Chasing the Dragon

There are times a family is shattered beyond its ability to reframe and recover from the tragedy that delivers that darkest night of the soul. My nephew’s suicide earlier this month opened a wound that will not heal easily, if at all.

On Wednesday, December 7, 2016, my nephew placed his gun to his head and pulled the trigger rather than surrender to law enforcement with an arrest warrant who appeared at his apartment door in downtown Dallas. He had just flooded his veins with heroin, the ultimate painkiller for self-hate because, per his personal narrative, he could not love himself the way others loved him.

He was thirty-seven, an addict since he was thirteen when another kid introduced him to marijuana and his drug dealer. The drug dealer introduced him to heroin soon thereafter. Was he still thirteen? Had he turned fourteen? Does it really matter? The point is, he was in too much pain to think it through, and too young anyway to know what he was doing.

He was a sweet soul, a sensitive child, who was confused and devastated by his parents’ divorce. Both had remarried within a year of their divorce to other people with children, and, understandably, had personal issues to work through as well as the enormous task of blending their families.

Divorce is hard on everyone, and it was especially hard on my nephew. The youngest in his family until the divorce, my nephew was not only displaced in birth order, but he also had to share his bedroom, his personal sanctuary, with a younger step-brother. The adjustment was not easy.

It was a common occurrence to find my young nephew in the kitchen pantry surrounded by empty candy wrappers. Today, aided with the perfect vision of hindsight, we see he was stuffing his emotions with sugar, trying to make his life sweet again. But the fact is, the whole family was in pain—everyone was in therapy and unable to help each other. The former youngest in his family became the lost child.

Beginning in his earliest teens and for the next twenty-four years, my nephew battled his demons with marijuana, ecstasy, vodka, vicodin, heroin, and any other drug he could obtain. Flannery O’Connor writes, “Anyone who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” But my nephew did not survive childhood; he carried his brokenness in his backpack along with his drug paraphernalia.

Were his parents blind to his predicament? No, they were not. They did what they could, paying for therapy and outpatient rehab, even committing him to residential detox and rehab programs around the Dallas area.  Once his father sent him to the Hazelden Treatment Center outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. Renowned and respected for its inpatient rehab program, it was his father’s last hope. He hired two bodyguards to make sure my nephew made it to the center, but my nephew walked away from the facility within days and hitchhiked to Chicago where he sold his leather jacket for heroin. He was still a teenager.

My nephew kept putting a needle in his arm, eventually bankrolling his habit by selling drugs to others. At twenty, he was arrested by FBI agents. A former Dallas Cowboy player died after purchasing heroin from my nephew, and he was sent to federal prison for ten years. He turned twenty-one in prison. And twenty-two. And twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine and thirty. Locked up for a decade when other young men were earning college degrees, getting married, and having children.

He swore to his father that he would never go back.  We were all hopeful. Until he killed himself rather than surrendering to the officers with his arrest warrant. Now, we understand what he meant by never going back to prison. He chose death over being denied ever again the euphoric escape from his pain. Law enforcement on the scene said my nephew’s rig was nearby, and evidence suggested he had just shot up. Heroin takes twenty seconds to deliver its reward, so no doubt, he was feeling the sweet high.

Heroin is a national epidemic that is killing the sons and daughters from every social class in America. Its siren song promises a sweet salve that eases the painful suffering from being a tortured soul. Damn the consequences—to the young addicts , the peak relief is worth the risk.

My nephew’s family will never understand why we couldn’t save him. Because of that, we will never know peace, nor shall we ever completely recover from the loss.

     Rest easy, Keelan.

     The war is over and you are home.

     We love you.

R&R: Retirement and Reinvention

orgamiI will retire from teaching at the end of this month after spending 49 years in the game.

I began my career as a 21-year-old journalism teacher and publications sponsor (yearbook, newspaper and creative writing magazine) at Spring Woods High School in Houston, TX.  I was young and fresh out of J-school—the same college where Dan Rather studied—and I believed in excellent writing and truth and democracy.

