The Acceptable Overdose

Most folks, regardless of religion, don’t encourage binge-drinking on a regular basis. Most of us tend to look askance when a friend habitually runs up credit bills. Overdosing on any substance, illegal or otherwise, is usually cause for serious concern.
Yet, regular binge-watching has become a perfectly acceptable way to pass the time, in Christendom and beyond. In fact, any stigma or shame around the word “binge” has seemingly dissolved to the great delight of Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services to which we subscribe.
Zombie-like he stares at the screen
OH SNAP. NO SHE DI-INT. Ol’ prudeyface Kendra just yanked the plug on the joy cord.

Hah. Oh, dear friend. If only that were true.

If anything, this is a missive to myself on my own habits, an examination of my own penchant for blazing through the latest program on my queue like it’s my full-time job with bennies. I love me a good drama (“Six Feet Under,” “The Wire,” and “13 Reasons Why”), and have been known to drop out of life for the sake of a compelling documentary, e.g. “Making a Murderer.” My attention rapt, I go to sleep hypothesizing about what will happen next and wake up having dreamt about D’Angelo Barksdale and Hannah Baker. But it’s all well and removed from my life and no one gets hurt, right?
Family watching TV on their boat - Fort Lauderdale

The danger of writing about a seemingly innocuous habit, e.g. binge-watching all 7 seasons of “Parks and Rec,” is sounding overly pious and adding more killjoy rhetoric to an already heaping pile of legalism. So few of us respond well to rules for the sake of rules. Change that is sustainable begins in the heart. And as far as binge-watching, my heart is good, right? Who’s saying anything about change? You’re the one titling this post, Kendra. Maybe we don’t agree on the definition of overdose. After all, even Christian publications endorse binge-watching. CT Women recently featured the interview with Andy Couch, “How to Binge-Watch like a Believer.” However, the piece was technology-focused and did not address actual binge-watching. Even Relevant Magazine endorses binge-watching for believers.

And this, I think, is the problem. We have bandied around the term “binge” so freely in recent years that it has lost some of its potency. For example, I expect most of us would be troubled if a friend mentioned that she spent all weekend watching porn. I mean, all weekend. Like, barely slept. Concern for her would abound, surely. But it’s all good in the ‘hood if she spent all weekend watching “Parks and Rec.”

‘What’s happened to the man I married?’

So what you’re saying, Kendra, is that Hard-Core Porn and hard-core watching Amy Poehler are the same thing.

Well, are they?

I heard writer David Dark speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing a couple years ago. Dark, whose writing I admire, said his “guilty pleasure was binge-watching” certain shows. We could unpack what it is to have something that is both pleasurable and guilt-inducing but Dark had done his own unpacking of this paradox. He observed that in his own life, this meant that he was drawn to particular story lines. For example, he wondered aloud, “Is there some unacknowledged despair in my own life that is better articulated in ‘Breaking Bad’?”

That resonated with me. A season of NBC’s “Parenthood,” for example, had once felt eerily pulled from my life’s narrative. It was a balm to watch the show, to see a clean resolution in their stories in contrast to the raggedy edges of my own life.

Dark’s identifying of being drawn to story lines was a great point to begin my own self-examination. What I took from Dark was that we should not deny the inner situation that draws us to certain stories. Whether it’s resonance or total escape from our reality, we should not be afraid to examine the reason for our intake of stories. Because that is, after all, what binge-watching is all about: stories. Whether fact or fiction, whether in short spurts or long-binges, we should not fear walking past a mirror on our lives.

This was incredibly freeing. Especially because we know addictions are often rooted in shame. What good can come of more shame?

I believe Proverbs 4 is not meant to shame us, but to call us to this very kind of freedom. We are exhorted to guard our hearts. Above all else. Above our time, above our physical health, above our money. Maybe this is because, as the verse continues, “everything you do flows from it.” Everything you do is a heart matter. So guard your heart. To me, this is a better petri dish for examining how we spend our time, and how we populate our Netflix queues.

The question is not, how many episodes of “When Calls the Heart” have you watched this week, but how is the calling on your own heart?

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On the first time you learned your student passed away

The Facebook page was eerie, like seeing the faded lettering of an erstwhile business still on the brick storefront. It said, “Remembering Francis Angelo,” and my stomach dropped. I don’t know why this student came across my mind this morning but it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him come up on my feed in recent months. I’d wondered if he had beaten cancer, gotten married, launched his own gubernatorial campaign.

But instead the timeline had ceased and all that was left in its wake were digital artifacts. A video of the thank you speech he gave at a fundraiser his friends must have thrown him before he received his transplant. It was a wonderful speech, casual but sincere-sounding, and then he pivoted and proposed to his girlfriend.

He died just weeks later. He didn’t get to run for office, using his superb writing abilities. He didn’t get to say his vows, in sickness and in health, pinned to all the hopes of  many more years of health with his beloved. I wonder if he got to see his brother come home from the Army before he passed.

I’m sure much has been written and eulogized about Frank already, so I will not heap more platitudes onto the pile. I think the part that feels heaviest to carry, though, is that he was the first student I ever had in the first class I ever taught, and he is now the first student whose death I have learned about. And I learned of his death in such an inorganic way that it was difficult to process. How he was once sitting in my class, reading texts I can no longer remember, but whose Boston accent I surely can, and how he was so young and how this was all so flipping unfair.

