His Final Battle

This entry also was posted at another blog I edit, but I wanted to share it here as well. I have removed the student’s name to preserve his privacy.

I had this young man in my classroom as a freshman and then again as a junior. During his sophomore year, he was diagnosed with Leukemia, which was treated and went into remission. In his junior year, he relapsed, but had found a bone marrow match. While waiting to get healthy enough for a transplant, he passed away just a few days before the end of the school year and three weeks shy of his 17th birthday.

While he was in his second round of treatment during the spring semester, I asked him to write a dairy about his experiences. I have done some editing here and there and gave the last entry a title, but the rest were his words. Here is what he had to say about fighting the biggest, and final, battle of his life.

Giving Cancer the Finger

My body is covered in those bumps now. Nobody can figure out what they are. I saw 3 oncologists, 3 dermatologists, 2 pediatricians, Infectious Disease and an ICU doctor. I had 3 biopsies (besides all of the pre-radiation and pre-transplant tests). All of my test results are good and nobody knows what’s on me. They’ve had about 8 different guesses. That means they treat me for every possible diagnosis they came up with, and hope one works.

It hurts if you touch them, and now they’re on the bottom of my feet. If I try to walk, it feels like I’m walking on glass. I have a big one on my middle finger. My nurses laugh when I show it to them.

Last Day at City

I had to get a radiation machine that put a mask over my face. I couldn’t handle it. It’s like a cage that clamps around your neck. I had to make them stop. It felt like my heart was speeding and stopping at the same time. I don’t know if I can do this. The tattooed me for the laser points for radiation.

I got a bone marrow biopsy I’m getting bumps on my arms and legs. I can’t wait to leave this place. I’ve smiled once since I got here, when they told me I should be back at Kaiser by Friday. I never knew I’d miss Kaiser so much. God knew, because right before I left I took a bunch of pictures. My mom can tell you, I don’t like taking pictures, but for some reason I did on my last day at Kaiser.

City of Hope

We have to meet with all these doctors and specials who have to tell us every little thing that can go wrong for the rest of my life. I’m thinking “Why would I want to go through this if you’re saying I’ll most likely fight cancer again and again for the rest of my life.”

Unsuccessful

Today we had the last round of Chemo was also unsuccessful.

What was my reaction? Surprised. I was not expecting that. What was I feeling? I can’t process this. I was not expecting this. We have to take an unconventional route because conventional has failed.

My doctor and I talked about what to do next.

“Do you want us to arrange for you to go home for a couple of days?”

“I don’t care where I’m at, as long as we’re keeping treatment going.”

I leave for City of Hope this week.

Holidays in the Hospital

Last year I spent my birthday in the hospital. I turned 16 in here. The day started at 12:01 a.m., with my nurses singing Happy Birthday to me. All the Hematology and Oncology Night Nurses were there. They were loud. They brought me a card and decorated my room. It was a long day, with a lot of different family coming over. I had visitors from morning until night time.

Last month I spent my second St. Patrick’s Day in the hospital. Today is Good Friday. My grandpa preaches at a local Christian college on Good Friday. Last year he wrote Leukemia on a red piece of paper and nailed it to a big wooden cross at the end of his sermon. This year, he did it again. My grandma and sister nailed it (Leukemia) to the cross, too. Easter is this Sunday. I appreciate the fact that there are organizations and different volunteers who try to cheer up the patients here, by bringing us Easter baskets and little goodies. They do it because they know the patients have to celebrate holidays in the hospital. And it sucks to be here. I’m just glad I was home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Keeping in Touch

I keep in touch with my friends through social media and texting. We mostly use Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. We talk with each other because we have been friends for so long. I talk to them just like I would if I was still at school. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they try to comfort me. They ask how I am doing, how I feel and what’s going on. They want to know what the doctors and nurses are doing to me and what kind of medications I am on.

