Monday, May 15, 2017

Someone Has To Be A Bad Example

Last week, a  female student (let's call her Tootie) at College Park High School in The Woodlands, Texas was arrested for possessing and allegedly threatening to disseminate the photos another girl (we shall call her Eloise), also a student at College Park.  As a result, Tootie could have been charged with a felony for possessing child pornography because Eloise is 17 and a minor.  However,"because of the growing trend of young people in Texas taking and sharing nude photos – sometimes without the consent of the person depicted in the photo – state lawmakers in 2011 created a misdemeanor charge called 'electronic transmission of certain visual material depicting minor,' or 'sexting,'"  of Tootie faces the Class B misdemeanor charge of electronic transmission of certain visual material depicting minor. The misdemeanor charge carries the possibility of up to six months in jail and a possible $2,000 fine if convicted.  I have no doubt that there was the usual victim shaming saying that Eloise either took, or allowed others to take the pictures, so she shouldn't be complaining abut some one sending them out. Then there are others that want to form a posse and distribute some good ol' fashioned frontier justice at the end of a rope.  Some sit back and pretend not to care, and others that tote the company line saying, "we need to let the investigation play out."  As for me, I want the investigators to be aggressive, but objective.  I want no stone left unturned, and no loop hole left open, no witness left silent.  In the end, if the allegations prove to be true, then I would like to see the case brought to court, prosecuted, and if convicted, Tootie  should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.  I'm talking about throwing the book at her, locking her up and throwing away the key, and letting her sit in jail for the entirety of her sentence.

Now there are those out there that may think I am too strict, harsh, or mean. That a harsh consequence would ruin the Tootie's life. That she just made a mistake That she didn't know what she was doing. It was just the one time. She's just a kid. It'll never happen again, cross her heart and hope to die and pinkie swear.  Okay, so what?  Many in society, especially those of us that have lost a loved one to bullying and harassment are sick and  tired of the same old excuses.  We are tired of seeing children buried and families torn apart while the bully gets a slap on the wrist, or less.  We are tired of seeing our child blamed for what happened to them.  We are tired of watching a tormentor walk free while we have only memories left to cling to.  We are tired of school administrators, police, and prosecutors not doing the job that our tax dollars pay them to do.  We are tired of seeing those same people take the path of least resistance rather than putting themselves on the line for the one's that can no longer speak for themselves.  Many will tell me they are sorry about my son, and that what happened to him should not happen to anyone, that some one should have to pay, but in the same breath tell me that Tootie should not have to be the one to suffer.

There are those that may ask "Why Tootie? Why make an example out of her?"  To that I reply, "Why not.  Some one has to be the example, so it might as well be Tootie." I am not talking about putting her head on a pike, or clapping her in the stocks, or even a public flogging.  I just want people to know that this type of behavior is harmful to people, and if you choose to partake, then there are consequences involved.  "But this is her first offense, " or perhaps it is just the first time that she was caught.  "But why Tootie? She has such a bright future in front of her.' So did Peyton, and Issac and David and so many others before people like Tootie and her ilk took it upon themselves to ruin their lives. Was Tootie sure that when she began her torment she checked to make sure that Eloise wasn't dealing with a mental health issue.  Because if she did, she might also realize that 90% of people that complete suicide are dealing with an underlying mental health issue, and that on average about 1 in 5 teens deal with some sort of mental health issue.  I am sure that those who hope for a lighter sentence feel that, "If Tootie gets probation, then she promises never ever to do it again,"  But I think that after six months behind bars, and two grand lighter in the wallet, Tootie would really think twice about threatening to send out some one's naked picture in a group text.

I am sure there are the bleeding hearts out there that don't want to see poor Tootie do any time in lock up or have to pay a penny out of pocket.  After all, she just made one little mistake, and she shouldn't have to pay for it with her future.  I guess Tootie should have thought about that before she held Eloise hostage with the threat to release the picture.  Eventually Tootie did send the picture to two male students. I am sure the bleeding hearts are thinking, "It's just one little picture, and she only sent it to two boys."  Just take a step back.  Did those two boys share it with any one?  Did they show the picture to others, or did they share the picture with others?  I don't care if they said they didn't, teens lie to save themselves all the time.  How do they know that right now, some 45 year old troll living in his mother's basement in New Jersey isn't enjoying that picture?  What if it was your daughter, or sister, or even you that the troll is thinking about?  Does that change your opinion? I guarantee that if it was my daughter's picture, I would be pushing for the felony charge, and not a misdemeanor, and the safest place for Tootie would be jail.

