Does anyone else find this curious and telling about what's important to Americans re: schools? Over the last couple of weeks, I've performed informal data collection (think lists with tally marks that I briefly considered making into a pie chart, but then got distracted) from observations of social media posts, conversations, and news articles, the top three reasons people want schools open (don't even get me started on that verbiage - schools never closed; buildings did, but I digress) are as follows:
1. Parents/Guardians need childcare so they can work
2. Kids need structure
3. Kids need socialization
Notice the utter lack of mention of any sort of academics, free exchange of ideas, career training, or mentoring. I'll address these things from my own perspective, and explain the flaws.
1. Yes, parents/guardians need childcare so they can work. However, when did assuring free childcare become the job of school districts? Why isn't this the *employer's* issue? Why isn't a battle cry being raised to Corporate America to work with employees and create schedules conducive to childcare, or to offer temporary on-site care for employees, or a benefit to cover costs? Why isn't the government stepping in to fill the gap, rather than threatening to cut funding to schools (don't even get me started on Betsy DeVos)?
2. Kids need structure. Again, schools provide structure. However, structure can and should also be provided at home with a little creativity and clear set of expectations. If there hasn't been structure during distance learning, the fault does not lie with the school system.
3. Kids need socialization. However, in Covid times, kids will face forward wearing masks sitting in rows. They will attend school in shifts, not necessarily with friends. They will not be allowed to talk or work in small groups on projects. Lunch may be in classrooms with kids arranged apart from each other, or with assigned seats in a cafeteria. Activities will be either canceled or cut back. Even in "normal" times, socialization is limited to fractured minutes here and there during passing periods and lunch - about 45-50 minutes of a school day (plus short recess periods in elementary). The rest of the time is presumably spent on academic endeavors. Socialization mostly happens outside of school anyway, through gatherings with friends, sports, and extracurriculars (don't even get me started on the incomprehensible and illogical way it's decided that some activities are allowed to go on and others are not).
TL;DR: The top three reasons people want schools open can all be accomplished without schools or teachers. Let that rattle around in your brain for a minute.
I am "highly qualified" to teach English, according to the designation afforded me by the great state of Indiana. This craft I've chosen, which naturally involves structuring my day and promoting healthy social interaction, is mainly focused on facilitating the expression of independent ideas, critical thinking skills, and most importantly demonstrating the power of words and how to use them to manipulate readers and listeners. I did not get a Masters degree to be a babysitter who oversees playgroups. I'm not saying whether in-person or virtual is better. Both have the potential to be ridiculously effective when done well. But perhaps it's time to reflect on the overall attitudes toward schools and teachers and their purpose in society. Are they bastions of intellectual development and growth, or warehouses in which the kids congregate while parents/guardians work? In the end, what messages are our kids getting from the adults about the importance of school? Is it any wonder so many kids check out?
As we go back to the hallowed halls of school buildings, however and whenever that may be, I implore you to emphasize the importance of education being the primary focus of schools, regardless of whether your school offers hybrid, virtual, or in-person learning. Kids hear you. If your conversation revolves around schools being childcare, or for socialization, that's how kids will treat it. If you talk about how teachers grow minds, create strong, thinking adults, and get kids ready to launch into the world, what a richer experience it will be for us all. Just the ramblings of a madwoman, I suppose. Or perhaps not.
Recently, I found myself hollering at people on television (full disclosure: I was watching Tiger King on the Netflix) for standing too close to each other and touching not only their own faces, but the faces of others! Sometimes, multiple faces at once! A mere month ago, I wandered wantonly through public places without a care in the world; now I judge reality television characters for their personal proximity choices (I judge for more, but let's just focus on this one point of interest for now). The world, mercurial in the best of times, continues to shift and boggle the mind.
In these times, there exist only two acceptable topics of conversation: the global pandemic and Joe Exotic. Both boast confusion, intrigue, the inability to look away, and a tendency toward unhealthy obsession. Both cause the emotion of, "Wow, it could be so much worse for me." Both inspire crossover memes of great hilarity. Both define who we really are, in our most base and uncomfortable skins. The insane juxtaposition of the two exemplify a) how little control we have over our lives and b) what weird and terrifying things lurk beneath the surface of our seemingly normal collective existence. I wonder if Joe Exotic ever imagined he'd be the distraction we need from stay-in-place orders issued forth from government entities?
