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Parole Review

We take a break from letters to students because I just got a letter.

As a victim, I am entitled to be kept up to date on Jesse’s status within the prison system including transfers, parole hearings, and even personal development stuff like classes.

I received a letter just moments ago stating that Jesse has waived his parole review for this coming June.

This was his chance to get out of the system and reintegrate into community. While I haven’t talked or written to him in a while, it seems counter to how he was when we did meet. It makes me curious to know what is really going on.

I write this as accountability. This is the kick in my butt in needed to write him again. I plan to post again once I have done so with a summary of the content of the letter. If you don’t see that in the next 2 weeks, get on my case. Because I’m good at avoiding hard things.

EDIT: Since not everyone reading this has been walking with me through everything, some clarification. Jesse is the man who killed my brother, so I am registered as a victim in Canada.

Also, I don’t know if this is good or bad. If he is waiving it as an act of integrity, that’s great. If he is waiving it out of fear or because he got into some kind of trouble in prison, that is bad. That’s why I want to write.

 

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A Letter to My Student: Dear F (5th grade)

(Over the holidays, and maybe beyond, I want to write candid letters to students I have had. Some I have taught for a day, some for a year. These are things I wish I could have or would have said to them. An arbitrary initial has been chosen to ensure privacy. The grade is when I taught them. )

Dear F,

Perhaps my hardest day as a teacher was one I shared with you. Not because you did something wrong, but because you finally let me in on what has been happening in your heart and mind.

Up until that day, I knew that there was a lot brewing under the surface. You would shut down on a regular basis and avoid talking to me. Your homeroom teacher couldn’t connect with you. You would write “I wish I was dead” in your notebook, but would never elaborate in person. Honestly, I was at a loss. I only knew that I couldn’t give up… you needed someone to press in and really show up.

Then one day during lunch, you and another student were talking about times when you thought your house was broken into. You started to tell a story and then burst in to tears. For the next 30 minutes you cried and shared a whole series of stories with me that you had never told anyone.

You told me how your dad used to hit you, but had stopped since he got remarried. You told me how you were afraid he was going to get divorced from her and start hitting you again. You told me about a ghost that lived in your dad’s house who was the only person you could talk to. You told me that the reason you didn’t want to live with your mom was because the ghost couldn’t follow you to her house. You told me how you didn’t want to die, but it felt so hard to keep living.

I wasn’t prepared for any of that, but I had also been waiting for it this whole time. I sat and cried with you. There is no good response to that information so I just shared your sorrow. My heart was broken in so many ways for this burden you were had been carrying entirely alone. I wanted to fix everything, but there’s no way I could do that.

And a few weeks after this conversation, I was done with my position there and have seen you only once or twice since then. So here is what I hope you are learning:

You deserve to be loved by someone who is safe and good. You deserve to have a man in your life who doesn’t make you afraid you’ll be hurt. You deserve to have a friend or teacher you can trust. If you bottle your fears and hurt inside, it will literally kill you. It might be physically, emotionally, or spiritually, but keeping it to yourself will slowly and surely destroy the best parts of you.

I beg you to keep living. As a person and an artist, you have so much to offer the world. As someone who has survived an abusive home, you have hope to give to others. Please don’t stop fighting no matter how hard it is.

That conversation shook me to my core, but I will treasure it forever. You trusted me first and that is no small thing.

I pray that you feel the strength of a living hope. I pray that you fight. I pray that you continue to trust.

Love,

Your resource teacher, Mr. Johnson

A Letter to My Student: Dear A (10th grade)

(Over the holidays, and maybe beyond, I want to write candid letters to students I have had. Some I have taught for a day, some for a year. These are things I wish I could have or would have said to them. An arbitrary initial has been chosen to ensure privacy. The grade is when I taught them. )

Dear A,

I taught you for exactly one class period. I have seen you in the halls a few times since then, but have not had the opportunity to say hi. Though out interaction was brief, it is one of my most memorable in recent years. The following is, to the best of my recollection, how we met.

I was standing in the hallway greeting you and your class as you came in. I was probably talking a lot and too fast. Or making fun of someone.

You asked, “Do you have ADHD?”

“I think so, but I’m not diagnosed.”

“I am. I take meds for it.”

“I don’t.”

“High five.”

