It’s a town full of losers…

road

This article was originally published in January 2016.

My students and I recently read, studied and discussed one of our finest American poems —Thunder Road, penned in 1975 by the patron saint of New Jersey Bruce Springsteen.  Thunder Road, the lead track on the Born to Run album, is a personal favorite (and a song by my estimation I have listened to more than any other song– ever).

The pretentious English teacher in me considers TR a poem– since it’s bursting with literary techniques and ripe with cinematic quality cut from the same cloth as a Keats or a Frost work.  I also consider listening to TR a right- of- passage for any American teenager. So I see it as my job (and patriotic duty) to teach my students about one of the great works of modern arena-rock literature.

TR works with my 12th grade students for a several reasons—it’s modern, it’s defiant and it wasn’t written by Shakespeare or Donne or any other dead white dude whose poems have tortured high school students since the inception of iambic pentameter.

TR is a young person’s song. It’s overwrought and overdramatic.  It’s the stuff of most teenage fantasies– jumping in a car with the guy or girl your parents hate, putting the windows down, turning the radio up, extending your middle finger to the world,  and driving hard into an the enormous night as you shoulder the weight of your enormous adult dreams.

I tell my students growing up is overrated. I tell them adulthood is messy and confusing. I tell them not to rush the transition. But they don’t listen. And why should they? You didn’t listen. I certainly didn’t listen.

As the school calendar curls over January, my students begin smelling summer and all the freedom that awaits the moment their graduation cap leaves their hands, rockets into a big June sky, twirls, hangs and returns to earth with the meanness of a ninja star.

My students can’t wait to get out of town, out of New Jersey, and get on with their lives. They believe that a change in scenery is all they need to ignite their lives. And they are right. They need to get out of the shadows of their hometown and explore the early days of adulthood. But they’re 17. Not a line or wrinkle on their face. No gray hairs circling the sink drain. But what about adults?

Maybe it’s just a winter funk but I have heard friends and colleagues chirping similar musings.  Talking about changing offices, moving to different states. This got me thinking… does a shift in geography really make our lives better?

Yes, I know there are times that we need to leave. The environment is oppressive and is extinguishing a fire we once had. A loveless marriage.  An unsatisfying job. A place crippled with negativity.

Sure if you move, you may have to bubble wrap your shot glasses and rent a U-Haul, but changing your physical setting is a lot easier than changing your interior landscape.MOVING

Life has taught me that a change in scenery can reinvigorate and rekindle passions. But a shift in environment can’t fully heal. Personal healing only comes internally. The setting may give you a fresh perspective but personal betterment is work and takes time. Assuming a simple shift in geography will make your life perfect is foolish and naïve.

Bruce concludes TR with the iconic “It’s a town for of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win”. A line that delights my students because that is how they feel—stifled and ready to escape. For many years I felt the same. But I’ve aged and the line feels different now –they are all losers and I’m the winner– sounds like a jaded 17 year old to me.

If we do decide to run… we must understand our attitudes will follow.

And though the new setting may suffice for a while it’s only a matter of time before we feel that old, familiar stirring and we’re off buying more bubble wrap and ordering another U-Haul.

But what do I know… I’m from Pennsylvania…maybe we were born to run.

Be well,

Jay

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A Friend I Never Knew

This wasn’t the article I intended to write.

No, I was crafting a breezy piece on the eternal wisdom found in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road when a 45 year old man from Cincinnati, Ohio, a man I have never met or even knew existed, died.

All reports indicate Scott Bruggeman was an honorable man. A good man with a big heart. He was a Marine who served in Desert Storm. When he returned from duty, he became a firefighter and an EMT. His friends said he loved helping and serving the community. His fire station captain described Scott as fearless, always the first to rush into the fire, always willing to put his life on the line. But friends say underneath his fearless façade, he was a jokester. A man who pulled pranks. A man who loved to laugh.

In 2014 Scott went out for a jog, developed chest pains, and that big heart of his fluttered and seized. Scott survived but over the next year his health rapidly declined.

Scott died on January 18, 2016 from complications fueled by sarcoidosis.

Even for doctors, understanding sarcoid is often difficult. Sarcoid is like the tequila of auto–immune disorders. When the cap is twisted loose from its grooves it’s hard to predict what will happen next.

Sarcoid causes inflammation and granulomas (tissue masses) to grow in the body. These granulomas can increase in size, attach to organs, nerves and muscles. For most sarcoid patients, sarcoid is neutralizes to one specific organ, most commonly the lungs. But in Scott’s case, as in mine, the sarcoid was considered progressive since it was found in different regions of his body. Adding to its perplexity, unless the sarcoid attacks the skin (which it can) leaving sores and lesions, most sarcoid patients look normal– there are no outward signs of distress as the tequila of auto-immune disorders performs a Mexican Hat Dance on the important things inside.