As a teacher, you don’t necessarily know your students better than their friends and surely not their parents, but there is something distinct about a teacher’s encounter with the people she teaches. The relationship is an evaluative one, certainly. But it is also one that must be built on trust in order to thrive, to have some measure of success. Simply by virtue of being a student, a student asks of the teacher, Will you treat me fairly, will you challenge me appropriately, will you remember me after the last grades are turned in? In turn, a teacher asks, We are going to read hard texts, will you follow me outside of what is comfortable? Do you respect me enough to listen and receive? Will you remember the things we learn long after the final grades are filed?

I came to know my students in all the ways a teacher does: discussions and tests and groveling e-mails to excuse their tardies. These are not necessarily singular to the profession of teaching, but they are privileges I enjoyed.

I want to dig up a paper Frank wrote and send it to his parents, offer them one more tactile artifact of his originality and accomplishment. But then I remember that they are his parents and their treasures are unique to the unending bond of love they have for their son.

I? Was only his teacher. What I’ve learned over many semesters in college classrooms is that this is sacred, too, in a way that maybe only a teacher can know.

nye desk 2

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The most expensive T-shirt I own

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I didn’t buy this t-shirt nor did it come with a price tag affixed. But I know that it’s the most expensive piece of clothing I own.

I don’t treat it as such. I don’t handle it gingerly, afraid that it might tear at the seams or unravel at the edges. I don’t wash it irregularly so that its painted letters don’t quickly fade. In fact, I wear it often and with pride because, as I mentioned, it is the most valuable piece of clothing I own.

When I was a youth worker for the City of Boston, I served every day at a community center in a neighborhood I had never been to before, not even driven through once. I didn’t know anyone who lived there, in the patchwork of tidy triple-deckers and eateries that ranged from Salvadorean pupusa shops to Italian eateries to Chinese restaurants to Vietnamese pho houses. The neighborhood comprised effectively an island and most of the kids who grew up there knew one another. They confessed they didn’t bother skipping school because someone would see them on the corner and call their mother.

Most of the youth I worked with lived in a housing development complex. I had never visited a housing development, never walked through the block after block of unimaginatively designed structures and marveled at how there was no green space, how there were so many children living throughout the complex and yet there was no space for them to play that was not concrete.

So the kids came to the community center where I was based, where I did a job for which I received no training, in a place I wasn’t so much as even acquainted with, with a population of kids whose lives were unfathomably different than anything I had known. In my arrogance, I thought that I was the good thing that had come their way. A college graduate, a creative program person, a self-proclaimed lover of kids.

I did everything wrong. I presumed when I should have asked. I got angry when I should have laughed. I muscled through on my own when I should have sought help. Most of the programs I ran were a bust. The boys humored me, the girls came and asked me questions about sex. I thought I had what they needed, if I could just organize a better program of activities. If only they would come every day, I could meet their needs. My bosslady was so patient with me. She would say, “The only problem with you is that yaw not from heeyah.” I laughed and only sort of knew what she meant. I started asking a music shop if they would let me take their leftover sample CDs to give away as prizes. The kids started looking at me like a prize dispenser, popping them out like Pez. I made $22,000 a year before taxes. I still thought it was about me.

During an outdoor program I organized, there were a ton of water balloons which, since these were teenagers, became a ton of water buckets filled and thrown. I didn’t have a change of clothes. Someone handed me this Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, one from a stack that were just hanging around in the closet.

By the time I was a year into the job, I knew that I would be getting married, that I would be moving on. I took the LSAT with my co-worker Kamau. We knew we couldn’t stay making the money we were making. We wanted to do the most good.

After I got back from my honeymoon, I started interviewing for other jobs. I had deferred law school but I still wanted get home earlier in the day to spend time with my hew husband. I soon found 9-5 administrative job that I could walk to from our apartment.

On my last day working at the community center, I had not wanted to make a big deal about my departure. I wasn’t sad that I was leaving, but I was sad that I wouldn’t see how the kids would grow. I wouldn’t know who went to college and who had a growth spurt over the summer. I wouldn’t hear their voices change and watch their girlfriends change and offer to drive them home when they didn’t have enough change for the bus fare.

On my last day, only one kid came back to say good-bye. He had been by far one of the hardest kids to reach. He hated school and just wanted to play basketball. He seemed to break one girl’s heart on Monday and have found a new one to break by Tuesday. I didn’t understand his goals; I didn’t understand how I could help him.

But he came back to say good-bye. He sat with me in the office, his pristine baseball hat with the manufacturer’s silver sticker still on the underside of the wide brim. He looked up from under that wide brim and asked me about my plans. I told him I thought I’d probably go back to school so that I could eventually teach. He nodded and bounced a basketball under the table. We hugged it out and he went to go shoot hoops.

Whenever I wear my Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, I think of what it represents. I think how it was handed to me when I had nothing else to wear because I was a pilgrim. I remember how hard it was to earn respect as a pilgrim. I think how I’d never had to learn how to love kids who were hard to love before. I remember how after nearly two years, they returned that love to me. At least one did. He handed it to me like it was a free t-shirt. One that I would be so grateful to receive, one that still makes me feel so privileged and proud, not only because I got to love but was loved well in the end.

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