We high-fived. The kid in front of you muttered, “That is the weirdest thing to high five over.”

As the class went on, you were finished with all of your work and we got to talking. You were incredibly articulate and knowledgeable. Along with your diagnosis, you clearly received the tools to understand and explain how you and your brain functioned. I felt like I learned a lot from you through our casual conversation.

Since you had no work to do, were very open about your ADHD, and understood it well, I asked you to read a story I had written. It was a story about a boy with ADHD. After you finished reading, your tone went from jovial to serious. Not only did you enjoy it, but you were insistent that this story needs to be told.

So I want to say thank you. Thank you for reminding me why I started that story. It’s for kids like you who have not yet been given the words to understand themselves. Thank you for reminding me that every kid is unique and capable regardless of of how their brain works. I tend to lump kids with ADHD into one category of behavior. You helped me to break down those expectations.

I also want to encourage you. You have a gift. You are charismatic, hard-working, and articulate. You have the ability to do great things. Whether it is having more conversations like the ones we had or taking on new passions, you can impact and influence people. Don’t take that lightly. Not everyone has that gift and not everyone who does stewards it well. Make a difference in the world. And don’t let yourself be held back because your brain works differently than others. That is your uniqueness. That is your brilliance.

Love,

Your ADHD sub that one time, Mr. Johnson

A Letter to My Student: Dear S (2nd grade)

(Over the holidays, and maybe beyond, I want to write candid letters to students I have had. Some I have taught for a day, some for a year. These are things I wish I could have or would have said to them. An arbitrary initial has been chosen to ensure privacy. The grade is when I taught them. )

Dear S,

It has been over a year and a half since I met you and said goodbye to you. Our 6 or so weeks together were not easy, but they were good.

When I came into your class, I knew you would be hard to pin down. You had a lot of anxiety about reading, a lot of crap going on at home, and a hard time expressing yourself. And you didn’t know me from Adam. We pushed through and forged a trust.

You were important to me. My hard kids are always important to me, but you even more so. Your young aunt was taking care of you because your parents couldn’t. The time I put in to help you feel safe and successful is not time I put for every student. It was a gift I joyfully gave to you, whether it felt like a gift or not.

I spent most of the school day, especially reading, watching the door across the room in case you tried to run out. I spent a good chunk of reading lessons teaching in front of the door, watching you tip over your desk and chairs to see if I would come stop you… so you could run out. I’m sure it did not feel like it at the time, but these were my ways of loving you.

Your life was out of control, so I gave you as much control as I could. You had your own nook in the classroom. You got learning options other kids didn’t have and time with friends in class that others didn’t get. You needed to feel safe in my classroom, and I hope these things helped to that end.

But because your life was out of control, I needed to give you boundaries. You couldn’t do whatever you wanted. If I gave you two choices, you couldn’t pick a third. You needed structure and accountability. I know you were angry with me when I would hold the door shut so you couldn’t leave, but you needed someone to give you a firm, “No.” Those days were hard. It did not make me happy to set and hold those boundaries, but you needed them.

On our last day together, our whole class got to say goodbye. It absolutely broke my heart to watch you and C hug each other and cry. I had never seen you sad before. Angry, happy, tired, but never sad. The two of you cried for nearly 10 minutes. Not dramatic tears but good, honest, hurting tears.

My prayer for you is that you find more friends who you love and who love you like C. My hope is that you find a teacher and parent in your life who loves you enough to ‘teach from the door.’ And when they give you boundaries, I pray that you can trust that they love you and might have some wisdom to offer.

You got dealt a hard deck in life. Trust and love are going to be hard for you. But they are so worth it. The feeling of being safe is worth the risk of heartbreak. May God lead you to safe, loving people.

I miss you.

Love,

Your second grade teacher, Mr. Johnson

A Letter to My Student: Dear J (4th grade)

(Over the holidays, and maybe beyond, I want to write candid letters to students I have had. Some I have taught for a day, some for a year. These are things I wish I could have or would have said to them. An arbitrary initial has been chosen to ensure privacy. The grade is when I taught them. )

Dear J,

When I had you in my class, I was young. I was new at this teaching thing and I stumbled through it poorly. You were young. You were new at this being a human thing and you stumbled through it without much help from me. Being on this side of things, I see how I dropped the ball with you.

