will fade. But being patient is hard, and with some of the ugliness I’ve seen lately I can completely understand Pras’s desire for all of this to end right now.
“I’m definitely not saying we shouldn’t talk about it Pras,” I say. “But unfortunately, ignorance spreads when provoked much easier than compassion can be taught in an attempt to fight against it. That’s the only reason I said I wasn’t a fan of the slogan that day.”
At this, Pras doesn’t speak, and I feel like the ice I’m walking on might be cracking. I can feel myself talking too much and try to think of how to end this conversation in a peaceful manner.
“A lot of the time we create signs demanding change from people that refuse to change Pras. We poke the bear, so to speak. Think about how we feel when we see a Trump flag…”
This is something him and I have discussed, and I use it to bring us back onto more solid ground.
I smile and try to offer him a truce. “Have faith Mr. Future President—It gets better!”
“Shut up Mr. J,” he says, laughing at me.
The face in front of me softens. Mr. Future President has been a joke between us throughout the year. Pras continues to smile and I find myself feeling grateful. I have survived his question without falling through the ice and am now safe…for now at least.
Week 17: Friday, January 1st, 2021
“P.A.I.N. through Hate”
“Jose, my ***g*, where you at cracker jack!?!”
Three days prior to hearing this being yelled from the hallway, Billy and I entered the detox facility just a few hours apart. The year was 2014, and I was unpacking when he walked by my room. We caught each other’s eye but neither of us acknowledged recognizing one another.
Back in high school, Billy was the highly respected basketball player with street credit, and I was the pretty boy with a bright future. We may have been long removed from those days; and a few years separated us in age, but we damn well knew each other even though we were both too ashamed to say hello at first because of where we were.
I was barely awake when I heard my name being called from the hall. There was no question in my mind who was calling though. It was my new partner in crime: Billy Preston.
Sitting up, with a reddened face, I called back, “Billy—shut up—I’m in here!”
How he called out for me is a conversation for another day. Seeing him standing in the doorway I was reminded of how grateful I was for his friendship in that place. Little did I know when entering the facility a few days earlier I would meet someone who would forever change my outlook on life.
As he and I walked down the hallway to attend our check-in that morning, I started the conversation that would keep us both entertained throughout the day: “I have decided that I really don’t like people Billy. Actually, no…I hate people.”
With a smile, I remember him saying. “Don’t feed that hate cuz. You gotta keep that four-hundred-pound gorilla in that head of yours fed.” (This phrase should sound familiar to you.)
Billy was referring to a lesson we had been forced to attend the day before. We were told that negative thoughts can consume an addict and that it was the number one cause of relapse. The councilor had told us to visualize a four-hundred-pound gorilla in our head fighting away the demons that wanted us to fail. I thought it was a bunch of bs when I first heard it, and nothing had changed my mind overnight.
The rest of that day I listed all the reasons why I hated people to Billy; why things were so bad; and why we were all destined to suffer forever.
I truly hated myself more than anyone or anything back then. And while I didn’t tell Billy that, I think he knew. That night, at dinner, it was Billy’s turn to speak his mind.
“Jose,” he said, looking at me over his plate of food, “I have listened to you all day and I appreciate where you’re at. Your journey is yours alone. But let me tell you what I’ve learned throughout mine so far…”
Billy then looked at me seriously and said this: “First of all, this world is not overflowing with hateful people like we sometimes think it is. It is bursting with hate-filled people. Those are two different things.”
This was my first trip to a detox facility. Billy on the other hand had some previous experience as his battle had lasted longer than mine had at the time. Curiously, I never asked him how he could be so positive despite his past failures. I still remember the sincere look on his face as he continued talking that day.
“In my travels I have come to the conclusion that people are good, how they act however, is different. When you get to know people in places like these—when people are alone, and sometime at their lowest—you often see them as they want to be; as they were as children. They are delicate…they are sensitive…many of them are open-minded and full of questions. If you are lucky, you will even come across many that are optimistic, unlike you right now.”
He said that last part to me with an unmistakable grin, making certain it registered with me.
He was right. I was the ultimate pessimist at the time. I was later told that I had not yet learned to accept life on life’s terms.
Billy’s education continued. “If you let yourself be a child again inside these places you will find things to like in most people that you encounter. Now, go out and follow those same people on social media, or watch them when they are gathered in groups, and you will see how they act in front of the world. I promise you—there’s a difference.”
I remember agreeing with him in my mind. The people I had gotten to know in that place were good people. But this statement from Billy made me wonder what I would think of them on the outside.
I decided that if he was right then I would probably not like them very much, and it would make me just as negative as before. So, I asked, “If people act so bad despite being good at heart, how do I stop being filled with so much hate towards people Billy?”
He used this question as an opportunity to put in a good word for his pastor. “CUZ!” —Billy called everyone cuz— “I know it’s not your thing, but you really gotta come listen to Emy preach when we get out of this place, he’ll blow your mind: ‘You are in a crisis—you must train your mind to see that crisis creates opportunity!’”
