Sunday, August 30, 2020

Brave New First Day of School


The first day of school is always exciting. It has been so since my earliest memories way back to kindergarten – new shoes, packed lunch-box and wearing my favorite (or, at that age, my mom’s favorite) new school clothes; I was off into the great unknown. While I do recognize that those details expose a degree of privilege – privilege even my parents did not enjoy – there is still a universality to the first day of school. It is a yearly ritual that typically happens right about now. For me, this fall, that day is tomorrow.


For most of us, once we leave school, at whatever level, those days are over. However, when our kids grow through them, we do get to relive them from a different angle, and as anyone who is or has done that will attest, it is a whole new ballgame. But then they, too, will eventually finish; the phase is temporary – long-term, but temporary. However, for those of us who have made education our profession, the new school year/first day of school ritual is ongoing. We dance this dance every year. Maybe we all don’t go out and get brand new haircuts or a new pair of shoes or wear our best clothes to make the absolute best first impression, but we are all keenly aware that a first impression is being made and it will affect the entire semester.


For the last 17 years, I have been back in school. I went back to college in Sacramento, CA at American River College (the third community college in my growing list of colleges) at the age of almost 41 years old. In addition to that college experience earlier in life, I had lots of other school experience in general – in short, at the time, I had a lot if “first day” experience under my belt, both as a student and as a father. That fall was different, however, for reasons that are both common to returning “nontraditional” students and unique to my own situation. I’ve written about them in the past, I’ll write about them in the future, this is not about that. This is about tomorrow and why it is so different even in comparison so some very different fall semesters.


Since the fall of 2003, I have missed just one first day of school – the very next year. The first day of the fall, 2004, I found myself residing in the Nevada County jail and would not be able to attend the first day, week or month of class. I knew that would be the case when I was sentenced, so I didn’t bother enrolling (again, a story for another time), but with that one exception, I have had a “tomorrow” every year since. And it’s always the same. The excitement, the trepidation, a little bit of fear, the anticipation – all of that and more makes the first day of school absolutely electric. The moment I set foot on campus I can feel it.


For the past five years, I have enjoyed the first day of school as a member of the faculty at California State University, Sacramento. From 2008 to 2015, I enjoyed the dual role as grad student and student instructor, half at CSUS while working on my MA and half at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA while working on my PhD (also a story for another time). I am entering my sixth year in the role of teacher only at Sac State this fall, my sixth “first day” as a member of the faculty first, last and only.


In years past, the fall semester has had a few disruptions. A couple of years ago, California fires and the smoke that permeated the Sacramento caused some major disruptions in the fall schedule – but we handled it and made it through the semester. While I was at LSU, we were shut down for Hurricane Isaac for a few days one semester and for a few days because of freezing rain one semester. One summer it rained so hard one afternoon that a waterfall developed inside my classroom – class cancelled for three days. The point is that we have always managed to adapt and accommodate these disruptions and returned to campus to pick up where we left off.

This fall we are not returning to campus – not real campus, anyway. We will be going to virtual campus, whatever the fuck that means. In all likelihood, I will not meet, in person, face-to-face a single one of my fall students this fall – and probably not in the spring either (I have no advanced knowledge – they don’t tell me anything – that is simply a guess). I can sense that electricity, at least the anticipatory part of it, but the actual jolt of walking into a classroom of new students for the first time cannot be replicated with Zoom. Period. Full-stop, end of story. It won’t happen. That connection I make with my students, the one I rely upon so much to get through to them will have to be made some other way. I have some means of doing that, I have no idea of how well they will work – and no one else does either, despite how much they think (or know) they do.

It’s literally a “brave” new world, but I don’t know what’s so brave about it. Online only education is not the be-all/end-all some seem to think it is. It can’t be. Does it have a place? Sure, of course it does. Online components are exceedingly helpful in a number of areas – even the most technologically resistant among us have been using some forms of online education for some time now. But for all those who think this is “the wave of the future,” pump your brakes. When you can get a group of students to circle up their desks and bounce ideas off each other in real-time, in all the messiness, the modulation variations, the talking over and around one another, the negotiation and creation of meaning and substance – when you can do that in a virtual environment, you let me know.

There are those who are really looking forward to this. It’s time to break out all their cool online toys and really show us what they can do. Y’all don’t have anything to prove to me. I know what you can do and I even agree it is quite a lot. I’m even adopting some of it – not because I want to, not because it’s better than what I can do in the classroom, but because it’s all I have. However, where we agree that the classroom is a physical space that cannot be replicated in virtual space and that physical space is inherently better than virtual space, we will get along fine. Right now I need you, and you know it. But I don’t plan on needing you forever. Best case after all this is said and done – I might still want some of what y’all can offer. Some of it might make the classroom experience better – but it is not better than the classroom. It never will be.


