I will survive

Nine months ago tonight, I was lying wide awake with disbelief and pain so visceral that I couldn’t breathe.

It’s been hell.

I have fought tooth and nail to get here. I have spent thousands of dollars on therapy, plus medication, and innumerable hours in the upside down trying to figure out how I could have loved and trusted someone so cruel, vapid, and deceitful.

And I’m here. I am surviving yet again.

I understand now that he was a pathetic excuse for a human, let alone a man, and I very, very narrowly dodged a bullet.

There are scars though. I am now a woman with trust issues and baggage that I have to wrestle to fit into my overhead bin before, on, and after dates. But I am doing it.

I am trying to give seemingly kind and authentic men the benefit of the doubt … and there is a simultaneous, niggling fear that crawls over my skin. I cannot help but remember that same grace for another man is what bit me in ass.

I hope I will not always be in protective mode or that I will at least learn where the line is but it’s proving to be a prickly thing to embrace. So far.

And to her, I only have one thought left …

Good luck, hun.

Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive

I’ve got all my life to live

And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive

I will survive

I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
An aspirational prick.

Keep Your Head Up

“We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup

And even though you’re fed up

Huh, ya gotta keep your head up”

Keep Ya Head Up – Tupac

I had a profoundly affecting experience yesterday that I cannot shake. There’s nothing to be done but feel it and wait for the intensity to subside. It feels so heavy and disappointing and sad, but there’s also some deep love and light woven in.

I spent most of yesterday at the DC jail. I was invited by a good friend to attend an event where the residents were presenting the group project pitches they had been working on for the past eight weeks. The topic? Curbing gun violence in this city. There were 14 groups and all of us guests, about 60 or 70 of us, were randomly assigned a group number and we traveled around to each of the 14 tables. We listened to their pitches, reviewed their presentation materials, and asked questions. Think science fair in a gym only, instead of scrawny and adorable middle schoolers, these students are all ages, shapes, and sizes in bright orange jumpsuits.

The experience itself was awesome. Truly. My cheeks hurt so much from smiling hours after I had passed back out through security and found my way to my car, where all of my electronics and everything except my photo ID were waiting for me. I have never gone through so much security and it was kind of intense for a first-timer. Listening to the residents though was thought-provoking, inspiring, enlightening, and humbling. From teenagers to old men, I was able to look into the eyes of each man as he shared his piece of the presentation and I was struck by how little we, as humans, ever bother to look beyond a label. Whether it is liberal or republican, disabled or athlete, CEO or felon, we rarely put the time, effort, or grace into having a simple conversation with those whose labels flash “other” in our minds like an alarm. I was interested to observe that while not everyone was nervous, most were visibly anxious and there were a lot of shaky voices and hands from men that are probably used to being quite intimidating. It was so humanizing to listen to these phenomenal, practical, uniquely informed ideas on how to effect change in violent crime and youth involvement in this city. When would you ever get to have conversations like that?! I could have done it all day. I wanted to just keep learning and soaking in all the ideas and wondering how, who, and where these ideas might get funding or get off the ground in a tangible way. There were folks from all over the city in attendance, including the White House, and I saw a lot of people taking notes and swapping business cards. I genuinely hope that something, anything, comes of the rich and innovative ideas we heard yesterday.

Despite how moving all of that was, it was not even close to the most impactful part of the day. Before things got started, guests were just milling about, reading the one-pagers we had been given for each of the project groups. There was a brief overview, a picture of the residents who worked on each project, and a list of their names. A few pages in, one name jumped out at me. Let’s call him Bryant Morris — common enough name but one man in the picture on that page looked too much like a Bryant Morris from my past. A student that I knew at the first high school where I was a counselor. For a moment, I thought, “that cannot be my Bryant Morris.” I looked around the gymnasium where probably 50 men in electric orange jumpsuits were scattered. It took less than a second for me to see him. I swear to you, I nearly hit my knees. Disbelief and sadness took my breath away and I almost believed he locked eyes with me from all the way across that gym — even though we were wearing masks and probably haven’t seen each other in 10 years. I had to keep looking away because I didn’t want to believe it. He was SO much bigger than I remember. Full sleeves of tattoos covering arms that looked more like tree trunks. But those eyes? Those eyes were the same as the ones on the baby face of a boy who is inextricably and heartbreakingly linked to one of the worst days of my life.

In 2008, two of my former students were in a car accident one night. They had just graduated the year before and one was my counseling aide and sat in my office every single day with her insanely infectious smile. The accident was bad enough that they needed to fly them to Maryland Shock Trauma. Except the helicopter crashed and killed everyone on board, except one. My aide was killed as were the two flight crew and the local EMT who had boarded to assist during transport. After so, so many surgeries, the surviving student lost her leg and had a lot of scars, both physical and emotional, but she survived.

The crash upended our community. The morning after, when the news broke, we knew two of our students were involved but we didn’t know who. I had seniors that year and my entire caseload of 262 faces went through my mind. I created my first ever Facebook account just to monitor how my kids were doing. It was an unfathomable tragedy and no one was okay. I wasn’t okay. I didn’t know who that first morning but I didn’t want it to be any of the faces I kept seeing in my mind.

