The Elephant in the Room: Letters to Laertes 10

So, gentlemen,
With all my love I do commend me to you:
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you,
God willing, shall not lack. Let us go in together;
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

Hamlet Act I scene 5

My dearest Laertes –

And so, we come to it. The chapter that could be the middle, or the chapter that could be the end. Time will tell. The inclusion of Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5 goes to multiple levels. Hamlet, was after all, my favorite thing in the world to teach. So much confusion is introduced here. So many deep and perplexing questions, that affect almost everything after. Is purgatory real? Do demons exist? Can any ghost be truly helpful, or honest? Can what you know, or think you know…. be trusted. All of these themes plummet to a irrevocable head in 2007. The year that changed everything.

I have never told you this story. You experienced a piece of it, and folklore and hearsay did the rest. I have not pieced together these memories of my life to paint a picture for you of an innocent man. Quite the contrary, Polonius was not chosen at random.

In many ways…. Othello would have also been a good metaphor. A man who loved too well, and became a Turk.

But my intention was never to leave this idea that Not Enough Time meant suicide. No…. I know the difference between Scotch and a Handgun. Obviously, my life does not paint that as anything more than the act of a hypocrite. But the idea Othello is expressing, is so poignantly true. I loved too well. I was too passionate. And if you live a life controlled by your own Pathos, then your Passions will be your undoing.

Lovingly

Polonius

No other question has been asked more of me than, “why don’t you teach anymore?”

I have never publicly told the entire story. Am I Othello, taking by the neck the past Turk, and killing him? Perhaps. I am trying to own my past. Own my choices. And tell the tale of the road that they have paved.

That is not possible without dealing with…

The Elephant in the Room

Some observations before we begin.

  • A plea bargain is synonymous with guilt. You are pleading guilty at the exchange of the prosecution’s benevolence.
  • If you enter a plea agreement, there is no trial. You never face a jury, you have already plead guilty.
  • Justice in America is all too often synonymous with power/ money. It is unfortunate, but that is the case. It is almost impossible to have a discussion of Justice, on any level, without very quickly getting to the underlying issues of what make the process unjust. If you cannot pay to fight, and keep fighting, at a higher level than your opponent, you will lose. Most of the time. Look around.
  • Therefore, “justice” becomes a cost benefit analysis.
  • Police reports are not complete stories. Think of all the times in your life you have said, or heard, well, there is always another side to the story. In criminal justice, the accused has that opportunity at trial. If there is never a trial, then that story is never completed. It is assumed to be true and/ or complete.
  • Police reports are padded. Think of arresting somebody a bit like a shotgun. You have to get them, guilty, on something. So you shoot for the moon, knowing that the stack is intimidating. It is a whole different ballgame to put your life in the hands of a jury with one argument than with trying to defend off a volley of shots.

Therefore – if a person is accused of a crime and arrested, that police report is a collection of the complaint, photos, etc that prove the Plaintiff’s case. Not the defendant’s. The police are not there to defend the accused. That is their lawyer’s job – if you can afford to pay them and if you are willing to accept the risks.

Final Observation. I am guilty. This is not some veiled attempt at rationalization or justification. I did something wrong, and there were consequences.

Too often in my life, I have been told that I play the victim card. It can be quite frustrating, because offering reasons for why things happened is not the same as excusing those things. Really, when it comes down to it, the words we use matter. But is an incredibly revealing coordinating conjuntion. Most of the time, you can just ignore whatever statement immediately precedes it. That has been my folly. So rather than begin this story with what will be construed wrongly, allow me to begin as a teacher. Teaching Charles Dickens.

The Chain

I have thought about Nature vs. Nurture many times in my life. What makes us who we are? The concept comes up over and over again in the analysis of criminals, or psychopaths, or deviants…. but it is really applicable to everyone. So, if a person talks about abuse during their childhood, that discussion does not have to be read as a scapegoat. It can simply be a link in the chain.

