Cease Striving

We are so busy,
Constantly busy,
Excessively busy,
Unnecessarily busy.

We must do, do, do.
And can never just be.

Be the person we were created to be.
Be the person we long to be.
Be the person we ought to be.

The person not living up to the standards
That are set by others around them.
Standards that cut you into the cookie
The world wants you to be.

Goals are great and wonderful.
They drive us to the moon and beyond.
But what happens when the goals others have for us
Conflict with what we want for ourselves?

When will we allow ourselves,
After much deliberation and reflection within our souls,
To climb the mountains of our own choosing,
Rather than the kiddie trails set before us?

We are so obsessed,
So desperately driven,
By the next report card,
The next evaluation,
The next measurement of our own worth
That we forget who we are and why we are here.

There is truth in the saying that one person does not matter.
But what that should mean is that it doesn’t really matter
Whether you choose to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a mechanic or a politician.
Because if you don’t do it, someone else will.

What we need
More than anything
Is the time to be silent,
Mute, awed by the majesty of the universe,
And contemplate our role in it.

If you are religious like me
It goes something like this:
Cease striving and know that I am God.

But whether or not you believe in The Man Upstairs
Is a matter for another day.
Today we need to ask whether you even believe in yourself.

Maybe you wish you could believe in yourself,
But you are not good enough,
Not worthy enough,
Not valuable enough.

Not enough of what someone else
Thinks you should be “enough” of.

You can never win
If you are playing on someone else’s court
By someone else’s rules.

Well, maybe you can be declared the champion
But the way you have to change who you are
To be who they think you should be,
Is oft too high a price to pay for victory.

How am I not the shy, awkward child I once was?
I decided to become my own man and find people like me.
I decided to live my life, not their version of it.

This is not an attack on you, by no means is it that.
I don’t hate the player, as they say,
But I definitely hate the game.

There is only one way I have found to escape the steel jaws of conformity,
To break free from the shackles placed upon you by others,
To find who you truly are meant to be.

Cease striving.
Cease striving to be the woman or man others demand you be…or else.
Cease striving to be a play doll with dress-up clothes and a façade hiding the real you.
The one the airbrushed lovelies softly scream at you to be.

Use your moral compass to guide you,
Use your values to shape your actions,
Use your beliefs to help you choose your next step.

But don’t use the world’s measuring tape
To record your failures and successes.

Remember that those images, those metrics, those “virtues”
Are fairly-tale creations constructed with cotton-candy strength.
Diaphanous ephemera dissolving in the flames we battle daily.

So whatever you do, or don’t do.
Maybe it’s time to stop doing what others tell you to do
Especially when they’re not living the kind of life you want to live.

Just maybe,
It’s time.

Time to cease striving
For a life that isn’t yours,
And just go out and live your own life.


The Other Assault Weapon

17 Dead.
Yes, another 17 dead,
Killed by a madman fueled by demons unseen
Using an assault weapon to end lives of innocents.

There will be much talk in the days ahead
About how to stop such senseless tragedies.
We will propose laws, craft legislation aimed at a target,
The easiest one target to find, label and vanquish.

Yes, there is no rational explanation
For the private ownership of military-style weapons.
The Second Amendment protects hunters, sportsmen and those who want to be safe.
It does not, arguably, protect those who want to overthrow the government.
Despite the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration, Treason is still punishable by death.

But long after bills are signed and corked popped by those who have “won”,
There will still be assault weapons out on the streets of America,
Ones we are allowed to use with little to no restriction.

Everyone one carries this weapon every day
And whether we use it to protect or assassinate
Is wholly up to the owner.

The weapon of choice of most of us is sleek in design
And most efficient in its ability to maximize pain and suffering.

The assault weapon we use every day, often without impunity
Is the tongue. Our words are the bullets, often silver, as they can slay
The mightiest of opponents.
“The tongue is a small thing, but what enormous damage it can do,” the ancients remind us.

We proudly beat our chests and demand our freedom of speech,
As if it is not also a responsibility.
We want freedom from religion in any form, but crave the power to use words as weapons.

I am castigated if I share my faith with you, offer prayer and encouragement,
But if you call someone an F—ing whore on a school campus or a Snapchat story,
Well, that’s just freedom of speech.

What it is is something else.
But, while I have the freedom to hurl the invective,
I choose to employ enough self-restraint not to.

Yeah, but how bad can it be?
They’re just words.
They disappear like mist as soon as they are spoken.
10 seconds and they’re vapor.

O, the lies of instant messages instantly forgotten.
For your information, more teens die by their own hand each year than by another.
And you know, deep down in the hidden cavern of your soul,
You know those hate-filled daggers of insults cleverly phrases we love to compose
Are at least one of the weapons that lead to their unfortunate and unnecessary demise.
It’s also part of the reason they pick up guns and rifles and come after the most vulnerable among us.

So, what if you don’t say such things?
What if you the one who says nothing
When others say something?
You are free from blame, right?
You keep telling yourself that.
Let’s be honest with ourselves.
“No one does good, not even one.”

