Monday, December 30, 2013

End of Year Thoughts

Another year ends.  This year, many things changed for me.  If I had to break my life into sections, it would read like this:

- (age 0-4) The Brooklyn Years
- (age 4-14) The Early Fair Lawn Years
- (age 14-18) The Adolescent Fair Lawn Years
- (age 18-20) Shana Ba'Aretz (Abroad in Israel)
- (age 20-21) The Early YU Years, or End of Innocence
- (age 21-23) A Brief Interlude: From Yeshiva Boy to Unemployed Loadie
- (age 23-25) The Year I was Really Born: Early Starbucks Years
- (age 25-28) Finishing College and Middle Starbucks Years
- (age 28-30) Moratorium:  Out of College and Getting Nowhere
- (age 30-33) Graduate School and Late Starbucks Years

And so, begins my actual transition into adulthood,

- (age 34-present) Teaching and Making a Mark

After years of peaks and valleys, strikes and gutterballs, and plenty of in-between, I finally have entered a world where I am doing something career oriented.  It took me many years of soul searching, bad decisions, and plenty of battles with depression and bad relationships that I can finally say that I have a) experience as a teacher and b) a serious relationship with another human being.

The latter, I haven't fully addressed much.  I have in my draft folder plenty of slightly erotic posts in which I describe how we got together.  I think I shall in the near future devote a post on how we actually met.  We've been close friends for over 8 years now.  But until last summer, it was a Three's Company type thing (except we weren't lying to Mr. Furley or Mr. Roper about my sexual orientation).  The transition was smoother than I thought it would be.  It's kind of like for years we were ready for it, but we were waiting for the opportune moment to come out to each other.  But this shall be addressed in another post.

Teaching.  Nobody goes into this field because it is easy.  I've always loved a challenge.  But only if the challenge is one with attainable goals.  In order to get here, I've had to work plenty of bad jobs.  Thankfully, few of them were minimum-wage McJobs.  People ask how teaching compares to years of working at Starbucks.  I like it better because I am making a bigger impact on the world.  But working in Starbucks for years definitely shaped the way I approach pedagogy in a major way.

For one thing, I have learned how to deal with high-pressure situations.  The store I worked at was extremely high-volume, and there was never a shortage of drama.  Sure, I may not have been model employee all the time, but I was reminded of what a good experience it was when I was invited to the holiday party.  And the way everyone looked happy to see me even though I was no longer with the company.  I made a point of telling many people that Starbucks did save my life.  When I first got that job, I was at the end of my rope.  It was there when I needed it.  I may have held onto it longer than I needed to.  But it saved my life, and I am grateful for that.

Growing up in an upper-middle class suburban Jewish household, I did not get a very good education in the school-of-hard-knocks.  If I became a teacher without having worked at Starbucks, I would not be able to relate to my students as it stands now.  I would probably still have many of the prejudices against minorities that I was raised with.  The combination of City College and Starbucks opened my mind to the way people from other cultures behave.  I know, I still carry myself like a sheltered "white guy" sometimes.  This does cause plenty of people to raise their eyebrows when they see me.  And sometimes when I visit my friends in less-savory neighborhoods, they think that because I'm a White person walking down their streets, I am either a) a cop, b) crazy, or c) both.  But now, I am a citizen of the world who is only lacking experience in traveling.

And so, my friends, I bid you all a Happy New Years.  Be Safe.  Be Happy.  Don't make any stupid resolutions you can't keep.  And don't lick the yellow snow.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

For Deb: A Very Special Eulogy

The following post is going to be a different kind of eulogy.  Usually, a eulogy is delivered by those who knew the deceased best.  However, the circumstances behind the expiry of Deb Tambor deserve attention of even those who knew of her, or barely knew her at all.

I only met Deb Tambor in person once.  I knew her mostly from Facebook.  She and I were part of several groups that are for formerly religious Jews.  From her posts, I could tell that she was a kind, sensitive, and thoughtful person.  She clearly suffered much in her life.  Whenever others were suffering, she would offer kind words of sympathy.  She even would try to help them through with it.  She was a very special kind of friend.