I don’t get to see them very often because I don’t have an immune system. Chemotherapy kills all my cells in my bone marrow. That’s where your cells are made. When you don’t have an immune system, you can’t get a cold, you can’t get any germs. There is nothing for my body to fight even little germs. I wish that I could see my friends regularly. But when I do get to see them, when they come to visit, it is my favorite time out of all my time in the hospital. Geoffrey, Govon, Cody, and Elijah have been my friends since I was 6 and that’s who has come to see me one or two times. Seth is my best friend, and he comes when ever my cell counts go up.

Writing the Next Chapter

One of the dreams I have is to give the commencement address at a major college or university. I couldn’t care less about the attention or honors that typically accompany such an address. My main goal is one of self-preservation. Considering all my years in college and as a teacher, I’ve heard enough carbon-copy speeches about all the great lessons you learned in high school and how wonderful life will be beyond the hallowed halls of said institution to bore me almost senseless. And, if I’m bored, you can only imagine what the graduates are thinking. With that in mind, I would like to give an address that might have a lasting impact on people. It would be well-written, but it would not be coddling and rose-colored, as so much of what is shared each May and June is. It might sound something like this:

As I look out upon the rows and rows of caps and gowns, I am honored to be in the midst of a sea of such great potential. The people sitting next to you have begun an educational journey that may lead to a cure for the diseases that ravage our world today or creating a habitat explorers will use they colonize Mars. Perhaps someone in your row will start a company that will revolutionize our daily live. Maybe another person will decide to dedicate his or her life fighting human sex trafficking or providing clean water to a rural village you’ve never heard of. You could even have a future senator or president sitting nearby.

While these are all lofty goals, and I wish you all the best as you strive for whatever passion will provide success for you and those around you, that’s not the purpose of my comments today. The reason I mentioned the great jobs people in your seats always fantasize about is because I know that’s what you expect to hear at events like this. And, if you were listening instead of being glued to your social media right now (or is there another reason you are looking down at your lap with such intensity? If so, please keep it to yourself), you would expect me to tell you how to reach for those dreams.

So, let’s take a couple minutes away from the totally awesome affects you are adding to your mug that you’re about to share with 500 of your closest friends to be honest with each other. Don’t worry. You’ll get a chance to add that cute animal nose and tongue to your goofy smile soon enough.

Your classmates might be here because they plan to take over the world, but some of you made it out of bed today because Mom and Dad have mortgaged the house grew up in so you could achieve the dream of a better life they have for you. Your grades were OK, but nothing to brag about. You spent more time partying than studying and the sunglasses you’re wearing are not there to block out the sunlight, just to make the hangover from last night’s festivities just a little less painful. College was fun all right, but you’re not sure whether the degree you’re about to earn will help you in any way other than to get you a job you don’t like to pay for bills you didn’t want. You care about the degree you will receive about as much as a hamburger wrapper. It won’t make you happy inside or fill you with a sense of purpose for the next 50 years.

You have a whole host of reasons why things are so bad and you filled to the brim with angst, pain and suffering. And, while those things are important to you, the rest of the world really doesn’t care to hear you bellyache about how you have it so bad. If most of the world lives on less money each day than you spend on your favorite iced coffee, then the only real message of value I have for you is pretty much as follows:

Suck it up, buttercup.

What, I didn’t stroke that precious ego of your or tell you how special you were? No, I did not. Neither will the world. If you believe you are owed something, then you are in for a rather rude awakening, because the world around you does not share your sense of entitlement.

If you look a couple rows in front of you, maybe you can see a young woman you had in a couple of your classes. She’s the daughter of immigrants who is the first in her family to go to college in America. Her parents gave up important jobs in their home country to chase the American Dream and she works in her family’s restaurant every night to help pay the bills to go to this institution of higher learning. You live on campus, but she takes two buses to get here and the only reason she misses class is when one of those mass transit vehicles breaks down. She’s going to be a pediatric nurse because she remembers how caring and compassionate one was when her younger brother was diagnosed with cancer.

You might accuse me of concocting clichéd generalizations engineered to make you feel bad. Well, I’ve been teaching, and living, long enough to know, that in any graduating class, there are more stories that would blow your mind than you can possibly imagine. People working jobs all hours of the day and night just to make a life that will have some meaning.

