Awake, Alive, After a Year of Swamps and Shadows.

I’m awake now.

After living the last school year in a state that felt like a long sleep filled with dreams of murky swamp water shadows, me sitting down beneath, looking above like someone sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool in one of those movies or shows, though without wash of summer sunshine, looking up at lily pads floating overhead like alien intelligences whose designs I cannot fathom.

I lived my life, underwater. I did my job, underwater. I spent my weeknights and my weekends, underwater.

Occasionally I’d have phone conversations with family, friends, underwater. I’m surprised they could even understand what I was saying, speaking thickly through swampwatersludge. Sometimes they didn’t. Most of the time, the people I’d talk to knew I was underwater. They were very understanding.

Teaching was the easiest thing to do underwater. I’d been doing it for so long, it was all muscle memory. Things looked clearest when I was teaching. It still had it’s challenges, however.

Paperwork.

Paperwork was hard. So was communicating with my colleagues, my administrators. Paperwork and communicating with my colleagues, that was pretty difficult for me. Sometimes, I hate to admit, I’d snap at people, speak defensively, I thought I was justified. I’d behave in a manner that was not collegial.

I was being a dick, basically.

I got some write-ups. I couldn’t help myself sometimes. They didn’t know. They didn’t understand how difficult it was to work underwater – especially swamp water. They didn’t understand, and it was hard to explain.

Neuroplasticity, my psychiatrist called it.

My ADHD medication was rewiring my brain from randomly spouting flashes and spurts of half-completed ideas to producing clear, organized and orderly rational thoughts, complete with beginning, middle and end. The medication was basically acting like a brace for my brain. And it made me feel stupid. But my struggles at work are another story for another day.

Once in a while, my friends would come and stand at the swamp’s edge.

They yelled out to me, trying to reach out and get my attention. We’re going to be having a get together this weekend, would you like to join? You know we’d love to see you. This band is coming to this bar, we’re all going, would you like to join? I’ll try, I said, lying mostly.

I never went.

Again, I tried explaining to them about the whole it’s-kinda-hard-because-I’m-sitting-down-here-at-the-bottom-of-the-swamp situation and now I’ve gotten pretty used to it. Then there’s the whole swimming back up to the surface. I didn’t have the energy. And honestly, I didn’t want to. That’s the closest I can get to try and describe how it felt this past school year.

I was taking my prescribed medication regularly. I was not, however, exercising or eating right. I’d written some previous blog posts during that time describing how I felt. I stayed home all the time. My lethargy was so utter and complete that I would give my older brother money so he could buy my groceries any time he and his partner went to the store.

I wouldn’t even try to talk to women, because first, it required too much energy, and second, I wouldn’t want to go out. I had no energy to be personable or charming. I couldn’t make it to concerts from bands that I had already paid my ticket for and that I desperately wanted to see, like Snail Mail, and a few others. I didn’t even make it to see the Suicide Girls Blackheart Burlesque show, even though I bought a VIP front section table. I never bothered with refunds.

None of my hobbies or loves or passions or desires would get me up and out into the outside world. I stopped going to the poetry slams. Even practicing with our band wouldn’t happen. I even missed most of the meetings for our Laredo chapter of NAMI.

I had mentioned before that it felt like all the energy I’d expend on teaching my students left me completely and totally drained every night, and come the weekend, I felt totally spent from the work week. My body needed a lot of recovery time.

Then a couple of events occurred in rapid succession:
I went the weekend before Spring Break without any of my medication.
And my brother told me that he and his partner had decided to move back to San Antonio.

Due to some miscalculations on my end and some miscommunications on my pharmacy’s end, I spent all of the first Saturday and Sunday of Spring Break deep in a depression sleep. I told my brother. I told my mother. And I slept. All day Saturday. All day Sunday. I finally picked up my medication on Monday. I went to bed early.

Then the strangest thing happened.

I woke up at nine AM Tuesday morning. Without an alarm. My eyes just popped open.
I had rested, a good, long, deep rest. I felt recharged, so I got up, and for the rest of the week, as I began taking my medication regularly again, I was actually doing chores, running errands – it was such an amazingly strange sensation having energy.

I began feeling restless on weekend nights. I started craving going out again. Being around people – my friends. Our band began practicing regularly again. Even my work relationships improved.

Then my brother told me that he was going to be moving back to San Antonio.
I admit I had a moment of selfishness, but it came and went like a Laredo summer shower. Three years of self-reflection, meditation, and medication had finally given me rationality and balance.