Eloisie, if you took the picture, or allowed it to be taken, don't think you are off the hook either.  If you did indeed take the picture, or allowed the picture to be taken, then you, my dear, are a dumbass. Seriously, what the hell were you thinking?  Did you take it for the special boy in your life?  Big mistake.  Do not trust a teenage boy, or any male of the human species. They will lie to you to get what they want, promise that it will be a special secret for just the two of you, and then brag to anyone they can find about what they did, and there is a good chance they will embellish what happened to look that much better in the eyes of their friends. Then they will send it to every one of his slimy little friends that asks for it to God only knows what as they stare at it.   Or maybe, you and your friends were playing around and thought it would be funny.  The picture was taken with the promise that it would be deleted, but oops, some one forgot to delete it, and the next thing you know, the picture is making its way around the world. You have to remember dear Eloise that in today's digital age, nothing is every really gone, and the delete button may not save you.

Tootie will appear in court for arraignment on May 31, 2017.  Let us hope that the judge, the District Attorney and all those involved decide that the time has come to hold Tootie accountable.  After all, someone has to be a bad example.

Author's Note- Last week people around the world were stunned and horrified by the story of eight year old Gabriel Taye of Cincinnati.  Gabriel took his life two days after another student, slammed him into a wall and knocked him unconscious then proceeded to dance around as though he scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.  The school district never bothered to tell his mother the truth until AFTER the police investigated.  The time to hold the bullies, and if necessary, their parents, and in this case, the school accountable has come.  For too long, too many have turned a blind eye to this, and the time of reckoning has come.  Sorry Tootie.  

Monday, May 8, 2017

Reasons Why I Watched 13 Reasons Why

I hope you're ready, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. - Hannah Baker, 13 Reasons Why

I watch Netflix, a lot.  I first began shortly after I married Lisa so we could watch Friday Night Lights without me having to ask who each character was.  Over time, I used to watch the occasional movie, and then I began to binge whole seasons of Breaking Bad, and I was hooked.  I was a Netflix junkie when I discovered Orange Is The New Black.  Then came Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Even now I get excited thinking about The Defenders.  Yep, I'm hooked.

My wife will tell you that I waste a lot of time investing in characters like Walter White, Jessie Pinkman, and Saul Goodman; however, I feel it is time well spent.  

When looking for a new series to invest, or waste, my time in, I came across the trailer for a new Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why.  When I realized that the series was about a young girl that takes her life it piqued my interest.  When I heard it proclaim that Selena Gomez was the executive producer, I took pause.  My only true recollection of her work was one of the typical Disney shows where the adults are all idiots, the kids are all smartasses, and the script seems to be written by a room full of chimps banging away on keyboards when they take a break from throwing their feces at each other.  When I thought about watching 13 Reasons Why, all I could picture was the After School Specials from the 70's.  I was even prepared for Scott Baio and Kristy McNichol to play the concerned parents, and Kirk Cameron to play the hip, but understanding, teacher.  However, after the series dropped and positive reviews started to come in, especially from my students, I decided spend some time watching at least the first few episodes.  

The first episode piqued my interest.  It take place at the fictional Liberty High School, and was filled with the stereotypes that one would expect to find in a show about high school. You have the arrogant jocks, dumb jocks, and quiet sensitive jocks.  You have the nerdy kid who likes science fiction and rides his bike everywhere.  You have the high achieving Asian student.  You have the angry, heavily tattooed student who administers sage advice.  You have the rebellious, yet sensitive, bad boy with a cop for a father.  You have the openly gay intellectual.  You have the creepy stalker with the camera. You have the Yoda-esque hoodlum from the wrong side of the tracks. You have the weaselly  principal more concerned with the school's reputation.  You have the clueless, coddling parents, teachers, and counselors.  And of course you have the pretty girl from the good family whose suicide is the focal point of the series.  

It took several episodes for the show to really get going, but once it did, I was in for the long run and finished the series.  While I will never say 13 Reasons Why is a great show, it does carry a powerful message.  Yes, there are some substantial issues with the show, but you can read about them here, here, and here.  I am not here to talk about the problems, but to applaud the show itself.  For all of the faults within the show itself, the one thing that stands out to me is that it had the balls, gumption, wherewithal, and nerve to tackle an issue that far too many in our society still consider a taboo subject.  

The series revolves around Clay Jensen, the aforementioned bike riding nerd who receives 13 audio cassettes recorded by the now deceased Hannah Cook.  Each of the tapes is dedicated to one of the students that have led Hannah to take her life.  There is the typical teen angst, but also sexual harassment, bullying, and cyber bullying, homosexuality, drug and alcohol abuse, and even rape.  The kids are kids, they are nice to each other when they need something, they treat each other like sh*t when they don't, and are more interested in saving their own asses when ever the situation calls for it.  