Yesterday, it was announced that school is going to elearning for the remainder of this year. This caused more distress in me than watching Carole Baskin (f-in' Carole Baskin) attempt to explain away the disappearance of her husband. Had I known a month ago, when it was still okay to move freely, that March 13 was the last time I'd see my students this year, I would've certainly spent that last week telling them how phenomenal they are. I would've laughed at the specious reasoning only middle schoolers have instead of trying to redirect them to the more serious task at hand. I would've stopped and heard more of their rambling stories. I would've just stopped. Teaching them through a computer, while acceptable, just can't compare to sitting in a group of brilliant kids discussing the twists and turns of Never Let Me Go or helping them process the Boxer Rebellion in preparation for Boxers and Saints. I'm sad for my own children, who are home for the duration - one from her freshman year of college; the other two from their sophomore year of high school. No sports. No friends. No nothing.
I consider the kids who now, not unlike Joe Exotic's tigers, are trapped in the cage of poverty and neglect and abuse. For so many, school provides meals, hugs, acceptance, and safety. What will happen to them? Who is looking out for the least of these? How can I help when I can't leave my house?
I consider what "normal" will look like after spending months hedgehogged in our homes, imagining microscopic death molecules in every exhale. The loud kids next door were blowing bubbles the other day, and all I could think was that those bubbles were just floating containers of disease. Will we ever be able to group together in the same way? Will every cough, sneeze, and wheeze ever be just a cough, sneeze, and wheeze again? Will my diet soon consist of expired Walmart meat?
I consider how people have fractured into three camps - the conspiracy theorists (f-in' Carole Baskin), the doomsday types, and the political fanatics. I suffer from social media fatigue and the realization that nothing polarizes people like a pandemic. I tend to be a realist/borderline fatalist. I don't want false hope; I want facts and stats and truth. The tremendous volume of information out there in the interwebs tangles my brain and turns me into the anointed sovereign of sighs and groans. I realize Joe Exotic's story pretty much exemplifies the insanity of vain attempts to secure the actual truth of anything. Joe Exotic is an extended metaphor, and that's why we're drawn to the show. Or maybe not. Too much time in my own head is terrifying enough without conflating reality TV with life. But what else have we got to do in the foreseeable future? To quote other geniuses, Bill and Ted, "Be good to each other." Have grace, Help when you can. Don't think too much about the Tiger King.
So many resources have been shared over the last week or so, it can make one's head spin! However, I haven't seen much for gifted and/or older students, so I created a doc including several links for self-directed learning. FREE self-directed learning, that is! Simply click on the logos and enjoy!
Holy cow. I left off my last post with the tongue-in-cheek advice to set the bar low. But now I mean it. My state's governor just signed an order that schools must remain closed through May 1. This whipped of a frenzy of insanity on FB groups I follow (note to self: take a break from social media; it's not helping). Some parents praise the decision. Some cry, "It's a media hoax!" I don't think it's a media hoax. That makes no sense to me. I assume the people in the unfortunate position to have to make hard decisions that impact families, businesses, and the economy know more than I do and truly don't wish our entire society to collapse.
There are huge issues facing people, driving the fear, which I will explore in the next couple of days after I have time to finesse the thoughts into words, but right now I'm going to address my biggest pet peeve that's risen out of this mess - the people belittling others who express any sort of disappointment over the losses in personal lives over this time of quarantine, in particular those going after the kids.