You might think I am trying to divert your attention,
Change the subject so that real reform does not happen.
That I want to protect rights and kill children.

How dare you!

I spend each day in a classroom.
I am on the front line. These killers are coming to my place of work, not yours.
They are aiming for me, not you.

Of course I want a safe campus.
But I know that more of my students are under assault every day
And we don’t do nearly enough to regulate the use of their firearms.

Of course, this begins with us, you and I.
I am very, very good at the clever retort,
My insults are razor sharp and can wound just as well as yours.

So, here’s a thought.
Let’s stop the verbal barrage on others,
Setting a horrid example for those who watch our every move
And know when we step false.

I am not simply mad about this situation,
Like I would be about being late to dinner.
I am enraged, livid, dismayed and disgusted.
I also am unwilling to accept the status quo.
We must not accept the unceasing discharge of this silent killer of soul and spirit.

But the only way we can win this war on the soul of our nation.
Is through mutual disarmament.
So, I’ll put down my assault weapon, if you put down yours.


We All Have a Part to Play

Like all of you, I was shocked and dismayed by the most recent school shooting in Florida. Seventeen people dead is a tragic number, even more so when you consider it was children who were the majority of the victims.

But the biggest tragedy is that this event may have been preventable if the warning signs, which were clearly evident upon reflection, had been acted upon in time. The suspect was known to both local and federal law enforcement but still not enough was done to prevent this horrific act.

In response to the shootings, Senators have proposed legislation to extra weight behind enforcing existing gun control regulations. Some victims think lawmakers aren’t doing enough, while some of those lawmakers have questioned whether new laws would actually stop these incidents from happening in the first place.

One of the biggest questions that has yet to be asked is why has there been a rise in mass school shootings in the last 20 years? Of course, not all of the shootings are committed by teens and young adults upon students and staff at elementary, junior high and high schools, but many of them are. So, what has changed in American culture in the last two decades that has promoted a such an increase in these attacks?

Making it harder for people who should not have guns to get said weapons would help, but this is only one part of the problem and, unless there is a massive weapons confiscation program enacted by multiple federal agencies, those bent on destruction will find a way to get the firepower they seek.

But it is my fear confiscating high-capacity rifles will not stop school shootings any more than more stringent drug laws have stopped teen from getting high in the campus bathrooms. Of course, it will be harder to kill as many, but deaths will continue to occur.

Until we address why the teens and young adults want to shoot up a school full of students they sat next took in Biology or English, then the only thing we will have done is make them find a new way to kill those around them.

We have had guns in America since America became America. For the last 230 years, our national laws have protected our ownership of guns. And, whether the Founders envisioned fully automatic weapons or not, they certainly didn’t imagine our violence-obsessed society that uses our own technology to purposefully insult, denigrate and isolate its citizens. Sure, they believed in war, and violence was a part of life, but the notion that we would make first-person shooting simulations as a means of entertainment would, I hope, disgust them.

There are questions about how much influence video games have on violent behavior, and to what to what degree impaired mental health provokes such assaults, it is clear that social media can have both a negative impact on teenagers and it would logically follow that the confluence of all three of these factors leads to tragic conclusions.

While doctors may feel President Trump is scapegoating mental illness as the primary cause of the Parkland shooting, initial coverage on the suspect suggests, in this case, he might be correct.

I fully understand that oversimplification of the causes of these shooting are unhelpful, but it is only reasonable to conclude that someone who wants to shoot up a school full of people he or she knows has some serious mental health problems that must be addressed.

This is not an abstract thing for me. I am a teacher in a middle-class suburban high school. These shooters aren’t coming to your workplace, they are coming to mine. And my first reaction when the bullets started to fly would probably be like that of Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach who used his own body as a human shield to protect students. I’m not bragging; it’s just how I’m wired.

While my wife appreciates that I care for my students, she doesn’t want me to be a hero. She just wants me to come home at the end of the day and make dinner.

So, what I am going to do different in light of what has happened.

Nothing, really.

I’m going to work because I cannot live in fear, nor will I set that example for my students.

I’m going to care for my students like I did before, giving them opportunities to talk about their problems without judgment. When they share something with me other than typical teenage angst, I’m more than likely reporting it to a counselor or the authorities.

But I need help. I may work at a small high school, but I need assistance from parents, counselors, students, coaches, mentors and fellow teachers to make this work. This is true for schools all around the country.

When you see something, don’t just chalk it up to normal teenage woes. Ask questions and don’t always accept the simple answers. Be there to listen, just listen.

The thing that troubles me most about this story is that the young man in question was the one classmates joked about being a school shooter. I don’t blame students, as they are not yet adults.

The system we had in place failed, and because of that failure, 17 people are dead. I am all for systemic change, but that takes time and we need solutions now. And these solutions need to be personal ones.

What are we going to do, you and I, to help rescue teens on a path of desperation and destruction? We can say it’s someone else’s problem, but it’s really not.

This is our job, yours and mine. I’m ready to do my part. How about you?

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.”


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.

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.