Seeing that I was not in the mood to hear about this guy—again—Billy then gave me his own advice rather than quoting someone else’s. Advice that changed my life…eventually.
“Everyone is recovering from something Jose. Remind yourself of this every day. Use it as fuel to hate no one in life. That’s the secret: Hate nothing. Don’t even use the word—Love as much as you can.”
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“…I have come to the conclusion that people are good, how they act however, is different.” What do you think about this statement made by Billy?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Something’s happening here….”
—For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield
Week sixteen finds us at my house on Christmas day. A Friday in the year 2020. Nel, Pras, Lauryn and my three boys are spending the afternoon hanging out together:
Looking out the window, a flock of pelicans are scattered across the snow-covered front yard. Pras, Nel, and my twins have taken the collection of plastic pelicans from the garage and are now sticking every one of them in the ground around the house. A few summers ago, my family used these sixty pelicans to celebrate a relative’s birthday. At this moment, however, they find themselves taking a stroll in a winter wonderland.
Nel and Pras talked about my boys constantly since they had come over a few weeks earlier on Thanksgiving, and Lauryn made sure I knew that my boys should someday be introduced to her as well: “Don’t you want them to meet Mama, Mr. J?” she said.
When she said this to me it seemed a bit forced, but the fact she was trying to act cheerful allowed me to tell myself that she’d make it past this difficult time. On Tuesday; the last day of class before break, the four of us got to talking about what little plans we had for Christmas this year as the pandemic continued to limit our options: “I’ll just be hanging with the kids later in the day after they open their presents from Santa,” I told them.
“What do they want for Christmas this year?” Pras said in response to this; a standard question people always ask; a question which often reminds me of why I find myself disliking Christmas so much.
“A Tesla.” I told Pras. “They say it’s for me.”
The list my boys made this year was rather standard—more stuff that would just end up in a landfill someday—but this item made me laugh when I saw it on their list.
When they told me why it was on their list, I explained they’d have better luck writing a letter to Elon Musk if they really wanted me to get a Tesla for Christmas. Once I told my boys who this man was, they decided that if Santa didn’t come through this year, that next year they’d give this “Mr. Elon” a try.
“It was a fun conversation,” I said to my students. “One of those conversation that makes you appreciate being a parent.”
“The twins still believe in Santa?” Lauryn said, sounding surprised.
I then told them that my twins have no older cousins or brothers; and two younger sisters at their moms and other dads house. “…Do you think I should tell them?” I said to my students, half-joking.
Lauryn answered for the group. “They already know Mr. J—They just don’t want you to know they know.”
My boy’s other dad and I have this debate often. He thinks they know…I think they don’t.
My students then spent the next ten minutes trying to convince me that they knew my children better than I do. And it was that conversation which led to me inviting them over my house on Christmas day to hang out with us.
Outside the twins continue to play with Pras and Nel. Watching them, I become a bit emotional as I reflect on past memories….
When the twins’ mother and I were separating they were only two years old. Looking back now I’m rather certain she was struggling with some postpartum issues then, and with all that I was struggling with in secret I think our separation was rather inevitable as communication was never our thing. At the time we were living in a long white ranch. The day I pulled out of the driveway to leave the house for good, I remember seeing the twins’ heads pop up from the bottom of a window that was eye-level with the driveway. Their identical little faces in this memory tormented me for a very long time and I remember driving around listening to Highway 20 Ride by the Zac Brown Band just so I could cry; mourning the loss of the family I had spent an entire life trying to put together. I made the choice to leave then, but to say I was confident in my decision would be a lie.
Nine years later, I had just gotten out of the halfway house and sat alone at their fifth-grade graduation while the song “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars threatened those damn tears again. The boy’s grandfather on their mother’s side was there on that day. Him and I were once very close, but he is now the president of my hate club. At the graduation he did not acknowledge I existed—as usual—and his loathing made me despise my very existence—as usual. This man is a great guy; a good father; a good grandfather; a good husband; and a good friend to many—even to me long ago. But he, like millions of other people, has a hard time forgiving. His hatred of me hurts but is something I have to accept because of how much I let everyone down in the past. Looking out at my boys at this graduation—with tears blurring my vision— I feared letting them down again….
The twin boys I watch playing in the snow outside this window know none of this. They smile and laugh and are acting like the goofballs I love. And I don’t feel like crying right now.
Maybe one day I will tell them about everything that happened before. Maybe one day I’ll tell them about Santa. But at this very moment, I am not worried about any of that. I am instead trying to iron in the memory being created with these pelicans, hoping that one day…perhaps… I’ll be remembering the good days and not the bad anymore.
WARNING: Here is where shit gets a bit nuts.
In April of 2015 (one year before the fire) I got in my family mini-van and started driving. Without my cellphone no one could contact me to ask when I’d be coming home, or to see if I was okay—or to ask me if I had gone crazy after sending that email out.
