I started working at a local fast-food chain about two years ago. A year after me, a woman named Shae was hired and later that year so was her sister. That summer, on her first morning back to work after a few weeks off, Shae was found dead of a drug overdose.
Shae’s sister Angela came to work that night; she couldn’t afford not to. Though she’s also faced problems with addiction, she didn’t turn to drugs once while dealing with the loss of her sister. She put on the bravest face she could and didn’t let this tragedy change who she was.
The details of Shae’s life and death struck me differently than stories of people I didn’t know. I knew Shae – I saw her numerous times at work while these things were happening. But I had no idea. I didn’t know her extremely well, but I saw her on a weekly basis, not once thinking that she was struggling in the way she was.
I heard about Melanie though my brother; they’re in the same grade and he suggested that I should ask about an interview. She’s one of the youngest people I’ve interviewed so far; I can’t thank her enough to agreeing to talk about such a difficult topic with somebody she’d never met before. I hope I can find a way to help Melanie going forward. She deserves a bright future.
For anyone seeking professional help, advice, or information, please contact the person below. Bruce is a recovered addict who now works as a recovery coach. He knows how the brains of addicts work and what it takes to get sober. From alcohol to opiates, Bruce is one of the best possible people to turn to. Confidentiality is extremely important to him and he’s willing to accept anybody with open arms. There is not anybody who will be more forthcoming, warm, or helpful.
Bruce D. Stewart Jr.
Angela can be reached at email@example.com. She is more than happy to give advice or listen to anybody.
Addiction is not consistent. It doesn’t always look the same. It’s not confined to one drug, social class, or duration of time. Some people get sober; some people don’t. Some are in an ongoing limbo between sobriety and active use.
Angela’s battle with addiction has been a roller coaster. There have been countless ups and downs. Angela is well aware of the stigma surrounding addiction and she still agreed to put her life on display to help others understand. I can’t express how thankful I am to her for opening my eyes and allowing me to pass these lessons on to others. She’s been so open and raw in sharing her story. I hope viewers can try to keep an open mind about such a tough topic.
Angela made it very clear that she doesn’t want to paint her family members as bad people. The way she speaks of her family is reflective of her views and feelings in the past, not the present. Angela’s relationship with her family has improved and they care about each other very much.
I had Mr. Cassel for three classes throughout my junior year: English, Literature of the Holocaust, and Discussion and Debate. He was different than other teachers I’ve had for two reasons. One was his story – the way he grew up and his openness in sharing it with us. The fact that he didn’t hesitate to tell us about where he came from played a big part in how we viewed him. He showed us that he was human and that he came from a lot less than many of us did. Mr. Cassel grew up with ten siblings, the majority of them adopted.
“Even though I was surrounded by people, it was kinda lonely.”
However, there was a large age gap between his older siblings, his younger siblings, and him. The only one he was close to in age was his sister.
“My sister is my same age but she’s severe special needs. So she was like my closest friend.”
His huge family wasn’t as close-knit as you might imagine. He grew up fairly poor (he still has no problem eating his cereal with water instead of milk). He wasn’t supervised much because of the attention his other siblings required, but he didn’t see that as an excuse to slack off or behave poorly.
“I think I’m most proud that I would fully consider myself someone who is always looking to get better. I would consider myself a self-made person. Not that other people didn’t help, but I’ve always had the internal motivation to get better.”
Following a nasty divorce, he didn’t see his father from the time he was nine until he was seventeen.
“I got my license, and then I drove to the Moorestown Mall, and I bought a t-shirt, and then I drove to his house and knocked on the door. We didn’t really talk about it. I told him I didn’t wanna talk about it. I said whatever it was, it was, and it’s over with.”
He often told us stories about the struggles he faced as a child, but he never seemed bitter or resentful. He spoke highly of his father, despite what had happened when he was young.
“I’m a big believer that holding a grudge is not a good thing. There’s no real reason to. Even all the way up to the point where he died, he was always trying to apologize and I never let him. I always told him he never had to.”
The adversity he faced as a child is the biggest reason that he became the person he is.
“I play a very active role in being a parent. I enjoy spending time with my kids … I always try to make sure that I do the right thing and spend time with them. So I coach all their sports. Even though they sort of don’t understand anything different, so I would probably say my kids take it for granted at this age. But they just assume everybody’s dad’s the coach. And I try to talk to them a lot and tell them about me as a person – good and bad, flaws and things that are good.”
He makes sure his kids get the time and attention he missed out on for a long time. He was able to turn those difficult experiences into something positive for his own kids.