Now, others would tell you to go out and change the world, but I’m not going to do that, because I know most of you won’t. Most of us don’t cure cancer or lead the free world. Most of us have jobs nobody would ever talk about on the news. Most of us get by making our difference, not on the whole world, but on our portion of it. We work hard, love our friends and family and help the next generation be better than the one before. That’s what it means to be human.

That’s not to say that you won’t change the world. That’s the best part about starting a new chapter of your life. You have the chance to write your own future. As a writer, I can tell you how easy it is to tell a story where the hero slays the dragon and saves the girl, but if you don’t hit a couple of obstacles along the way, nobody will want to read your story because it lacks reality. Victories are all the sweeter when they have been tarnished by struggle and strife.

Now, while the alumni office might not be so keen about the idea, I have no problem if you find yourself in a decade working as an assistant manager at a big-box store, so long as you have a good reason for it. Maybe you discovered that you want to work your way up the corporate ladder because you believe in the vision of the company. Maybe you’re working a job you don’t love to help put a spouse through school or pay the medical bills of a parent.

But, so help me, if you’re in a job you don’t like and you start to whine about how life is unfair and that you had so much potential, but that the world has it out for you, so help me I’ll ball up my fist and… do absolutely nothing about it. Why, first off because I’d rather not be arrested for assault and battery. I’m short, sarcastic and haven’t been in a fight since 4th grade. I wouldn’t last long in prison.

But seriously, the main reason why I wouldn’t resort to violence is because that’s not what I want the next chapter of my life to be about. I want to make people laugh while they learn, tell a story or two and love the people who have been placed in my life.

You have the opportunity, starting today, to have the best life imaginable, to have one filled with self-absorption and misery or something between.

The beauty of this life is that while you don’t always get to control what happens, you can control how you respond to it. That’s the part of the tale you get to compose.

The question remains: for the next chapter of your life, what kind of story will you write?

I am quite sure I would be banished from said campus for life, but it would be so worth it.

Focusing on the Other 98%

I remember when I was in junior high or early high school that the youth pastor at our church thought it would be a great group activity to toilet paper a tree outside our senior pastor’s home.

Not too sure about the night’s nefarious activities, I held back as the others engaged in what most would consider an act of relatively innocent hooliganism.

A couple decades later, I have become personally acquainted with what it’s like to be on receiving end of such behavior. Although, in the ensuing decades, things have ratcheted up a bit.

Unlike most teachers, I happen to live in the community where I work. This isn’t much of a problem when I am out shopping, as a quick conversation tends to brighten the day of both student at teacher. But, when some get a more specific bead on my home address, things aren’t always as pleasant.

At this juncture, I feel it is necessary to explain I live in a relatively crime-free neighborhood and work at a good school. No one would look at either and expect trouble. And for the most part they would be right.

But not always.

A while back, for example, someone decided that they had too many eggs in their home refrigerator, so they choose to deliver some to my house one evening. Thankfully their aim was as bad as their intentions, as they missed the walls and windows completely and hit my roof, where it looks like it a bit of fall snow is clinging in small clumps.

Well, sort of. If you take off your glasses or pop out your contacts, I suppose. And if we lived in place that sees snows more than once every decade or two.

This is not the first time I have had late-night visitors to my humble abode. I’ve probably had a half-dozen such offerings over the years. Typically, it’s eggs or the odd super-sized drink thrown way up on my lawn. The most creative was the large truck tires stacked in front of my door hampering my ability to leave my own home. Breaking out of your own home is an interesting way to start your day.

Through these experiences, I have come to realize that while such pranks seem funny to the teenager, there is a totally different perspective from the point of view of the adult. The activity that leaves teenagers in stitches of laughter leaves me with questions.

What happens when the egg whites peal the paint and I have to pay to repaint my home? Should I purchase a pricey home surveillance system to monitor against future attacks when they only happen every year or two? What if someone raises the ante and throws a rock through the window like happened to a friend of mine? Does my family need to be concerned every time there is a car driving through my neighborhood late at night?