I drove north from my home in Central Massachusetts for almost four hours. I had no clue where I was headed, I just knew that I wanted to be left alone for a while.
Arriving at my unplanned destination, I parked my van at a public park overlooking a great icy lake. Wherever I was, it still felt like the dead of winter.
I then got out of my van and started walking; stiff from the drive. This lake was huge, like never-ending huge. It looked like a frozen ocean, but the air did not smell oceany; the air smelled clean. Without my phone I had no clue where I was. I walked around, wind-frozen, until I found a map posted on the side of a building in this deserted park. That is when I first discovered I was looking at Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont.
Sitting in that van I kept a journal on a yellow office pad I found under one of the seats. That’s where I write that I have fifty-two dollars in my wallet. I don’t not want Sirena to know where I am, so I make the conscious decision not to use my debit card. “I want to stay lost for just a little while,” I write.
The city is beautiful; “It has kind of a hippy vibe to it.” But since it’s so cold, I spend most of my time sitting in the van. I need to make certain I have enough money for gas, so I don’t spend any of my fifty-two dollars on food. Instead, I use some change to buy a bag of chips and a gallon of water. That’s it.
Back home my family must be worried sick. But I have already made this decision and can’t get myself to go back and face them yet. I sit in this parking lot listening to the radio and wonder if someone there had received that email I sent out. I feel a bit like the character in the movie Gone Girl, and debate if running away will force them to pay attention to what I wrote—What a crazy bitch…
A few hours later, a security guard comes up to the van and tells me the parking lot is closing for the night. I worried he had come to arrest me, but he didn’t. Still not ready to go home and face the consequences of my actions, I exit the parking lot and drive to a highway rest stop nearby. Flattening the seats in the back of the van, I lay down and let the single post light outside comfort me throughout the night.
When the sun rises the next morning, I am awake to see it. I know that I will have to go home this day, but I tell myself that I’ll first enjoy being detached from this life a bit longer— “Not having my phone is more liberating than I could have ever imagined.”
I find being in this Vermont town peaceful. It’s as if I’m an alien from another planet visiting for the first time. The people I study don’t seem so bad. Completely alone, I now realize how different I am from all the normal humans moving around me… Maybe I should just stay here?
On this day, a Red Cross Blood Bank is set up downtown providing free lunch and a movie ticket to donors. With no money to buy food, I decide to give blood. I am not good with blood, but it’s a free lunch, so, I do it… and nearly pass out.
The nice girl that takes my blood waits with me until I get my strength back, and off I go. Soon I will have to go home, but I now have a free movie ticket, so first I will go see a movie.
I use my ticket to see a movie titled “Run All Night.” (I’m not making this shit up. That was really the movie I saw. Its release date is the only way I can remember when all this happened. If me going to see this movie is not the definition of ironic, I don’t know what is.)
You enter this theatre at its center; to my left I can go and sit up front or to my right I can sit above. Since I am the first to enter the theatre, I cross the rows of seats and choose the top right; not all the way in the back but halfway up; far enough away so that other people coming in won’t walk around the one dude sitting by himself.
Before the movie begins only five more people enter. They sit in front of me to the left; a group of three and a group of two. Sitting between me and the exit door to the theatre, we have the place all to ourselves.
The feeling of being alone is therapeutic. Sitting here, four hours from my home, I feel calm. Not a single person in this place has any clue who I am or what I’ve done. On the run, this is an ideal place to hide out.
I love going to the movies by myself. I’m not really certain why, but I do. I seem to learn a lot by sitting alone and I think here is the first place I ever really did this. I grew up being in groups of people all the time and doing something like going to the movies alone would have seemed super weird to my younger self, but as I have grown older the less comfortable I feel being around people. Movies are perfect because I can do something alone with no one really knowing about it. Perhaps I was always this introverted but never realized it given how successful I was growing up.
“Successful” — That word makes me laugh now.
Sitting in this theatre, success is a thing of the past. Something that will no longer be associated with me once I go back and deal with the real world again.
Maybe the Universe is sick of seeing me successful? Maybe God has decided that my life is a joke instead? Maybe I no longer give two shits about what is imagined for me?
I’ve literally never seen the entire movie I began watching in the theatre that day. Halfway through it, something happened that I had never experienced before in my life. Something completely unexpected.
In the middle of a scene all the lights in the theatre turn on. Confused, I, along with the other five people in the theatre, look around to see what was going on.
Has the theatre lost power? … Are these the emergency lights?
My eyes adjust to the light and focus on the door to the theatre as it begins to open. Like three angels, they glide through the door and into the theatre. They are not angels, however. They are police officers. They found me…
***End of Breaking Knews***
Behind me, I hear Lauryn and my youngest son playing with Legos. They had come inside to get warm and I had come with them. That is why I am looking out the window at the twins sticking those pelicans into the snow with Nel and Pras.
Turning away from the window, I watch Lauryn and my son playing on the small Lego table that is tucked against the wall.