The one time I did meet her in person was at a Vietnamese restaurant.  The occasion of this rendezvous was also bittersweet.  Another member of my Facebook circle had just gotten out of the hospital.  He was visiting his parents in New Jersey.  After that visit, he was planning to move to Vietnam.  But those plans were delayed due to a reckless driver.  He and his parents were walking home from synagogue, and this car hit him and his parents.  He was severely injured, and his parents were killed.  So the circumstances of this meeting were celebrating said friend's recovery, but also sad that he now had to live the rest of his life an orphan.

Deb showed up toward the end of the meetup.  We did not really speak much.  I'm pretty sure I introduced myself to her.  But one thing about her did stick out--her smile.  She had these dimples, and they made her smile very contagious.  She spoke rather quietly, but there was a certain impact to her words.  I could see that she was a very gentle person, but could be tough when she needed to be.  I regret now that I did not get to know her better.

When I heard the news last night that she passed away, my heart sank.  Although I barely knew her, I still felt very saddened.  But then, little by little, the circumstances behind her death became known:
While I do not know all the details
While most of what I know is heresay
this much is known

She had been fighting a very harsh custody battle with her ex-husband and losing.

Now I understand a mother being barred from ever seeing her children if she was abusive.  I understand if she is seriously mentally ill.  I understand if she is unable to care for herself or her children.  And I especially understand if she is a criminal.  These are good reasons for a child to be barred from seeing their mother.

But to the best of my knowledge, DEB TAMBOR WAS NONE OF THE ABOVE!

It is my understanding that Deb Tambor's only crime was that she is no longer a religious Jew.  And this crime was so egregious, that her own FATHER testified against her in custody court!  And the community that her ex-husband lives in all ganged up on her.  They arranged for legal fees, they did everything they could to make sure that these children would never know their mother again.

And even worse.  They vilified her.  That's right, her kids were told that their mother was evil.  They were told to hate their mother.  Their mother, who carried them for 9 months.  Their mother, who loved them.  Their mother, who wanted nothing more than to be a good mother.  To fulfill her biological matriarchal role.  But because she turned away from her faith, she was robbed of this opportunity.

She, a person whose only crime was losing faith in the religion she was raised with--TREATED AS IF SHE WAS A HARDENED CRIMINAL!  

I feel thus compelled to speak out for her, as her own voice will never be heard again.

To those who feel alone in this world.  To those who feel as if they have no companion.  You are not alone.  There are numbers you can call, people you can see, and plenty of help you can receive.  Some of it may even be cheap, if not free.  I may post in the comments (if anyone here is interested).

To anyone who thinks a friend is suffering silently.  BE THAT FRIEND.  Sometimes a simple hug may do it.  But if you know someone who needs help and they're not reaching out themselves, be that friend that reaches out for them.  They may hate you at first.  They may even decide they don't want to be your friend.  But trust me.  Better to be hated for being a good friend than being liked for being a bad friend.

And most importantly, let Deb Tambor not have passed on in vain.  Let us spread the word of why Deb felt compelled to prematurely end her life.  Let the whole world know about the scourge going on in this community she was raised in.  And let us band together and try to end this injustice once and for all.

For Deb Tambor.  For her family.  For her friends.  For everyone that loved her.

And for all the other men and women out there who have wrongfully lost custody of their children.

This post is for you.  All of you.

One member of the group I'm in was very close with her.  He has said that Deb only wanted to help others.  She wanted to make others happy.  Although she was dealt a bad hand by this world, she did not take it out on others.  Let us all follow in her example.  Let us make the world a better place in her memory.

For Deb Tambor.

All my love,
   L'etranger Acher.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tip of the Mountain, pt. 2 (caution, NSFW, you have been warned)

When I first met her, her screen name was Juliet4u.  I may as well have been Montague.  I was no Romeo.  But we definitely were from opposite sides of the tracks.  I'm pretty sure my parents would have hated hers.  And if anything, hers would not have much use for mine.