I guess when I got in trouble in September of 2007 my first reaction was to think in “but” statements. Thoughts like, “but my Dad would have never been out of prison” were continually running through my head. That statement bears heavy pondering. What is it actually saying? That I was able to perpetuate violence because I was acted on with violence. It shifts blame. But, if one is a student of Dickens, the blame never shifts. The chain is firmly wrapped and laced on the one who forged it. But the links…. came from somewhere. For me, one of the final things to finally break down in the 13 years that have passed since, was the fact that I never stopped the forging of new links.

Long before I went to jail, I left a bruise on a child. I justified it by the fact that I had had bruises. Many abusers do the same – this is why we have a cycle of violence. Long before I went to jail, I lashed out in anger and frustration when I felt overwhelmed by it. Sometimes, that lashing out hurt people. I justified it that I was simply an actor in my environment, not a willing contributor. And nothing changed.

Even after I got in trouble, using fear and intimidation became second nature, and those antics hurt and scared people. In fact, going to jail did not solve the problem. It made it worse for a considerable period of time. I talked at length to my Papa, who was still alive, on The Porch of All Conversations about violence and why I felt it. Why I could not control it. He told me a story about when he was a captain on the Tucson fire department. A superior had put my grandfather’s team at risk, and my Papa put him against the wall, called him a son of a bitch, and told him from then on he would refer to him as “Mr. Clark“. I idealized my Papa. And the cycle just keeps going.

For me, that pause came on September 7, 2007, and the chain became visible. Each link, hardened in the crucible and added to the weight, was obvious, right there in front of me. But I spent years simply explaining the chain, instead of getting the damn thing off.

Later, sitting in my attorney’s office, I would read the transcript of the Grand Jury on my case. After reading the police report, one juror said, “This man is a monster. They need to lock him up and throw away the key.” That quote haunts me.

The Environment

It is interesting how long, and how hard, we will fight for the wrong things. So many domestic disputes can be summed up this way. When we sink to the level of being able to treat loved ones like enemies, when our first instinct is to inflict harm, there is a problem. But so many of us I think convince ourselves that our escalation is going to convince them. Convince them of what?

Forever – is not forever

I was a culprit of that exact problem. Eventually you are living in an environment you would have never chosen for yourself, you are angry and you are frustrated, but you are coping with those emotions in all of the wrong ways and justifying your own righteous anger. At least that is the way it was for me; to my own detriment.

In April of 2007, Karla and I took our debate team to Phoenix to compete in the State National Qualifying Tournament. My life – partner and I were on the ropes, and had been for some time. Things were bad. On that trip, one of my debaters got incredibly ill, and I made a run to a nearby Walgreens to get some medicine. When I got to the counter all of my cards had been turned off, and I was stranded. Karla went back, got the medicine, and paid for the rest of the weekend.

When we arrived back at Blue Ridge in Pinetop, my brand-new truck had been severely vandalized. Bitch was spray painted across the hood and carved in with a knife. The tires had been slashed. Paint had been thrown or sprayed over every single body panel of the truck.

My first thought, was that my girlfriend had done it.

BTW….. new stuff is on the way. Follow Moons, Birds & Monsters !

She had not, it was actually some local neighbor kids who were angry that my step-son and I were on to them about some local poisoning of dogs. Several dogs in our neighborhood had been poisoned with Anti-Freeze. My son knew it, and they were kids that often bullied him at school. But they did not come to mind first. My girlfriend, who I fought with almost constantly was. And that is telling.

June/July 2007. Summer break. I did not work in the summers. I trained sled dogs, and was working on my MA in Creative Writing, the thesis of which was a completed novel. This thesis would become my first book, Grave Whispers, Black Bed Sheet Books, currently out of print. But that summer I was writing it, and my girlfriend had three kids. When my son was home, it was four kids and me, and a dog team. All day every day. Most of the time…. it was fantastic.