I read a post earlier that truly stuck in my craw (see: note to self above). A parent posted about her teen's crushed spirit over the cancelation of a life milestone. Someone commented that there were bigger things to worry about and get over it. WHAT? This is why we need to set the bar low for our kids right now, especially the seniors or oldest-in-the-school aged students. Anticipating the awesome privileges and rites of passage and traditions associated with being the oldest for years, their time in school (at least for the foreseeable future) was abruptly cut off with sometimes only hours of notice. They didn't get to say goodbye to friends and teachers. Over just a day or two, mandates unspooled; first social distance and then social isolation. Proms canceled. Graduations canceled. Sports seasons canceled. College entrance exams canceled. And then to have to listen to adults telling the kids that these things don't matter? That people are dying and suck it up? Telling them to log onto a computer and navigate elearning that's never been part of their lives or their teachers' lives before? What happened to grace and compassion? I have told all my students and my own kids that they are allowed to be disappointed. Heck, I'm a runner and several of my races that I've worked toward are canceled or deferred. I AM ALLOWED TO BE DISAPPOINTED and so are our kids. This does not diminish the seriousness of what's happening in the world. It's a scary and uncertain time. We can all realize this, and also realize that it just sucks (in the words of the kids) that life experiences shuttered to the side right now can't be replicated.
I'm setting the bar low for now. My students have work they're expected to complete - but I have to be cognizant of the fact that English class may not be the priority for a little while because they're overwhelmed with the emotions of the pandemic and the searing sadness of missing some pretty great life events. I'm setting the bar low for my kids. I had to move my daughter out of her dorm and she was devastated; her first real taste of independence turned sour. My sons miss their friends and sports workouts. It's okay for them to be bummed out. Yes, they need to finish their elearning, but I'm not going to micromanage them right now. My house may not be as clean as I'd like with five people here all day, every day. That's okay, because I'm processing a lot, too. I urge you all to give yourself permission to give yourselves grace, the permission to be sad and disappointed and even a little angry that things are so out of your control right now. The time will return for great rigor and schedules and tidy homes and perfect meals. It always does.
So this is what a pandemic feels like. Surreal. Unsettling. Confusing. Bananas. Bonkers. Since I'm a teacher, I'm furiously creating online learning opportunities for my students. Since I'm a mother, I'm bracing myself for a LOT of togetherness with my teens, including the college girl who is home for the next little while. I've been ruminating on this crazy week. The time changed. There was a full moon. A Friday the 13th. It was hot. It was cold. It rained. It was windy. Right now, snow is falling so hard out my window I can hardly see. Last week, Coronavirus fears were labeled a "media hoax." Now, we're in a national emergency. I've been woken in the night with fractured lyrics rushing through my head for parody songs. Some samples include:
My Corona (sung to "My Sharona")
"You make my breathing hum, breathing hum/Don't you dare touch your eyes - Corona"
"There's no soap at home, soap at home/It's a sin to high five - Corona"
Covid 19 (sung to "Come On, Eileen")
"Covid 19/A virus so mean/At this moment/You are quarantined"
The really fabulous moms have posted detailed calendars that make me break out in hives. One of them started with a 5am wake-up for "meditation and movement," going on to include craft time, kitchen skills training, family physical fitness, and cooking dinner together. All I want to do is get through the next few weeks without losing my ever-loving mind. I need space. I need alone time. I need quiet. This will not happen. I did create my own schedule, which I'll share below - and is, frankly, ambitious. What we all need to do is have a sense of humor, grace with one another, and the humility to realize that not one of us on social media really has any clue what's going to happen next, what's conflated, what's understated. Feel free to set the bar low. I'm okay with that, and you should be too.
Over the past year, in several conversations, former high school classmates have exclaimed, "Wow! You haven't changed since high school!" Well, my friends, I've been thinking on that one quite a bit lately and come to the conclusion that this should never be said to anyone. Unless, of course, that "anyone" is a sworn nemesis or the like. It's decidedly NOT a compliment. Let me explain.