I did tell my father that I have a non-Jewish girlfriend.  I knew he'd be congenial  Actually, he'd be happy it was a girl.  What surprised me was that my mother was okay with it as well.  I'm not sure how okay she was.  But she told me she knew about the "shiksa" I was dating.  And she didn't disapprove.

At least they never met her in person.  Then they would have disapproved.  Not because of her religion; but because she was a bit--to put it mildly--low class.  She was the type that I would take to nice restaurants, she wanted Burger King or  McDonalds.  I wanted to see a nice art flick, she'd rather see "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton."  I was listening to Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Phish, and Bob Dylan; she wanted Something Corporate, Gwen Stefani, Fall Out Boy, and all these Emo bands I can't possibly remember the names of.  I think it's safe to say that whatever we had in common when I was 17 had ended; at this point, it was only a physical relationship.

And this is why it hurt when she told me I hadn't changed in the slightest bit since I was 18.

She had no idea what kind of shit I went through in those 6 short years.

It was the day before St. Paddy's.  The day before I was supposed to have my fateful meetup that didn't happen.

I was living in a run-down apartment in Washington Heights.  I shared it with 2 Yeshiva University students.  They didn't like each other.  But they were my friends.  We had our good times.  Under better circumstances, that apartment could have worked out.

On that night, something dragged me down to the crossroads.

I'm not sure what black magic was working that night.

But when you were on the amount of weed and alcohol that I was, even she seemed attractive.

She was missing a few teeth, wore too much makeup, and wore fake jewelry.  She was wearing too much of some sort of perfume I can't identify.  But whatever it was, it had some sort of pheromone or other.  Because it made her seem sexier than she really was.

Next thing I knew, I was buying her a drink.  We were sitting in a booth in the bar.  I was trying to chat her up.  She was chattier than I was.  But there was very little up there.  Kind of a busy signal where her EEG patterns should be.  She was a bit high also.  And before I knew it, small talk was over and she was giving me a handjob underneath the table.  She also flashed me her tits twice.  Anything she could do to absolutely entice me.

In the end, she succeeded.

They say your first time should be special.  It should be with someone you like.  It should be with someone you trust.  It should not be some random loudmouthed condescending MILF.

She made us stop by the bodega so I could by her some cheep bodega cheese and some rubbers.  She would not seal the deal without it.  She kept repeating over and over that she was serious about not wanting to catch some STD.  I mean luckily, I didn't catch any from her.  But no matter how many times I agreed to use protection, she still kept carrying on about it.  And even after I had bought them, she was nagging on and on about it.  I didn't like it.  But I was that desperate to finally get it on with a woman.

The only good thing that came out of that night was that I could no longer say I was a cherry.  The other good thing that came out of that night was that she gave a nice blowjob.  I mean she was good.  But I could not return the favor for her.  And she was very cruel and condescending about how terrible I was at pleasing her.

Lesson learned:  don't try muff spelunking when drunk and high when it's your first time and you honestly have no idea what you're doing.  Once you develop some sort of routine or rhythm, perhaps.  Perhaps if I had watched a bit of porn before those days, I would at least have had some inkling of what to do.  But I was boldly going where many men have gone before while wearing blinders and bourbon goggles.  Not a good idea.

We sat in my backyard.  I had the house to myself.  Well, mostly.  My parents were not going to be home until the next day,.  She asked if she could drive over.  I said yes.

Ever have one of those nights you should have been more prepared for what was obviously to come?  That night was one of those nights.

Why else did she invite herself over?

With very little fanfare, she asked me if I wanted to kiss her.  She knew from that time we hung out in the city that I wanted to.  And she was perturbed by the fact that I didn't make my move.  So she told me straight then and there to kiss her.

How could I say no?  I moved in.  But I moved in too fast.

And here comes the lack of experience,  The girls I had kissed before that surely did not enjoy the way I kissed them.  I was too aggressive, they said.  But she actually pulled back and told me very bluntly that she doesn't like being kissed like that.  Less tongue and more lips, she said.  And she demonstrated slowly what she likes.  So after a few minutes, we had a rhythm going.  Sure, it wasn't exactly what she wanted.  She still rubs in my face to this day what a horrible kisser I was back then.  But at least we had fallen into a comfort zone.