Since reading Scott’s story I have lost sleep. Between my wife’s little snores and the growling of the oil heater, I have thought greatly about Scott’s life. And his sudden death.

Before my sarcoid diagnosis, the death discussion would make me squirm. I’d tuck it away like a credit card bill and make feeble attempts to address it later. And when I did I was just paying the minimum balance.

But since my diagnosis, here’s what I’ve learned…bad things will happen. Things you thought only happen to strangers in places like Cincinnati actually happen to you. I also learned that when bad things do happen to you, you can accept your lot or you can ignore it, deny it or rail against it. (I think Scott and I would agree that the later three are bad choices).

With much respect to my Fitbit and Rocky Balboa, the prospect of death has been my greatest motivator. Learning about the dangers of my disease, seeing my vital organs projected on an x-ray screen awoke me to the preciousness life.

I don’t believe death is the worst thing that can happen. In fact, it’s a natural part of life. I think a greater tragedy occurs when you live inauthentic and uninspired. When you disengage from your own possibilities. For when you live in fear of death you limit your ability to fully embrace life. And instead of participating in your life you become a spectator, a benign witness to your own calamities.

From what I read, Scott Bruggeman lived authentically. He scoffed at death and embraced life. He ran full-heartedly into fire fights and burning buildings. A man unafraid to die. A man fully engaged in life.

So I thank you Scott Bruggeman of Cincinnati, Ohio– friend I never knew– for reminding us all how to live.

Be Well,

Jay

So you didn’t win the Powerball jackpot…Now what?

lotteryDear Reader,

I assume you didn’t win last week’s 1.5 billion dollar Powerball lottery. Don’t fret, neither did I. So now what? Back to our jobs. Back to morning commutes and brown bag lunches and hampers swollen with dirty laundry. Back to coupons and car payments. Back to normalcy. Back to complacency.

Whether you bought a ticket or not, you have to admit the days preceding the drawing were fun. Everywhere I went I felt and heard a buzz– the supermarket, work, my son’s basketball practice. And that buzz? That was the sound of adults dreaming. With fistfuls lottery tickets, adults had the audacity to express their dreams. And as they did, their eyes would twinkle, like kids on Christmas morning, and their heads would swirl with diamond encrusted possibilities.

Then came the drawing. Those six ping pong balls showed themselves. And we lost. And our hearts broke and the buzzing stopped and we returned sullenly to brown bags and turnpike traffic.

From my experience as an adult (which I consider to be fairly limited), we litter our lives with “if onlys” and “shoulds” —-“If only I had won the lottery…” “If only I had taken that job…” “I should open a restaurant…” “I should call an old friend…” “I should find time to write or paint or exercise or whittle…”

We often believe that luck is the only way we can improve our lives. So we speak in an endless string of  conjectures, “if onlys” and “I shoulds”, which further trap us and stifle our power. Forcing us to live lives, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “of quiet desperation.”

For years I kept thinking– if only I had more time to write and I should write more. And then—get this– I wouldn’t write. I told myself I would do it later. And I never did.

Then something (dare I say lucky) happened… no I didn’t win the lottery… I got sick. Chronically sick. I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis and a degenerative brain condition.

Before I got sick I was in grad school working toward a Master’s degree in educational administration. Why? No real reason. More money? The silly notion of impressing people with an authoritative title?  I enrolled in grad school because it seemed like the logical thing to do. I had been teaching for ten years and other teachers my age were doing it. So I followed the crowd, all along knowing it was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write. And not write research papers or 500 word reflections on pedagogical theory. I wanted to write my story.

While in grad school I could feel my writing dreams losing their buoyancy. I remember, on a cold December afternoon, when I was waiting for the results from a blood test for Huntingdon’s disease, I told my wife I was dropping out of grad school. She thought I was beginning to give up on life. It turns out she was wrong (which you may never hear me say again). It turns out I was finally ready to commit myself to my writing dreams ( I guess the prospect of death was good for that).

Now there are plenty of other areas in my life that I need to substitute “should” with “will”. I will exercise… I will be more attentive to my children… I will consume less Cap n’ Crunch… . But I’m a work in progress (as we all are). Right now, I will write. I believe  that committing myself to one “I will” will provide my life with greater traction. I believe one commitment will give me greater courage to challenge, change and improve other areas of my life.

Here’s what I know– adults are better (and more likeable) when they are dreaming. They are bursting with youthfulness and aliveness–which means they are vulnerable and enthusiastic and hopeful as they explore the immense possibilities and promise that life has to offer.

So we didn’t win the lottery. But I challenge you to keep your lottery glow. I challenge you to continue dreaming. And I challenge you to replace one “I should” with one “I will” and start living out your dreams.

Be well,

Jay

A Humble Thank You!