My brother had stepped in when I needed him the most. He uprooted his life with his partner in San Antonio, after years of living on their own, to come down and help me out, moving into his bedroom, with his mother. I knew what that felt like. I knew how hard it was. And it was hard, but we tried to make the best of it. And as hard as it was, it was hardest on his partner, who for those three long years would apply for countless jobs and never be hired. He had his own mental health issues and it was taking a toll on him.

So I understood. They were living a half-life. I wouldn’t have survived the first year after my father’s death without him. My oldest brother stepped in and shouldered the burden, along with his partner, of feeding my mom, balancing her checkbook, fixing up the house.

My brother and I had made an agreement, when my father was ill: I cared for our father and did my best to see him through to his passing, and I would do the same for our mother, when the time came, while during that time, he would see to the day to day running of the household. He allowed me time to recover and to rest.

And I did.

He gave me that gift.

I’ve said before that meditating – along with the medication – had allowed me to get in touch with my body. I’ve said that I learned to listen to my body, learned to surf on the crest of it’s ebb and flow. I knew my days of resting had a limited shelf life.

Then, weeks later, my brother and his partner went to San Antonio for a few days to scope things out. When they came back, they both returned with secured jobs. Now if that isn’t a sign from the Divine, then I don’t know what is. It was meant to be.
Our lives were about to change drastically once again. Gone would be the days of me lazing about.

My mind knew it.

My body knew it.

Then the wheel turned, as it always does, and summer came.

And on the first Saturday of the first weekend of summer, I began doing my laundry, which had piled up in layers of strata months old. I cleaned my room. I cut the back and front yard grass. I grabbed a saw and I began to trim the branches of my Three Sisters out in the backyard. I began working out again. I went back to drinking my protein shakes.

I was asked to be in a play and I said yes – the first play where I portray a character that has the most lines I’ve ever had. I went to a cast party.

I hosted a birthday party for myself. I actually grilled fajita and chicken, after not cooking anything for almost a whole year. I helped my brothers organize and pack for their big move.

That last week before they left was a hard one – for all us.

The boxes gathering like the accumulating gray cloud gloom of a coming downpour.

I broke down twice.

But we talked. I told him how much I’d miss him, and I thanked him. But my room was clean, my brother saw me getting up early, saw me work out a daily routine.

Before he left I told him not to worry about me, or mom, that I would be able to take of everything now, that I could manage it, and he knew it, because he got to see it before he left.

Am I cured of my mental illness? Of course not. There is no cure, only management. But over the course of these three past years, I learned to manage my depression in positive, healthy ways. I know I will have bad days, but I know that I’ll survive them.

Today marks the third official day of me and my mom being on our own, and we’re doing fine.

We slip into routines easier now. I spend time watching TV with her. She colors. I write. We talk. I’m out and about now. My mom will be around for a long time, so I definitely need to stay in shape in order to keep up with her – but it benefits me as well.

The murk is gone now.
My mind and body purged it – as soon as my brother had told me, everything cleared up almost instantly. My body knew, and it was ready, and snapped to. I’m ready to shoulder responsibilities again – mine and my mother’s.

I am her companion, her guardian, her protector – and honestly, I know that this is how it’s supposed to be. I know that I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

I’m happy.

I’m at peace.

I’m not worried about any problems in the future.

I know it’ll be okay.

I know I can handle it.

My energy is back.

My eyes are open.

My head is clear.

I’m awake now.

This New Year, Resolve to Make No New Year’s Resolutions.

I’m laying down on my bed as I write this, surrounded by pillows, covered in one of the most comfortable blankets in our home ( it was in a closet, no one was using it, so now it’s mine – no harm, no foul ), my go-to comfortable slouchy beanie on my head.

I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, looking at all the people I follow, and, since it’s January 1st, 2019, reading the occasional but unavoidable posts on New Year resolutions.

I left the site.

You see, after I was diagnosed with Major Depression and adult ADHD, and after talking to my psychiatrist and my friends and family, I realized three things about myself:

– Being on social media for long periods of time becomes a sensory and information overload for me.

– I’m an empathetic person.

– I’m a natural problem solver.

I’ve always been a pretty good speed reader since I was a child, but now that I’m on my ADHD medication, I can take in and process a greater amount of information a lot faster.

So, with that particular combination, taking in and processing too much information and/or too much emotional information means that my head becomes filled with people’s problems that I either want to solve, or that I feel terrible about, and I know there’s nothing I can do about it.

So, what’s the point of all this?

