One of my family’s traditions when we are on week long vacation at the beach is to go around the dinner table and have each of us share our thoughts on a variety of pertinent subjects and questions.
One summer about 10 years ago, I was asked by my family what type of students aggravated me the most—-and without thinking I immediately went onto a five minute diatribe about “Goth kids” and how sullen and morbid they tend to be and how they treat the precious gift of life with such egregious disregard.
But, just as I was concluding my rant by expounding at what happened at Columbine, I noticed that my then 14 year old niece, Nora, who was sitting quietly to my right was weeping. I immediately stopped and asked, “Nora, are you okay?”
“I don’t know if I should say,” she said.
“Of course, please, tell us what you are feeling,” I implored.
“Well, dear uncle, nothing against you or anything, but as you were talking I couldn't’t help but think of a friend of mine at school who is a Goth girl and it just broke my heart to hear you talking about Goth kids that way.”
When I asked Nora to tell me about her friend, she said, “My friend is the sweetest and most compassion friend I know and she has been through so much. She was sexually abused as a child and last fall she was drugged at a party and date raped. She started dressing up in Goth because she was feeling invisible and worthless. I love her so much that I have thought of dressing up in Goth myself to support her.”
I cannot even begin to tell you how ashamed I felt—-particularly as a veteran teacher who makes a special point of trying to find the best in every one of my students. I was surprised that I responded to the question the way i did—-but, it felt involuntary, in a way. I apologized to Nora immediately. I vowed to look at Goth kids differently from now on.
What I learned about myself from Nora is that, in truth, I have always been fearful that Goth students would commit suicide or, as was the case at Columbine, they would bring assault rifles to school and go on ruthless shooting sprees.
Even though I am still ashamed of the way I answered that question—-I am so grateful that Nora helped me to learn an important truth about myself.
This lesson was a miracle of sorts because a month later on the first day of school I and four other teachers were asked to meet in the guidance office to be given privileged information about one of our new students—-a girl in the junior class named Naomi who had survived two suicide attempts.
An hour later, Naomi walked into my classroom dressed from head to lips to toes in black Gothic makeup and attire.
Over the next two years, I had Naomi in class every day—-
Even though she informed me one day that as an atheist she resented that I alluded to God as often as I do, she requested to keep me on as her English teacher.
At times, Naomi’s mood swings were hard to understand. She could at one moment be the life of the class and then next moment be lost in a sullen scowl. The best news was that she was manifesting prolific talent as a young poet—-and she was often eager to share her work with me and the class. Her verses were raw and visceral—-and often stunning.
As her poems began to take on a publishable quality, Naomi and I got to know each other pretty well—-and I must say, I could see and honor the genuine goodness in her.
For those two years of having Naomi in my classroom each day, I must have conferred over a hundred times with her guidance counselor and her mother.
One day in class toward the end off her senior year Naomi recited a poem and announced that she no longer felt the need to dress in Goth. I had never seen her so happy and feeling so self-confident and free. Plus, she said to me with a smile on the way out of class, “I have a new boyfriend, Mitch. Life is good.”
The next morning when I arrived at school I was paged over the loudspeaker and summoned to the guidance office. The guidance counselor said that Naomi’s mom was on the phone and that she wanted to speak with me.
“Naomi didn’t come home last night,” her mom said frantically. “Do you have any idea of where she might be?”
The only thing I could think of was that maybe she was with her new boyfriend.
Naomi’s mom had no knowledge of a new boyfriend. But, she said that Naomi had snuck out of the house when they thought she was asleep and perhaps it was to rendezvous with a boy.
Two hours later, Naomi was not in English class. Still no word as to her whereabouts from guidance or her frantic mom.
Then my phone rang—-it was Naomi’s mom—-she said that Naomi had just arrived home having been out all night and that they had a huge shouting match and now Naomi was in her room trying to get some sleep.
Hours later when I arrived home from school, the phone rang. It was Naomi’s mother who was calling from the local hospital. Naomi had been unresponsive when her mom tried to wake her so her mom called 9-1-1 and within 5 minutes the ambulance arrived rushed her away. Her mom said that Naomi had ingested a whole bottle of sleeping pills—-yet the doctors were able to pump her stomach in the nick of time and that she was going to survive.
I kept thinking—-how could this be—-mere hours after seeing Naomi in the best spirits imaginable?
The next day Naomi was released from the hospital and when she arrived home she told her mom that she wanted to talk to me.
Her mom called and asked me if i would speak with Naomi. Of course, I said.