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Dr. Foster presenting me with the Teacher of the Year award.

I was recently awarded “Teacher of the Year” at Robbinsville High  School. RHS is the place I have called home for almost ten years.

In those years I have been honored to work with some talented and awesome teachers. Teachers who have helped, inspired and supported me through the years.

I have also taught many great young people.  Young people who have gone on to accomplish tremendous things. I am forever grateful for my students who challenged me, made me laugh and afforded me  the opportunity “to forget about life for awhile.”

A humble thanks and be well,

Jay

I figure now serves a timely opportunity to share a recent essay I wrote about why I became a teacher…

I wish I could begin this narrative describing that lightning strike moment– that mythologized moment when the calling came–that I knew, with unflinching certainty that I was meant to be a teacher.

I’ve heard such stories recounted in orientations and workshops.  I’ve read such stories on educational blogs and in pedagogical publications. To be honest, those stories always make me a little uncomfortable. When I hear them or read them I often sink into my seat, feel a swirling in my chest, a rush of blood in my cheeks because they ultimately make me feel like a fraud.

I don’t have a lightning strike moment to tell you about. I don’t have an influential teacher I can credit for my professional development. I just have my story.

In May of 2002 at 22, I graduated from Gwynedd- Mercy University with a Bachelor’s degree in English/Communications. I spent that summer eating cereal, watching baseball and avoiding responsibility.  When August entered our lives, dad offered an ultimatum– go back to college or get a job. It wasn’t that I was afraid of work. My parents were both born and breed blue- collar. The work ethic gene is ingrained in my DNA. What I was suffering from that summer wasn’t laziness. It was something more– a moral paralysis. I just didn’t know what to do with my life.

I had long dreamed of being a famous writer.  I saw my future-self scribing the great American novel then selling it to Steven Spielberg. Of course, my book would be adapted into a summer blockbuster affording my wife and I the opportunity retire young and buy matching Porsches.  So over a bowl of Frosted Flakes, I pondered dad’s ultimatum and elected to go back to school to earn my teaching certificate. Not because I was excited at the prospect of teaching or dreamed about being nominated for awards. But because teaching was safe. Pensions. Summers. Healthcare. And most importantly it got dad off my back. So I endured education classes and student teaching and in September 2003 found myself employed at Conwell-Egan Catholic High School and dictating notes behind the safety of a podium to eighteen 17 year olds in my AP Literature and Composition class. The early years of teaching were about survival. I hadn’t mastered the material or the strategies. I burnt midnight oil studying content and reading about best practices. And for what? A job I sort of fell into but was somehow falling in love with.

Around 2012 I hit my teaching stride. The material was familiar. I was teaching AP and honors courses at Robbinsville High School. Discipline was a non-issue. Dare I say teaching was becoming natural and almost easy?  I had been teaching for nine years. In that time I wrote AP curriculum, mentored aspiring teachers, facilitated professional development sessions, memorized Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and mastered Back to School Night.

I thought the next logical thing was to earn a master’s in educational administration. Not because I wanted to or had a lightning strike moment. No it was selfish. I wanted more money. I wanted matching Porsches, remember. So I enrolled in grad school. I muscled through pages of pedagogical reflection and wrote 50 pages of my research thesis and began work on my internship.  Then I got sick. Not chicken noodle soup sick– but chronically sick.

In 2014, after eighteen months of testing I was diagnosed with two rare disorders–a degenerative brain condition known as cerebellar degeneration and a potentially debilitating autoimmune disorder known as sarcoidosis.  But for eighteen months doctors scratched their heads at my MRI’s and blood work. I was told I could have MS or ALS or Huntington’s disease. I was told to get my affairs in order. I was told I might die.

So I dropped out of grad school. And started writing. Really writing. I got to work on that great American novel. I wrote letters to my three children and poems to my wife.  I developed my own website www.writeonfighton.org where I share my stories and struggles as well as my thoughts on literature and writing.  During my private apocalypse, I found my writing voice and taught with more passion and verve than I ever taught before. My students and I connected on deeper levels.

They were 17 and I was 34 and we were both petrified of the future.

Daily writing became a personal habit as well as a classroom one. I started sharing my writing with my students– both polished drafts and hard worn first drafts littered with “x’s” and illegible marginal notes.

And somehow it’s now 2016. I have been teaching for thirteen years. After all the lessons, after all the assessments and essays I proudly announce that my greatest contribution to education is my story. One that I openly share with my students in the classroom and with the world on my website. My story is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s not about lightning strike moments. It’s about enduring. It’s about how the grind of teaching saved my life. It’s a string of stories that remind me how I evolved from that cereal eating kid to the father, husband and teacher I am today. A man who found his writing voice in his own classroom and strives every day to infuse in his students the courage to write, the courage  to find their voice, so that one day they may have the audacity to tell their own story.