“Look, if anyone makes it through that door, don’t be a hard target,” I told them. “I’ll try my best to prevent them from doing anything to you, but if they get me, you’re going to have to stop them.” I’d then instruct my students on simple ways to defeat an active shooter. They were all violent.
In 1999, I was a senior when the news of what happened in Littleton, Colorado went national. There had been shootings in schools before, even in my hometown when I was in middle school. This was different. This was terrorism in an unexpected place. I’m sure you remember it if you’re my age or older. If you’re much younger, you don’t need to remember it. You’ve got a collection of Littletons to recall. I had one. You have many.
On Facebook, last year, I wrote something about school shootings, but I didn’t share it. I saved it for myself, keeping it a private thought.
We’ve had so many mass shootings at schools here in the United States that I had to search the internet to figure out which one had me waking up in the middle of the night in February last year. This one happened in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day.
Fear spreads, it’s met with reactions, and it changes our reality. This fear, while warranted, is also exaggerated. That’s why these school shootings, in my opinion, are terrorism. They cause widespread fear in a population that may never actually be affected. They result in changes to routines and behaviors that otherwise would have stayed the same. They put evil in the driving seat and cause disarray among the good. Parents, wanting to protect their children, call for getting rid of guns or adding more guns. Their calls turn into shouts. Their shouts into toxic discourse. I’m not here to politicize the issue or even offer a recommendation. I’m here to talk about how fear can influence us.
The first time I stepped into a classroom as a teacher, I was subbing for a high school economics teacher in Amarillo. I was so nervous, I couldn’t stand it.
When I tell my students my own story on our first days, I always include the one joke that I know makes them laugh. I explain how I hated high school, joined the Army right after graduating, and ended up getting out and needing a job, then I use two sentences. “So, I’m talking to my grandma about needing a job and she says, ‘Why don’t you try substitute teaching?’ I look at her and I’m like, ‘Why don’t you try the nursing home?'” I don’t know why students laugh so much at that joke, but I think it’s because we can all understand, universally, what it means to be a substitute teacher.
I was nervous that first day of subbing because I knew how subs were treated the entire time I was in school. I knew subs who looked like life had slowly been drawn from them as the day dragged on. When the last bell rang, they were no longer the same complexion as they were in the morning. Kids took blood. They took soul.
I decided that wouldn’t happen in my classes. In 2006, in an apartment in El Paso, Texas, I had decided I’d be a motivational speaker. I recorded myself talking to students in an auditorium at my alma mater. I gave them all of the advice I had stored up, sprinkled in some profanity to relate to them, and used humor. In my imagination, it was a hoot. That’s what I would do as a sub. The process?
You say hello, then you make them stand up and talk. You ask them to tell you five things: name, grade, favorite subjects, hobbies, and a five-year plan. You listen, you respond to something they said, then you move onto the next student. When it’s all over, you have dozens of ways to relate to them and you can begin your performance. That’s what I did for each class, every time I subbed, for years. It made me feel great to hear their laughs and I felt extremely validated when they would tell me they wished I was their teacher.
The first time I had a panic attack was in an amusement park. The irony. I was on a roller coaster called The Texas Giant somewhere near Dallas. Part of not being scared is posturing. You inflate yourself a little so you don’t look scared and your enemy won’t eat you. My enemy was heights. Or falls. I’ve always been less than a fan of falling. Next to me was my best friend.
We climbed. We made the ascent. We rose above. When the clicking noise stopped, we knew the climb was over. We knew the descent was near. We’d return to the realm of mortals. I had postured and prepared myself for it. The clicking stopped. The sense of weightlessness took over. We dipped.
I had spent so much energy anticipating the fall that when the fake decline, just a little dip for good measure, I guess, happened, my core was shaken. For about one second, we leveled off, then the sadist designers decided it was time for the actual fall. By the time I reached the trough, I was having what I thought was a heart attack.
I told my friend, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
My friend replied, “Shut up. You’re fifteen. You can’t be having a heart attack.” I knew then he’d be a doctor one day (he is), so I wanted to believe him, but my heart attack was telling me he was wrong.
There’s a show on Netflix I watch. Each episode is short. It’s about things I presume we all love. We love to feel nostalgia: 90s sitcom star. We love to laugh: comedians. We love cars: automobiles of all sorts. We love coffee: caffeine for days. I remember an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Brian Regan. In the episode, he tells Jerry, “So you should never avoid the butterflies because those are the memory makers.”