Clay relives the pivotal moments of Hannah's last few months through her narration. He discovers just how horribly his classmates treat each other, but especially Hannah.  How an innocent date with a boy turns Hannah into a slut. How the law of unintended consequences applies to an act of revenge towards another student and brings Hannah unwanted attention and harassment.  How stress at home took it's toll on Hannah.  How rejection and betrayal sent Hannah even further down the rabbit hole. How those that are there to protect failed Hannah, and how one person, enabled by status and money, could commit an act so heinous that became the breaking point for Hannah.  

Clay's anger toward the others on the tapes grows and festers as he wants justice brought for Hannah, but the others try and try to cover up, get their stories straight, and hide the truth. Even the depiction of Hannah slitting her wrists is deemed "too graphic" by some.  I'm sorry, but at what point did running a razor down your wrists become and object d'art?  If she had used a shot gun, or hung herself, it would have been just as bad.  

While it is true that there were several swings and misses, mainly the absence of any issues of mention of mental health issues that factor into 90% of all suicides. 13 Reasons Why touches on several key factors such as the overwhelming stress kids feel today in school. How the desire to fit in and belong can outweigh every other aspect of a child's life.  How repeated cruelty and rejection can push a person over the edge.  How bottled up feelings can cause so much pain that the person feels no other recourse but to take the final step.  Even how schools slathering the walls with suicide prevention posters AFTER a suicide is about as worthless as travel brochures in a coffin.  Some schools have even gone as far as to forbid students from talking about 13 Reasons Why at school.  

Despite all the negatives, there are some positives that come along with the series.  First and foremost, it has people talking, especially its intended audience, teens.  As I go through social media, I see entry after entry regarding 13 Reasons Why, and see real conversations coming from it.  Kids are openly and honestly discussing their problems and issues openly. Michigan's Oxford High School is setting up their 13 Reasons Why Not program in order to open up and shed a light on suicide and mental health issues.  All of these are good and needed.  

If you have read any of my blogs, you know that I advocate for education and awareness for suicide awareness and prevention.  Sadly, it was Netflix, and not schools or parents that stepped up and took the lead.  For good or bad, 13 Reasons Why was needed as suicide moved up to the  #2 cause of death for 13-24 year olds in our country.  So the decision is yours dear reader.  You can choose to watch 13 Reasons Why and be offended or enlightened, but the decision will be yours.  But please, form an opinion and put that opinion out there for others to see.  Perhaps by voicing your opinion, some one might feel compelled to talk about their problems, and get the help they need.  These are the reasons why I watched 13 Reasons Why.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Principal Lied As Peyton Died

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.  Those who can't teach, counsel.  
Those who  can't counsel, administrate."- Matt Groenig, School Is Hell

On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son came home from his day of classes at Forbes Middle School in Georgetown, Texas, went to his room and hung himself.  Five days later on October 13th, he passed away from his injuries. Peyton's suicide was not the result of any one thing, but a lethal combination of many.  He had been bullied relentlessly throughout his time in school.  He had ADHD which made it hard for him to concentrate in class.  He also dealt with depression and anxiety.  All of this combined made it difficult for him to cope with life.

The day before he hung himself, Peyton had reported another student at the school for harassing him. Peyton was sitting in the cafeteria before school and reading a book, allegedly (legal word there), a student had approached Peyton and told him that he was stupid for reading.  Peyton, never one to back down from an argument refused to give in, and was told that he was stupid for going to church and believing in Christ.  After having enough of this less than civil discourse, Peyton went to the office to report this student. Unfortunately, he was relatively new to the school, and (supposedly) because of the angles of the cameras in the cafeteria, the administration told Peyton that they were not able to identify the student in question.  For a student that had been harassed by others for everything from his red hair to his teeth, this event helped put him over the top.

During the five days that Peyton battled for his life, I sat next to his bed in the hospital wanting to find the student who harassed him, drag him out of class, and proceed to kick his ass from one end of the school to the other, and then back again.  After Peyton's death, but before his funeral, I had several days alone to think about the situation.  I thought about the student and if he knew he had played a role in my son's death, and if he knew, how was he dealing with it?  In the "Let's pretend suicide only happens in other places" world of public education, there was a good chance this child, if unknown, could  be wandering the halls with the soul crushing guilt of being responsible for the death of another human being.  After the funeral, I contacted Peyton's principal asking if they had identified the student that had harassed Peyton.  My hope was that they had, and were getting him the help that he would need in the upcoming days, weeks, and months.  Sadly, I was told no, as was Peyton's mother when she went in to collect his belongings.