“I will be a successful dad if my kids are good people – whatever that means. It has nothing to do with their careers. It has nothing to do with how much money they make or where they live. But I guess it’s really about how they live their lives. If I’ve done a good job, then they’ll be successful in whatever they do. But I just want them to be really good people – compassionate people for other people.”
While it shaped who he is as a dad, it also put him on the path to becoming a teacher.
“Because I didn’t have a dad for a decade, my teachers and my coaches, my friends’ dads – they all became like pseudo-dads. I always looked at my teachers and they were always smiling. And I thought that would be a great job. And they always seemed like people who I wanted to be like.”
The second reason Mr. Cassel stood out to me is the way he taught. As a student, he’s one of the few teachers I’ve seen who’s aware of the impact he has.
“I am always willing to, figuratively speaking, take the shirt off my back for people. I would go out of my way to make sure I help others. So I guess that’s the core of teaching; that’s what you do as a teacher. But that goes past the school day into my personal life.”
Mr. Cassel’s class came at a time when I needed it most. While a lot of my appreciation for the class came from the material, a lot came from the way he taught us. If I hadn’t had Mr. Cassel for eleventh grade English, I would probably still not know what path I wanted to take in life.
I realized this during a college visit last winter. The speakers talked about the importance of following your heart. They said to start by thinking about the classes you love going to, and figure it out from there. That’s when it became clear that English class was the only one I consistently looked forward to. Mr. Cassel was one of the people who encouraged me and made me truly excited for the future. I was at such a tipping point. If somebody told me that my writing wasn’t good, I probably would have abandoned it completely and pursued the wrong path in life. I know my writing wasn’t the best he’d ever read, but he made me feel like I had potential. Little things – like the comments he left on our essays – made a big difference in my case.
He helped start a fire – a passion for storytelling and creating – something that might be more important than raw talent itself.
To any teachers (or anyone people look up to) reading this: show interest in your students. Talk to them – about them and about you. Encourage them. Tell them when they’re doing a good job. You may not make a huge difference for every single person, but you will make a critical difference for many. We can tell when a teacher loves what they do, and when they just want to get grades in the book. Be the difference between having to go to class and getting to go to class.
“I really care a lot about what I do. A lot. I take it very seriously – not that I can’t laugh at myself – but I take it very seriously because I know how important it is … So I think if I were a chem teacher, or if I taught algebra 2, or if I taught freshman business, I think I would be exactly the same.”
To any students (or anyone who looks up to someone) reading this: if you have a teacher that’s moved you, thank them. Let them know. It’s important for people to hear that they’re doing a good job.
I used to wonder how Mr. Cassel was “just” an English teacher. He seemed so much bigger than what he was; it always seemed to me that he had the potential to be extraordinary.
The longer I was in his class, though, I began to realize that I was wrong. Mr. Cassel loves what he does. He goes out of his way to let people know they’re cared for. He impacts lives every day.
You may not be in the spotlight; you may not receive constant praise and attention. But if you work hard and love what you do, you are unquestionably extraordinary.
As a society, we have a tendency to deny the existence of things that we have not experienced. Jolene is a person who’s gone through things that many haven’t – things many people are lucky enough not to have faced. Jolene spoke to me about multiple struggles she’s faced in her life and I’m fairly certain that most readers won’t entirely be able to relate. Hopefully, her words will shed some light on some issues that society as a whole is largely misinformed about.
“I went into foster care when I was eight and moved in with my grandparents which was called kinship, which is like, you’re a ward of the state but you’re living with your family. And then my grandfather decided that my mom wasn’t getting her act together fast enough because she thought ‘well she’s with family, she’s fine.’ So he thought that putting me into actual foster care would speed her up, make her do the right thing. And it didn’t work. So I was just in foster care for five years. I got adopted when I was thirteen.”
Jolene was shuffled around a lot as a child, never having a safe place or group of people to fall back on.
“It was a great house until I was in trouble and it was basically prison. He was really bad. He was the best dad I ever had – cause I didn’t have solid father figures growing up – until I was in trouble, and then he was a drill sergeant. And the worst drill sergeant on Earth.”
Early childhood trauma, adversity, and abuse have been linked to some personality disorders. Jolene suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder – something that could be a result of her dysfunctional childhood.