But, my oldest step kid was going to be a Freshman. He was that tween age, that weird time of awkward like a cat that isn’t a kitten but isn’t an adult and just looks kinda alien. Yeah, that is what it is to be a freshman. I had always thought I would be an awesome dad of teenagers. I mean, I had teaching down. I was finding out, with speed and abandon, that these were not at all the same things.

Or so I thought.

He would be the tallest kid in the Freshman class that Fall. Almost 6’3″ at 15. I am 5’11”. (Not an excuse, just a comparison.) He was also addicted, but highly allergic, to processed sugars. We had found out about it over the last six months or so, as his behavior had become increasingly erratic. We immediately removed sweets from his diet, the house, and tried to work on healthy habits. And the dishonesty started. My middle step son ratted his brother out, and we found his secret stash in the woods under a crevice in a rock. Whole sheet cakes he had shoplifted from Safeway. Donuts. Candy Bars. And bugs. Lots of bugs. We threw away his stash. The problem persisted. We kept finding hidden sweets everywhere, and there seemed to be nothing we could do to get him to stop.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend told me a story about when she was growing up in Louisiana and Texas. Her grandparents had raised her for most of her teens, and one time, when she had gotten particularly obstinate about cleaning her room, her grandfather took all of her stuff. Everything. Furniture and all, and put it on the front lawn. She had to bring it in, and put it away, one item at a time. It took her most of the night. She never had a problem again.

Subpoint. Alcoholism is bad. There are very few things that will sink a relationship of any kind faster than the abuse of alcohol.

September 2007. My girlfriend was an alcoholic. The extent of which I was not aware of at the time. A thirty pack of Bud Light in the trunk a day for work kind of alcoholic. By September 7th….. the kids and I had not seen her in almost four days. Nobody was sleeping well. Everyone was worried. Stress was going haywire. I had this woman’s children, three of them. I had no idea what to do.

We had been doing laundry. Folding the clothes in the living room, and then dispersing the clothing to the rooms to be put away. The boys room was an absolute pig sty, as usual. They had been told they had to clean it after laundry. It was disgusting. Meanwhile, I went down the hall to put a pile of my laundry away in my top drawer.

We had taken to hiding a few sweets in our bedroom, as the oldest would find sugar anywhere. The snack bars that had been hidden there were gone. And everything came thundering to a rupturous head all at once, and I bellowed for my step son to get to his room. He was already there, and I met him at the corner between our bedrooms at the end of the hall.

I backed him back into the bedroom. Toys were everywhere. Clothing was not put away. The beds were complete rat’s nests. And ants. Ants were climbing up and down the walls in perfect soldiered rows to get under the oldest’s bed and between his mattresses.

A previous student of mine wrote a great song that everybody should have on speed dial when the blood boils. I did not.

Follow Charles Ellsworth

The Crime

With eyes that I am sure terrified a young teenager, I turned on my stepson in rage as he was making a break for the door. The wrapper of the snack bar was stuffed haphazzardly, probably in haste, in his back pocket, and as wirey and fast as a tall, lanky teen boy could be, I caught him at the door.

The cycle of violence must be broken. I know what fight or flight is. I know it directly. I have only been in a few fist fights in my entire life. One of them was with my stepfather. I landed one punch. As hard as I could into his gut when I was fifteen or sixteen. I was terrified, but he never touched me violently ever again. And he never went to jail.

The point is….. when my step son whirled on me with a balled up fist, I should have known him. I should have seen him. My heart should have melted. It didn’t.

I blocked his clumsy haymaker, and before I knew it my fist balled up and was propelling towards my son’s face. Visions of my own son’s birth flashed before my eyes:

Someday, someone will lash out, and hurt this face. Ball their fist into a ball, and slam it. Bones will crack and the blood will pour. Someday, someone will willingly cause this perfect innocent pain. And I will want to kill them.

