Throwback Thursday: Letters to My First Students

Originally posted on August, 19, 2015, “Letters to My First Students” is a series of letters I wrote to the first eighth grade class I ever taught as they graduated from high school.


Giving a speech at the beginning of the school year via Benoit Van Lesberghe

I’d be remiss if I said I wasn’t upset that I’m going to miss your graduation; unfortunately, sometimes you just have to get married.

You are a prodigy, we both know this, but you’re so much more than that. I’ve had the privilege of being challenged by you on most of the mundane conventions of the English language along with various syntactical issues, essay structures, and overall style. The discourse has made me a better teacher, a better thinker, and frankly a better person. Students like you reaffirm my belief that teachers have impactful relationships with students; moreover, especially when my apathetic middle schoolers (not technically a word) browbeat me, you restore my belief in humanity.

Looking at the young man you’ve grown into, I couldn’t any prouder of you (yes, that’s a comparative form of proud, although you can also say more proud). I’m going to miss your wit, your quirks, and your affable personality. You’ve discovered yourself over these past years, and I will miss you. The only advice you ever need to take from me for college (besides not partying as much as I did, which I don’t think will be a problem for you) is to realize some of your professors will have egos, so go easy on the tone you take when you challenge them (because I know you will challenge some of them).

Don’t stop being you, though, for your inquisitive mind, your zest for learning, and your downright disregard for the opinions of your peers are all so rare in kids your age. I commend you for your courage in not being afraid to be different. I always was. And it’s a good thing.

Congratulations on your graduation (even though you probably could have graduated a couple years ago).

Only the best for you,

Mr. Chapin

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A Reintroduction: Chapter 7

I have finally, FINALLY finished editing ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’. Now, I have to find the time to send it out. And not screw up anything as I have in the past.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from Chapter 7. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

Wishing wells bring me back to a time when I was young and actually believed they were real. Sure, I never got that pony I wanted, but, if last night’s anything, sometimes wishes do come true.

“Please, please, please tell me you have change?”

“You don’t really believe in that, do you?”

“What if I do, Mr. Too Cool?” Ant’s look is quixotic. Like a little kid. She loops her arm in mine. I missed her. “So, what’s it going to be, Andrew Brown?”

What’s it going to be? I repeat her words in my head, feeling like a beat speed bag, thinking about last night when she kissed me. We sat with our backs against the wall – our fingers weaved between each other’s as nimbly as spiders – and talked about our summer plans. She was going to her house on the North Fork. I remember it, I said, and she was amazed. How could I forget? That was some Labor Day Weekend we had, I said raising my eyebrows suggestively. She blushed. We used to be wild then, she said, moving herself closer to me. Still are sometimes, I smiled and tilted my head that was humming with pain. We were the only two people left in the world – at least that’s what it seemed like until we heard my friends in the stairwell, their howls hurtling towards us, and she pursed her lips and pulled herself away.

“To be continued,” she said. And then she gave me a peck on the cheek and left me there looking as destitute as a bum on the street. But I was the richest I’d felt in a long time, singing:

Oh, what a night

Why’d it take so long to see the light?

Now, she’s holding my hand that’s purple and kills and I’m throwing the contents of my pocket into the fountain. There’s glee in her eyes, probably in mine too, as we watch the shimmering coins of no real value to us twirl in the air.

“Mr. Brown!”

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A Reintroduction: Chapter 6

My unpublished manuscript ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’ chronicles Andrew Brown’s struggle to reconnect with his best friend Pete Goodman as a lurid secret Andrew has never told threatens to break them apart for good.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from Chapter 6. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

It’s unbelievable how little you care about when you’re loaded.

A couple days ago, I was shitting my pants about getting caught and getting sent back to the big house. Now, we’re sneaking out to that “hot club” Lilly’s sister set us up at, and it only took a happy pill and a half to get Lilly to stop worrying about her mother and the future and everything that could go wrong – everyone besides Pete.

He was staring at the fuzzy TV screen in the dark when I left, staying in tonight, not feeling “too hot,” he told Tommy. I’m sure, since he miraculously came down with something the second his phone buzzed, which was about 10 minutes before we left. And everyone bought it. Besides me.

Maybe that’s why I’m lagging behind Candace’s meaty ass, waiting for her to turn the corner and catch up with the rest of them. Because I know any minute, that door’s going to swing open and he’ll be lighting up to her, his only her, Ms. Benevo.

With all their lovey-dovey, soap opera, hanging on each other like snug scarves crap, I can feel the noose tightening around me and Pete. It’s already too tight to breathe. And he doesn’t realize it, but she’s the one pulling all the strings.

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Throwback Thursday: High School Inside and Out

Originally posted on July 17, 2015, High School Inside and Out looks at how formative my high school years were in making me the person I am today. Special thanks to all those who have helped me along the way at the end of the piece.