Above their heads is a picture my son had made for me the year I got out of the halfway house. His teacher wrote, “I am special because,” and the students had to fill in the sentence and draw a picture. My son drew two stick figures and wrote “I see my Daddy!” This is my most valuable possession today.
I watch my son finish spelling his full name out with Legos; they’ve been working on this for a while as it stretches across the entire table and is rather impressive looking. Seeing it completed, I watch Lauryn ask him how many letters are in each part of his name.
She presents this question to my son like he’s still some dumb little kid. This is a role my son doesn’t mind playing, but my son is not some dumb little kid. This boy has a brilliant mind and his questions blow me away on a regular basis.
Just the other day, while driving, we discussed why the moon looks bigger than the sun. I used signs at different distances from us to explain why that was. He then asked about the size of space and if there was an end to it. And then, once he contemplated that, this little boy asked me if at the end of space was where God lived. Yeah, this boy is not dumb.
From across the room I watch my son point to each part of his name and speak assertively to Lauryn. “Six—Six—Six,” he says; to answer her question of how many letters are in each part of his name.
Immediately I see Lauryn put a hand over her mouth and look up at me with shocked fear in her eyes. I shrug and shake my head at her.
She can’t keep a straight face and a devilish smile starts in the corner of her eyes, giving it away. My son then watches the two of us laugh at something he does not understand.
People and their silly signs—I’ll explain that one to him later; once I figure out how to answer the whole God thing—Children and their silly questions.
My three boys find hanging out with my students fascinating. They are being exposed to knowledge beyond their years but seeing high school kids act like children makes it all okay with me. On this day the serious business of growing-up is put on hold for all of us.
With Lauryn and my youngest son still playing on the floor, the only thing I’m worried about right now is how much popcorn to make, as the next event on the agenda is to watch the new movie on Disney+, called Soul.
Lily had suggested the movie. Her text said she’d be arriving shortly. I told her to look for the pelicans.
Week 16: Friday, December 25th, 2020
“Age of Reason”
“Everything’s not awesome, but that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless and bleak.” —A quote from the song in The LEGO Movie (Part 2)
Our classes the last two weeks have revolved around a topic I introduced to you as, THE AGE OF REASON.
My goal has been to help us see the world we are living in today with a sense of Impermanence: A noun, meaning, the state or fact of lasting for only a limited period of time.
Every assignment I gave you was to get us fully emersed in this principle. At the end of last week, knowing we had winter break coming up, I gave you one assignment: Write an essay in which you imagine the world thirty years from now and things have gotten BETTER: How did it happen? (I stole the idea for this assignment from an old Simpson’s episode by the way.)
What you all wrote was very fun to read. In fact, your essays were so good that Miss Lily and I will be asking your permission to share them for a personal project of ours. Here is a summary of each of your reports:
Pras titled his essay ‘Recycle Economics,’ in which he imagined a world that had become more equitable. “If you give the people more money it will be recycled back into the hands of the wealthy…most of the population will die without amassing much wealth but their lives would be lived more happily.” Pras: The entire report was well thought out and very compelling. Nicely done my friend!
Lauryn titled her essay, ‘Non-FAF,’ in which she imagined a world that had outlawed filters on social media platforms because they were identified as a public health risk. Parts of her report made me literally laugh out loud when I read it. Lauryn: I don’t do TikTok (yet), but the statistics you cited regarding the growth of “influencers” since its creation absolutely blew my mind. Understanding the opportunities and risks of all these means of communication we have available to us is important. Good work my dear!
Nel titled his essay, ‘Scroll Free,’ in which he imagined a world that had banned advertising on all news websites. “Playing a game of dodgeball with advertisers to get your news became a thing of the past.” I was able to relate to this passage from his report so much. Nel: While I think we both understand none of this is ever really going to happen it is still fun to imagine. The fact that you recognize it as an issue shows wonderful insight on your part. Way to go kid!
Now, where do we go from here?
We cannot live in the future. While the exercises over the past two weeks have been fun, we must all face the days ahead.
Let’s be honest with ourselves and accept that things on this planet of ours will not get better overnight. In fact, the time it will take for us to get to some resemblance of a healed world will probably take more time than you and I have. Meaning: We may never see it in our lifetimes.
This is how the evolution of any species or civilization works. But that does not mean this life of ours is lost. Someday history books may be discussing the role we played in creating their better world. The question therefore becomes: Will we be the superheroes in their stories or the supervillains?
How does this evolutionary process of healing begin? Well, to quote one of my books; “When ignorance comes to an end understanding arises.” But rather than arguing over what this means, I’d like to keep it simple by suggesting you do something that you’ve heard many times before: Be the change you want to see in the world.