For the last two and a half years, I, as well as Peyton's mother, have worried about this anonymous child.  She actually works in the high school that child would be attending.  Imagine her telling the class about Peyton and what happened to him, while that child sat in the class.  You would think that Peyton's principal would tell the high school principal about this student, but based upon what I discovered, it doesn't seem like that would have happened.  

One night, as I was sitting in my Survivors of Suicide meeting, we began talking about how our loved one's death were handled by the police and other authorities.  Some of the members talked about how they have never looked at the coroner's report of the death certificate even though they have had them for several years.  I began to think.  I had the death certificate from Travis County that clearly listed the cause of death as suicide, but I had never seen the police report.  The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see the report, so I went online and requested a copy of the report from the Georgetown Police Department.  

Once my request was received, I was contacted by a representative of the police who questioned whether I really wanted to see this.  Although I knew it would be painful, I had to see it, so it was eventually emailed to me.  It showed up in my email in the morning.  I was alone in the coaches office. I downloaded the file to my laptop, nervously opened it and began to read.  

The report was very clinical, unbiased and straightforward.  As I went from page to page, I didn't discover any new revelations until I got to page 8 of the report.  It was there that the narrative took a dramatic turn.  As I stated before, both Peyton's mother and I were under the impression that the student who harassed Peyton had never been found, but according to the investigator, "[the principal] stated that he was able to identify the student and spoke with him about the incident. [the principal] stated that the child claimed that he was not making fun of Peyton`s religion and that they were having a discussion about religion that turned into an argument but they both walked away from the discussion."  

I was stunned, flabbergasted, flummoxed.  I sat there staring at the screen reading that line over and over hoping that I had read it wrong.  I even called Peyton's mother to check and make sure that the principal had told us the same thing, that we had both been told by the principal that he had never identified the child in question.  Now I know we had both been lied to by the very person that we had entrusted with our son.  The person that was supposed to act in the best interest of my son, and every other child that walked through the doors of that school, was nothing more than a lying sack of sh*t.  A man so unwilling to risk his job or show a backbone that he took path of least resistance by taking the word of the bully over the student that had been victimized. Because after all, it was easier to close the door and put this whole ugly incident behind him.

I was, and still am, pissed off.  How could this a$$hole allow us to believe a lie all this time?  Yes, I wanted to kick his ass for lying to me, for allowing me to suffer for this time.  I wanted to take legal action against him and the district for this and make them pay out the ass for what they had done to us, but the statute of limitations had expired.  I wanted to call the district superintendent to let him know what kind of person they had working for them, but by this time, the principal had retired, so once again, there was nothing I could do.  

So that brings me to the present.  I am left with no discourse except to tell Peyton's story, and to help others learn from my story.  To those out there whose children are being bullied and harassed at school, hold the administrators accountable.  Too often I have heard stories of school districts that are more concerned with public perception than the truth.  It is easier to shame and blame the victim than to hold the guilty accountable.  Because bullying can carry criminal charges, administrators and districts try their best not to present it as bullying so that it doesn't show up on a police blotter, and the public perception of the school and the district are not tarnished.  

In my home state of Texas, the law states, "Texas Educ. Code § 37.001 Texas defines bullying as any written, verbal or physical act that physically harms a student or damages a student's property, or that creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment." Further more, according to Sec. 37.0832. BULLYING PREVENTION POLICIES AND PROCEDURES. (a) In this section, "bullying" means, subject to Subsection (b), engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the district and that:
(1) has the effect or will have the effect of physically harming a student, damaging a student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or of damage to the student's property; or (2) is sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student.
(b) Conduct described by Subsection (a) is considered bullying if that conduct: (1) exploits an imbalance of power between the student perpetrator and the student victim through written or verbal expression or physical conduct; and (2) interferes with a student's education or substantially disrupts the operation of a school.

Obviously Peyton felt strongly enough that what had happened that day fit the parameters of bullying and harrassment that he felt it was necessary to turn to the principal hoping that he would be able to escape the harassment and bullying that had followed him from school to school.  Unfortunately, he turned to a man at the end of his career that, in my opinion, was just hanging on for his retirement by avoiding conflict and doing as little to rock the boat as possible. A man willing to take the word of a child that purposely harrassed a total stranger in the cafeteria for reading a book.  This was a man who regarded my son's death as an inconvenience such as one would regard a mosquito in the bedroom at night. 