I never dreamed they were alumni. I certainly never dreamed it was those two girls, my girls. In another giant fuck you, the EMT who perished was the mother of Bryant Morris, one of our football stars and a universally popular young man with students and staff.

He was out of school for nearly two weeks and when he returned he wasn’t the smiling, fun-loving, always joking kid that he was. Sure, he was still a standout athlete and I was there in the stands when he won the state titles that year in football, indoor, and outdoor track. He just lost his sparkle for a long time. He was (is) the sweetest boy. It makes my chest ache so deeply to remember those days right after the crash — the sickening sadness and profound sense of shock and loss — but also the weeks after when one student was still in the hospital facing a steep uphill battle, everyone else was dead, and Bryant was the one we all watched. It wasn’t really fair. It just seemed like, if we could get him to be okay, we would all be okay too.

There have been so many tragedies since then. So many students lost. So much trauma. So many things I wish I didn’t have to live through, that they didn’t have to live through. At some point, I feel like I became numb to anything new. A few years ago, one of my students, an Honors and AP student, shot another of my boys in the head. Two lives were lost forever that afternoon. I suppose I peripherally felt shock and sadness but, honestly? I felt nothing. It was just one more awful thing in a never-ending string of awful things in the lives of the students I serve.

I learned through all of those awful things the myriad ways that different people experience them, process them, and move forward at whatever pace they can. By graduation Bryant seemed to be doing fine. He got his full scholarship for football and, as the NCAA Coordinator for the entire district, I was there on signing day with tears of joy in my eyes. It felt like a win for all of us.

The last time I saw him, I’m not sure how many years ago exactly but at least 7 or 8, it was on my street. I was driving toward Howard University and Bryant was on a bicycle. The last I knew, he was out west at college where he got his scholarship so it was wild seeing him here, but he told me that he had just transferred to Howard and was the starting corner. He seemed really proud and happy and settled. We talked for a while in the street and then he put his hand on my driver’s side door with the window open and I pulled him up the big hill toward Howard on his bike, smiling as big as ever. The next time I saw him was yesterday, in an orange jumpsuit, in prison.

My group yesterday, of course, was assigned to start at his group’s table and I was not ready. I wasn’t processing fast enough. I wanted to find a quiet corner and have a good, selfish cry before I found some freaking strength. I wasn’t even sure if he would remember me, let alone recognize me with my mask on. It seemed like he was intentionally avoiding eye contact with me when he did his part of the presentation though and, when I heard his voice, there was no way I could deny that the man in front of me was that same sweet boy. It broke my fucking heart into a thousand pieces. After the presentation, he picked up a stack of their flyers to pass out to my group and he started with me. He looked me straight in the eye and I said, “Thank you, Bryant. Do you remember me?” He called me by name and said, “Of course I remember you. I don’t know why or how you are here today, but thank you for coming. Can I talk to you later?”

And so I went around to all the other tables to listen and found him after. I asked if I could give him a hug … and then I gave him about six. We could only chat for a few minutes before we were shuffled to the next building but it was enough to know he’s still that boy, with the same heart, the same bouyancy, the same drive. He told me he’s been in for 24 months now and thinks he’ll be out in eight more. He’s gotten his LLC while inside and is pursuing entrepreneurship so he can “do things the right way” when he gets out. We talked about his offense(s), why the money on the street was too good, and how he just got caught up. He asked what I do now and, when I told him, he said, “Do you all hire felons?” It sobered me up real quick and all the joy I was feeling from reconnecting with an old student in those brief moments evaporated with a big smack of reality. I gave him my email and my same old Pittsburgh number, to which he said with a classic Bryant smile, “Of course. Same as always.”

Then I came home last night and had myself a little breakdown. First I’ve cried in what feels like months but, oof, the floodgates broke wide open. There are kids that you know are never going to fully escape their circumstances. And it is not just the ones that you know are in gangs, or come to school with a gunshot wound, or already wear an ankle bracelet. There are also kids who are barely getting through or that could be doing more than passing but they hate school and, whatever the case, they aren’t going to continue school after high school, if they even graduate. You know those kids aren’t going to make it, despite everyone’s best efforts to help them onto a viable pathway. But then there are other kids that you know, with every fiber of your being, are going to be something. Bryant Morris was one of the latter. Ten years ago, I would have bet you 1000:1 that he would be well on his way to CEO of something by now.

I don’t understand why life is this way. The injustice of the cards you are dealt and all that. I just do not and cannot understand it. There are so many days and circumstances that make it feel like a fucking setup.

Like Pac says, you’ve got to keep your head up. And I would say to that, maybe tomorrow. Today, I’m deep in my feelings and thinking about a boy who already lost everything when he was 15. I have known him for literally half of his life and I cannot help but feel like maybe we didn’t try hard enough to make sure that sweet, funny, beautiful boy was really and truly okay.

I need to do some research over the next eight months to figure out how to actually help now.