When I signed on to be a teacher, this wasn’t in the fine print. I agreed to the grading and lesson planning on the weekend, and perhaps coaching a sport or advising a campus club, but all the other hassles at work I expect to leave at work. There is a reason police officers don’t reside in the communities they serve.

And, while my family does not live with the ever-present sense of caution that my friends who put on the uniform every day do, we never thought we would have to worry about anything of the sort. I hate the idea that I, as a school teacher, am forced to consider an expensive move or the need to change the route and timing of my daily commute in an attempt to reclaim my anonymity and relative safety. I am a teacher, not a CIA field agent.

Maybe you’re thinking it’s just a prank that I should lighten up about. Well, aside from the possible property damage, I would contend that those who engage in such behavior are being, in my humble opinion, bullies. If you think I am exaggerating, look at it this way: if he or she threw these items at a person rather than at their house, what would you say?

Exactly.

Having said all this, I need to remember those who would engage in such acts are perhaps 1-2% of the entire student body. The vast majority of students in my classes each day may grumble from time to time, but would never do anything like this. They are, for the most part, relatively good teenagers with the same struggles we all had at that age.

Rather than worry about the small collection of troublemakers, I should be thankful for the good ones – the Other 98%.

But I’m still checking outside my house every day for evidence of any late-night surprises.

In this case, ignorance may be bliss, but it’s also foolish.

One Fine Day

I recently had a day where about half of my students were taking a test, so I created an assignment where they were tasked with writing about one day that stood out to them as special and explaining why that was the case.

Some of them had ideas already in mind, whether it was a great trip to an amusement park or far-away land or getting a special pet. Others, however, were looking for something a little closer to home. With that in mind, I shared the following story:

The previous Friday, my wife was watching our niece like she always does. Now, we might admittedly be biased, but we firmly believe this girl is about the cutest and smartest two-year-old there is. I arrived home at the end of my day just before her mother would pick her up. Like I normally do, I got down on the floor and we began the important task of playing with her block farmhouse. Being the general contractor on this build, she would hand the pieces and I would dutifully place them as instructed.

But the best part of the day was when my sister-in-law and wife were talking and the aforementioned niece thought it would be delightful to take her plush balls, throw them in my direction and giggle uncontrollably when they would bounce off my noggin and I made a corresponding silly face. Known as her “Crazy Uncle” (well, that’s how I introduced myself to her on the day she was born), such behavior is not uncommon for me.

Like for most toddlers, my goofy response needed to be repeated to be truly appreciated. So, over and over again for the next 20 minutes, balls were thrown and retrieved, while the peals of laughter ensued from both parties.

There are two reasons this moment is so significant to me. The first is that it was a moment of pure, unadulterated joy for this young girl. There was no taint of worry, fear, mistrust, caution, anxiety or any of the other emotional maladies that tend to plague us as we age. She was filled with happiness at such a simple and silly activity.

Second, since my wife and I can’t have children, this is our chance to make an impact in the life of a child. I had a childless relative who did the same for me growing up and I am committed to pass along the same level of devotion as best I can.

This may not have been an earth-shattering moment of self-discovery, but it was, without a doubt, one fine day.

I’m hoping for many more to come.

Different Kinds of Smart

In the movie, i, Robot, Dr. Susan Calvin says to Chicago Police Det. Del Spooner that he is the “dumbest, smart person” she has ever met.

With apologies to Isaac Asimov and Will Smith, who played Spooner, I think I have a shot at that dubious title.

Ever since I was a kid I did pretty well in school. I read voraciously, and still do, and tried out new words all the time (sometimes with hilarious results). My math skills have never been all that hot, but I held my own, and even excelled at times, in the humanities.

Today I am going to reach for the metaphorical summit of my knowledge by taking an IQ that could allow me admission into a group of really smart folks. I took a pre-test for fun a few weeks ago and it said I have a strong possibility of passing the full-length exam. A friend of mine already in the group seems to agree. We’ll see.

The thing is, while I collect trivia like furniture gathers dust, my vocabulary is fairly strong and I have decent reasoning skills, there are some things at which I am dumber than a box of rocks.