One can take that statement two ways - looks haven't changed, or personality hasn't changed. Either is a terrible thing to imply. For starters, let's go with the "looks" interpretation. I'm 49. I've birthed three children, including a set of twins. Sleep eludes me to the point that I often stop and concentrate very hard to make sure what I experience is real and not a hallucination (sometimes, I'm still not sure). My eyes are shifty; my skin mottled. "Turkey neck" creeped in when I wasn't looking about a year ago. Without very expensive and questionable eye cream, saggy bags would dominate the upper half of my face. If this is what I looked like in high school - presumably, I did, if I "haven't changed" - so much about my lonely weekend nights sitting around watching Dallas and Falcon Crest, daydreaming that someone would call and invite me out, becomes clear. I suppose that looking like a haggard, overworked, sleep-deprived deviant curbs one's social life in the teen years. No wonder I didn't go to the prom (something from which I still haven't recovered). Who wants to date a girl who looks like a mom? I don't remember having an "I want to speak to the manager" haircut in high school, but who can remember anything at my age? And then there's my squat Hobbit body and dreadful Fred Flintstone feet...well, maybe that part is still accurate.
If personality is in question, there's no denying that High School Courtney was the antithesis of Modern Day Courtney. In high school, I sat alone most days, petrified of everyone. My self-esteem, well, what self-esteem? There exists an "awkward" gene in my bloodline, and I'm sad to report it did not skip a generation. Awkwardness flows through my veins like sludge through a drainage tunnel. It's malignant, uncontrollable, and wildly unpredictable. On the rare occasions I did open my mouth, ridiculous statements tumbled forth, leaving people staring, mouths agape and eyes confused, before simply walking away. Refining my social technique took time and practice, but I can now carry on a decent conversation with about a 68% rate of normalcy. Over the years, I've learned to embrace the awkwardness and make it work for me, but in the ghastly high school years I had no such skill. As a middle-aged lady, I also don't care any more what people think and it's liberating. In a scant few years, I plan to slide into old lady eccentricity - you have been warned.
So please, PLEASE stop telling people they haven't changed since high school. Overthinkers like yours truly lose sleep they cannot afford to lose (see: awkward/sleep-deprived/deviant) worrying even more about the impression left behind in the hallowed halls of the secondary school from which they matriculated lo these many years ago. Unless it's your actual nemesis. Then, fire away, cackling an inward wicked cackle when he or she takes it as a compliment.
,So, I realized that I haven't written anything of substance for nearly a year. Writing, breath of my mind, simply dried up with no warning. Just as suddenly, crashing and jangling from my brain, words of heavy-hearted confusion tumbled as I heard my 15-year-old son relay his plans for when he's homeless. Driving home from band practice, this smart, funny kid told me, in excruciating detail, his confidence in a future sleeping on the streets.
Stunned, I asked him why he a) thinks he'll be homeless and b)would believe he wouldn't have a place to live with me. He told a tale of school personnel pounding into his head the idea that he won't get into college without a 3.8 GPA. If he doesn't go to college, he won't get a worthwhile job. Without a worthwhile job, he's destined for the streets. Oh, and he'd rather suffer the elements than ask for help (one of the unfortunate traits he's inherited from me).
Lamenting the clear lack of hope and vision for the future now evident in my son, I reflected for hours into the night upon what society and schools impress onto kids. As a teacher, I understand the pressure to succeed and excel. But the definitions of succeed and excel are warped and narrow. What about the kids who aren't college bound or college interested? What about the kids who find no relevance or meaning in school, but have something to offer the world, if only they were understood and made to feel equal to the scholars?
After years of spinning on the public school hamster wheel, I switched positions this year to a private school for gifted children. I spend my days nurturing middle school minds in a supportive environment with small class sizes, freedom from high-stakes testing, teachers who are treated as professionals with plenty of planning time, and parents who exude kindness and involvement. Students assume adults care about them, and the respect I'm shown is unprecedented in a school environment. While pondering my son's plight, I also toyed with the idea of what a world it would be if all students participated in the "private school" experience. All students benefit from happy, balanced teachers, small classes, resources, and freedom of self-expression unencumbered by the pressure of standardized testing. Where would my son's thoughts be, had he gone through his 10 years of school in such a place? Or even better, in a place where his passions drove his learning?