Naomi said that she snuck out the house at 11 pm and met her new boyfriend a couple of streets over. He drove her to the quiet end of a nearby cul-de-sac where he parked the car and proceeded to offer Naomi shots of whiskey and a molotov cocktail of hallucinogens. She said that before long she was in such an intoxicated stupor that on top of the meds she was taking for her depression she suddenly felt an overwhelming outpouring of self-loathing and an insatiable urge to jump out of her own skin, like she was on fire.
She couldn’t quite recall what happened for hours after that—-but when she finally returned home all she could think of was killing herself.
I reminded Naomi of the incredible progress she had been making and implored her to try to get herself back on track. She knew at this point—-having been through it twice before—-that she would be committed to a psychiatric ward for weeks of intensive treatments.
I suggested that she make it a goal to write a poem a day and that by the end of her stay she would have a whole book of poems that I would help her edit and prep for possible publication. She seemed to like that idea, but wasn’t sure if it was realistic. I said I understood—-but at least write when you can, I suggested.
Naomi’s mom and I rejoiced on the phone the day Naomi was sent home from the psych ward. Her mom said that Naomi had been writing and wanted my feedback on her work.
Then came one of the most challenging parts of a conversation I have ever had. When Noami’s mom told me that from now on she and her husband would never let her out of their sight and that there was no way they were going to agree to let he go off to college, as Naomi had been requesting—-I took the risk of advising Naomi’s mom that I thought the best thing they could do was let Naomi spend the rest of the summer at home, but then let her go off to college. The best hope of all, I said, was for Naomi to become ensconced in a handful of exciting classes of her own choosing, while giving her the freedom to make decisions for herself. Give her a chance for normalcy, I urged.
This was pure instinct—-derived from two years of reading and hearing Naomi’s poems.
Last year, about this time, after not hearing from Naomi for number of years, she wrote to tell me she had graduated from Boston University. Her parents had relented and allowed her to spend the 4 years at BU as a resident in the dormitories.
Naomi also informed me that she had changed her name to Shalom. Shalom means peace. How fitting.
Just this morning i learned that Shalom had marched through the streets of Boston as an advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I write of Shalom’s story today as a tribute to Drew Brees and Vic Fangio for listening to others about their recent responses to the question of the Black Lives Matter movement—-much the way I was able to learn from my dear niece Nora how mistaken I was to think so cynically of Goth kids.
Every one of us is blessed to have people around us to learn from—-as long as we allow ourselves the freedom and the respect to listen—-and—-big thing—-as long as we have the humbleness to apologize when we make mistakes. This is how all of us get ahead as a society and a civilization.
You know—-there’s a profound sense of peace that comes with learning for the better—-the Greeks call it catharsis. The truth is—-we all feel a little freer when we are helped to see the light by someone we give enough respect to listen to.
“I would like to apologize to my friends, teammates, the City of New Orleans, the black community, NFL community and anyone I hurt with my comments yesterday,” Brees wrote. “In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused.
“In an attempt to talk about respect, unity, and solidarity centered around the American flag and the national anthem, I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country. They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy. Instead, those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character.”
“This is where I stand:
I stand with the black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality and support the creation of real policy change that will make a difference.
I condemn the years of oppression that have taken place throughout our black communities and still exists today.
I acknowledge that we as Americans, including myself, have not done enough to fight for that equality or to truly understand the struggles and plight of the black community.
I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the black community in this movement.
I will never know what it’s like to be a black man or raise black children in America but I will work every day to put myself in those shoes and fight for what is right.
I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy.
I am sick about the way my comments were perceived yesterday, but I take full responsibility and accountability. I recognize that I should do less talking and more listening . . . and when the black community is talking about their pain, we all need to listen.
For that, I am very sorry and I ask your forgiveness.”
“After reflecting on my comments yesterday and listening to the players this morning I realize what I said regarding racism and discrimination in the NFL was wrong,” Fangio said in a statement. “While I have never personally experienced those terrible things first-hand during my 33 years in the NFL, I understand many players, coaches and staff have different perspectives.”
“I should have been more clear and I am sorry.”
“I wanted to make the point yesterday that there is no color within the locker rooms I have been in or on the playing fields I have coached on. Unfortunately, we don’t live or work only within those confines. Outside of those lines — both in the NFL and in society — there is a lot of work to be done in the areas of diversity and providing opportunities across the board for minorities.”
Like they say—-”the truth can set you free.”
What is a revelation you learned from someone else that has helped you evolve as a person?