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Resurrection: College Life

In the fall of 2003, while winding up my time at a residential “treatment” facility in Sacramento, CA, I was faced with rebuilding my life. I was approaching my 41st birthday and found myself in the unenviable position of trying to figure out what I would do with my life. The prior three years were a roller-coaster of consequences from really bad decisions that ranged from near-death to incarceration to the court-ordered rehab I was currently residing in. I had about six months of abstinence from all drugs, including the drug alcohol and was, for the first time in many years, clean and sober and relatively healthy. I didn’t ever want to be in Sacramento, I didn’t plan to stay in Sacramento, but for the time being, I was “stuck” there.


Rather than try to find a job based on my considerable, disparate, but dated experience (it had been about three years since I had any real employment), I decided to go back to school and start a new career. To be perfectly honest, I went for the money; I qualified, for the first time, for student grants and loans and I was tired of being broke. But I was also on-board with this clean and sober thing, I figured I could turn that into a career (as so many do) with an AA degree from the local community college. I did have some college experience and a few college credits from a couple of unsuccessful attempts many years prior, but because all of my transcripts and my SAT scores were so old, I was required to take some assessment tests in math, reading and writing. I scored exceptionally high scores, especially in the writing part.


My math score did not surprise me, but it was also not relevant – all of my math requirements were satisfied back in the 80s. My English scores, however, were a bit of a shock. In fact, I scored high enough to qualify for an “honors” course. English was my worst and least favorite class in high school, despite the fact that I was a strong reader and writer. I had no intention of needlessly testing myself in a honors course – why set myself up for failure? But I was challenged by my peers and counselors in the recovery home as well as by my family, “what are you afraid of?” At the time, I had six months full of unprecedented – and rapid – success, so I took the chance on ENGWR 480 – “Honors College Composition” at American River College. I was enrolled full-time and managed a 4.0 GPA semester – my first ever.


That lit a fuse that I nearly extinguished soon after the semester ended. Armed with all that success, I felt I once again had control over my life (in retrospect, that is entirely laughable), and, with all that winter break “free time” to myself, I eventually came to the belief that I could do drugs “recreationally” again (I never really did, but the fantasy is powerful). That relapse proved that everything I spent nine months building could be lost much faster – and I nearly did lose everything. My grades the following spring slipped to a 3.0 GPA, and it was lucky I managed that, considering I was arrested, again, mid-semester. The fall-out continued until I was incarcerated again for a probation violation in one county and the offense that got me violated in another. By the time I got out, the fall 2004 semester was already underway. Due to being locked up, when I was released I had about 60 days clean and sober and was again at a crossroads. But this time it was much worse.


I tried to find a job, but, for a variety of reasons, could not. I was struggling to stay the course, to stay abstinent, to stay out of trouble, to stay out of jail. I went back to ARC to talk to a counselor to see what I could do with all the various and sundry college credits I did have. After some crunching, we found that one more semester at ARC would give me the necessary credits I needed to transfer as a junior to California State University, Sacramento. I decided a journalism major there would suit me and in the spring of 2005 I went back to class. With the exception of the spring semester in 2008, I have been on campus ever since.


And it is no coincidence that I have been free from all mind and mood altering drugs – including alcohol – ever since, too. The day I reported to jail on that probation violation was my first day drug-free; this past August 6th marked 16 years since I have chemically treated my feelings. I was a full-time student through the fall of 2007 when I received my BA in not just journalism, but government-journalism from CSUS, graduating magna cum laude. I worked through the spring and summer of 2008 (and before while I was still in school) as a journalist for a local newspaper before returning to Sac State in the fall of 2008 to begin work on an MA in communication studies. My plan was to take that degree and teach in a community college.


I began teaching university courses while in grad school at Sac State. I have had college students every semester since that fall and ever since the very first day of that very first class I knew this was what I would do – it would be my last career (of many). Towards the end of my MA studies at Sac State, I was once again challenged to go beyond what I though myself capable of. I was challenged to apply

for a PhD program at an R1 university. I figured my history, my age, my deteriorating memory (still, it seems), my record, and a hundred other things would preclude me from that world, but again it was presented to me in words to the effect of, “what are you afraid of?” So I applied to several schools I knew would reject me. And I got accepted – by two schools.