I am sorry. It was easy for me to feel empathy with students who were visibly falling apart in front of me. You hid it and I didn’t press in. I gave them more grace than I gave you because I assumed you were just trying to push buttons or cause problems.

Now I know better. Partly because I know you better. You needed me more than I realized. You even called me out on that when you were in 4th grade. That is hard to do. It took courage. I was very proud of you. I wish I had been a better man and role model for you.

I am very grateful you reached out to me later and shared with me that your mom was dying. Here we are, months later, and you are entering your first Christmas without your mom. I have not checked in with you like I should have, and I am sorry.

Here’s what I know: this is going to be hard. You are going to want to be tough and prove that you are man enough to make it through. You’re not. None of us are. People are not made to ‘get over it.’ We are made to love people and unfortunately we lose those people and it hurts like hell. We are made to grieve. To get angry, and cry, and yell, and curl up in a ball. Sometimes to feel nothing, or laugh, or move on, or remember.

My prayer for you is that you find hope in the midst of your grief, that you feel man enough to cry when you need to, and that you become the kind of man your mom wanted you to be. And when you fail, as you will because you’re human, I pray that you will reach out to me, or someone like me… someone who cares about you. Tell us what is hard. And then let us walk with you as you figure out this mess we call life.

Love,

Your former teacher, Mr. Johnson

The Bad Man of the Gospel

As I was driving downtown, I was looking at Facebook (I know, I’m irresponsible) and I came across a post from my friend Crystal. It was a simple quote from a book.

“Finally, in a low whisper, he said, ‘I think I might be a terrible person.’ For a split second I believed him – I thought he was about to confess a crime, maybe a murder. Then I realized that we all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before asking someone to love us. It is a kind of undressing.”
Miranda July, The First Bad Man

As I dwelt on this quote, it nearly moved me to tears. I knew that I had to take a minute to write about it.

I come across a lot of quotes that are encouraging but, from my perspective, often try to do so without any authority to make that claim. At the start of this quote, I assumed it would be a similar, “No! You’re a beautiful goddess of awesomeness” conclusion that I so often see on Facebook. I was prepared to defensively respond, ‘But we are all terrible people inside at one level or another. Maybe not murderers, but we all have ugly parts that are too often in control or our decisions and thoughts.’

But Miranda July didn’t try to correct his thoughts. She just let him sit there and feel terrible. It was unexpected. But she also understood something incredibly important: the role vulnerability plays in being loved.

For people who know me, it is no secret that I have a hard time with trust and vulnerability. I want to be loved but reject people because they don’t know my “terrible person” side. And then I want to share that side but I’m afraid I won’t be loved. It hovers like a cloud over every important relationship I have in my life. Do they really understand how terrible I am? Do they still love me in spite of it?

Then my thoughts shifted to the love I long for from God and that is when this quote became most profound. God loves us. But if this quote is right in its understanding of our hearts, we cannot accept his love until we have undressed before him; until we have had our “terrible person” confession in his presence. Emptying our baggage at his feet, becoming fully vulnerable and helpless, we ask Him to love us. He doesn’t respond, “You’re not that bad” or “You’re a goddess.”

He says, “It’s ok. I still love you. Look at everything I have done for you.”

This is the heart of the Christian message. This is the gospel.

Anxiety

It starts with a mental list. Things I need to do, things I should do, things I should have done, things I didn’t do, things I did wrong. It begins to swirl inside my chest making me feel at once hollow and yet like there is a vice and vacuum gripping and swallowing my insides. Like I am empty and emptying simultaneously.

But the vortex consuming my thoughts and energy does not end. It sits like endless, destructive white noise. We cannot cohabitate, so I develop coping mechanisms. Movement drowns out the noise, but I must have somewhere to move to. Walking through my apartment is out. Dishes, need to do. Laundry, should do. Bills, should have done. Walking outside sometimes works.

Sometimes I sing to make a competing vibration in my body. Instead of the vacuum dictating the movement in my chest, my lungs and vocal chords can take over. Sometimes. Other times, when it is too strong, I literally grunt to dispel the noise and energy.