And so, we continued to make out.  Not the first time I made out with a girl.  But definitely the longest sustained one I had at the time.  It made me forget just about everything else that was going on at the time.

Eventually, we moved from my backyard to the basement, where we had a fold-out couch.  We were lying there, continuing what we started.  I'm not sure how we got from point A to point B.  All I know is we got there.

Next thing I knew, she was reaching under my shirt and tickling me.  I am very tickling.  And she had nails.  So it was hurting me.  I told her that.  She purred at me "what you gonna do about that?"

Some 4 or so months later, we were sitting together in the basement of the Port Authority waiting for her bus home.  It was 2 in the morning.

And I still couldn't fathom why she was being so distant.

"Figure it out."

If I could figure it out, I wouldn't have been asking her.

"Are you really that clueless?  Ask any girl here.  Any girl here knows the answer."

News flash, I'm not a girl.

We ended up having a pretty animated argument.  The female bystanders were looking at me with half-apprehension and half-pity.  They knew what she was talking about.  They could tell that obviously, I couldn't know.

It was the usual.  I ruined the moment.  I had my chances, I blew it.  I was too indecisive.  She was looking for a man she could hold on to.  Had we met as teenagers, she would have given me all the meaningless sex I wanted.  She's given plenty of that.  Her days of having meaningless sex were over.  Mine were only beginning.  It's really too bad we never hooked up back then, she pointed out.

She also threw in that another reason we're so incompatible is that I'm a Libra.  Now I'm the type who thinks astrology is bullshit to begin with.  So naturally I didn't buy it.  "Uh no, it has nothing to do with our astrological signs being incompatible..."  Funny thing is she's not the first girl to bring that up.  I've had girls call it off once they found out I was a Libra just because our signs didn't match.  Though I'm sure it was more than just the astrological bullshit.

She caught me at a time when I was beginning to break out of the religious confines and I was looking for unbridled hedonistic pleasure.  Her days of hedonism were over and she was looking to settle down.

Either way, good thing we didn't work out.  We would have made each other miserable.

Sadly, she still claims I'm the nicest that any man has ever been to her.  And I'm the only guy she's ever dated that her mother did not completely hate.  Hell, her mother even hated her now ex-husband!  Her mother wished she'd married me.

Why is it that the girl's mother always likes me more than the girl does?  Oh well, at least I know that if and when I ever get married, I don't have to worry about pissing off my in-laws too much.

To Be Concluded...........

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Tip of the Mountain, part 1 (NSFW, you have been warned)

          I never saw her before.  But she was no stranger.

          Thanks to the Information Superhighway, I now had the ability to meet random people from anywhere in the world.  For all they cared, I could be President Clinton.  I could be some creepy stalker looking for his next kill.  Or I could actually be a 17 year old virgin who was looking for an escape from the doldrums of suburbia.

           AOL Chat was the place to be when you weren't doing real life socializing.  Before there was Friendster, Myspace, or Facebook, there was AOL.  And this before Skype, Google+, Twitter, and whatever else kids use these days.

            She might as well have been a creeper as well.  I don't know why we started talking.  Her BFF at the time was one of the people I regularly chatted with.  The two of them had been friends since childhood.  Little did either of them realize what can of worms she was about to open for me.

             I don't know why I gave her my phone number.  Or did she give me hers.  Either way, she wouldn't be the first person I tried befriending from the Internet.  She wouldn't be the first girl I had a thing for.  And she most certainly would not be the first girl I messed things up with.

              She was the first one who said the words "you have a sexy voice".  We had barely even said anything to each other.  She told me I have a sexy voice.  I always hated the sound of my voice.  Hell, out of the few things about me people have complimented, it was never my voice.

               And thus began my first phone-sex relationship with a girl.  Although we never actually saw each other, it was as if this relationship was past PG-13.  We planned a-plenty of sexual trysts for if and when we ever met in person.