My mind tends to run at one speed, the same pace at which I talk: supersonic. I typically will answer the question I think you’re asking whether or not it’s the one to which you actually are seeking an answer. I edit my writing a lot, and often have others do the same, because words travelling from my head don’t always make it to the screen or page. It’s like I’m doing 90 on the freeway and miss my exit because I didn’t see the off-ramp sign.

In school I was always more a geometry guy than an algebra one. My arguments about politics and religion might be logical, but, like my math, it always comes back to the concrete.

I need visual examples and words to fully get a concept. If instructions aren’t thorough enough, problems may very well ensue. I’ve gotten enough bruises from assembling Swedish furniture to prove this point. And if something breaks around my house, I am more than likely calling a professional for the repair, so that in my attempt to fix it I don’t make the problem worse.

My wife, who’s brilliant herself, has acquired the patience of Job dealing with how many times I’ve been distracted from my appointed rounds. I am the walking definition of an absent-minded professor who has actually bumped into things while reading.

So no matter how well, or poorly, I do today, I know the test I am taking is one yardstick of intelligence and I am reminded every day there is so much I don’t know. I’m just thankful there are people who much more proficient in their “street smarts” and mechanical skills to keep book nerds like me from walking off proverbial, and, at times, literal, cliffs.

Soar

It’s graduation season and everyone’s happy.
Grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.
They’re all in town to celebrate the big day.
They think their student has learned everything he needs to.
She’s ready for big, wide world.
He’s got this.

With the flurry of shifting tassels and tossed caps
We tell the world this batch of students is done,
Like they are Toll House cookies or plastic forks.

But deep down, admit it—
We’ve all eaten bad cookies and broken cheap utensils.
And if this is true about the things that don’t really matter.
How much more true is it
About the lives we’ve wasted the chance to invest in?

Sure, we pretend we’re doing a good job,
With fancy charts, silly goals and false platitudes,
But isn’t it time to stop pretending?

Isn’t it time to stop pretending and tell the truth?
Even if that truth hurts?
Even if that truth makes us look bad?
Even if that truth tells us we’ve been doing it wrong all these years?

We’ve replaced replaced drill and kill
With song and dance
And while we’re fiddling Rome is burning.
Society’s falling apart and we’re not looking for solutions.
Sure you can make a diagram of the problem
And write an essay about what someone else thinks about the problem.
But the real problem is that we don’t teach students how to solve problems,
just make excuses.

I couldn’t do the work because I forgot.
Because I didn’t prioritize my time,
My life,
My responsibilities.

You can fix it.
You’re the teacher.
No matter what I do.
I have an excuse
Which excuses my behavior
And absolves me of my transgression.

Before I go on on
Let’s not forget to share blame
With the other actors in this melodrama,
The melodrama of school.

Teachers who come
Ready to do the bare minimum
Not there to give it their all.
Doing practically their worst
And calling it their best.

Have I failed in this part
Of my noble profession?
Have I fallen down
And pretended nothing is wrong?
You bet I have.

Some days I tell myself I’m better than the others
Better than the ones who seem to act with impunity
But the reason I don’t say anything is because I’m really not.
They say we lie most often to ourselves.
That is so, so, true.

And, if by some slim miracle,
I am any better than anyone else,
And I can teach my students to soar in the clouds of wisdom
On wings built with a new-found sense of confidence
Then every time they don’t fly,
Every time I don’t push them,
Is that on them or me?

Well, we’ve had our fun and games.
We’ve entertained them,
Placated them,
Distracted them,
Tickled their funny bone
And diverted their attention.

We brag about graduation rates,
But when most students aren’t ready
For College English and Math,
Then our false joy isn’t worth
The paper those diplomas are printed on.

So, until we turn the numbers around.
Until our students are better prepared to enter the world
And stand on their own two feet rather than stay in the nest
Until they’re my age,
Until teachers who helped create this problem
Who didn’t fight the bad ideas and worse delivery
Who keep their noses down and don’t speak up for the defenseless among us
But instead complain they earn too little money
And bellyache they should be paid for production not performance…

Until then
Until then, my friends,
I’m still going to be bothered.