An entire class should be taught on how to do this, but here a few things to get you started:
Acknowledge one another (It’s a skill: a smile or a wave works—eye contact is optional). Pick up after yourselves (You can even try picking up after others without making a big deal of it). Say outrageous things throughout your day (Like: Please and Thank You and You’re Welcome). Hold the door for the person behind you—even if the person in front of you just slammed it in your face (It will mean more to the person you hold the door for and the person who slammed it in your face will notice). Let that person be right—even though you know they are wrong (This applies to most situations, best to er on the side of caution: perception can be a killer).
Forgive if you can.
Forget it you must.
Be grateful—keep growing—be patient—be kind—AND—every now and then—be a bit quieter. (Yeah, I said it, own it.)
Also: DO NOT KEEP A SCALE.
We all do this whether we realize it or not. We keep a scale of our good deeds and weigh it verse good deeds done for us. We are so focused on what’s going on with ourselves, yet we still find time to think about this scale. Try not to.
Bringing this up makes me think of a movie titled Billy Madison; a comedy classic…
Billy is a spoiled rich kid in his late twenties that goes back to school so he can graduate and prove to his father he’s not an idiot (he is). Having a change in heart, Billy calls a kid he bullied when he was younger. This kid he bullied—now an adult—answers Billy’s call and accepts Billy’s apology like it’s no big deal. But then we see this guy cross Billy’s name off a list that hangs on his wall: PEOPLE TO KILL. This grown man—who looks normal—does this and then proceeds to put lipstick on himself.
The point of my story: Don’t keep a scale and DO NOT KEEP A LIST!
The truth is, we are all troubled high school kids whether we realize it or not. So, I understand why doing some of this can be difficult. We all carry baggage. But to this I say: “BE SELFISH!”
Be kind to yourself and others because it makes you feel better. Be kind because that’s who you are, or because that’s who you want to become.
Try not to do nice things because you expect something back: the favors we give are rarely matched by what we get back. And that’s okay. We become happier people by loading that scale with our good deeds.
All of you can do this, I know it. You’re not like the others. You’re from a whole nother world—a different dimension. You have all opened my eyes, and I’m ready to go. Lead me into the light. (Please?)
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“We become happier people by loading that scale with our good deeds.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not.
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“When you hear the call, you’ve got to get it underway.”
—Word Up! By Cameo
Now approaching the middle of December, week fifteen finds me at school for an evaluation meeting. Classes are still remote, but many teachers do their lessons from the classroom at this point so the building is not empty:
Sitting in Principal Sam’s office things look a bit different. The desk that once sat in the middle of the room is now turned facing the windows so that I can see the computer screen that sits upon in. This change was school gossip a few weeks ago…
Supposedly the Director made a comment: “It seems suspicious that students walking the hallways cannot see teacher’s computers.” All teachers were then told by Principal Sam to reorganize their rooms so that their computers were visible to students. Everyone was annoyed by this but rallied around our principal in order to “stick it to the Director.”
None of this affected me because I did not have a classroom of my own, but the whole thing annoyed me. I saw similar behavior in the corporate world of finance: no one trusting one another and everyone thinking someone was out to get them—so they’d get the other person first. It was a game everyone seemed to be playing in order to justify their importance and someone else’s irrelevance.
I watch the clock on the computer in front of me turn to 9:11 AM. The building is cold and I am warming my hands by rubbing them together when the principal walks in.
Principal Sam puts a folder on the desk, sits down, and then turns to talk to me. “I owe you an apology…” she begins.
Grabbing the straps behind her ears she removes her mask so that I can see her face. Throwing the mask on the desk, she continues; sounding relaxed. “I’m a tiny, frosty-haired, old lesbian. I think that makes me a little rough around the edges sometimes.” She smiles at this comment about herself and then gazes at me solemnly. “Regardless, I know I haven’t been real nice to you since you’ve been working here,” she adds.
Taking off my own mask, I continue listening to the principal (Samantha) talk.
“Your students love you. I don’t pretend to understand everything you are doing with them, but I was motivated the other day to go and read your curriculum proposal… you know, that thing that got you this grant in the first place, whatever you call it. A lot of what you wrote about entertainment’s role in education makes a lot of sense.”
After saying this, Principal Sam reaches in her drawer, grabs her electronic cigarette, and then takes a drag right in front of me. She then slides it back in the drawer like it’s no big deal. Seeing this reminds me that this school is just a bit different.
“Thank you,” I say to the compliment. “I can’t even remember everything I wrote in that. Did Mr. Bernard give it to you?”
“He had emailed it to me a long time ago, but I never actually read it.” The tiny, frosty-haired, old lesbian chuckles to herself. “I know I often sound like a broken record Jose but getting these kids to graduate is my number one priority. I believe in rigorous standards-based education—it’s how I was trained, but maybe that’s not the most important thing for these students…” She coughs loudly, then adds, “If you tell anyone I ever said that though I’d deny it completely.”
I appreciate her confiding in me. Feeling comfortable, I ask the question that is weighing on me. “Have you heard anything about my funding yet?”
Principal Sam spins around and grabs a piece of paper off her desk. Turning back to me she stretches out her hand. I grab the piece of paper from her; not sure if I should be excited by this or worried.