                Unlike me, she had been around the bend by then.  She was only a year older than me and already had a pregnancy scare or two.  She definitely knew how to talk dirty a lot better than I did.  I could reach around in the dark and imagine what sort of deeds would turn her on.  Perhaps she was moaning in response to my scenarios to please me.  Or perhaps I imagined I knew my way around a woman's body.  Having only seen a couple of dirty magazines, I knew very little about what women like.

                But she, oh yeah, she was quite good at enticing me.  Perhaps men are easier to please.  Perhaps I in my inexperience would have taken anything.

                The biggest problem with this relationship:  it was forbidden.  You see, she was not Jewish.  She was Catholic, half-Italian, half-Irish.  At the time, this was extremely important to me.  I was not very religious at the time.  But dating Jewish was still something important to me...

Fast-forward 5 or 6 years later.

High school was long gone.  A year and a half abroad in Israel.  Dropped out of college my second time.  I was now in perhaps the lowest point of my career.  No school, no job.  A high regimen of weed, alcohol, music, TV, and junk food.

In a haze of chemicals and emptiness, she reappeared in my life.  Somehow, she hadn't forgotten me.  Said I was the only guy who was ever nice to her.  She had a thing for going for the wrong guy.  They used her.  By now, she was much more jaded.

We sparked up a relationship on AIM Chat, which I still used.  She wanted to meet me in person for the first time.  I agreed.  She and her mother always came to NYC for St. Paddy's Day.  She wanted to meet me.  She told me what time she and her mother expected to arrive in Port Authority.  So I arrived in Port Authority.  The only problem is that this was during a period where my cellphone was lost.  So I had no way of tracking her down.  She later said she tried having me paged.  But I missed it.  We missed each other that day.

4 months later.  I had come as close as I had to hitting rock bottom.  I was now living with the folks in NJ again.  They agreed to take me in so long as I agreed to quit smoking, drinking, and other destructive behavior.  I also had to find a job.

And so, I was forced to abandon that old lifestyle cold turkey.  I'm not going to lie, it was a bitch.  I had support.  But it was a rocky start.  Who wants to hire a recovering stoner college dropout with no marketable skills and very little actual experience?

At this point, I was working a few shit jobs.  One of them was hawking at the Meadowlands.  It was through an agency.  After two days of that, they cut me.  I just wasn't what they were looking for.  On the train ride back, I met Edna.  Edna would later become one of my closest friends.  But that's another story for another time.  Edna and I just happened to be taking the A train together uptown. I  told her I got cut.  She told me to go back to the agency and apply as a cashier.  So I did.

As I was applying for the cashier position, the boss asked to see my resume.  He noticed there was an item about me working at some local bakery for 2 weeks.  He asked if I had any barista experience.  I said that when I worked the bakery, I had to make coffee.  He said "close enough.  Would you like a full time job with benefits that pays $10 an hour?"  How could I say no?

Little did I realize that would shape the next 9 years of my life.
I was scheduled to interview for a random coffee shop at NYU.  The night before that, she wanted to meet me for the first time.

She had tickets to the Carson Daly show.  Alyson Hannigan was going to be the guest that night.  She wanted to take me to see the show.

At this time, she had given up on men.  She was in a lesbian relationship.  That was cool with me.

I stood in that Port Authority.  This time, cellphone in hand.  I was on the second floor, close to the bowling alley.  My phone rang.  It was her.  I asked her where she is.  She said "I'm near the bowling alley."  I shouted "where are you?"  And she shouted back "over here!"  And so, we met for the first time.

She was by no means attractive.  Not by conventional standards.  She had a bit of an overbite and her teeth were a bit crooked.  Her dark brown hair was kind of thin and clipped back.  Her heart shaped face was a bit heavy, but her cheekbones definitely added character to her face.  And her eyes, kind of large and brown, I would call them puppy dog eyes.  And her figure, she was slightly plus-sized.  But not by much.

And of course, as she later made a point of, I could not take my eyes off her tits.  She found that rather endearing.  She even pointed out at some point that night that one boob was slightly larger than the other.  As I later found out, oh yeah, they were a nice pair.

We held hands as we walked down the streets of Midtown Manhattan together.  Nothing awkward about it.  I've been on holding hands relationships with girls before.  I should have known that she was daring me to make a move on her.