I was fired at the end of my second year because my students published articles that, no matter how well-written and researched, criticized the administration, and I’d failed to send the teen-aged boys to the vice principal’s office for wearing their hair long. Both administrators had been football coaches and shared a policy of their-way-or-the-highway.

But my students had won every first and second place in UIL district competition, and the newspaper was named Best in State the year I was fired, so the highway led to Lee College in Baytown, TX, where I was hired to start its journalism program. Students transferred from the program I started and immediately got positions on the Daily Texan at the University of Texas.

I left Lee College when a new president wanted to hire his own PR person and needed the journalism job to sweeten the deal. Houston Community College hired me, but I got an offer from University of Houston Downtown, so I resigned from HCC at the end of a summer contract and began a five-year stint at UHD.

Again, I was hired to establish a journalism program, and the newspaper began earning awards from state and national organizations. I think I would probably be there today, except at the end of five years, a senior college or university has to offer you tenure or let you go. UHD decided to grow a technical writing program instead of a journalism program, and so the program and I were shut down.

Houston Community College was looking for a public information office at the time. I applied and came in second to Napoleon Johnson, the first African-American on-air broadcaster in the Houston market.  But Fate stepped in, and when Johnson resigned before he began so he could be Mayor Jim McCann’s Communications Director of the City of Houston, HCC president J.B. Whitely called me and asked if I was still interested in the job. I said yes, of course, and in moving from college professor to college administrator, I doubled my salary.

I spent a dozen years at HCC, advancing to community relations and public affairs director and earning more money than most of my cohorts around the state. Trust me, I earned that salary. In addition to marketing multiple programs at instructional sites, I led a talented team that created award-winning brochures, annual reports, program newsletters, radio and television commercials, and special events. I wrote speeches for the president and various board members, served as the chair of a statewide communications committee for the Texas community college presidents’ association, and conducted definitive research in marketing professional development seminars to business and industry.

In 1991, John Pickelman, then newly appointed chancellor for North Harris Montgomery Community College District (now the Lone Star College System) recruited me to be the vice chancellor of institutional advancement, only one of two such positions in Texas higher education. I led another talented team with the student recruiting slogan of Best START* (Success Takes a Real Teacher), focusing on the excellent classroom credentials of the college faculty, and I shepherded the college foundation to earn its non-profit status.  The recruitment campaign resulted in a record enrollment, and the foundation began to function, but the stress of the job and a recent divorce took a serious toll on my health.

Following a month-long medical leave, which consisted of being tethered to oxygen in my home, I returned to the classroom as a journalism and developmental writing professor at the North Harris College within the district (now known as LSC-North Harris). I have been in the classroom ever since, and as happy as Brer Rabbit in the briar patch.

My students have distinguished themselves by writing winning essays in scholarship competitions, and I have served my institution outside of the classroom as its Faculty Senate president. My colleagues favored me with its 2006 Faculty Excellence award, and the administration nominated me for the prestigious Piper Award in that same year.

My most treasured awards have been notes from former students who credit my teaching methods and personal cheer-leading with their success in landing the careers of their dreams. I know, of course, they were the ones who did the heavy lifting. But I also understand that they are expressing their gratitude that I urged them to be their best instead of doing the minimum.

I enjoy a 4.9 (out of 5) rating (RateMyProfessor.com) complete with the coveted Chili Pepper icon and the tags: gives good feedback, inspirational, respected by students, tough grader, clear grading criteria, participation matters, and hilarious. I do have a great sense of humor that I bring to the classroom. Students are stressed enough without needing humorless professors breathing down their necks. They don’t need to be contained by rigid rubrics that make grading easier for me; they need a safe environment that encourages the writing process and supports the idea that real writing happens in revision. They need to know they have good ideas and have a right to form their own opinions.

Although I can honestly say I am a seasoned professional, I haven’t rested on my years of experience. However reluctantly, I’ve embraced technology, and last year I created an online English course that received rave reviews at the end of the semester. I could have sidestepped that challenge, but that’s not my style. I decided to finish strong.

One more year and I could celebrate a Silver Anniversary, but it’s time. And so, as I enter the late afternoon of life, I’m opening to its possibilities. Ideas for reinvention heat my blood. In the words of poet Robert Browning: “The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”