It is a printout of an email correspondence between Principal Sam and someone that I do not know. I do not need to know who it is to understand what I have just read.
Once Principal Sam sees that I have finished reading, she says, “Your last day is January 22nd… the last day of term 2.”
There is a place below my heart and just above my stomach, it is where the anxiety lives that can make me physically ill at times; it is where I fight that empty feeling, that thing—whatever it is—begins to gasp for air at Principal Sam’s words.
I knew the chances were slim my program would see additional funding. Between the Candace tragedy, and bouncing back and forth between remote and in-person-learning, the year has been just too chaotic for my program to gain any traction. I have not heard from Mr. Bernard either, so what the principal has just told me is not too surprising…still it hurts.
After the shovel incident with my dad, and that adventure my mind had while snow-blowing, I was inspired to prove to the world that I was a writer and spent my nights manically putting together this vision of mine into words. I’d write for a few hours once Sirena fell asleep. I found this the best time to really focus without life’s distractions.
Each night I would take a hit of weed and drink an energy shot to keep myself awake and motivated to finish what I had started. When I finally did go to bed I’d listen to Book Author Success Affirmations through my headphones as I drifted off to sleep:
I have a story to tell. It is a story that needs to be told. And it is a story that will be told…. I write in pursuit of the truth. And I tell that truth through fiction…. I can be a force for good in the world. I make a difference through the stories that I write….
Somewhere down the road a doctor will say to me, “Thinking one’s work is so important is often a prequel to a nervous breakdown.” I had never heard that before. But they were right.
What I ended up writing was just the introduction and first chapter to a story. I remember thinking that the the beginning of a story is the most important part and convinced myself that I had a damn good one. I figured that if I could get people interested in this story, I’d invite them to follow me as I finished writing it—chapter by chapter.
As a business minded individual, I thought readers could pay me a little for each chapter and that would be how I’d make a living. Could you imagine if J.K. Rowling had done this with her Harry Potter books? I reasoned.
When I was done writing this introduction and first chapter, I purchased a website domain that I’d use to present my story to the world. In my mind there were people out there that needed it—FAST—before it was too late, so I was in a rush to get it to them as soon as possible and figured that this was the most efficient way to make that happen.
Once I had the site looking good, I then looked up every major newspaper email address I could find across the country; every news channel; every magazine; every talk-show on television and radio; anyone and anything I could think of that had an email publicly available. The logic behind this maneuver was simple: If I send this email to enough people, someone will discover my story.
The title of the email I constructed read: “There Is A Problem.” Knowing I’d send it out on April Fool’s Day I wrote “THIS IS NO JOKE!” in the contents of the email in big capital letters next to a quote that read, “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one.”
That quote was from a show called The Newsroom. The email contained just these words and a link to my website. That was it…This was how I would get discovered.
Over the course of one long night, I sent this email out to all those email addresses I had gathered. Once I was done, I decided I’d send it to family and friends asking for their help getting my story some attention—A GIGANTIC MISTAKE!
“Jose everyone is calling worried about you.”
Rather than calling me, most of the people that got my email contacted Sirena. To this day I still don’t know what my friends and family read or did not read, as it is a chapter of my life no one talks about; they do me the favor of pretending like it never happened.
While I thank them now for not reminding me of this event, back then I was furious no one took me seriously. Everyone was concerned for my well-being and my mental health—But had they read what I wrote? … Did they understand the potential of this?
These questions drove me crazy back then. Literally crazy. And that email quickly became the new most embarrassing moment of my life. But that would not be the case for long. (Dumb, Dumb, Dumb.)
No one responded to my email. Literally no one. Two days after I sent it Sirena and I get into an argument over a family event we are supposed to go to: “You should go so that everyone knows you’re okay!” she yelled.
I refused to go and then walked out of the house with Sirena shouting behind me.
If I was Forest Gump, this is when I would have simply started running. Because if life was really like a box of chocolates—like Mama said—I definitely got the shit one. But I wasn’t Forest Gump, so instead I simply jumped in our family minivan and started driving; not certain of what I was doing at first.
Our minivan had grey leather seats. It was freezing out that day and I remember them being cold against my back and thighs. As those seats started to warm up, so did my frustration with this life…and with myself.
Realizing I had left my phone on the counter before storming out of the house, an opportunity presented itself: I would hide from the world for a bit—Run Forest, Run!
***End of Breaking Knews***
After leaving Principal Sam’s office I go straight to Lily.
“How’d it go?” she says; knowing that I had just come from my meeting.
I shut the door behind me. “Good and bad,” I begin, sitting down beside her. “She was really nice to me, but funding for the program didn’t come through. My last day is January 22nd.”
Without delay, Lily responds. “Listen—I figured that would happen. I have a few ideas on how to get you funding that I’ve started working on already. Don’t give up on me, I got you.”
She smiles confidently but does not elaborate. “Did you talk to Sirens yet?” she says; quickly changing the subject.