We ended up missing Carson Daly.  We arrived too late to be admitted.  Oh well, it wasn't like she paid for those tickets.

The highlight of that night, believe it or not, was when she forced me to accompany her into a Starbucks.  Now back then, I couldn't see the draw of Starbucks.   To me, Starbucks was some jappy corporate franchise that was slowly brainwashing us into uniformity.  Or something like that.  Either way, Starbucks id not attract me in the slightest bit.

I don't remember much else from that night.  I remember we walked to Madison Square Park.  We were lying down and staring at the clouds for a long time.  We were making small talk.  I was still too dense to make a move.

I made her walk back to Port Authority because I was too cheap to pay the Metrocard fare.  This pissed her off.  As a Jersey girl, she never walked where she could drive.  And I was forcing her to get some exercise.

I don't remember much else.  Except she later admonished me for not kissing her good night when she knew I wanted to.

The next day, I had that interview.  Little did I realize this would be the place I'd be employed for the next 9 years of my life.

And the bigger irony.  It was a Starbucks.  The night before, I had half refused to walk into a Starbucks with a girl.  Now, here I was, about to be employed by one.  And thus ended my belated adolescence and began my young adulthood.

To be continued.....

Transitions, part 1

         Some people accept change naturally when it comes in their direction.  Others refuse to change.  They stagnate until they have overstayed their welcome.  Then, once it is clear that they no longer belong where they are, they move.  But not out of their own volition; rather, they move for survival.

         Some say I haven't changed since I was a pollywog.  Sure, I've gained a bit of weight; the hair has thinned on the top of my head and reappeared on my face, in my nose, and on other body parts I don't show to the general public; and I have less energy than I used to.  But how much have I really changed?

         I like to break up my life into several phases:  From birth to 4 was the Brooklyn days.  If I continued down that trajectory, I would have probably been through reject yeshiva after reject yeshiva and then become one of those Kids at Risk that every religious Jewish parent was fressing about.  The Kids at Risk crowd in Jewish Brooklyn was a much rougher crowd than the ones in New Jersey; so unless my parents raised me like Lotney 'Sloth' Fratelli from "The Goonies", (which I am told was not uncommon back in the day), I probably would have fraternized with plenty of yeshiva stoners.  Maybe some Rebbe would have reached out to me and straightened me out; then I'd be the next loudmouth kiruv klown du jour.  More likely, I would have become a hocker selling used cars or beepers/cellphones.

          That trajectory was broken when my parents decided to move to Fair Lawn, NJ.  Now Fair Lawn was a nicer place to raise a child.  It was a community, not a cacophonous hodgepodge of Jews who can't stand each other but all somehow on the same block.  The joke about Jews in Brooklyn is that you could have 10 prayer groups/synagogues on your block and you still walk a mile to pray on Saturday.  But Fair Lawn was different.  At the time there was only one Orthodox synagogue in the community.  And this was the community that my parents moved into.

          And this starts phase 2 of my life:  the early Fair Lawn years.  Now the school systems there were still learning to adjust to kids such as me.  The first school my parents sent me to would not have put up with me for long.  In general, they were a bit elitist about education.  I know a few other students who most probably needed special ed who went through that school.  They did not do well at all, and that school did not work with them.  I switched into that school around April, so they only had to suffer me for two months.  During those months, it was decided that I was too immature to move on to kindergarten, so I would have to be held back a year.  My mother didn't want to hear it, so she pulled me out of that school.

         Out of the frying pan, into the fire.  Now my parents found that in general, the people who ran this new school were more compassionate.  However, even they could only be so charitable.  In kindergarten, I soon proved to be such a nuisance, that it was not conducive for me to remain in the class.  So halfway through the year, I was demoted to pre-k.  Luckily, the Pre-K teacher was my camp counselor the previous summer, and we had a good relationship.  I daresay she was possibly the first teacher I ever had who somewhat understood me.  So I fared well in that class. 