The Best Laid Plans

But I could not stop what I was doing, and realize what I was doing, all at the same time. I managed to almost flatten my fist into a slap. Almost. He rushed me and we tussled, but the entire thing was over in less than fifteen seconds. I felt horrible. We were both in tears. Not that I was not still angry. Absolutely not. Ants were marching all up and down the walls of my boys’ bedroom. I was furious. But I was in shock over what I had done.

The younger children were out in the living room, my own biological son Aidan as well. And I could not even look at myself. But the room needed to be cleaned, completely, before the kids could go to bed. I pulled the ant covered mattresses outside onto the front yard, and the other mattresses in the living room.

“Can we make a fort out of them, Daddy?” my son asked.

“Of course. But I need you guys to stay out here and play. I am very sorry for getting so angry, but the room is gross.”

And the three younger children played in the living room, while the oldest and I put every single item in that room out the large bedroom window or walked it outside on to the front lawn. Just like his absent mother had told me to do.

By the end of it, he and I were laughing. It was nervous, and not good, but it was not rage. It was not wrath. He placed everything back into the room. It was perfect.

And I spent the night out looking for my drunk girlfriend on some lost highway while my eldest step son babysat his sleeping siblings.

I did not find her. But she returned home the next day.

I explained everything. So did the boy. I thought we were good, and although she was very upset with me, she was not more upset with me than I was with myself.

She sent me to the dump in Show Low to get rid of all the bedroom garbage.

When I returned I was placed in handcuffs on my front lawn, read my Moranda rights, placed under arrest, and taken to Pinetop Lakeside jail.

After they interviewed me, where the very naive and scared previous version of myself truthfully recounted everything they asked me, I was charged with three felonies. Class Two Child Abuse. Class Four Domestic Violence. And Class Six Criminal Damage.

I was transferred to Holbrook jail that night.

I have never taught English or been allowed to help with Speech and Debate, again.

My Debt to Society

I went to Holbrook Jail for 5 and a half days. I eventually took a plea that combined all of my felonies into one. A Class 6 Open Domestic Violence. In Arizona, after three years, a class six becomes a misdemeanor. But teaching, ever again…. is a totally different story.

Some notes from a regular dude who went to jail.

Memorize your important phone numbers. In this day and age, most of our contacts are on speed dial in our phones. The cops take your phone. And no, you cannot check your contacts to get your phone call. The only phone number I knew was my assistant coach, Karla. It took her five days to find my mother.

If you were corrective lenses, especially if they are daily wear disposables, they will not give you a case. They will not give you saline. Eventually, I was given two small dixie cups with some saline, but by the second night they were toast. My lenses are -9.5 and -10.5. I was blind in jail.

The currency of jail, at least in the general population in rural Arizona, was Spades. The card game. And I had spent a lot of time making really good friends with the people down on Troost Avenue in Kansas City. My cell mate was Navajo. He found out very quickly that I could play Spades. And we never lost the table.

On the second day, I found out I never wanted to play basketball with the blacks and the Navajos. I could not hang, and there were no refs. But inside, four guys were trying to study for their GED. I eavesdropped on them as they sat trying to learn coordinating conjunctions. You know me…. I never shut up.

“Fanboys, and you will never forget them.”

What, White Boy! What did you say?” The tallest of the group started to rise. He reminded me of my younger brother who rode with the Hells Angels. He also never went to jail.

But I had been to Troost Avenue. I had mastered rooms of teenagers. “Sit the fuck down,” I said. “For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. There are seven coordinating conjunctions in the English language. Only seven. Fanboys.”

And for the rest of my time, I was protected by the Navajos, and I taught people. Not prisoners. Not felons. Not the guilty. People. I taught them English.

When I got out, the entire cell block chanted in unison, “The teach got out. The teach got out!”

I am a teacher.

The End

Letters to Laertes

Prologue

Broken Summers

Fishers of Men

By the Time I Get to Arizona

The Apostate

The Best Laid Plans

The Death of Heroes

O Captain, My Captain

Harvard & The Bone Violin

Dogma

The Elephant in the Room