Crack cocaine will knock you off of your pedestal quicker than anything else on Earth. You’ve heard the expression, “Zero to Hero”; well crack will take you from “Hero to Zero” in a matter of seconds. Once it has you, it will not stop until it has your soul and the journey to hell is one tragedy after another.
When I was in rehab that first time I was battling many demons as the result of my crack use. I had actually only been using for 2 months that first time. It still blows my mind even today, that in a matter of two months I transformed from a law abiding, well respected, hard working, credible human being to pretty much the lowest form of human existence. Some of the synonyms used in the dictionary to describe “existence” are “life, identity, character, being, journey and reality. Before allowing crack to come into my life, I felt I had a very good life. My identity was credible and my character was something I took pride in. I was on a journey to becoming a respected educator with a reputation of being the type of teacher that made kids “want” to come to school. All that changed after crack came into my life.
I once heard that character is what one “is;” reputation is what one is thought to be by others. The demon I was fighting with the most in rehab that first time was that my “reputation” was totally tarnished. I had worked hard to not only appear to be a great husband, father, teacher and human being, but to truly back it up with my character. The ten years before the crack madness began I had established a reputation for being a fun, organized, exemplary teacher. I taught everything grade from 4th to 8th during my ten years in the classroom. Each year I was highly requested by students and parents. The kids loved me and hated it whenever I had to call in sick. Most kids love it when a substitute teacher comes in for a day but my kids hated it. They looked forward to coming to school each day when they knew I was going to be there. During those last three years of teaching 6th grade before the crack began, I only had one area of improvement my principal would tell me on performance reviews. “Mike, your students like you too much.” I could live with that!
The day after I was arrested I had the humiliating task of going to my principal and telling him about my crack use and arrest. Obviously he was shocked but had an obligation to get me out of the classroom. After going before the board of education and superintendents, I was forced to resign instead of being fired. I was very thankful that they thought enough of my reputation and good track record prior to this incident to allow me that option; but it came with certain conditions. Priority #1: Do not tell anyone the real reason you are no longer teaching. The students can’t know. The parents can’t know, and do whatever you have to in order to ensure the media doesn’t find out. I knew they were just trying to protect the reputation of the district and that was perfectly understandable. The problem was, what do I tell my students? They are going to want to know why I am not there anymore. The parents will want to know why the teacher they requested for their child is no longer their teacher. “Can I at least send a note to the kids telling them I am sick and will be gone for a while?” I asked.
They were adamant that I had no communication whatsoever with anyone connected to the school district. For the first few days this was not a major issue; however, after a week went by and the kids had not been told where I was or when I was coming back, the situation became increasingly difficult for me to deal with. I loved those kids as if they were my own. I made it a point each year to personally get to know each child and their parents. I treated them as I would my own children and even gave them my personal cell phone number in case they ever needed me after school. When you build a close relationship like that with twelve year olds, they get pretty upset when you just disappear with no explanation. When I had not communicated with them after a week, they took it upon themselves to find out what was going on. Since I was in rehab I was not allowed to have a cell phone but could take personal calls on the facility phones during certain hours. I later learn that while I was there I had missed over 50 calls on my cell phone, which had been turned off during my stay. All from students or parents. I kept in communication with my family and my principal during my stay and the issue of my kids not knowing where I was or when I was coming back weighed heavy on my mind constantly. I finally talked my principal into telling the students that I was in the hospital but he couldn’t say what for. Once the kids and parents got the word that I was sick, the flowers and gifts began to pour in. Obviously they couldn’t send them to the “hospital” I was really in, so they sent them to my house. Each time my wife came to see me she would bring an arm full of things from “get well soon” cards to fruit baskets. This only made it more difficult for me to deal with.
I had felt helpless at various times in my life, but never as helpless as I did during the 21 days I was in that first rehab. Not being able to tell my kids that I was OK, that I missed them; be good for the substitute; remember all the things I taught you; etc. was far more painful than any physical pain I had ever experienced. I begged my principal every other day to just let me send them a note, telling them I would be OK but he was unyielding. My character was tarnished, but even worse, my reputation was about to be turned upside down.
One of my student’s fathers was a lawyer and decided to take it upon himself to get to the bottom of things. I still don’t know how he did it but he found out the truth. Before long, the whole school learned the real reason Mr. J wasn’t there anymore and why he would never return. Soon after, the local newspaper ran a short article about my arrest for drug possession. All I wanted to do was crawl under a rock and die. I had let them down. I was a hypocrite and my credibility was now, non-existent. For the next few months I was haunted by the fact that I had completely destroyed my reputation and for the rest of their lives, my students would have to deal with the fact that the best teacher they had ever had was a drug addict.
When I was finally released from rehab after 28 days I did my best to avoid any public contact. My biggest fear was that I would run into one of my students at the local grocery store, or even worse, one of their parents. I felt like one of those Hollywood movie starts that have to put on a disguise when they go into public places. I had gone from hero to zero and my existence was now degraded to that of a fraud. Until crack came into my life I had honestly never been in a situation where my character was questioned. Looking back now I can see where I had not only been put on a pedestal by my own kids, my students, and my wife, but also by me. I wasn’t vain or arrogant, but I did gloat at times for being someone that was highly respected and looked up to. They say that pride comes before the fall, and fall I did. My pedestal was very high and when I fell I hit bottom hard and fast. The biggest challenge I would ever face was now before me and in keeping with tradition, I thought I knew best. I had a hard road ahead of me but I honestly believed that my way of dealing with it was better than anything someone else might tell me to do. My first objective was to convince myself that my life wasn’t over. This was the first and most difficult task because I was now in unknown territory and I felt I was there all by myself.