One of the main criticisms of the bullying law in Texas was by administrators claiming that it would create more paper work for them, and perhaps he didn't relish the thought of actually having to his job that day.  Sadly, when the law was enacted in 2011, it gave each district the latitude to enact their own code provided it aligned with state standards,  Some schools went above and beyond, while others did the bare minimum necessary to get by, and even though they had adopted policies, they chose, and still choose, to avoid enforcing them at all costs.  

As the school year begins to wind down, I can't help but think about all the students who have had to endure bullying day after day.  How many of them turned to the people that were supposed to help them in a time of need only to be ignored or told its just part of being a kid?  How many students faked illness or just skipped to avoid yet another day of name calling, punching, or tripping?  How many parents have pulled their children out of schools because it was easier for the administration to shame the victim than follow the law?  How many parents had to bury their child because they could no longer deal with the idea of yet another day of abuse?  How many administrators continue to lead ineffectively, yet still keep their job because they are able to produce high test scores and low police reports?  `How many more families will have their lives destroyed because it meant too much paper work to actually deal with the real problem?  If the answer is even one, then that is too damn many. 

Author's Note:  Last night, after getting home from my Survivors of Suicide Meeting, I was putting my keys and wallet on my dresser, and I looked at  Peyton's urn sitting in front of me. As I am staring at the only remnant of my son, there is a former principal out there enjoying his retirement. He either lied to grieving parents or the police to save his ass and preserve his retirement.  I hope his sleep was better than mine.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

To The Students Of Pearland High School:

“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

To The Students Of Pearland High School:

I heard of your loss , and it breaks my heart.  I didn't know Hannah, but from all accounts, she was an amazing person, that she possessed multiple talents, was kind and generous with others, and beloved by those that knew her.  Not only did you lose a friend and classmate, but you lost her in a way that leaves you questioning your own mortality.

On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son Peyton came home from school, went in his bedroom, and hung himself.  Five days later, he passed away as a result of his injuries. I have been in your shoes, and although I can't say I know exactly what you are going through, but I can empathize with your current situation.

Hannah's suicide left many of you in a fog, a state of bewilderment and confusion.  If she had died in a car crash or of cancer, you would still mourn her loss, but at least have an answer as to the "Why?" which is gnawing at you right now.  Why would a beautiful young lady who seemed to have it all choose to take her life?  What hope do I have if some one like Hannah chooses to take her life? Unfortunately, you may never have the answer to these questions, but don't despair.

The first thing you need to understand is that suicide was Hannah's choice.  It was probably not a choice that came quickly or easily, nor was it a rational choice.  The choice to take one's own life is generally brought about by a pain that few can imagine.  A pain that is not a physical pain, but an emotional pain. A pain that convinces a person that they are a worthless burden to those around them. A pain that convinced Hannah that what she was doing would be appreciated by those she left behind.  A pain that slowly breaks a person down to the point that they see death as the only escape. A pain that robs a person of their own self worth.  A pain that leaves some one as a shell of the person they once were.  Worst of all, it is a pain that a person is adept at hiding from others.

When you first heard about Hannah's death, you were shocked.  You thought that some one was playing the sickest, most twisted joke you have ever heard.   While some of you are obviously distraught, others are angry at her for leaving you.  You may be asking "How could she do something so stupid?" or "How could her parents have let this happen?"  Maybe you blame yourself thinking "If only I had paid more attention to her, " or "I should have known."  Maybe you are anxious and thinking, “If she could get upset enough to kill herself, maybe the same thing will happen to me (or one of my friends).” Those closest to her might may find it almost impossible to return to a normal routine, and may even resent those who appear to be having fun. They may feel empty, lost, totally disconnected. They may become obsessed with keeping the memory of their friend alive. No matter what you are feeling, I want you to know it is okay.  You are allowed to feel how you feel.  You are allowed to be angry, or burst out in tears, or blame some, or yell and scream if need be.  If you need to talk to some one, then find some one to talk to.  There are people there for you, and will continue to be there for you. Whatever you do, do not keep your thoughts and emotions bottled up.  There is no set time limit on your grief, and we each deal with grief differently.

I know some of you feel let down right now by the very people you felt you could turn to you.  You asked to honor Hannah in the yearbook.  That is an honorable request, but supposedly "The teacher told her, you know, no we can't do that because of the way Hannah passed."  According to her sister, Holleigh, "This administration tells us that they won't make this page because they think that if children see it, then it will urge them to do the same thing, and I completely disagree with that." While it seems as though they don't, the administration does have your best interests at heart.  They are responsible to each and every one of you, and want to protect you.  They are afraid of suicide clusters, or contagions.  While these clusters exist, so does the fact that talking about suicide does not make a child suicidal, but instead, allows the outlet for those who have already thought about it to talk about it and know they are not alone.  I have been a teacher and coach for 26 years, and have seen schools handle suicide with everything from ignoring it to victim shaming, so please respect their wishes and give them time.  Let them talk to the family and who ever else they need to.  In time, I am sure that after weighing all of their options,  a decision will be made that works best for all.