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions.

I definitely believe that the very nature of the winter/holiday season lends itself to self-reflection, self-assessment.
Nature lies dormant, weathering out the cold until the sun’s warmth returns. All we see around us are ( mostly ) bare trees, slate gray skies, snow, if you’re lucky.

The calendar year, arbitrarily beginning in January, in the middle of seasonal winter, also forces us to feel as if we only have three hundred and sixty-five days to undergo some sort of amazing transformation, and as a result, forces us to feel as if we are some kind of failure in the eyes of our peers.

Social media only heightens this perceived pressure.

Many movies and shows make us feel that our lives are supposed to have a clear, definite beginning, middle, and end.

So after struggling for years, we’re told that we are supposed to overcome our problems, our weaknesses, our illnesses, our addictions, in a much shorter span of time, then proclaim ourselves free, new and improved, washed clean of the stains of our personal problems.

People in the public eye, be they celebrities or politicians, love to broadcast that narrative, and by doing so, make us believe that it’s the norm.

I don’t know about you, but I hate deadlines.

I love guidelines, but deadlines are crap.
Having depression has made me realize that growth is not a linear thing.

Spending time out in my backyard almost every day for the past year and a half, watching the leaves and flowers sprout and bloom, wither and fall, then sprout and bloom again, watching the constellations revolve above me, has taught me that growth is cyclical.

Growth is not linear.

That idea was the creation of some white scientist centuries ago whose belief system was a locked, rigid, racist, classist, patriarchal ideology. That idea, that way of thinking, is wrong.

Growth is cyclical.

We set a goal for ourselves. We often invariably fail at least once, if not more. We achieve that goal. But it’s rarely ever just one goal at a time. It’s many.

It’s growth in our careers, yes, but it’s also growth within ourselves, and without.

Growth in our interpersonal relationships.

Growth as men and women.

Growth in realizing our gender and sexual identity.

Growth in realizing just where exactly it is we belong on this insane planet, third from the sun.

Growth in being a good person to those who are good to you.

Growth in realizing the harmful, toxic behaviors we learned through nurturing by our parents, guardians, parent figures; and then trying to break ourselves free from those behaviors so we don’t hurt our loved ones the way we were hurt. The way our parents or parent figures hurt each other.

Growth is spirals.

It’s tree rings, stacked from its base, from its roots, raising high up towards the sky.

We grow in spirals.
And, more often than not, our growth process is represented as many spirals, rising and falling, loosening and tightening, as we try to discover and learn and figure out and master all the complex aspects of ourselves.

We spiral upward. We fall down, and we get back up again.

I have never followed the crowd.

I do things when I want to do them.

I do things when I am ready to do them.

And when I do, I do them slowly, over time.

But I do them.

I do not measure my success by the successes of others. I measure my success by how and what I do today versus how and what I did yesterday.

I spiral.

I rise.

I fall.

I forgive myself.

I analyze and see what went wrong, what I can do differently – not better.

Then I rise again.

And I don’t stop.

I may take breaks, but I never stop. I meditate. I try to keep my mind present. I always ask myself:

“Is what I’m doing truly making me happy?”

“Is what I’m doing hurting anyone?”

And I adjust, as needed. I take time to make sure I do everything I have to do, to learn everything I have to learn, to practice everything I have to practice.

But I do it at my pace, for myself, and not for anyone else, and definitely not so I can crow about it on social media.

So, do you honestly believe that pushing yourself doggedly, cruelly, without ever taking a moment to stop, enjoy, and feel the fulfillment of achieving a goal is going to create a kinder, happier, more loving you?

Instead of making resolutions that, by definition, are designed to fail, designed to make you feel terrible about yourself, don’t you think that you should simply work on being the best person you can be every day?

Don’t you think that’s better than saying, “Oh well, I’ll just try next year,” the very first time you break your resolution – in February?

Don’t you think you should do it in small, achievable steps?

Don’t you think you should nurture yourself?

Don’t you think you should be more patient, more kind to yourself?

Don’t you think you should be more forgiving with yourself?

Don’t you think you deserve it?

I know you do.

Colors, Patience, Superman – Teaching on the Borderlands.

The little boy would not enter my classroom.

I saw him lingering, out in the hallway in front of my doorway, amidst the organized chaos of our morning routine, as the other students were coming in. Then, a moment later, he was gone.

I didn’t think much of it.

He was either afraid, or he was having a bad day. Or both. His teacher – my colleague – had to take the day off unexpectedly because her son woke up with a high fever.