I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking this is a problem
Just at this school
In this city,
This zip code.

If only.
If only that were true.
If only we had contained
This contagion
To this neighborhood.
If only.

This is a nationwide problem
A nationwide epidemic
A nationwide dilemma.

Three decades ago they declared
We were “A Nation at Risk”.
Newsflash people, we’re still at risk.

So what do we do?
Where do we go from here?
Where’s that magic bullet we’ve all heard about.

All we’ve talked about are
Problems, epidemics and dilemmas
But if I just complain,
Then I’m no better,
Then I’m no better,
Than everybody else.

So what’s the solution
To this complex equation?
How do we solve for X
And Y haven’t we done so already?

We must start by
Stopping our excuses,
You and I,
Teacher and Student,
Administrator and Parent.

But,
But,
But,
No, just stop!

I don’t care about excuse after excuse
Because I’m not sure we care about the problem.
Not really. Not enough.

It’s time to get to work.
Time to throw away excuses
And pick each other up.

We must
You and I
Care enough
To Fight
To Battle
To Engage Ignorance,
Apathy
And the Arrogance
Of Voluntary Naïvete.

I don’t know about you
But I’m not giving up,
Not throwing in the towel.

My job is to teach you to fly,
To sail through the skies
To rise above where you have been trapped
For far too long.

To be honest, I’m going to fail at this task
Now and again,
But I’m not surrendering any time soon.

You there: Listen up—
It’s time to fly.
So spread your wings
And soar.

Best Job I Ever Had

A few days ago, I did something that isn’t in any job description for a teacher I’ve ever seen.

I attended a memorial service for one of my students.

This is the fifth student I’ve know who has passed away in my 11 years of teaching and the third service where I’ve shared a few comments about the recently departed. From cancer to other causes known and unknown, too many have been taken too early from us.

This service was not much different than the others. Family and friends, along with a smattering of teachers and staff, filled the room. There were many tears, a few laughs and a good measure of reflective silence.

Along with several others, I got the chance to share about this young man and why he was special to me.

As a teacher, I care deeply about all my students, but the ones whose potential has yet to be tapped have a special place in my heart. When I first met this student his junior year, I knew he was smarter than most of the others in the class. I remember telling, not asking, him to take AP English his senior year and I’m so glad he did, as he continued to blossom in that class.

This year, I was delighted to have him in my speech and debate elective, as he was a natural fit. While he could deliver well-composed speeches about public policy issues with the same easy as he did his love for guitars, he was best when he just had a few notes in front of him.

He held strong opinions that easily might conflict with those around him, but when he disagreed with you, it was always with passion and a generosity of spirit, not the contentious attitude so prevalent today. I was reminded that our presidential candidates could do to take a page from his playbook.

He was always learning and was ready to engage in true dialogue. He wanted solutions for problems, not victory in a verbal sparring match.

After I spoke, I made sure to check on students whose comments were punctuated with tears. One young lady was outside the chapel with myself, one of her friends, and her mom as she grieved openly about the loss of her friend. We worked collectively to soothe her through her pain.

An hour or so after the service, a handful of students, a parent and my wife and I ended up at a pizza place near the school. The sadness had transformed into laughter as we joked about sports, computer games and whatever came to mind. The student who had been weeping earlier that evening was chuckling along with the rest of us and, for a while, the sadness has subsided and the healing had begun. If past experience is any indicator, the pain will continue to lessen as the year winds to a close.

During these events, it is easy focus on the caskets and crying. But it is just as important to realize that comfort and companionship, along with the healing power of humor, belong here as well.

Like some of my colleagues would say, the soul of the student is more important than the subject we teach. Of course I care about my content area, and have a responsibility to transmit that knowledge in the best way possible, but I have a larger concern for my students and their daily well being.

Sure, I have complaints about my job and how certain matters are handled. We all do, since we as a species tend to be an ill-contented lot. But, to help students through difficult times, and to see them grow on the other side, really does make up for all the ephemeral nonsense.

Therefore, I can say with all honesty that teaching really is the best job I’ve ever had.