Finally, I want to let you know that things will get better.  I know right now it is hard to believe.  Just over a week ago, you were ten feet tall and bullet proof, the masters of your domain, and ready to take one the world  Now, faced with the true fragility of human life.   You are scared at having to realize that you are not immortal.  Given time, you will begin to feel better.  It will not be easy, and you may even feel guilty, even ashamed, for feeling better, but if Hannah is the person that people have described, it is what she would want.  You never have to let her out of your heart, but you do need to go on.

In the days, weeks, and months to come, I ask that you please take care of yourself.  Know that there are people out there that care and want to help.  Take life one day at a time.  Remember to eat, to exercise, to talk to others, and to take care of yourself.  Keep Hannah and her family in your heart. They will need your strength.  Take them a casserole, send them a card or a plant, or write them a letter telling them how much Hannah meant to you.  Don't forget Hannah, ever, but what ever you do, keep going.  God bless.


David James
The Peyton Heart Project

Monday, March 6, 2017

Sh*t Gets Real In The 'Burbs

I live in the suburbs, the final battleground of the American dream, where people get married and have kids and try to scratch out a happy life for themselves. -Harlan Coben

My wife and I live in the suburbs.  Yes, our house and neighborhood might conform to what people would call cookie cutter.  Yes, beige is a predominant color in our neighborhood.  Yes, our choice in restaurants and shopping is relatively limited to the same chains as every other cookie cutter suburb throughout the country.  Yes, we have an abundance of SUV's and minivans driving cautiously through our streets as they look for young children on their bikes and scooter  in prerequisite helmets. On the other hand, we also have some of the best schools in the state.  We have more square footage for our money.  We have well manicured lawns in the summer and pissing contests with Christmas lights in the winter.  We have high achieving kids we are proud of, even if they drive golf carts recklessly, occasionally rearrange the letters on the signs in the neighborhood, and experiment with profanity at the park.

Unfortunately, last week the sh*t got real last week in our little slice of the 'burbs.  For me, it was another Wednesday morning.  I woke up hating the idea of going to work, showered, dressed, poured my coffee, grabbed my lunch, and slouched out the door.  As I pulled up to the stop sign to the entrance to my neighborhood, I looked to my left to see a sheriff's deputy go flying by with no lights or sirens.  My first thought was, "Asshole!  Doesn't he know this is a residential neighborhood?  Kids are walking to the bus stops, and God knows they aren't paying attention!"  As I drove, the newon the radio talked about an officer involved shooting at a residence in Montgomery County. In my drowsiness, I didn't connect the shooting to the deputy's speeding car.

When I arrived at work, I received a text from my wife if I knew anything about the shooting in our neighborhood.  I didn't, but turned to the internet for answers.  I browsed the websites for the local network news stations and found what I was looking for.  Just a few blocks away, while we were all snuggled soundly in our beds, one of our local residents stabbed his wife to death.  Deputies arrived and found his 11 year old son at the front door covered in his mother's blood.  The father was found in the bedroom and was shot to death after lunging at deputies after refusing their orders to drop the knife.

In that instant, our idyllic lives were shattered.  We had gone from silently cursing our neighbors for not brining in their trashcans to worrying about what was going on behind their closed doors.    The street that had at one time been filled with mothers pushing infants in strollers and children taking advantage of incline to gain speed on skateboards was now clogged by police cars, news vans and curious onlookers.  Reporters interviewed neighbors, family, and friends who all told of a dedicated father, loving mother, and shock and surprise that some one in our neighborhood was capable of such a horrific crime.  This was the type of crime we heard about on the evening news and then made sure our doors were locked.  Crimes like this were one of the reasons we chose a longer commute and dinner at Chili's.

The response of the community was amazing.  GoFundMe pages were started, meals were cooked, collections taken, and some one even contacted the Buffalo Bills (the young boy played for the Bills in the local Pop Warner league).  Flowers, balloons, candles, and stuffed animals were left in the yard as a make-shift memorial.  On the neighborhood Facebook page, people rallied to help and offer their services, and to not make mention of the incident for fear that either the 11 year old or his brother might stumble upon them.  Normally when I publish my blog, I post the link to that particular page, but this time, I will not.  However, that won't keep my from asking just what the hell happened that night behind those closed doors?