I never wanted to go to a Catholic high school, especially after attending public elementary and middle school.

What about my friends?

And I have to wear a uniform, what’s that about?

And I can’t leave campus to go out to lunch?

Plus mandatory religion class?

That first year at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, NY, was probably one of the worst years of my life and it had nothing to do with the school itself or even the kids, but rather my refusal to adjust to a decision I had no choice in. My parents wanted to get me away from certain uncouth elements of our town, so they decided to send me to Catholic school (phrasing it like that makes it seem so off-putting).

It was a decision they had the gumption to make and despite my whining misgivings, one they forced me to stick with through freshman year. While I faked sick so many days that year I was in danger of having to repeat, I made it through after I formed a bond with my freshman English teacher. That relationship was tantamount in my returning for my sophomore year, for he enabled me to believe in myself. As a teacher myself, I can now see that that is one of the greatest tools a teacher has – the ability not only to unlock a youth’s potential but also give him the confidence to believe in it as real.

However, how did my values play into my education? Coming from a strong, communicative, hands-on immediate and extended family, I already knew right from wrong and the value of a strong work ethic before I went to high school. Moreover, I knew how important education was to my future, for it had been impressed upon me my entire life. Some, though, do not have this same luxury of a supportive family. Still, parents, whether they’re teaching their children how to be good people or not, expect schools to play an integral role in developing their children’s morals. It is a task I oftentimes find myself charged with; that is, educating my students on how to be better people as well as better learners. Not that that’s a problem since good teacher’s are already doing that throughout any given unit, but let’s be honest: some teachers downright suck.

Recently, Michael McCullough in The Huffington Post wrote a lengthy, empirical piece titled “High School Made You a Better Person” where he categorizes the various ways in which education makes us better humans. He says that, “according to a recent survey, 93 percent of American parents of K-12 students view ‘the development of strong morals and ethics’ as a ‘critical’ or ‘very important’ responsibility of our schools, but only half of the parents surveyed believed the schools were doing an acceptable job at it.”

The problem some parents fail to realize is that values are formed in the home and reinforced in school, not the other way around. Sometimes, even though I’m not a parent, I find myself asking when it became my job to fix someone’s bad parenting? I commented on this and its adverse affect on children in my May 18, 2015 blog “Tomorrow’s Gone: The Student Who Will Not Get It.” To recap, I had a student who blatantly plagiarized an essay and his father completely missed the “teachable moment” (to take a term from Fairfield University Dean of Students Thomas Pellegrino).

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ICYMI: Just Do It

ICYMI: Just Do It explains why I have yet to send out new queries for Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up.

I’ll give you a hint:

It has to do with finding the time necessary to do it well and refusing to make the same mistakes of the past. There’s also little bit of fearful trepidation with the possibility of rejection.

A Reintroduction: Chapter 5

I have finally, FINALLY finished editing ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’. Now, I have to find the time to send it out. And not screw up anything as I have in the past.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from Chapter 5. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

He wasn’t real.

It was a dream.

All of it was a dream.

That’s what it seemed like in the museum – that I wasn’t awake – when Pete and Tommy practically had to drag me down the street to St. Peter’s Basilica. Now, I’m here in the church, the drug having worn off but still feeling like a queasy bag of shit, more strung out than those junkies outside Grand Central Station with their pitiful dogs. This is why I never take pills, I think, walking through archways adorned with idols and statues of saint this and that.

I don’t know where Pete or Tommy or anyone else went although I have an idea where one of them is. Besides Becky. She’s to my left sketching something – a dove it looks like, fluttering through a towering, Gothic canopy. At its base is her own personal touch, the Balaam crest – a torch with the Latin I can’t read – wooden, dignified, and old.

In so many ways, Becky’s not like the rest of us. She doesn’t have a car, a designer backpack, or even a cell phone, I think. After school, she works at the Walmart right down the block from Balaam. The girl had to fundraise to get to Italy, for Christ’s sake.

For someone I never considered a friend, I’ve spent more time with her than my actual friends. I like her, not in that way, but she’s real and I wish I cared to know her earlier on, outside of scoring class work off her. And she does this crazy thing when you talk to her: she listens, and she doesn’t do it because of who you are or what she can gain by doing it; she does it because she cares about what you’re saying.

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Throwback Thursday: Learning to Accept Others

Originally posted on June 4, 2015, “Learning to Accept Others Through the Others’ Perspective” shares how I became a more accepting person through experiences with bullies and intolerance, anecdotes I share with my students today.

There are times when I want to make people feel really small, reminding them that I, not they, am intellectually superior, socially superior, and, in rare occasions, even physically superior. Then, I flashback to when I was in middle school and my body was as disproportional as Jonah Hill’s between movies.