         But the next year, it was back to kindergarten.  Eh, still no success.  I can only speculate what wasn't working for me back then.  Perhaps I was bored. After all, I already knew how to read; I've been reading since I was 4 years old.  And they were still learning A-B-C's!  So of course, I was bored.  But then, even when learning something new, I was more interested in what was going on outside the window than inside the room.  After a battery of tests and shrinks and others, I was diagnosed ADD (something that was starting to gain vogue at the time, but that's another story for another time). 

         And what to do with and ADDdy who won't follow the rules?  The school I was in had a fledgeling special education program.  At the time, there were no Orthodox Jewish school with a cutting edge special ed program.  For that, you had to go to public school.  Many Jewish parents wanted their children to receive a Jewish education but to also be receiving the accomodations they need.  So these parents got together and formed a program that was on par with what the public schools had.  When I joined, this program was only a few years old.  Most of its students were pretty severely disabled, significantly lower functioning than me, and even a few years older. 

        And so, it goes without saying:  my parents were pretty apprehensive about sending me to the lions of special education.  It was a condemnation.  I now had a mark on my head--I WAS DIFFERENT.  I can not function in a normal people world.  And to make it worse, at that point, there were not many cohorts who were my age/on my functioning level.  What would happen to my social development? And would I ever be able to go to college or hold a normal job? 

       In the words of the great Master Yoda, "clouded, this boy's future is." 

       I end this post with a flash-forward:  I was 21 years old.  It was the summer of 2001.  I was involved with an organization that provides services for Jewish disabled teenagers and young adults.  Some of their consumers were former classmates of mine.  I was an advisor for them.  And these former classmates were generally congenial about that.  Ethan [name changed] clearly wasn't.

      When I first switched to special ed, Ethan was a classmate of mine.  He was a few years older than me.  But the nature of his disabilities was very different than mine.  To top it off, he was rather hypersensitive.  He always was, and years later, he was no less hypersensitive. 

      That summer, I was going to be a counselor on a trip to the West Coast with this organization.  Ethan was going to be a camper.  But for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, he cancelled at the last minute.  I suspected it was because of me.  I never confirmed that. 

       But my suspicion was slightly confirmed when the trip ended.  Ethan called first my parents and then me.  He wanted to know why I get to be a counselor and he doesn't if we both were once classmates.  I did not know what to answer him.  For once in my life I was at a loss for words.  I asked my father if he could ask our former principal what I should tell him.  I knew she would know the answer.  She was always good with these situations.

        Her answer:  "he knows the answer to that question."  That's it.

         So my father reported back to me.  He knows the answer.  My response:  "That's funny.  He knows the answer?  Because I don't!" 

        And my father said "that's it.  That's the answer right there."

        Staring me in the face all this time.  The answer was "I don't know."

        The answer still is "I don't know."

        I don't know why I was born the way I was born.  I don't know why Ethan was born the way he was born.  And I don't know why I ended up walking down one path while he walked down the other. 

         But I constantly find myself asking the same question Hillel and Shammai battled over for many years.  Are we better off having been created or not?  In the end, they came to a compromise: we're better off having never been born, but now that we're here, let's count our deeds.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Feels Like Starting Over

It's time to spread our wing's and fly,
Don't let another day go by my love,
It'll be just like starting over - starting over,
--John Lennon

              My first time posting in almost a year.  Everything is going pretty good in heathen land.  Strikes and gutterballs.  Sometimes you hit the b'ar; and sometimes, well sometimes, the b'ar hits you.  And so it goes.

              This ends the first year that I have been working as a special education teacher.  The first year of teaching is always the hardest, as they say.  Conventional wisdom states that it takes three years for a teacher to become a good teacher.  The hope is, of course, that I find myself sooner.  But most conscientious school administrators can recognize educators with potential for growth and nurture them until they find the competent educator inside themselves.

              The first major transition I have had to make is from student to student teacher to teacher.  Suddenly, at my end, I am beginning to see things the way my teachers did.  I suddenly can understand why so many teachers used to lose patience with me when I was younger.  It is at a point where I see students misbehaving, I find myself reprimanding them, and I remember that I used to do the same things (or similar) when I was their age.  I find myself of split mind:  the former special education student in me sympathizes with them; the special education teacher in me doesn't.