Today, riveted, I spent a couple of hours of a conference held at my school in rapt attention (those of you who know me understand how shocking this is - my mind tends to wander into an undiagnosed ADD haze fairly quickly when I have to sit still) as two teachers from Colorado described their Denver-based self-directed school. At this school, students determine their own learning units based on personal interests. They learn how to learn. What more do kids need? Why put unengaged students through the stress and anxiety surrounding test scores and numbers and memorizing things that can be easily found at our fingertips (dates of wars? calculus? the Pythagorean Theorem?). Who decided what kids "should" learn and why? Why can't they decide for themselves? Why is allowing students autonomy to pursue passions and grow their worlds so anathema to the general public? Saddened, I resigned myself to the reality that my son would've thrived in such a place.
I don't have any answers, and not for the first time I found myself longing for the ease of being a mom in the preschool years when problems came quickly, and went just as quickly with a snuggle and a story. Brokenhearted for the myriad kids who don't "fit" the school paradigm, I created a quick fantasy of a school in which every student enjoys knowing his or her value AS A PERSON, not tied to a GPA or a test score. A place in which no one creates contingency plans for homelessness at the age of 15 because of the message sent to him or her BY THE SCHOOL (and let's face it, I'm not innocent here either - I've had several "come to Jesus" talks with my son revolving around grades and the future). All I can do is hope, and listen to, support, and love the kids I have and those with whom I have been entrusted.
In January, I had to go to a biometric screening in order to keep my health insurance at an affordable level. The nurse made me get on a scale and then viciously stabbed my finger for a blood sample. It was horrible, and not only because the numbers revealed what I already knew - I'd become fat and unhealthy. I was told a few years back that weight gain following a hysterectomy (at age 41) was likely here to stay due to hormonal imbalance, and It seemed that diagnosis was correct.
Like most working moms, I feel guilty when I don't spend every waking moment doing things for my kids and husband, and when I spend time with them I feel guilty that I'm not working. This leads to fat, frumpy, stressed person who's lost herself somewhere along the way. Then, my brother died at 44 from an overdose. My mom died four years ago from breast cancer at 64. I learned that my father, whom I hadn't seen nor heard from since I was 15, died in 2011 at age 63. My mind jolted and I lost many nights' sleep worried that my health would take me from my children and husband, if not through early death, then certainly through being a burden to them, unable to move easily or be involved in their lives. I decided to be selfish and get myself back.
After a visit and advice from a Fat Lady Doctor, I embarked on a low-carb, low-calorie diet plan and started exercising again. I signed up to run a half marathon and started counting steps. Half marathon training began in earnest in July, and by that point I was down 30 pounds. I roused at the crack of dawn on Saturdays to do "long" runs with a group, and hobbled through the prescribed plan each week. I wheezed through 5 and 8 minute runs and cursed my Fred Flintstone feet and Hobbit body. But I persevered, since the running is raising funds for clean water in Africa through Team World Vision.
As I took this time to watch my diet and do four increasingly longer runs each week, the feeling that I was letting down my children, husband, principal, and students weighed heavily on my mind and soul. What right do I have to take precious and waning time away from them - my oldest child is a senior and leaving for college soon; my twins are freshmen. I missed part of some soccer games and was late to a couple of football games due to my Saturday run commitment. My kids said they didn't care, but my guilt was ever present. Why do we, as women, feel we must always subjugate ourselves to everyone else?
Fast forward to today - I've lost almost 60 pounds and my longest run has been 10 miles WITHOUT STOPPING, BARFING, OR DYING. I think of a 5K as easy, and recently placed in the top 1/3 of runners in my age group in a women's run. I've had to purchase new clothes in much smaller sizes. I feel better and look better than I have in years. I realized that I enjoy running long distances. The solitude is soothing and cathartic. I pop in some headphones, get into a rhythm, and go. I am slow - my latest run was 9 miles at 11:59 minutes per mile average. My PR for a 5K is 34 minutes, and my 10K PR is 1 hour, 12 minutes. Slow, slow, slow. But I feel good. Guilty, but good.
