Candy Land – Student Voices (Guest Post)

Once you’re alive, can you ever really be dead? 

Candy Land is a personal narrative written by one of my students, Kayla Paterson. This story, Kayla intertwines the past and the present to explore the power of life, death memories, and board games. 


Meet the Writer

Kayla Patterson is a 12th grade student at Robbinsville High School (New Jersey). She plans on attending Hampton University and majoring in Computer Science.


Dedication: To my cousin, Aliya, who will be forever missed and who will live forever in my heart, in the Candy Land Castle.

Over a sea of black dresses and suits the Pastor took a deep breath, “You may proceed to the casket.”

Rising from the red velvet church benches, tissue in hand, I managed to take a few steps to the casket. Listening to the hymns in the background, I remembered playing Candy Land with her.

Ten years ago, I was seven and all I ever wanted to do was play Candy Land.

I was meeting my cousin Aliya for the first time too, so in my mind all I could think about was having a play buddy and hoping she like Candy Land as much as I did.

Ding dong.

I ran to the door and reached for the knob. My face turned with confusion when the door didn’t open. My mom came running down the hallway with one hand covered with an oven mitt. She unlocked the door and I smiled and pulled, wondering what I would see on the other side.

Standing was a tall girl with a round face. Her big brown eyes took the frame of her dark glasses. Her braids swayed right above her hips, the smell of strawberry perfumed lingering in the doorway.

“Hey Kayla,”Aliya said while scooping down to my level. “So what are we going to do?”

Being seven and meeting people for the first time always scared, but Aliya was different.

I took her hand with a smile and led her to the family room. I told her how to play the game Candy Land and she was eager to start the game, we both sat right across from each other with the board in between us.

I took Princess Frostine – the blue princess and Aliya choose King Kandy.

I took the die and rolled it with all of my force. Five spaces. I moved my Princess Frostine closer to the Candy Castle.

Five spaces to the casket.

I could see the outline of her body. Silky black curls fallen on her ruby red dress. Her eyes shut, as if dreaming about her plans after college. Just 23. Just a girl with a dream.

Aliya, took the next card from the deck and eyed me down. My serious, seven year old eyes told her that I was not playing around.

“Ha, it looks like you need to move your Princess Frostine four spaces back, and you thought you were close to winning this game,” she said with a smile.

I took my Princess Frostine and moved it back four spaces, staring down my cousin while I did it.

Four spaces away from the casket.

I see her face. Silver eyeshadow, red lipstick, some blush here and there. She was beautiful to be dead.

“You think you can beat the master at this game?” I questioned my cousin.

I yanked the card from the deck and smiled realizing I just gained three forward spaces. Taking my Princess Frostine and moving it through Candy Cane Forest, I was almost to the Candy Castle. Aliya stared at me and she knew I was about to win this game.

Three spaces away from the casket.

I started to cry. I was close to reaching her. So close of touching her hand. Touching the hands she helped me deal cards with at a young age, trying to explain gambling to me. Touching the hands that were sticky from the lemonade we tried to make in the kitchen.

“Ha, I’m two spaces away Kayla,” Aliya said. Her big brown eyes followed the smooth movement of King Kandy jumping spaces between my Princess Frostine.

Two spaces between me and the casket.

The flowers she held were edged in gold. She was so similar to me. She was an only child, she wore glasses and she just wanted a good life.

“Not so fast cousin!” I only needed one more space to win the Candy Land Game.

I grabbed the die, shook it and released it with all my might. Our eyes lunged at the twirl of the die.

The die slowly spun to a halt.

My face slowly lit up when I saw one dot. I grabbed my Princess Frostine piece and did a small victory lap before I made it into the Candy Land Castle.

“And the victory goes to me! Take that cousin!”

Aliya laughed, “Nice game.”

One more space between me and the casket.

I step forward.

I touched her hand and I closed my eyes imagining her with me, imagining her breathing, alive, and well. She still smelled like strawberries.

“I’ll meet you again Aliya. One day, at the Gumdrop Castle.” 

We cleaned up the board game and as she left, she smiled, “Don’t worry you’ll see me again. You owe me a rematch.”