As stated earlier, this is not something that is supposed to happen in upper middle class neighborhoods.  This is something that is supposed to happen to crystal meth tweakers in trailer parks on the seedy part of town.  Now it is a reality for many who would prefer it not be, and it must be addressed and talked about, the 800 pound gorilla so to speak.  Why would a seemingly happy man kill his wife and then lunge with a knife toward heavily armed deputies (in Texas no less)?
This same man had earlier written an eight page letter to his sons detailing what was to be done with the house, the cars, and the money.  It was as though he knew that night would be his last.
Were his acts rational?  No, they were the acts of a person losing a battle within their own mind.  A rational person doesn't kill his wife.  Had the pain been bad enough that he wanted to end it for her as well as himself?  Perhaps.Does a rational person lunge toward gun bearing police while holding a knife? After all, if you lunge with a knife at an officer in Texas, there is a good chance you are going to come out on the losing end.   Did he want to spare his wife from what was going to happen? Perhaps.  Then why spare his son?  Why did this happen at all?

Now we are left to question the actions of a man no longer able to defend or define them.  We are left trying to explain to our children what had happened, and why the man who had waved from his driveway, as well as his wife, was never coming back. Why the comfort and security that we had abandoned trendy restaurants and chic boutiques for was no longer there.  Why we now want to know where they are going, what they will be doing, and most import, who will be there. We will not wave at a neighbor again without wondering what goes on when the door is shut or we are all nestled snug in our beds.  We won't watch another soccer mom in a minivan go by without wondering if she is hiding a dark secret.  But then again, that is what happens when sh*t gets real in the 'burbs.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Austin's Magical Secret Garden

There is a secret garden where miracles and magic abound, and its available to anyone who makes the choice to visit there. - Dr. Wayne W. Dwyer, "I Can See Clearly Now"

Tucked off of Barbara Jordan Boulevard in Austin is the Ronald McDonald House.  For most people the image of Ronald McDonald musters images of the clown who serves as the spokesperson for the McDonald's restaurant chain. Hundreds of people drive past the House every day, rarely give any thought to the people, that are at that moment, calling it home.  The families of children, from birth through 21 years of age (or 18, depending on the House), who are being treated at nearby hospitals and medical facilities, are eligible. Twenty eight months ago, my wife, daughter, and I called the House home for three of the longest days of our lives, while across the parking lot, Peyton fought a losing battle for his life in the PICU at Dell Children's Medical Center.

The House itself looks like a small mid-priced hotel.  The rooms each have a sitting area, a bathroom, and a bedroom.  There is a common area with dining tables and a kitchen.  The kitchen is available for all to use, but at least two times a day, a stream of volunteers come in and prepare simple meals for the residents.  A play room contains a variety of toys to entertain, or distract, brothers and sisters. Outside, there is a play set to help kids burn off energy and stress, benches to sit and relax, a grill, even a putting green.  There are statues donated in memory of loved ones sitting among the landscaping. Among the various plants, what would appear to be nothing more than ordinary bull rock used for landscaping across the state.  Upon closer inspection, each of the rocks has the name of a child, but not just any child.  The rocks memorialize a child that passed away while their family was staying at the House.  Each rock is made by a local stone mason who donates his time and materials.

Nestled among those rocks is one that reads "Peyton J".  This is Peyton's rock, and because he was cremated, it is the closest thing I have to a gravestone.   I first laid eyes on it two years ago when we traveled to the State Swimming and Diving Championships held every year in Austin.  We thought it would be a nice to have the swimmers pay a visit and donate some toiletries I had collected.  While they were taking a tour of the house, I walked outside and found Peyton's rock.  I knew it was there, but I didn't know what to expect.  It sat among the Madison's, John's, Sarah's, Bobby's, and Baby Boy Smith's. I slowly approached and knelt down while my heart did a Neil Peart drum solo in my chest. When my fingers touched the rock, my eyes filled with tears and I sobbed uncontrollably as snot bubbles ran from my nose.  I talked to the rock telling it how sorry I was that I had failed him, how disappointed he must have been in me as a father, that I would still trade places with him to let him live his once promising life, and begging his forgiveness for my short comings as a father.

After ten or so minutes, I pried myself away from the rock, dried my eyes on my sleeve, put on my sun glasses to hide my cryin' eyes, and headed back in to the House to collect the swimmers and head to the hotel to prepare for a weekend of action at the pool.

Over the years, this is a ritual I have repeated every time I visit the Austin.  I try to make a delivery of toiletries to the House to justify my presence.  I search the garden, find the rock, kneel down and lose my shit for the duration of the visit.  it is a cathartic and cleansing ritual for me.  Because Peyton was cremated, it is the closest thing (in addition to a tree planted in his honor at his former school in Round Rock), that I have.  I can kneel down, talk to him, hold the stone, and enjoy the quiet and beauty of the garden around me, even if just for a few minutes.