On days when a teacher is out, we normally split up that teacher’s class between the remaining four 5th grade teachers, so we get an additional five to six more students.

We do this because on a campus like ours, located just a mile away from the U. S.-Mexico border, where we service a heavily Spanish-dominant population whose median income is below the poverty level, and we have to prepare them to pass the 5th grade STAAR exams, losing a day of instruction can really hurt these children.

Rather than having twenty-two to twenty-three students doing busy work, increasing the chances of them acting up with a substitute, it’s better they come to us and continue getting actual instruction.

There are space issues. Classroom behavior spikes a bit, but as long as we’re prepared with constant instruction, lessons, activities, the students are too engaged to even try to act up. Usually it ends up alright.

This day, we’re testing our district’s CBAs – a mini diagnostic to check if teachers have been teaching and if the students have learned what their teachers have been teaching. I get my students settled and working on their morning routine while I make room for the extra students.

Our special education teacher comes in and tells me that the little boy went back to his teacher’s classroom.
He’s in the room by himself.
He doesn’t want to come to my class.

I can cut a pretty imposing figure, with my size and my beard, and the children can find it intimidating – even threatening if I stand too close to a child.

This little boy has ED, so there are times when he won’t cooperate, won’t want to go where he is supposed to.

I head over to his classroom.

The little boy is there, standing up against a whiteboard. He looks unsettled, with a small light of defiance in his eyes.

The substitute is there as well.

I ask her if she could go to my class and watch my students since I left them unattended. She does so.

When she’s left the classroom, I ask the little boy if he’s going to come to my class. He just stares at me.

I ask him what his name is. He mumbles. By this time, morning announcements have begun, and with my peripheral deafness, I can’t make out what he’s saying.

I ask again.

I still can’t hear him. I ask him again and I explain to him why I keep asking. This time he yells out his name.
I shift my demeanor and I tell him firmly not to yell at me like that.

I wasn’t yelling at him and I honestly couldn’t hear him. There was no need for it. I tell him he’s being rude.
He says his name again, this time in a softer tone.

This time I hear him. I thank him.

I slowly walk towards him, but he begins to walk around, opposite me, keeping himself equidistant from me. We’re both feeling each other out, and we both know it.

I sit down.

For a while, I don’t talk.

I just sit there, calmly listening to the morning announcements. I’m not frowning. I make sure that my posture is relaxed.

I make sure that I’m giving off an aura of calm. I let him grow accustomed to my presence. I ask him if he wants to sit. He shakes his head no.

I calmly, gently explain to him that he needs to come to my class and I tell him not to worry.

I explain to him that I don’t want him to get into any trouble.

Then his special education teacher comes in and begins talking to him in a rough manner.

She needs to take him to her room so she can give him his test.

I use this time to call the front office and ask for our assistant principal to come by.

I step out into the hallway and when she reaches me, I explain to her the situation.
She tells me she’ll take care of it and tells me to go back to my class.

I do, and I get my kids settled down and pass out their tests.

As soon as I’m done, I see the little boy at my door.

The security guard escorted him. I tell the boy, hi! Come in and sit by me. I gesture at a chair on one end of my banana table and I sit. He walks in slowly and sits down.

I have a colorful tray filled with different types of markers that I use to create my classroom posters. I give him loose-leaf paper and push the tray towards him.
I ask him if he likes to draw.
He says yes.

I ask him if he could draw me something he likes. I sit there beside him as he draws. It’s a crude child’s drawing of Superman.

I tell him that I like Superman. I tell that I like to draw also.

I ask him, would you like to draw with me? I could draw you Superman after you finish your test.

He smiles and nods yes. His teacher comes for him and he leaves my room to take his test.

I tell him goodbye and that we’ll draw as soon as he’s done.

He never comes back.

Later I find out that he was sent home because of his behavior.

This was Thursday.

It’s Friday now.

We have two 5th grade teachers out all day at a training.

This time I get seven additional students.

We’re done with testing.
It’s “activity” Friday, and I give my students an extra thirty minutes.

Again I’m getting all the students settled and working when a student stops by my class and asks if I can step outside so his teacher can talk to me in the hallway.

It’s the little boy again.

He doesn’t want to go into his classroom teacher’s room.

The special education teacher is there again and she says he wants to go back with me because I told him that I would draw him Superman.

She sounds angry and frustrated but I respond cheerfully, of course he could come with me!

I ask him to come with me.

He follows me.