I accepted a funded opportunity to go to Baton Rouge in the fall of 2011 and attend Louisiana State University. I was coming up on my 49th birthday, had been a full-time student for most of the past eight years and was about to embark on one of the hardest things there is to do. For two years I had one foot in Baton Rouge and one foot in Sacramento trying to keep my personal life together while pursuing a doctorate. In 2013 I gave up on that “personal life,” emptied and rented out my house in Sacramento and moved to Baton Rouge full-time. However, that stress and too many other factors, not the least of which is that earning a PhD is hard, I only managed to advance to candidacy, cashing in my credits and my exams for another master’s degree. However, the experience is not one I would want to undo – it was and is an integral part of my journey and adds a richness, a texture and a nuance to my story that I would not otherwise have.


I returned to Sacramento in the summer of 2015, still with the intention of writing my dissertation and finishing my PhD (I held onto that dream until reality set in about a year later). I landed an adjunct professorship (lecturer, part-time faculty, temporary faculty – non-tenured faculty have many titles) and I have been working a series of yearly contracts there ever since. I have had days when I have come home and I kne

w – I just knew – I nailed it. I made a difference, I had all my shit together, I was on it.  I have had others where I knew I was floundering and I hoped my students didn’t notice. I have had times when I was rescued and I have had the opportunity to help in kind, as well. I have been lucky to work in departments where back-stabbing in the name of “career advancement” is not the way they operate, but I have heard stories where such is not the case, too.


Today, Tuesday, August 25th, 2020 is the day before the official beginning of the fall semester. Everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows this semester is going to be different, even compared to the COVID-interrupted spring. At the beginning of every semester, I am filled with excitement, anxiety, and even some fear. It is electric and those feelings are even more pronounced in the fall. It’s there this, fall, too, but without being in the classroom – the real classroom – next week, something big is missing. Being on campus, around students, colleagues, in that dynamic, energizing, engaging and inspiring environment simply cannot be replicated online. It’s funny, sort of. I should prefer this. I generally hate being around a bunch of people, in crowds, amongst hustle and bustle, but the one and only excepting is campus and, specifically, my classroom.


This is a thing that will be looked back on as that thing in 2020. It will be seen as a surreal nightmare that came with all those other things that same year. We will either be able to say we rose a

bove it, we survived it, we conquered it or that we succumbed to it. But all that doesn’t matter right now. It’s fall and I am still excited. I am still anxious, I still have that same familiar fear. And it’s not because of  COVID-19, it’s not because of 100 percent online, “distance” learning, it’s not because of a global pandemic or an ugly election year or racial or economic inequities. It’s because the fall semester is about to begin. And, despite all this shit that is swirling around us, I still love what I do, even if I hate how we have to do it.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Sweet Sixteen

Today is Thursday, August 6th, 2020. Exactly 16 years ago today I was preparing to turn myself in to the authorities at the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility – the Nevada County jail. I was sentenced to 60 days on a probation violation – with “good behavior” I would be released in 40 days. A week later I was to turn myself in to the Calaveras County jail on a 90 day sentence for the offense that got me violated in Nevada county. With good time, I would be out in 60 days; since that jail was overcrowded, I was out in eight – the only “good luck” I had probably that entire year. Those crimes and all other legal trouble (beyond simple traffic infractions) were directly or indirectly related to my inability to “control” my use of alcohol and other drugs. “Control” is a relative term, but in my case, they were the common denominator in most of the problems that plagued every area of my life for, roughly, 25 years. 


 This day, 16 years ago, I did not drink or use any drugs. That was not my intent, but my life at that point was such a train-wreck that I could not even hustle up one joint. I suppose I could have managed to scrounge up enough for a six-pack of beer, but that wasn’t going to do it for me and I knew it. Why bother? I went to jail “clean and sober” that day and, as history has played out, I have not found it necessary to chemically alter my consciousness since. That does not mean I have not wanted to. Many times, particularly those first few months after being released from jail, I wanted to. I wanted to escape the wreckage and the pain I caused, but the upside was not what it once was and the downside was a promise from the judge that my next home would not be a county jail, but a state prison.