My uncle looked down at his daughter for one last time and kissed her forehead. The casket closed and I watched it rolled down the aisle, out the church and into the morning light.

My big 7 years old eyes stared at her and said, “Next time we’ll have that rematch. But until next time”

Until next time.

~Afterword~

I stared at my uncle. Though I ached with absolute sadness, I felt Aliya alive my heart. I knew that as long as I stoke the memories of her she will always be alive.

On that day I learned no one is ever really dead.

Celebrating Victory with the Living (and the Dead)

On Superbowl morning I went to Forest Hills Cemertary wearing my Eagles jersey.

It’s February in Philadelphia and it’s cold and raining and my son is standing by my side and we’re looking down at the plaque marking the birth and death of my grandparents. Mike and Doreen.

I tell them about how the Eagles are playing in the Superbowl tonight. How they’re underdogs, been underdogs throughout the playoffs. A real Philadelphia story.

Never having performed the earthly art of speaking to the dead, my son stares at me and then quietly drifts towards the car.

I tell my grandparents I’m a bundle of emotions. Excited, nervous.

I tell them I think we’re finally going to win.

I tell them I’ll be thinking about them tonight.

I can feel Chase watching me. His nose pressed up against the car window. His 7 year old mind convincing itself that his father is a little stranger, a little more mysterious then previously thought.

An hour earlier, before the rain, I was staring out my kitchen window into the calm, gray morning and listening to sports talk radio.

Mary from Doylestown said she was going to wear her brother’s Eagle’s jersey tonight. She said her brother taught her the Eagles fight song and how after high school he enlisted in the Army and how on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan was killed by a suicide bomber.

Bill from Broomall said he’ll be watching tonight’s game from his recliner and with his father’s urn propped beside him. Like he’s done all season.

Then two things happened before the Jim from Norristown could finish his story about going to his first Eagles game at Franklin Field in 1960 with his parents who are now both deceased:

One, I was on the verge of tears. Serious man-tears. And two, I had a sudden urge to visit my grandparents.

My grandparents were casual sports fans. They celebrated when Philadelphia celebrated.

My grandfather was a Philadelphia police officer and would tell me stories about being down on the Veterans Stadium field, working security during Eagles games. How after the game he would visit the locker and talk to the players. Which, when you’re a kid, is just about the coolest thing in the world  –much cooler then talking to wet cemetery grass.

Beyond that, I don’t remember any conversations with either of them about sports.

But that’s not the point.

My grandparents were fans of life. Fans of their children and grandchildren. They taught me the importance of togetherness, community, celebrations and traditions. And since sports is a freeway that connects people, on Superbowl Sunday, I wanted my grandparents to feel a part of the biggest game in Philadelphia sports history. To feel a part of the living story again.

Later that day the Eagles defeated the Patriots to capture the first Superbowl title in franchise history. A franchise founded in 1933.

When the clock settled on 0:00, I hugged my mom and dad. I hugged my brothers. I hugged my wife and children.

Later that night, when the celebration quieted, I thought about my grandparents.

And I’m sure Mary, Bill and Jim were all hugging the spirits of their loved ones late into the night as well.

As children, our parents told us not to stress over striking out or missing a shot. They told us not to take it so hard. They told us that it’s just a game.

And now, as parents, we pass down the same sentiments to our children.

Don’t take it so hard. Let it go. It’s just a game.

Yet I know it’s not just a game. And my son now knows it’s not just a game.

Because hours before the Superbowl he listened to me talk to the dead.

Because inside the earthly boundaries of the game, rests something ethereal that connects the living to the dead.

A magical spell of muscle and bone that coaxes the dead sit up and smile and celebrate the joy of sports, the joy of life with us once again.

Be well,

Jay

Here are some Superbowl and parade pictures:

 

May 22, 2017 (or the day the universe reminded me to get over myself)

Sometimes things happen that convince you there is some large, mysterious power at work, cartwheeling through the cosmos, orchestrating both big and little things, to get your attention, to make you appreciate the brevity of your life.