Compared to the rest of the state of Texas, Austin is a freak show.  Not in a bad way, but it is different.  Where as most of the state is known as a bastion for conservative values, Austin tips heavily liberal.  While Dallas strives to be sophisticated, Austin prides itself on keeping weird. Houston is known for fine dining, but Austin for its food trucks.  San Antonio prides itself on its Hispanic heritage, but Austin is the cultural diversity capital.  From food, to architecture, to music, to the people, Austin stands out, and is a great place to live and visit.  However, for me, the number one attraction is the unassuming building on Barbara Jordan Boulevard that is home to Austin's Magical Secret Garden.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Red Headed Nerds Are Everywhere

WARNING:Before anyone gets butt hurt about the title, please continue to read this post as it relates to the title.  

nerd : An individual persecuted for his superior skills or intellect, most often by people who fear and envy him. -Urban Dictionary

Eventually, the nerds and the geeks will have their day. -Judd Apatow

This past Thursday, we hosted a track meet at College Park High School.  It was a practice meet, no places kept, no medals awarded, and the only thing that truly mattered to the coaches were the times and distances as we prepare for our first meet this coming week.  As the meet came to its last event, we shuffled runners on and off the track so that we could finish up, get inside, and get warm.  As I looked up to check the lanes, I couldn't help but notice one young man.  He was tall and gangly with a distance runner's physique, but what really stood out what his red hair and freckles.  Not only did he have the same haircut as Peyton used to sport, but he looked enough like Peyton that I had to take off my glasses, rub my eyes, and do a double take.  Needless to say, it wasn't Peyton.  Peyton has been dead for almost two and a half years, but none the less, the resemblance was shocking.  

Flash forward to yesterday.  Lisa and I took Emmy down to Houston for one of her former classmate Ally's birthday party.  For the uninitiated, the birthday party of a five year old is a blend of the various action scenes from the Mad Max/Road Warrior films. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Thunderdome is relatively tranquil compared to sugared up five  year olds.  Now add in that it was not just a party for Ally, but also her seven year old brother Greg, and you have the makings of pure pandemonium.  Mixed in among the mob was another little red headed boy. Not only was he similar in appearance, but also actions to Peyton.  At one point, he had taken off his shoes to test the strength of some dead reeds in order to poke at the koi in a fish pond with a stick.  Again, I was reminded of my son, but at a younger age.  

These two cases of deja vu truly got me to thinking about all the other red headed kids I have seen since Peyton's death.  They never seem to be in possession of a comb, thus leading to an unruly mop upon their head, like Peyton.  The cavalier attitude of adventure over their own safety was too, like Peyton.  The fact that they are all arms and legs, lacking in grace and athleticism reminds me of, you guessed it, Peyton.  Never mind the fact that they all seemed to be lovable nerds, like Peyton.  

I have no doubt that there are graceful red heads that can dunk a basketball after taking off from the free throw line, throw a slider that never fails to catch the corner of the plate, repeatedly make acrobatic catches in the end zone, or who have never seen an episode of Dr. Who or The Walking Dead.  Just like I have no doubt there are red heads who possess the grace of a Baryshnikov, the hair of a Clooney or Pitt, even the complexion of Kutcher or Reynolds.  However, it never fails that every red head I see never fails to remind me of Peyton.  

Maybe its because I miss him so damn much.  Maybe because he should be walking the halls of a high school right now.  Maybe because whenever I see the trailer for the latest Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, or Harry Potter spinoff, I want to call him so he can watch it, call me back and discuss it.  Maybe it is because I will be heading to Austin this week for the state swim meet for the fifth straight year, and I will pass all of the landmarks that he used to point of every time we passed them.  But whatever the reason is, it seems that all the red heads I see are all goofy, gangly, nerdy kids like Peyton.  

Perhaps it is meant to be this way.  Maybe all of these kids are reminders of just how truly special Peyton truly was.  How not every one is meant to be a star athlete, or smooth with the ladies, or even able to dazzle socially.  Maybe we need to be reminded of that despite being far from perfect, there are people out there that will capture our hearts with their awkwardness and quirks.  

Next time I am out and about, walking through the halls at school, or even braving the savagery of a children's birthday party, and I see a red head step and throw with the same arm and leg, choose not to play tag because he wants to finish a chapter, or even get soaked falling into a fish pond, I will think to myself that red headed nerds are everywhere, and for that I thank God.