Aftershocks

Featherlight kisses

Skimming up her spine

Warm breath at her neck

Her head turns, shoulder arches

She smiles

Foreheads touch

Four eyes crinkle

Her body shudders once more

He chuckles

She floats

He lies

Again, and again

.

She shudders now at the memory

Again, and again

.

And again

It’s different in this light.
Revulsion erasing ecstasy.
Reckoning replacing reveling.

Music for the Mood:

Reckoning

Reveling

– Ani DiFranco

The challenge of fantasy

A few days ago, I received an invitation to join the Fantasy Football Playoff Challenge group that I was in last year. The problem is, I was in that group with John, with (presumably) all his friends. I only recognized one other name last year and I didn’t know this person who ran the group, the one whose email the invite came from again this year.

I recognize that the invite was an automatically generated thing for anyone who participated last year when the group was reactivated this year. That’s how it works in every fantasy league I’ve ever played in. I considered ignoring but, really, what was the harm? It’s largely anonymous and clearly none of those dudes knew who I was last year either. So I created a team.

Karma’s picks … if only I held that power

This morning I sent the $25 entry fee via Venmo and followed up with an email. I let the guy know I was invited last year by John Clemons and that, if it was too uncomfortable, he could decline the money and I’d just delete my team.

As you might suspect, that guy wrote back, said he didn’t know the situation with John & I, didn’t need to, and asked me to do as I offered and delete my team. It felt a bit like a rejection letter from a job; “thanks so much for your interest.” But he was polite about it and I have no ill will toward his passive bystander lot. So I did.

Then I went for a walk on this balmy 19° day and thought about it for a full hour. Obviously it’s not lost on me that I have no business being in that playoff group, even anonymously, but it also seemed harmless. My team name was “Karma” so, yeah, maybe it wasn’t entirely without motive though, to be fair, it didn’t appear that John was even in the group (at least as of this morning). What I kept thinking about on my walk though was that, a year ago, it felt like I was part of John’s life, part of his friends’ lives, and one of the only females in this big group of 20 or so guys (I finished 4th, btw).

I wish it didn’t bug me so much but it’s all these small, seemingly innocuous things that keep coming along and tearing off scabs that have only just barely gotten a chance to start forming. They hurt. A lot.

And I can’t help but be resentful that no one apologizes to me, no one sympathizes, or empathizes, or even seems to know who I am or that I ever existed in his life. It’s so bizarre that this man stole three years of my life and yet I’m the one who is still paying. No one seems to be holding him accountable. He seems to have gotten to live his fantasy life, both of them, and come out without a scratch. I have no evidence to the contrary and it makes my brain so, so tired.

I’m not sure I know what my fantasy even is anymore. Maybe that’s the real playoff challenge.

What’s the frequency?

No, this actually has nothing to do with Kenneth, or REM, or Dan Rather. I was thinking of the song but only because frequency bias has been on my mind.

Well aware that cheating tropes are present all over film and tv and, while triggering to varying degrees based on my disposition at the time, I recognize that I can’t really avoid them. But the real Baader-Meinhof mindfuck that happened this week has me in a snit, days later.

I was watching a random show the other night, FBI Most Wanted (Season 3 Ep 11, if you want to check my facts) and within the first moments, a man is subdued, taken to the woods, and given mere minutes to free himself and run for his life before he is hunted and shot dead, like an animal. We find out this victim was a pedophile and he deserved what he got — but his name? John Clemons. I shit you not. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

What are the chances? Like, what are the actual chances?? Had I seen this random opening of this one episode of this random show any time in the past three years, I’d have immediately texted John. It would have been crazy and kind of funny in a sick way but we both would’ve gotten a kick out of him sharing his name with a procedural drama perp. And had I seen this random opening of this one episode of this random show more than three and a half years ago, I would’ve just changed the channel because it was a creepy opening and I didn’t know anyone named John Clemons.

So of course I watched the whole twisted episode. An act of masochism, I suppose. For a few moments, I think I just sat in stunned disbelief with my mouth agape but then they kept saying the name, both first and last, over and over again. It made my heart race and my cheeks and neck feel warm – it was kind of like a tiny panic attack. Why that name? Of all the billions of names in this world, why the exact name of the man who blew up my world mere months ago?

What’s even wilder is that the towns where this episode’s plot took place were these quiet, little, podunk, Western Pennsylvania towns that most viewers probably didn’t know were real. But they are very real to me. Brookville, Clarion, etc. these are all places where I have spent a lot of time, since I was a tiny child. This is where my family owns a cabin, where my dad and brother and uncles have hunted actual animals, not human excrement named John Clemons, for decades. What are the chances? In this random episode, at this time in my little life?

It doesn’t mean anything. I know that. In the grandest scheme of it all, I know that. But it makes me think of frequency bias and Baader-Meinhof and just the sheer injustice of cosmic coincidence sometimes.

Why does life get to twist the knife deeper as you’re working so hard to pull it out, all by yourself, while you’re still partially paralyzed?

It makes no sense.

Music for the Mood: What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? – REM