To withstand the 156 mile per hour winds of Category Five hurricanes, homes in South Florida are built with CBS blocks. Even the garages have a lot in common with bomb shelters.
So three of my running buddies and I knew we had our work cut out for us when we were tasked with demolishing a wall 20 feet long by nine feet high. Having more muscles and camaraderie than brains or plans, we cleverly decided that we would take turns whumping the wall with a 16-pound sledgehammer. What could possibly go wrong?
What could possibly go wrong was that 45 minutes later, we would all be so thoroughly exhausted that we couldn’t lift our arms above our heads never mind continue whumping the wall. Each man had taken any number of turns. Each man had whumped until he could no longer whump. We were whumped out. Unlike the wall, we were shattered. My running buddies think little of getting up at oh dark hundred and running 26.2 miles with 20 thousand of their closest friends. But the infamous South Florida heat and humidity, with a little help form a competent builder, had beaten us. We could no longer whump; we could barely stand.
We took a break, acknowledging defeat not being a concept with which we were familiar. Rather than giving any thought to another way of knocking down the wall, we regaled one another with stories of previous marathons over the years. We had all told and heard these same stories any number of times over the decades, but too tired to do anything other than lie on the floor of the garage drained and sweaty we pretended otherwise.
Eventually, somebody found the strength to stand up. He picked up the sledgehammer and gave a half-hearted swing at one of the unyielding CBS blocks.
And the wall fell down.
As a middle school math teacher, I felt frustrated and inept. I had explained that (a + b)2 = a2 + 2 a b + b2 countless times. I had taught the concept every way I knew how. I had conferred with colleagues, read articles in the NCTM publication (yes, we math teachers have our own magazine, wanna make something out of it?) But the children still wrote (a + b)2 = a2 + b2. “Don’t forget the middle terms!” I exhorted. “Two times a times b will be so sad and lonely if you leave them out!” I begged, pleaded, coerced, cajoled, threatened and promised. To no avail. The majority of my 8th grade pre-algebra students still said that (x + 3)2 = x2 + 9 rather than x2 + 6 x + 9.
Despair might be too strong a word, but I opined to my department chair. A patient, brilliant, more experienced teacher, Jerry listened patiently. Then he explained gently: Squaring binomials might be a concept that takes 20 exposures before the kids really get it. Maybe you’re going over the idea for the 12th time. It’s hard to know. Maybe you’re explaining it for the 19th time, with only one more revelation necessary.
I started to feel better about my pedagogy. Don’t lose heart. And don’t give up. You are part of a process that is bigger than yourself.
Johnny has been called a serial relapser. He has enrolled in an outdoor behavioral health program to address his substance use disorder. Eight weeks of individual and group therapy and pooping in the woods didn’t seem to make an impression. As soon as he got out of treatment he was using again. Johnny read Abraham Twerski’s On Addiction. He listened to Kevin McCauley’s Addiction. He has been to expensive rehab. He has lived in a state supported halfway house. His commitment to sobriety could be measured in hours. Johnny has done IOP (Intensive Outpatient) and PHP (Partial Hospitalization) programs. He has been to AA meetings and NA meetings. It seems likely that his substance use disorder has morphed into true addiction, maybe even chemical dependency. Johnny has taken money from the wallets of his grandparents, stolen credit cards from his parents, betrayed the trust of his siblings. At 26 years of age, he had no friends, only folks with whom he did drugs. He has been homeless. He has spent time in jail for selling small quantities of substances and for other crimes stemming from his unconquerable reliance on pot and Xanax and, most recently, opioids.
Fast forward a decade. Johnny has now been clean and sober for 11 years. He works at a program for young adults suffering with S.U.D. “If you can do something that I never did” he tells the clients, “I’ll be surprised.”
What was the final “whump” that allowed Johnny to start working the steps, commit to sobriety? I wouldn’t presume to guess. A concrete wall like a damaged brain only begrudgingly gives up its secrets. I don’t know if it was the 12th exposure to the idea that substances weren’t working for him or the 19th explanation. I do know that with a cinder block wall and a tricky math concept and a young adult who is using substances, the only path forward for parents is to just keep on keeping on. Our beloved children are too precious to do anything other than continue to whump away.
Because the love of a parent will frequently persevere over any concrete wall, a tricky math concept, or a diseased brain.