And yet, that in and of itself would not have been enough in the long term. Even in the relatively short term, my default “Fuck this!” would have prevailed if not for the help and support of a “recovery community.” Recovery from addiction, whether it be drugs, the drug alcohol, or other destructive obsessive-compulsive behaviors (gambling, food, sex… the list goes on) defies “will power.” Indeed, my problem was not a lack of will – I went to extraordinary lengths to get what I wanted when I wanted it. This thing, whatever one wants to call it - and I am purposefully avoiding the “disease” terminology, it is not necessary for the general public or even those afflicted to accept that – is a real thing, whatever it is and where ever it came from. It’s been around forever and we have, for better or worse, a great deal of experience with it. Through that experience, some remarkably effective treatments, paths to recovery, have been discovered. There is no “one-size-fits-all,” but this communal aspect seems to be the common denominator among them – whether it’s a 12-step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous or some other method, the self-help, we’re all in this together, mutual support is the corner stone of them all.


 And so it is with me. My story, the one that today celebrates not just 16 years of total abstinence, but also all of the success that comes with it, does not happen without a lot of help from a lot of people who are doing the same thing and, crucially, many who have been in my shoes, who have walked my path before I have. While all of our stories are unique (that is true of everyone – we all have a unique human experience), much or the nuance, the feeling, the hopelessness and the hope, are shared. I want to be absolutely clear – I could not have managed anything close to my 5,844 consecutive days of abstinence if not for those who supported me and showed me the way. And that ability and willingness to ask for and rely on the help of others (grudgingly, at first) has been pivotal in my success beyond recovery from addiction, too. That success includes earning not one, not two, but three degrees from legitimate, accredited universities and through that work, the career I am honored beyond belief to have been graced with – teaching at one of those universities. I have relationships that have an authenticity that I only had with a very small handful of friends prior – and those relationships have grown even deeper. But most importantly, I have mended and continue to mend my relationships with my immediate family, especially my three sons. That is, by far, my most cherished gift from this new life.


I was a bull in a china shop until, almost, my 42nd birthday. Although for much of that time I was what some might call a “functioning addict,” that is a euphemism and much too generous. I did parts of being a grown-up, but I was never the total package. I was present for my boys, we did stuff, they might even tell of many of the good time we had – and we did do stuff, and we did have good times – but at what price? I put them through too much, and this despite the absolute fact that my love for them is greater than any love I have for anyone or anything else. Period. Full stop. I am not special, this is not unique, most parents could and would make the same claim. Yet, the drugs were more powerful. That is not a fact that is easy to admit, but it was the truth and, if I allowed them back into my life, could easily be again. Pass. Hard pass. So, with all this under my belt, all these days, these years of experience, I should be good to go, cured, as it were. I got the help I needed, got my life together, now it’s time to move on.


I have been tempted to see it that way, many times over the years. And, with the recovery community disrupted by COVID, like everything else, it has been trying for any “fellowship” to actually fellowship. Because, we do like to get together. A lot. In my case, it’s not such a disruption, however, the temptation to put everything that worked aside is one that I still need to resist for a couple of reasons. First, I have seen what happens to some people who leave, some with more time than I have, thinking they “got this” only to come crawling back with their asses kicked once again. I am not one of those people who thinks that everyone who ventures out of whatever program they recovered in will relapse – in fact, I know that is not true – but many do and the potential is there. It would be foolish not to at least consider it. The other reason actually has more impact for me, and that is to be that person with some time and success to show someone who is struggling to get clean and/or sober that it can be done and, if asked, to help in more tangible ways. It was done for me and I can’t do that if I’m not around.


But… I also don’t have to maintain a daily presence - and I don’t. There are many who have made the recovery life their life, and it that works for them, I am in their corner. However, as I mentioned above, one size does not fit all. There is a part of the path, a process of discovery that parallels the self-discovery process that will, if we pay attention, provide indicators regarding how much is enough. I don’t know what is “right” for anyone else. Hell, half the time I am trying to figure out what is right for me. I guide, never dictate. I wish, sometimes, others were not so damned sure what the “answer” is all the time. How the fuck do they know? Tell me what worked for you, not what will work for me. I am - we are smart enough to see good examples and follow them. And, hopefully, we are smart enough to see good examples of bad examples and steer clear.


I have made a few mistakes in the last 16 years, and some have been pretty monumental, but none of them have taken me back to where I came from. In fact, in the longer-term retrospect, they weren’t really all that bad anyway – nothing like the ones I made prior, one of which, almost 20 years ago, should have killed me. That was the beginning of the end, and a story for another time, but even with that near-death experience, even for a so-called “smart-guy,” I went back to what almost killed me. The life or death aspect of this pair of milestones is never lost of me. That I get to sit here, outside my hotel in Sturgis, SD, watching the world go by while attending the Black Hills Motorcycle Classic, in the middle of a global pandemic, celebrating this anniversary here for the seventh year in a row is a gift. And I don’t ever take it lightly.