Sirena had sold her house—our house. It became official two weeks ago when she closed on the deal. The housing market is still surprisingly high even with the pandemic; in fact, prices are even higher than when it began. Sirena made an absolute fortune on the house.
Lily had begun calling Sirena ‘Sirens’ in reference to a story I told her about when I was staying at the halfway house. The guys at the house jokingly began calling her this whenever they saw me on the phone. They claimed that if I did not leave her alone, she’d call the cops and have a restraining order put on me. Hence the nickname: Sirens.
In selling the house, Sirena had secretly made plans to move in with a boyfriend I didn’t even know she had. I can’t deny the two of them make for a cute couple but keeping their relationship and plans to move in together secret really stung. If Sirena would have just told me about what she was doing, coping with all of it would have been much easier on me. Unfortunately, Sirena no longer seems interested in what will make things easier on me.
Over the last two months—while all this was going on—Lily was who I vented to. So, I answer her question. “Yes, I did talk to her. She gave me a check for the tax credit like she promised.”
Sitting up, both of Lily’s hands slap against the desk in front of her. “That’s it!?” she shouts, her eyes bulging.
“Yup,” I reply calmly.
We’d been debating whether or not Sirena would give me any money from the sale of the house. Honestly, I really thought she’d give me something.
“She realizes you lost everything in that fire too right?” Lily says loudly. “And that you’re taking care of her son?”
I don’t respond to the question as Lily lets out a sigh of annoyance. “Did you at least ask if she was gonna put money in an account for him?”
“Why would I ask her that?” I say, dispiritedly. “I don’t ask her anything anymore. She is literally incapable of being honest with me right now.”
“I just can’t believe she didn’t give you anything for all the work you and your dad did building that house.” The anger fades from her eyes and Lily now looks disappointed. “What did she say…exactly?”
“That she didn’t owe me anything for all I put her through…” I picture Sirena saying the words. “And that I’d forgotten all she’s done for me—oh—and that giving someone like me a lot of money is not a smart thing to do.”
“What a cunt…”
“I’m sorry but I can’t believe she gave you nothing—sorry—not nothing—she gave you that tax money for the kid you have all the time.” She frowns at me. “Did you at least stand up for yourself?”
This is a loaded question. I am awful at handling confrontation. My heart beats fast and I can’t think straight. In early recovery it was one of my biggest triggers and I’ve learned to avoid it whenever possible. Lily knows all about this….
That conversation about money between Sirena and I occurred outside of her Jeep in my parent’s driveway; a brand-new black Jeep that she had just purchased for herself. Sitting in that Jeep was Sirena’s daughter; who was the same age as my twins. Sirena had been married previously also. This girl had been in my life for a long time and I still love her. She will forever be a part of my story whether she realizes it or not. While I did not argue over money because of my own issues with confrontation, seeing this girl kept my frustration in check that day. She had seen her mother and I argue enough already. A reality that weighed on me as I looked at her watching the two of us from inside that Jeep.
“Jose—” starts Lily.
I interrupt. “Can we just drop it? I’ve fed you a lot of crap over these past few weeks about Sirena, and that’s on me, but I did really put her through hell. It’s just money…I’ll get over it.”
Lily is many things, but her ability to be understanding is what I respect about her most. I watch her take a deep breath after I speak; sucking in the words she wants to say.
Lily then slowly interlocks her hands and places them gently on the desk in front of her. Straightening up, she turns her frown into a big smile, looks at me, and agrees to my demands. “Alright, I’ll drop it,” she says. “But karmas not a bitch Jose, it’s a mirror. Just remember that. But I will do as you wish—” she leans back and speaks a little louder, “I will not talk about cuntface again!”
Week 15: Friday, December 18th, 2020
“The ‘D’ Words”
I’d like to start today by asking you this: What makes a story compelling? What makes us want to keep watching? What do most all good stories/movies/shows need?
In literary circles, it’s called an Antagonists. An antagonist is an adversary and most often the bad guy. Let’s just keep it simple and call them bullies.
Our obsession with entertainment over the last one-hundred years, or more, has fueled the subconcious belief of ours that bullies are everywhere. Following this line of thinking, if everyone is a bully, then we are all bullies. And it appears that all of us have been humping like rabbits resulting in a world full of bully rabbits.
Are you a Bully Rabbit?
Now, before you go and fight me on this, let’s assume you are right: Bad guys are everywhere—The world is full of Bully Rabbits.
Even if this is true, good people are everywhere too. So, let’s just agree to disagree and move on here.
Today, there are millions of people standing on a ledge. They are about to fall, but no one is pushing them. Do some research. Find out how many people a year die by suicide and compare it to the number of deaths caused by crime. I’m not going to do it for you. If you don’t believe me, Nel, prove me wrong. But if you’re going to keep reading then you need to trust me when I say this: We are more likely to die by our own doing than at the hands of a “Bad Guy.”