Our youngest son Dylan, who is almost 4, has his own bed. It’s a perfectly good bed dressed with a soccer ball comforter and lined with stuffed animals yet he still sleeps in bed with Cindy and I.

(I know…not our finest parenting work but let those without parenting sin cast the first fruit snack.)

Anyway, Sunday night Dylan was extra abusive. Fighting for sleep, I was kicked and punched, elbowed and kneed in my face, neck, back and groin.

At 5:15 am, when the alarm buzzed, I awoke with Dylan’s little knee firmly wedged in my left rib cage.

Annoyed, I push his knee away, growled a Monday-morning-up-before-dawn-and-I-have-to-go-to-work growl and slow roll out of bed.

Shuffling across the bedroom, clearing the fuzz from my eyes, I caught Cindy, in a twist of sheets, on her side, hanging at the edge of the bed, as Dylan laid horizontal, uncovered, head tilted skyward and snoring and holding a sly little smile.

In the kitchen…

…between sips of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal I pop two ibuprofen, message the knot pulsing in my back, stare out into the faded blue morning and think about how it was time to take a parental stand, to move the little ramrod down the hall to his room and force him to sleep in his own, perfectly good bed.

The universe sends an email.

I get to school, enter my classroom, drop in my chair, turn on the computer and.wait for the little miracle of modernity to wake up and do its thing.

A few minutes later I find, resting in my inbox, an email from a former student asking for a favor. The student explains how his grandfather just died and how he attached the obituary his father had written.

The student asks if I could proofread the obituary and offer his father some commentary.

Humbled by the request and intrigued by the contents I began to read.

It’s a fine piece, honoring a man I didn’t know but who, by all accounts, lived a full and happy life, a life dedicated to his family.

 Then it happened.

As if the universe nudged me, making sure I wasn’t too self-involved on this Monday morning. Making sure I was paying attention.

The obituary concludes with an anecdote about how, when the man was a child he would sleep in his father’s bed. How the father would run his hand through the child’s hair. And how even now, a grown man with thinner hair and with his own children, still remembers the comfort of his now deceased father’s hand and the warmth of the bed they shared.

I lean back, shake my head and launch skyward, beyond the drop ceiling, beyond the school roof, out into the rolling universe, defy gravity, float along  and watch the morning bloom across the ceaseless sky only to fall earthward, back to my empty classroom, back to my chair, back to smallness of my life, back to the little knot in my lower back.

The universe throat punches us.

On the night of May 22, 2017, a suicide bomber killed 22 people outside an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.

The first victim announced on the news was an 8 year old girl.

After I kiss my children off to bed, I helplessly watch the rolling television coverage of the bombing for the rest of night.

Later, in the quiet of my bedroom, when I find Dylan asleep and alive and sprawled across my bed I couldn’t help but think of the empty beds now in Manchester.

Dylan is the youngest of my three children.

He’s almost 4. And my eldest just turned 9. Dylan is my last link to the wonders of infancy — the softness, the smell, the little lungs working inside when they lie on your chest and they breathe and you breathe and you feel the absolute magic of their breath inside you.

I guess for me, Dylan and his growing vocabulary and his budding personality and his sudden self-sufficiency starkly affirm the fleeting nature of time. Of how children grow up, venture beyond your reach and become little bodies open to the mercies of the universe.

On what started as another Monday became a day where the universe made itself known, felt. 

Life seems to work that way, one minute your blinded by your own minutia and the next, the universe is there to disciple you.

And when you’re standing over your father’s casket, dreaming of his hand running through your hair or you’ve been suddenly dropped into that nightmare moment, that godless moment of having outlived your child, sometimes, all you can do is lie in bed at night, wonder about the mystery of it all and reach for what is no longer there.

Be well,

Jay

The Power of a Conversation: A Recap of the 2017 Spring Write-a-Thon

Never underestimate the power of a little conversation.

The Write-a-Thon grew its roots in 2015, during a little conversation between my school district’s (Robbinsville, New Jersey) Superintendent, Dr. Steven Mayer and myself.

The crux of the conversation was, “How can we teach teenagers to see writing as an exercise in self-discovery and authenticity not just a forced activity aligned with the harbingers of school?”

