Tuesday, September 19, 2006
As I've mentioned a few times in this blog, one of my closest friends, Mark, was murdered in June. He was a 42 year old web designer. He was one of the smartest, gentlest, most creative people I've ever known. He was taken from his home by gang-bangers whom the son of one of his old tenants (he owned a two-flat) had gotten entangled with; they were taking him at gunpoint to an ATM. Knowing they certainly planned on murdering him (he could identify one of them) he resisted and they shot him to death.
The son of the old tenant was murdered a month later-- probably by the guys he ran with, who feared he'd "roll" on them if the cops figured out who did it. The cops figured it out anyway. One guy is up for murder one, and the cops know who the other two are, and are getting a case together on them.
In any event, I'd wanted to read Jared Diamond's book "Guns, Germs and Steel" for a long time. It came out in 1997. What the hell does this have to do with Mark?
In 1997, I was in the middle of a brutal custody fight with an old girlfriend. Mark helped get me a very well-paying job at a locally based software company, working on their website (I had no training and minimal skill, but got the job anyway, largely on Mark's recommendation). Partly as a result of the expensive lawyer time that job bought me, I was able to retain joint custody of my son. Mark always came through for people like that.
A few months later, when the woman I was married to decided that she didn't want to be inconvenienced with the drama wrought by that very same custody fight, and asked for a divorce, it was Mark's house I stayed at.
When I had trouble in another marriage, which failed ultimately, I stayed at "Mark's Home for Wayward Boys", as he had by now dubbed it.
When he was killed in June, literally dozens of his friends emerged from the woodworks to help his family clear his house. It was in some ways helpful-- we shared our grief-- but was ultimately a draining experience for me; a house filled with so many of the things that reminded you of a friend of more than twenty years, a friendship that ran not only long, but deep-- I felt gutted.
His parents told us to take any of his personal items that had sentimental value. One of the things I took was this funny black skull ashtray Mark had made either in high school or college (where we'd met). I remember him always having it. There were a couple of other little things; I took his copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Mark had helped me keep custody of my son, and that album is my son's favorite album. I took it for my son, who is happy to have it; I will explain the significance of it some day.
I also grabbed "Guns, Germs and Steel." I'd read the reviews of it, discussed it with people, had it on my list of books to get, but had never gotten it.
I have been reading it, finally, this past few weeks. As I approach the end of the book, I have but one regret: I'll never get to discuss it with Mark. It was everything I thought it would be. Mark was one of the few people I know who would not only want to discuss it, but would have both praise and criticism.
Tom Robbins pointed out that objects have the magic we give to them. The book is one of millions of copies of the book printed, but that copy has sentimental value to me because it was the copy read by Mark (and reread repeatedly, given the condition of the book). I know that like him, I'll refer back to the book often.
The week that Mark was killed was already a painful one for me. It was the last week of a teaching job I'd loved. I came to loggerheads with an administrator-- the principal. After a two-year struggle, she was able to force me out. It was crushing. She was the Nurse Rachet of the education field. And the day before the start of my final week, Mark was murdered. It was probably the longest week of my life. I felt like my soul was being flushed with Drano.
I spent the summer in an emotional tailspin. The job market for teachers, I knew, was terrible this year. Every district had laid people off. I didn't have the emotional or psychic energy for a really vigorous job search. I managed the energy to put out some applications, but knew it was pretty futile. Friends who put out 50, 75 and 100 applications got no results.
I made plans to leave the field, and still plan to leave it, but I felt I still had unfinished business.
Near the end of the summer, I got a call from an old colleague, from when I taught on the west side of Chicago. What was I doing this school year, she asked? It turned out that the school she'd taught at the last couple of years needed a teacher. I went there, interviewed and was offered a job on the spot. I accepted.
It was, it turned out, an "alternative" high school in the Chicago Public School system. It was for kids 17 to 21 years old who'd left high school and wanted to come back and finish.
I looked forward to working again with one of my favorite old friends. It was not to be. My friend, who had been gotten a Divinity Degree, and had been looking to leave the education field for the ministry, was offered a job in her new field and left. There was, though, a silver lining, as I shall tell shortly.
As we started this week, I was nervous about it all. These were not, I knew, easy kids. And we started a couple of weeks late. That turned out all right, though, because my wounds and nerves were still raw.
Today I finally started teaching. I realized, by the end of the day, that I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing.
I realized how much I had to offer these kids. And how much they had to offer me. They needed someone who knew what they'd gone through in life, but knew that if he didn't demand a lot of them, they were going to go through worse.
These kids are the same age and background of the guys who murdered my friend. I realized that in this, my last year as a teacher, I needed to be here. I realized that if I can get one or a couple of kids off of a bad path, I can leave the profession in good conscience.
I realized that things worked out as they did for reasons that will be revealed to me a long time from now. But this I know: my friend who gotten me the job stayed in the profession just long enough to get me a badly needed job, doing something that is helping me heal from a shattering experience. On top of that, her departure allowed me to help get another old friend, who'd had a very tough life, a job in the education field, a job she's dreamt and worked for for years-- and a job in which she'll be helping kids in for decades just like my other friend did.
I realized, by the end of today, that I'm doing exactly what I need to be doing, as I wind down a career and get ready to prepare for another.
As I finish Guns, Germs and Steel, in the context of what went on this summer, I am both sad and uplifted. It's my connection to my lost friend, and I hate for it to end. But as life moves on, he is and always will be part of me. I know that I, like he did, will refer back to the book and think of what he would have said about it. The things he gave to me-- the way he never settled for the easy answers-- will continue to enrich me to my dying day, and those things will help me give a lot to my children, both the ones in my family and the ones I am teaching now. The time that he and I had together will bring me up, not down. I will miss him every day of my of my life, but I feel his spirit driving me on to the wonderful things ahead of me in life. I owe it to him to live, love, teach and create.