              One of my many responsibilities as a teacher is networking with parents.  Many of my students are with me because they do not perform well academically.  That is, no matter how bad a disability is, if they can function without special ed services, then one would provide as little as possible.  That is, when I was a kid, the two extremes were "resource room" or "self-contained class".  Nowadays, there is plenty in between.  Some of my students are on their own able to maintain a high GPA; they only need me to help them retain information and then to give them read-alouds on their exams.  But others need a lot more of a push in order to do well.

               And this is the concern most parents have.  "Nothing has worked on my child..."  The unfortunate blunt reality is that you can lead a horse to the water, but you can not make them drink.  If a child does not want to learn, there isn't a whole lot that even the most well-planned lesson can do.  But on the other hand, if the horse sits in front of the water long enough, he just may get thirsty.  Most of my job is not just teaching, but also motivating.  And here is a skill set in which I am not always the most efficacious.  Some are more natural at it than other. 

               My father is currently the business administrator for an institute that provides special ed services.  He has on his desk a picture of me from my special ed days.  I think I was in 5th grade at the time.  I am reading a book about Thomas Edison and have this wily, pensive look on my face.  Sometimes, when he's speaking with a parent, they ask what his qualifications are.  So he points to that picture on his desk and says "I raised him..."   Yes, he raised me.  And that allows him to more than empathize with a parent whose child has disabilities. 

                And conversely, my qualifications:  I've lived with myself.  When I listen to a parent speaking about their child and what they've been through, I think of two things.  I first think about my own personal experience.  Having to be tested, having to sit through tedious annual reviews, triennials, more tests, more shrinks with notepads, and all that good stuff.  It is enough to make anyone feel like a rat in a cage.  And it goes without saying, I couldn't help but feel like all those tests were redundant; all they did was confirm what was already known about me since I was in kindergarten--that I am not normal!

              The second thing I think about is what my parents went through raising me.  Listening to the parents now makes me understand what my parents went through when they were raising me.  On one hand, they wanted to give me the same upbringing every normal Jewish child gets.  On the other hand, it was clear that the school system as it was set up back then would not accommodate.  I was doomed to be relegated to the back of the classroom, getting bad grades, being a constant disturbance to class, and possible delinquency at a young age.  This is what most students of my aptitude ended up doing. 

               Luckily for my parents, the field of special education was still in its fledgling stage.  And I was one of their early experiments.  They did not promise my parents a bed of roses.  They did not promise some snake oil that was going to make me normal.  What they did promise was that they would provide me with the proper support.  They would work with my learning style, they would give me what I need.  Since I was relatively high functioning, I would be mainstreamed to the best of my ability.  But for all intents and purposes, I was still segregated from the school community at large.

               At first, this prospect was very scary for my parents.  After all, I was one of the highest functioning students in the program.  So it goes without saying that I would be surrounded by students who were older than me but lower functioning.  This would hamper my social development (and oh boy did it).  Of course, they tried compensating by mainstreaming me heavily.  They sent me to summer camps with the general ed kids.  So at least I was aware of where other kids my age were socially.  But this did not save me from still being very behind the curve on a social level.  I was still pretty immature for my age, ongoing even into my adult years.  Now social skills are a tricky thing that even now I'm no expert with.  A whole battery of shrinks, social skills groups, and regular seminars on how to behave in public did very little to set me straight.  Hell, I will even venture and say that plenty of the people giving these things were extremely out of touch with the way real humans behave; but that's another story for another time.

                 It took my parents until I was in my late 20s before they would admit that they were no longer scared for my future.  It took me until I was in my mid-20s to learn how to be a success.  I would not recommend for anyone the course of actions I took in order to find myself; there was plenty of self-destructive behavior involved.  But I rose up from the ashes of being defecated on by the education system.  Nowadays, when I listen to other parents speaking of their fears for their children, I empathize with my parents and the fears they had for me.  And I hope that I am able to do for them what I had to do for myself during my own formative years--only hopefully with more success.