After the training and the race end, a few women I've gotten to know through training and I are starting up our own running club - the Menopausal Milers. We're going to meet on Saturdays and claim ourselves for an hour or so each week, running or walking. There are a few ground rules: no one with young and cellulite-free thighs; no "elite" runners; no guilt (by our age, the kids are sleeping until noon and won't realize we're gone anyway); no boys; NO PEP TALKERS. Pep talkers are the worst. You only get pep-talked if you suck. No one pep talks the winners. Reach out here or through Facebook if you'd like to join our group! You can be a virtual Menopausal Miler if you're not in the area... if I can do this, anyone can. I'm lumpy, jiggly, and my feet are weird. Please join in. Experience the thrill of meeting challenges and seeing your body do things you've never thought possible. Connect with other ladies. Gossip. Toss the guilt aside. And maybe drop a pants size. The possibilities are endless. Choose you.
I've reached the age at which I have a child on the cusp of adulthood and flying the nest to higher education. To that end, we have begun the grueling process of The College Visit. In days of yore, most kids I knew arrived - sight unseen - at a state school. Which state school one attended depended largely on grades and which sports teams one preferred. The two flagship schools in my state, IU and Purdue, were not only bitter rivals, but also considered the "better" schools. The kids with a bunch of Cs on their report cards went to the other schools. We graduated and entered the grind of careers, families, and mortgages. The end.
I naively thought the process would be the same for my kids. HA! Now, colleges take attendance and having visited the campus (or not) can make or break admittance. We live in an age in which a kid, like my daughter, can have a 4.3 GPA, a 30 ACT, a 1400 SAT (since we are relatively poor and can't pay for the thousands many somehow afford for extensive test prep and tutoring, these scores are the best we can hope for and I think they're pretty stellar - but what do I know) and be looked upon - by some schools - as academically weak (?!?). There are honors colleges, fellows, research institutes. College is way more involved than I remember.
So far, we have visited Butler, IU, Notre Dame, and DePauw. Sadly, my pleas to apply to Pepperdine so I can have an excuse to visit Malibu on a regular basis have fallen on deaf ears. While I couldn't wait to flee the midwest as soon as possible, I've spawned a homebody with no sense of adventure. But I digress. We embark on a pilgrimage to Nashville soon for the Vanderbilt trip - her "reach" school. Yes, apparently we are supposed to categorize and rank the schools now in to "safety," "target," and "reach" schools. The "safety" schools are the less desirable schools, but guaranteed admission. It's a point of shame if one must ever utter the phrase, "I had to attend my 'safety' school." Heaven forbid someone should have to endure four years at a *gasp* state university these days, even though most now require a very respectable 3.4 GPA. Don't get me started on the cost on any of these institutions, which makes my eyes bulge and my hands tremble. Merit aid, anyone?
As we amble through the campus on the tours, usually guided by wholesome and earnest work-study students extolling the virtues of their particular institution of higher learning, I formulate questions in my mind that I am dying to ask just for effect, but do not, lest I ruin my daughter's chances at admission. She is aware of this list of outlandish queries, and often gives me the side-eye as a reminder NOT to voice my crazy in front of people. These questions include the following:
1. My preferred mode of transportation is a hot air balloon. Do you have anywhere I can store it?
2. I have a wolverine as my emotional support animal. Can this be accommodated?
3. Do you have a carny or clown preparation program in your school of performing arts?
4. How many of your graduates are still living in their mothers' basements because they can't afford to live on their own with the massive debt they have from paying $60K a year for a liberal arts degree? Is that number higher or lower than the 96% cited as having gainful employment in 6 months after graduation?
5. How many of your graduates' parents will never be able to retire and are spending their twilight years as Wal-Mart greeters, still paying off the Parent Plus loans from said tuition?
6. How many notorious serial killers or cult leaders were once students or faculty at this school? How many students have been murdered in the history of the university? Can I request their dorm rooms?
7. Where can I obtain a medical marijuana prescription locally?
8. Do you offer a "nudist" dorm on campus? Is it co-ed?
9. I own several firearms. Am I allowed to conceal-carry on campus?
10. Why are the dorm rooms so bleak? Why do they smell like mildew and despair?
11. What are your thoughts on public seances and spell-casting? Does the university support these activities?
And so on. My daughter, who is unlike me in every way (which is probably why we get along so well), has created a spreadsheet of her college priorities and listed color-coded pros and cons for each school we've visited thus far. Notre Dame is winning; IU is losing. I'll just be glad when the process is over, and I'll have a couple of years to breathe before starting it all over again with my twin boys. I just know I'll miss the girl when she's off becoming who it is she's supposed to be - which, for the moment, is a neuroscientist. And I'll start practicing my Wal-Mart Greeter skills now.