My argument today is this: Entertainment is the purest type of Magic on the planet. I’ve made this argument in this class of ours already, yet I’m going to continue to argue it until you finally accept it as truth.
For as long as humans have walked this Earth, the ability to tells stories that inspire people, that give people hope, that teach people, that motivate people, that transcend the way we think, is Magic: pure and simple. That being said, the ability to tell stories that scare people, that give people anxiety, that make people worry, that frighten people, that corrupt the way we think, is also Magic: pure and simple.
Entertainment is a wonderful thing. It distracts us from the mundane and can transform us into the unknown. Ironically, entertainment has in fact been found to act like a drug on the brain. With the internet today, our entire lives revolve around entertainment. No matter who you are, or where you are, entertainment connects us.
As proof, let us consider Carl Icahn; a multi-billionaire financier now in his mid-eighties. A man many of you probably don’t even know, yet a man that has control over your lives in ways you could not imagine. What in the world could you have in common with such a person?
In a documentary I recently watched, I saw Carl Icahn casually refer to himself as “being like Ray Donovan.” Ray Donovan is a character in a show many of us have seen or at least heard of: he’s a good guy doing bad things. I bring this up because—just like Carl Icahn—many of us compare ourselves to the characters we see on tv. In that, Carl Icahn is more like us and we are more like him than we may realize.
(Just in case you’re wondering, if I could be a vigilante character from the screen, I’d be Denzel Washington’s character in The Equalizer: a dude that speaks soft but can kick ass strategically if absolutely necessary.)
Let me offer a short history lesson for you.
Superman, the character, was created in the 1930’s by two teenage Jewish immigrants; Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (who I reference as evidence that great artists can come from anywhere and also out of respect since the two men were screwed financially on their creation). The first issue highlighting this man in tights was released on April 18th, 1938. The Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted until around 1939. Was it a coincidence that this hero showed up right when the depression was ending?
That depression was much different than the psychological depression some people think humanity is facing at the moment. I’ve read many books to try and understand these times but still feel as if I can’t possibly comprehend what it was like to live back then. After that the World War began. It was a time we have a hard time relating to. A world with limited resources fighting in wars that seemed so far away. Children had to practice wearing gas masks in schools back then—just in case. Can you imagine?
Many stories I’ve read find people confused about what is really going on then—scared—not knowing who or what to believe. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
One of the things that made Superman a hero in 1939 was his ability to help anyone on the planet by flying at super speed through the clouds. Whether a high-tech missile was headed your way, or you were in an intense battle against some secret-agent Russian boogeyman, he could be there in an instant. There was not a threat he couldn’t handle and not a place he couldn’t be.
Back then, the ability we have today to communicate with one another instantaneously from anywhere would have been considered science-fiction. The internet would have been a superpower beyond comprehension. It would have been like seeing a man drop down to Earth from a cloud above. (Kinda ironic we call the internet The Cloud isn’t it?)
Here is what I’ve come to believe: Entertainment is a superpower, the internet is a form of entertainment, therefore, we all have superpowers.
So, what can we do?
Sometimes the world around us is not what we want it to be. But we have the power to change it. If you are up to this challenge then I advise you to remember The D Words: Destination, Determination, and Deliberation.
J.K. Rawlings taught me this. In her Harry Potter books she was describing the ability to Disapparate: to magically disappear from one place and reappear in another.
In the fictional stories, Harry and his classmates had to learn from their teachers how to do this. In the real world, people pay a lot of money to attend trainings where they teach you just like Harry’s teachers did. These are motivational seminars intended to make your dreams a reality (think of Tony Robbins).
These amazing people will teach you how to transform the life you are living into the one you deserve. According to Wilkie Twycross; Ministry of Magic official and Apparition Instructor in the Harry Potter books, one had to recall The Three Ds to successfully Disapparate: “One had to be completely Determined to reach one’s Destination, and move without haste, but with Deliberation.”
Did this author accidentally include this lesson in her stories? —Or—Was she perhaps trying to teach YOU something? Did she maybe hope that her story would someday inspire people in the real world?
I think she did—That’s some real Magic shit right there!
Before we end here, I’d like you to think of another superhero for a moment: Batman.
If you look at the story of this character shown on screen over the years you will see that his character exists in a darker and darker world. Is it a coincidence that this character’s world gets darker right along with our own?
The latest Batman movie; set to be released in 2022, has a new trailer for it that I just watched with my boys the other day. The end of it features this hero of ours smashing in some guys face and referring to himself as “Vengeance”. The movie looks like it’s gonna be awesome and is yet another example of how feeding anger is a profitable endeavor. But what if these movies are bleeding into our reality?
I don’t mean to be a party pooper as I know this alarming to consider. And maybe I’m just acting like a dorky dad by bringing it up. But I truly believe this is something we all need to start looking into more. In fact, I think our future depends on it.
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“Feeding anger is a profitable endeavor.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not.
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“We must engage and rearrange and turn this planet back to one.”
—Are You Gonna Go My Way by Lenny Kravitz