So we talked. We listened. We brainstormed.

And 3 months later the first Write-a-Thon was held in my classroom., a 2-hour writing event that afforded students the opportunity to write, to tell their story.

The event hosted 13 writers including Dr. Mayer and received donations and support from my student’s parents, faculty and my own friends and family.

When concluded, the Write-a-Thon raised $1,300 for the Special Olympics of New Jersey.

Write-a-Thon-November 2015.

A few months later, in April 2016, as I was planning the second Write-a-Thon, Dr. Mayer was tragically killed.

The May event was held in his honor.

An event that began with me, fighting tears, recounting our little brainstorming session and how though he is physically gone, his story, his passion is alive and well.

The heart of the Write-a-Thon is simple–show up and tell your story.

This week, the fourth installment of the Write-a-Thon had 30 student writers, ranging from 7th to 12th grade. The event hosted a $500 college scholarship essay challenge and was filmed by the Emmy winning “Classroom Close-up NJ” and will be featured in October 2017 episode.

My experience as both a high school teacher and an adult has taught me that, in the contentious transition between young adulthood and adulthood, it’s easy to get distracted with the noise of the world.

It’s easy to forget about the importance and power of your voice, of your story.

It’s easy to believe your story doesn’t matter.

It’s easy to believe fiction.

The Write-a-Thon is a celebration of the human voice. Of the lasting power of the true human story.

And it’s our stories that stand before us, that become the permanent teachers, forever instructing the lives of the living.

Be well,

Jay

Write-a-Thon Supporters

The 2017 Write-a-Thon received tremendous support from the following Robbinsville High School programs:

The Debate Club

Coach Patterson and the Robbinsville Football Program

Robbinsville Boys Lacrosse

The Drama Club

GSA

The RHS Literary Magazine

The RHS Class of 2019

A Look at the Spring Write-a-Thon

 

Check out more pictures courtesy of NJEA


 

When Former Students Die: A Teacher’s Reflection

If you teach long enough you’ll come to learn that the human story never graduates.

I last saw him 11 years ago.

Waiting for the graduation procession to begin, under that shadow of his squared cap, tassel dangling about his face, he smiled and said, “Mr. Armstrong, can you believe it, they’re actually letting me graduate!”

I smiled, “Yeah, God knows what they were thinking.”

A few years after graduation, he married his high school girlfriend, the girlfriend he sat next to in my English class.

They had a daughter together. Built a life together. And then he died.

He was 29.

In truth, I haven’t thought much about Mark since our time together.  Nothing intentional, it’s just as a teacher, so many lives come in and out of your life that it’s easy to lose track of who has passed through.

Yet when a Facebook post informed me that Mark had died, his name, his smile toggled memory, transporting me back to my old classroom–room 201.

In 2006, we were all young.

Collectively, what we lacked in knowledge we made up for in enthusiasm.

I was 26, inexperienced, short on life-lessons yet excited at the prospect of teaching and inspiring and helping mold the minds of young adults.

Most of the students were 18, fueled by hormones, seduced by the promise of adulthood and all its liquid freedoms.

They weren’t malicious.

Just kids straddling adulthood. Bursting with energy. Kids uninterested in dated stories scratched in stale books written by dead white guys.

It was in those days when I began to learn how your students’ lives wedge themselves into your life. How their drama becomes your drama. How their remarks and actions and attitudes confound you, unnerve you, keep you up at night and make you question the fate of the world.

But teach long enough and it all begins to run together.

Summers are merely conjunctions linking one run-on school year to the next.

And in this rambling life sentence, the days and weeks and years overlap. The names and faces and voices that were once so prominent, so sharp in your life only round and dull over time.

But when you learn a former student has died and you hear their name, you read their obituary, something happens. A key is turned, an engine started and the memory machine chokes and begins its work.

It’s been 11 years but…

I remember…

…the class consisted of mostly males. It often felt and sounded and even smelled like a locker room. Based with deep laughs ,those students in room 201 were unconcerned with things like death, poetry and me–a young teacher fixed with a knotted tie, polished shoes teaching his little heart out.