When I returned to Amarillo, the heart attack hadn’t stopped. I was having so many heart attacks I even told my parents. You can’t just run around having heart attacks all the time and not tell mom and dad. We went to the doctor. I had childhood asthma, was born premature, and my eye’s been lazy my entire life — maybe my heart’s a little off, too. Doctors said it wasn’t a heart attack. It wasn’t angina. It was anxiety.
I was fifteen years old and I had my first panic attack before a fall. A decade later, I’d write my first book and it would be called Failed Hero and the main character would live, die, live again. It was Groundhog Day without Bill Murray.
There’s the physical act of falling. Then there’s failing. Mentally, are they different? Emotionally, do we respond the same to both?
I learned how to combat my panic attacks and my anxiety. I learned to talk about what I was feeling. I learned to relax and lie down. I learned to breathe. The anxiety attacks would return, frequently, but I never feared I was having a heart attack again.
What I’ve loved most about teaching, since day one, is standing in front of a group of people and entertaining them. When I’m at my best, my students smile and, through humor, I have taught them something. It worked. I didn’t even mind that not everyone laughed at my jokes. You won’t always get the laughs. I ended up finding myself isolated away from school. I would come home to a three-bedroom house and it would be just me. Well, me and my thoughts (whether there’s a difference, I’m not sure).
I needed to get out, to do something that would be enjoyable. I went through the book Three Levels of Leadership and I did the values exercise and I realized how important communication, humor, freedom, and honesty were to me. I thought back to my happiest times in the classroom. They were when I could just talk to the kids and make them laugh and learn. I wasn’t their superior and there wasn’t something I’d be grading them on later.
Why am I not doing comedy? The first answer could be, “Joseph, you’re not funny.” I’d accept that, but the laughs have proved otherwise. I’ve stood in front of thousands of strangers with a routine for years and it’s worked. People have left feeling better and wanting to see me again. It wasn’t the teaching, necessarily, that made me want to teach. If lost connections were causing my depression, it seemed like I had found the holy grail.
I searched for open mic nights in San Antonio. I found them. I searched for books on comedy. I found them and read them. I recorded five minutes. I wrote ten. I told my friends I’d be doing open mic comedy. I explained, with the zeal of a young lover, how it would solve all of my problems and, “Who knows? I mean, I could be good at it and do it for a living, right?”
I went to Laugh Out Loud Comedy. I watched rookies take the stage and bomb. I watched a vet take the stage and kill. I laughed so hard that night I cried and I felt better about myself. Then I leveled off. Then I fell. Blood. Soul. Gone.
When I thought about going on stage and trying to make strangers laugh, I had a panic attack. When I was closest to actually doing it, the panic attack was the strongest I had ever felt. I was scared. These guys weren’t a captive audience. They were adults, not kids. They didn’t feel like they needed to laugh to make me feel better or get in my good graces. They wouldn’t care if I bombed or killed. I’d be exposed.
When I thought about standing on that stage, the ghosts of all of my past failures appeared to haunt me. They showed up to remind me of all the things I’ve tried that didn’t work. Shame and guilt and regret. There’s your career. Ah, here’s your marriage. Remember fatherhood? Dating life! Ha! Your audience would swipe left. Look at your clothes. Don’t forget the eye!
I never stood up. It’s easy to be brave when we know we won’t have to face the music. I used to tell students and friends, “I’d beat the brakes off a bear.” That bravado makes sense when no bears are lurking around the corner to check my mouth. The same probably applies to school shootings. I can be as brave as I want when telling my students what to do, but thankfully, I’ve never had to experience it.
You may think it’s tasteless to include school shootings, a Seinfeld show, and my sob story in the same post, but if you’ve been reading what I’ve written so far, you’ll know why this all fits together. There are very real problems I’m trying to overcome in my life including finding the courage to breathe through the anxiety, dismiss the doom, and do what makes me truly happy. When I wrote about existential angst, I mentioned Kierkegaard. I remember telling my seniors about how the angst increases as you get closer to getting to your goal. “Sound familiar,” I asked. They nodded as if Kierkegaard knew exactly how it felt to be close to adulting. When Christians discuss their relationship with God, they talk about the temptation of sin; the farther you get from sin, the more Satan works on you. Even in secular society, we hear about things being “darkest before the dawn.”
When it matters, when it’s significant, when it could possibly change your life, you’re going to have strong emotions. You should. But don’t let the ghosts decide your fate. Whether it’s past failures or successes, move forward and see what happens. And, when you need help, ask for it. You’d be surprised how much your friends and associates want to be there for others. If they don’t, you may want to reconsider that relationship and try to improve it.
Wishing you well as you start the new week. Thanks for reading and, if you’re so inclined, share what you’ve read and comment below.
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