As I pass, I tell the special education teacher to come by later, once he’s settled down, so he could be picked up and do whatever work he needs to be done.

We can’t have a student out in the hallway unsupervised. It’s a safety concern. Better he’s with me in my classroom where I can keep an eye on him.

The boy sits down back at my banana table.

I sit beside him. I gently explain that he is always welcome in my room and I’ll always find time to draw with him, but he has to go with his classroom teacher later and he has to go with the special education teacher so he can learn and be smart.
He says okay.

Then I explain to him that I have to go about teaching my class and showing them the activities they need to complete.

He doesn’t blow up.

He doesn’t have an episode.

He nods and sits and waits calmly.

I go to my instruction area, I get my students attention, and I begin modeling the activities for my students using my document camera.

Then out of the corner of my eye, I notice something.

I have the lights off, so the class can see what I’m doing on our smart board.

Off to my right, in the back corner of my room, the little boy is standing up.

I continue my modeling with one eye on him and I see what he’s doing. I was actually surprised.

He’s straightening up my banana table, organizing my papers, throwing scraps of cut paper into my recycling basket, putting all my stray markers, pens and pencils where he thinks they belong.
I pause in the middle of my instruction and I tell him thank you, you’re doing such a great job and I appreciate it.

Then I finally reach a stopping point.

The class is working and they’re in their flow, so I’m able to go back and sit down with him.

I have my phone jacked into a speaker system, and I start playing some instrumental chill hop and trip hop. That always gets the kids working but it doesn’t over stimulate them.

The lights are off, but I have a multi-colored octopus lamp that bathes the room in a soothing glow.

I start drawing Superman for him.

He watches me, smiling with delight as Superman slowly takes form, flying up into the air, his cape billowing around him.

It’s not my best work.

I stopped practicing my figure sketching in college, but I would sketch occasionally, and I’ve slowly taken it up again as I sketch out character ideas for the manuscript I’m working on.

I’m smiling, too.

I’m keeping an eye on my students making sure they’re on task, but I’m relaxed.
When I finish, I hand it over to him, and he starts coloring, asking which part of his costume is blue, which is red, and all that.

I tell him, but I also encourage him to color however he wants to, change it up.

I sit beside him and watch.
My students come to me with questions about their assignments.

I answer them.

Eventually, the special education teacher comes for him, and he leaves, not one complaint.

I take a breath.

Seven students working on their own separate activities, my twenty-two students working on their assignments, and this little boy, who calmed down when I began drawing him his Superman.

Teaching children is a nonstop job. You have to be good at juggling and have a quick mind.

You need to teach them the skills in Reading, Math, Science. Writing, often. Social Studies when we can.

But that’s fifty percent of the job.

The other fifty is seeing to their needs – and there are twenty-two very different students with very different personalities, with different levels of learning.

Guiding them when they do their work. Building their confidence by showing them that they can master any concept. Showing them different ways to try and solve problems. Teaching them to recognize their own self-worth. Showing them how to use their words and communicate with one another in respectful ways to settle differences.

These are not suburban kids.

Many of the students I teach have fathers and uncles and cousins in prison.

They come from homes where the stress level is high, parents, single or together trying to make ends meet.

Quite often the default tone at home is yelling.

Some only have the breakfast and lunch the district provides for them as their only meals.

There are some parents, single, grandparents, stepparents, who really care about the education of their children.

And there are an unfortunate few who don’t pay attention.

All these children want is to know that they can be good at something.

All these children want is to learn and be a success and have fun doing so.

All these children want is to know that there is someplace safe, with regularity, stability.

All they want is to know that there is someone who cares about them.

And I’ve grown with them.

I’m a forty-three year old man. I have Major Depression and adult ADHD.
I’ve been medicated three years now, and I finally feel that I am the teacher I want to be.

The loss of my father and my longtime relationship has tempered me.

As a Gemini I seek peace and balance. And all of that has informed my teaching.

I’ve grown into a father figure for my students, my children, whom I love driving thirty minutes from my home to teach.

I’ve been teaching 5th grade at this campus for eight years now.

To teach, it truly takes love – not some squishy, saccharine love, but a fighter’s love, a fighter’s heart.

It takes dedication.

It takes an almost monastic devotion.

There is a craft to teaching children, an art.

It takes a fair mind – free of bias or prejudice.

It takes kindness.

It takes a soft word and a firm but gentle hand.

It takes never giving up on any students.

Not.

One.

It takes humor.

It takes breathing – a lot of breathing.

And it takes patience.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it even takes some colors and Superman.