I remember…

…how the classroom windows faced east and how in the Spring sun would rise and blaze through the thin windows and how after lunch, room 201 turned into a cinder block oven.

I remember…

…Mark complaining it was just too hot to learn.

I remember…

…for most of the school year Mark slouched in his seat. Legs stretched out as far as they would go. In his hands, he would often work a hand grip. Squeezing the tension and releasing, until one hand would tire then he would switch to the other.

I remember…

…how his girlfriend sat beside him in class. How they would slide their desks close together. How he would rest his free hand on her knee and continue to work the hand grip with the other.

I remember…

…when they weren’t flirting they were fighting.

I remember…

…during a stretch of days, in late May when the outside world hummed with life and there was little reason to pay attention to me, Mark’s feet were flat on the floor, elbows on the desk, hand grip unseen, eyes glued to the pages of the book we were reading, The Things They Carried.

I remember…

…he told the class to shut up when I was reading how Curt Lemon, a 19 year old U.S. soldier, walked carelessly through the Vietnam jungle, stepped on a mine and blew himself apart.

I remember…

…Mark holding a copy of the book, standing in the class doorway looking at me and smiling and saying, “I really like this book.”

Mark wasn’t the first of my former students to die however, it’s always hard to imagine your former students dead.

Because when you taught them, they were young and indestructible and alive. As if they would always be that way.

It’s not in the job description, no one tells you this, but teachers are carriers of life.

Every student’s story, no matter how big or small, how dramatic or pedestrian is fixed with an intangible weight.  A weight that you carry with you, from lesson to lesson, from year to year, forever. So when you learn that a former student has died, that former student and their former life is suddenly present, is suddenly now.

And 11 years later, when you’re on your couch, scrolling through your Facebook feed and you read the news and see the face, you retreat into memory and you feel a familiar heat and hear the straining echoes of your first lessons and your big blue eyes dart across the classroom to find a smiling young man, working hand grips with one hand, cupping his girlfriend’s knee with the other, waiting for high school to end.

Waiting for life to begin.

Be well,

Jay

Advice from the Dead

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.–Cicero

Recently, while cleaning out the garage, while rummaging through stacks of dusty boxes I came across a brown, unmarked envelope.

Intrigued, I quit rummaging, opened the envelope door and found my grandfather smiling on the other side.

Inside the envelope it’s 1954 and Pop was still years away from being Pop.

FullSizeRender (3)
Mike “Pop” is centered. His right hand holding a pilsner glass. To his right stands his Uncle Al.

Right now he’s Mike and he’s 25 years old and just bought at bar on the corner of Cedar and Pacific Avenue in Wildwood, New Jersey.

He renamed the place “Mike and Ed’s” and he’s serving drinks to a row of rowdy Philadelphians who escaped the tightness of their row home lives for the weekend promise of some New Jersey shore magic.

It’s early evening and the bar, like the decade itself is based with thick,  masculine laughter which overpowers the bouncy doo-wop rhythm of  “Life Could Be a Dream” frisking out the jukebox.

It smells of a different time. Of Old Spice and cigarettes.

I move across the checkered floor to an open seat at the end of the bar and watch Pop make small talk with a few sunburned necks. He laughs and it’s hearty and deep just like I remember.

Pop looks up and nods as if he’s been expecting me.

He turns to the tap, pours a beer in a short pilsner glass and brings it my way. His skinniness surprises me. But the eyes, the smile, the roundness of his shoulders are all there, like they’ve always been.

Pop puts the glass down in front of me. His blue eyes meet my blue eyes and he lays his hand on top of my hand and tells me how he appreciated the funeral, how he appreciated the eulogy I delivered even though it was a bit brief. An entire life in 1,337 words? He thought I should’ve stretched it to at least 1,700.

He winks.

Then his face gets serious.  He tells me he’s disappointed we paid full price for the luncheon after the funeral. He tells me knows an Italian who rents a little room behind the scrap yard along the Delaware River. He tells me the Italian would’ve catered the whole thing, funeral and luncheon, for half the cost.