I can still hear the bully deriding me for my appearance, my glasses, my stature or lack there of. He was in eighth grade and I was in seventh; he smoked cigarettes and came from a rough upbringing – your stereotypical Bender from Breakfast Club – and I remember feeling so low, wondering why my ears protruded from my head at such obtuse angles and why I had to wear glasses and look like a “four-eyed retard” (I know, so original; bullies usually aren’t the smartest, and this one certainly wasn’t).

'The Breakfast Club' cast via 'The Huffington Post'

‘The Breakfast Club’ cast via ‘The Huffington Post’

As a teacher, I see my students ridicule one another based on petty differences like height, weight, speech, and hobbies; even in a small K-12, there are haves and have nots just as there were when I taught in Bridgeport and when I was a student in both public and Catholic school. The crucial discrepancy, though, that my students who purport themselves to be bullies fail to realize is that if they went to most other schools, they would be the ones with someone else’s foot on their back. They would be the bullied.

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Just Do It

I always feel so inadequate when it comes to literature. Sure, I’m an avid reader, particularly of the canonical or classic texts, but I’ve never been drawn to a particular genre besides Young Adult. And I feel like the net that YA literature casts can bleed over into other genres.

Which is why I’ve struggled for so long with how to identify Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up. Is it Young Adult because the protagonist is a teenager struggling with social changes and growing up and coming of age? Or is it adult fiction because the subject matter is too explicit for young adults – drug abuse, sexual abuse, rape, suicide.

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A Reintroduction: Chapter 4

I have finally, FINALLY finished editing ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’. Now, I have to find the time to send it out. And not screw up anything as I have in the past.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from Chapter 4. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

Everything’s puffy and bright like a citronella candle on a summer night. Except the smell isn’t barbeque and bug repellent – it’s barf and skunked beer – and I’m gagging worse than on the plane ride down. This is exactly the travel study I imagined.

Glasses once half-full lie broken on the floor; bottles not quite finished still rest on the nightstand.

“Everyone alive?” I say, somewhat skeptically.

Tommy flops his arm on top of me, which I take as a yes. He smells like a strip club’s floor.

My eyes adjust to a shadowy movement hobbling from the bathroom with a prominent stain of marinara sauce on his white button-down and in a general state of malaise.

“Candace, that you?”

“You know it, sugar lips,” Pete says in a mock-sultry voice, heaving. He settles on the edge of the bed and hangs his head between his legs.

“You did it again, didn’t you?”

“Yep. Ya got me, Brown.”

Behind him, I see the sodden crater outlined in the center of his bed. Everyone knows when Pete Goodman’s had too much to drink, he turns his bed into a Slip N Slide. The smell of fetid urine further confirms it.

By the time we smoke a couple clips and get to breakfast, Becky’s just about finished rearranging the contents of her plate. Again and again she does it, but not once does she eat any of the soppresatta, prosciutto, hard Parmesan, or stinking provolone. She smiles when she sees us.

Tommy motions towards her genially before whispering to me behind his toothy, put-on smile, “Man, the Nazis would’ve even let her go!” and I play it off like I don’t hear him, but I’d love to rip his throat out with my teeth because he’s such a duplicitous person. All of us are, I guess.

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A Reintroduction: Chapter 3

I have finally, FINALLY finished editing ‘Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up’. Now, I have to find the time to send it out. And not screw up anything as I have in the past.
As I mentioned in “A Reintroduction: The Prologue,” I intend to post edited chapters every few weeks. Here’s a sample from Chapter 3. As always, feedback is STRONGLY encouraged via the contact tab or comments section.

“Toga, man, just…toga,” Tommy sputters, his face indiscernible behind a veil of smoke. He passes me the soda can he turned into a bowl. Which makes me feel like a crackhead.

Still, I accept it, breathing in and watching the emerald leaves flare neon amber until I’m coughing out, “Togaaaaaaaa!” and my head’s swooning and I’m disoriented and my lungs are trying to pry themselves from my chest.

Am I content? I wonder.

In the background, the Caesars are singing, I’ll be running circles round you sooner than you know, and Pete’s talking about their album like he always does when he hears an obscure song on the radio, that the song is from 39 Minutes of Bliss as if anyone else actually knows besides maybe Tommy who’s not in the conversation – he’s too busy nursing those baby bottles.

And Candace’s eating it all up, locking her arms in the back, stretching it out, and letting those beach volleyballs flop around for everyone to see. “Tommy! Haven’t you ever heard of cavalry?”

“Chivalry, Cand,” Lilly corrects her as she usually does. “Chivalry.”

“That’s right” – she nods knowingly – “civilly, got it.”

Marie holds her face in her hand. She can’t stand the girl who’s been ardently campaigning since freshman year to be included in her and Lilly’s two-girl clique that was never actively seeking new members. Not that Candace ever had a chance. Always on the outside looking in, allowed to hang on but never hang out, she’s just not someone you call; she calls you.

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