On Monday, I got the call I've been simultaneously dreading and anticipating for more than two decades. My brother was found dead of a heroin overdose. He was 44. He died alone in his car outside a 7-11 in Colorado.
We were not close as adults, and my feelings toward him were complicated, vacillating from intense love to anger to bitterness. I watched helplessly as the boy who was so full of life that he filled a room with brightness and personality turned into a man who was a slave to addiction, first to alcohol and then to cocaine and heroin. At the time of his death, I hadn't spoken to him in nearly three years, in large part because I didn't know how to get ahold of him and for also self-preservation. But he consumed my thoughts with such force that it often pressed tears out of my eyes. How does a person with such potential fall so low? How did my brother, who had every advantage, end up homeless, at times incarcerated, and addicted to drugs? How did I escape the same fate? After all, we have the genetics of siblings. We grew up in the same home with the same alcoholic father, who abandoned us as teens. I have such guilt that it isn't me, succumbed to his fate. What right do I have to live a life free of such things in a suburban bubble? How did I get lucky and he did not?
When we were kids, we played in our neighborhood, pretending to be superheroes and football stars and Masters of the Universe. We helped each other cross the treacherous creek in the woods at the end of our neighborhood, never once letting the other fall into the perilous depths rushing beneath the log bridge. I once made him wear a dress and pretend to be Laura Ingalls to my Mary during my Little House on the Prairie obsession. He cried - he didn't want to be a boy in a dress - but he went along with it for me. A favorite game was pulling either end of my Stretch Armstrong doll, just waiting for the other to let go, sending the one who waited too long tumbling head over feet across the grass. He was an excellent athlete, good-looking, and collected friends as easily as giant snowflakes falling from the sky. Everyone fell under his spell.
A story my mother told everyone who would listen - almost as a mantra to prove to herself that her drug-addicted son could overcome all his demons - was the time when he walked forward, tugging my Pop by the hand, at a Billy Graham convention to accept the Lord into his life. "He walked forward at Billy Graham," she said. "He walked forward." As the years went on, her voice sometimes faltered during this story, but she remained steadfast in her support and belief that he would hear and remember and return to being that earnest boy proclaiming his faith in front of thousands.
At the lowest moments, I screamed at him just to stop. Just don't call the drug dealer. Just don't jab that needle into yourself. Just. Don't. I saw it as a choice he was making, not as the all-consuming need that I now understand addiction to be. Society will see his death as just another criminal junkie gone, and good riddance. They don't know that he was a son loved fiercely by a mother. That he made such an impression on people that they remember him 25 years after high school and seek me out to ask how he is and tell me stories of what he got up to as a kid. That the impact of his choices affected all of them, too. That he was a talented chef who once cooked for former president Barack Obama when he was chosen to cater the DNC National Convention in Denver. That when he was clean he made an indelible stamp on the world and on the hearts of everyone he touched. That he loved dogs and the wide open sky of the west. That "criminal junkie" did not define all of who he was.
And yet that part of him defined how everyone around him behaved. We loved and feared and pitied and cursed him. Breath caught in our throats every time the phone rang, waiting for news of him, good or bad. He spent as much time in rehab as he did incarcerated, and always went back, finding and using the drugs that must have, for poached moments, given him relief from the inner turmoil that ruled him and his behavior.
His death devastates me in a way I did not anticipate. I expected, when this call inevitably came, that I would react with tight-lipped stoic resignation and carry on. Instead, I curl up and weep for the loss of his life. For the loss of his talent, charisma, and my own hope that he would someday recover. May you rest in peace, my brother.
Courtney is a most fabulous writer and teacher of gifted middle school students. She is the author of two novels - see the "Cate Books" page of this site for information! Watch for updates about future books that need to be part of your personal library. In the meanwhile, enjoy her pithy life observations.