He tells me he doesn’t have long because other people need him.

He tells me that death is a lot like life in that sense. Someone always needs you.  Someone is always failing to listen. But death, he says, brings infinite patience. Sadly, life does not.

A drunk wearing a tilted fedora calls out, “Mike, Mikey boy bring me over another one. I told the old lady I’d be home by 7 and it’s quarter of!”

Pop shoots the old man a “wait your damn turn old man” look. A look he perfects when, in a few years he becomes a police officer and spends late hours working the fanged streets of southwest Philadelphia.

He returns to me, “See what I mean, no patience.”

Then he gets serious again. Hard lines form around his eyes.

“You know what the living say about the dead? About how, at least, the dead are in a better place.”

I nod.

“Wrong. What the living fail realize is that even though your setting changes, you do not. When you die you take yourself, for better or worse, with you to the other side.  Look around. All these men came here thinking things would somehow be better. But they’re miserable laying bricks in Philly and they’re miserable drinking beer in Jersey. Fools. They thought by crossing the river, by shifting states their life would magically improve. Life, death they don’t work that way.”

He tightens his grip on my hand and says, “It’s not where you are, it’s who you are that matters. The same holds true for the afterlife. And you’re going to mess a lot of things up. But if can let love lead your way you might do just enough to get it right. And if you can understand this while you’re alive, I promise when your time comes, you’ll cross that bridge a happy man.”

He loosens his grip and the other hand drums its fingers on the bar and he looks out the window. His brow bent like mine when I’m contemplating something big.

I study his profile the way I did when I was a kid tucked in the front seat of his white pickup truck.

I remember how he would be driving and singing with Frank Sinatra and his profile would be glowing against the shifting sunlight and when the chorus hit he flashed a hard earned smile, a smile of a man who made peace with his life, with the world. A smile I can’t quite forget.

When his eyes return to mine he tells me the beer was on the house. But that was it. No more freebies. This isn’t a soup kitchen. And if I wanted another I would have to pay for it or wash dishes.

Pop takes his hand from mine. He steps back, smiles like someone about to board a plane and somehow, defying the laws earthly physics I still feel the pressure of his hand resting on mine as he drifts away, down the length of the bar, tending to the others who need him.

A bead of sweat rolls down the glass.

A heavy, hollow laughter steamrolls across the bar.

Something sits in my throat.

I want to call him back.

I want to breathe with him again.

I want to tell him I write stories about him so he doesn’t seem so dead.

I want to tell him how I missed him just a little more around Christmas. How I wish he could hold my children. How I wish they could experience his smile and hear his advice and feel the gentle pressure of his hand against theirs.

But I don’t.

Because you can’t.

Because you can’t tell the dead what they already know.

Because when you open an envelope and you’re greeted by the dead and they squint and smile and speak, all you can do is listen, consider your mortal ways and do your best to heed their eternal advice.

Be well,

Jay

 

The four words that changed my life forever (or all the motivation you need right now)

For me, this whole writing business began when a doctor looked at an MRI of my brain, then at the floor, then hard into my eyes and said, “You should be dead.”

He then told me there was nothing he, or anyone could do for me.

“I’m sorry Mr. Armstrong, you should be dead.”

I remember leaving his office. I remember the long train ride home. I remember the watching the world shift its colors through the lens of a train window. I remember getting off the train, walking to a bar and over a pint of Guiness wondering if dying was going to hurt.

Three years later and everyday later, I remember those four words the doctor offered me on that warm September afternoon.

Everyday.

audience-868074_960_720And three years later, I consider myself lucky. Not because I’m alive but because I was told with unflinching certainty that I should be dead. Something I think we should all hear once in awhile.

Between the car crashes and plane crashes. Between cancer and icy staircases and the stray bullets and stray dogs. Between anthrax and heroin and terrorist and earthquakes and forest fires and black mold and meteors and whole grapes– you should be dead too.

But alas, we’re not.

Sure, maybe we’re a confused and downtrodden and disenfranchised and ultimately tragic bunch but we’re alive.

And that should be all the motivation you need right now.

Be well,

Jay