My go to, however, is technology. I learned why this week as I was avoiding dishes, laundry, and bills. When I watch a tv show or play some stupid flash game online, my world becomes the size of my computer screen. For this window of time, there are no dishes, only falling Tetris blocks. There is no laundry for me to put away, just what Lucy is hanging out to dry. The white noise is cancelled out because its sources are pushed from my mind for a few precious, quiet, minutes.

But it soon returns. I don’t do well in silent spaces. I sometimes play the fireplace on Netflix on repeat. I have a hard time with the simplest of tasks. Today I left a binder of music in the front seat of my car because carrying it up to put on my piano became one more ‘Thing I ________.’ And rather than deal with it, I needed to get out of my car and walk to my apartment door. Movement with a destination. It was the more manageable option. And we’re talking about a binder here. A 1″ 3-ring binder. White. In case you care.

Knowledge is power right? So I know how anxiety feels. And I know what I do and don’t do about it. So next steps:

I should…

I should have…

I didn’t…

I can’t…

Man, this is gonna be tough.

Baptism

I’m writing this in church because I can’t focus. And maybe writing this down will help.

Tonight, a young man was baptized. As he was entering the baptismal, a boy and an older man walked up on stage. I assumed they were younger brother and father. Immediately emotions were stirred thinking of my brother.

At our church, prior to each baptism, a video interview is played so we get a glimpse of who the baptized person is and of their story. The young man talked about how his life had some hard things happen when he was around 8 and 9. Stuff that was hard enough, he perceived God as being evil.

Taylor was 8 when mom was diagnosed with cancer, 10 when she died.

Beyond that, there was no other meaningful connection to the person now standing in the water, but I had become emotionally connected to him and his story.

Moments of grief pop up at strange times, cause strange connections, and distract you in strange ways.

Now, maybe sharing this will allow me to focus.

Stranger Things

It’s been awhile… so I’m back with this:

I have, like many people, watched and loved Stranger Things. I have, like many people, had a hard time with how Winona Ryder played her character… at first.

Spoilers may happen below. But I will try to keep it subtle.

In the first episode or two, the frenzied panic of Joyce Byers irked me. Then, a hard truth sunk in. If anyone has the right to be frenzied and panicked, it is a parent whose child is missing. All the more if local law enforcement, who is responsible for finding said child, seems apathetic.

I pictured my dad. His son was dead, a hard reality but one with more clarity than a missing child where time may be of the essence. The police were actively on the case from the start. They were very empathetic and supportive to my parents. There was a chunk of time during which they could not give us details because the investigation was sensitive, but it wasn’t due to apathy. They found the man who killed my brother, he confessed, and is currently in prison. All along my dad experienced various stages of anger and frustration. “Why aren’t they doing more?” “Why are they lowering his sentence?” “Why…” He does not normally have a nervous disposition. He does not normally react in anger when things get hard. But this was different. This was his child.

Joyce lives life with the nervous disposition of a poor, single mother of two. Even through the flashbacks, we see a glimpse of the fact that her life is stressful and that she doesn’t always handle it well. Throw on top of that the events in the first episode. It is perfectly believable that she would have a complete breakdown in desperation of seeing her boy again.

I late came across this article. Riddled with more spoilers, but with a good analysis of the women in the show, including Joyce.

Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable when Hollywood bypasses calculated grief to show the authentic grief of a parent in distress.

Violin

A few months ago, my grandma gave me her violin. She learned to play on it as a girl. She taught my mom to play on it. Mom tried to teach me.

When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate music and musical skills like I do now. Now that I am an adult with responsibilities and no free time, I have decided to take on the task of learning a new instrument. Earlier today, my friend helped me get the fingerboard taped and the strings adjusted so I could start.

She shared something that fascinated me. Violins take on the sound of the person that plays them. The way I make the strings resonate will be different than anyone else. And as those unique vibrations move through the wood, it will, over time, change the way the violin plays.

This evening I sat looking at the violin. I was having a rough day, so I was emotional, but I wasn’t dwelling on anything in particular. I just held it the way you might hold a bottle of wine to read the label, and looked.

It’s well loved. It’s been in existence for nearly 100 years and has been played by many hands in that time. You can tell by looking at the body. And then a thought struck me. In a way, my grandma and my mom are both in this violin. Their playing uniquely changed it. As I learn to play, I am sharing in something special with both of them. And it is likely the last significant thing I will share with my mom this side of heaven.

Now, to start actually playing…