“I’ve never really had a solid sense of who I am and I don’t think I ever will, ‘cause that kind of falls under the whole mental illness thing. Personality disorders – you don’t really know who you are, that’s one of the biggest symptoms, is not having a solid sense of who you are. So one day, I think I’m like this nice, great person, and the next day I’m like, ‘no, I’m pure evil and I like it that way.’ And the next day I’m like, ‘I’m a horrible person and I wish I wasn’t’ and the next day I’m like, ‘I guess I’m pretty cool.’ I just never really know. I think I just have to kind of accept that I’m never really gonna have a solid sense of what I am or who I am or… I’m just kind of all over the place all the time. I can’t even say I’m a hyper person ‘cause sometimes I’m not. Can’t say that I’m level-headed ‘cause sometimes I’m not. Can’t say that I’m angry and hateful ‘cause sometimes I’m not. Can’t really pinpoint anything about my personality.”
Jolene was able to escape her past, but this mental illness is something that’s followed her. It’s turned every day into a challenge.
“I have Borderline Personality Disorder. And I don’t talk about it a ton at work because announcing that you have a mental illness is not a great way to get promoted. Depending on who your boss is, I think it could help you though, like, ‘hey, I realize that I have a little bit of an anger issue, but it’s not bad considering how bad it could be. I’m actually working twice as hard to keep myself level-headed at work than someone who doesn’t have a legitimate mental illness.’”
But one thing I’ve always admired about Jolene is her dedication to her work – no matter what it is.
“I know that even if it’s not the highest paying job in the world that I am paid to be there … You know, we’re not paid to stand around, so in our free time, we shouldn’t be standing around joking around. It’s fine if your hands are busy to be having fun, I’m not gonna say ‘cause you’re at work you have to be miserable, but you have to be doing your job … I think the people at work think that I’m a hard worker, I think they kind of think that I’m a little bit bossy, but it’s not… I think my tone of voice kind of makes people think that I’m a lot bossier than I am, it’s really that I just want to see people do better, I want to see people progress, so when I train people, they might think that I’m just telling them what to do, but I’m really just trying to make them do better. ‘Cause people say they want a raise and stuff but don’t really do much to get that raise.”
Jolene got a late start, and it felt as though she would never be able to catch up.
“I’ve been poor my whole life and I didn’t choose to be that way. Because of the circumstances I was given as a child and through my adult years, that’s shaped the fact that I am still not quite poor but not middle class. I’m not massively poor to the point where I don’t know where my food is, but I’m behind on my bills and I work at McDonald’s. Could I go get a better-paying job? Yeah, probably, I could go work at Wawa, or I could go be a bank teller, but my leg’s screwed up, so anything physical like that I can’t really do without extreme pain. Sitting at a desk all day would drive me insane. I’m not qualified for a lot of higher-paying jobs just because of my education. I finished high school but I never got to finish college, and now I’m at a stand-still because I don’t have the time or the money to go finish college.”
She found herself stuck in the same vicious cycle that so many people get trapped in.
“I have to work to make money. I have to pay bills. I have a child and… well then, some people would say ‘well you chose to have a child.’ And what a lot of people aren’t really aware of is that I didn’t. I didn’t choose to have a child. I was with an abusive person who intentionally got me pregnant even though I didn’t want a kid yet.”
Though sometimes it’s difficult, Jolene focuses all of her energy on her daughter’s well-being. She’s never had to worry about her daughter’s safety. She may not have planned on having a child, but Kaylee will always be her top priority.
“She seems happy and healthy, and I know she’s taken care of and I’ve never really been worried about taking care of her because I always handle what she needs first. Even if I don’t get to see her a lot, she’s always safe. She’s either at her grandmother’s or I have her or she’s with her dad. But she always has what she needs… That’s probably the biggest thing is that my daughter’s taken care of even though pretty much everything else in my life is a little not taken care of.”
It’s amazing to see the love and compassion some people are capable of, especially when they haven’t necessarily felt those things themselves.
“That’s my biggest thing, is to not judge anyone on anything. I don’t want my kids to be racist, I don’t want them to be homophobic. I just don’t want my kids to be judgmental but I still want them to be aware. Like, you know, not every drug addict is a bad person but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should be around them. And be accepting of yourself and know that, specifically to Kaylee, I’m going to love her no matter what, no matter what she turns out to be, or what she wants to do with her life – as long as she’s safe and healthy … I would want them to know that they’re loved and to not be judgmental of anyone. That’s pretty much what it breaks down to.”
One of the reasons Jolene is so insistent on raising her daughter to have an open mind is because she knows what could happen if she doesn’t.
“I know for a fact that I still have this mild hint of prejudice against people of a certain skin color, but it’s not intentional. I don’t let it rule my life and I’m not gonna teach it to my kid because I know it’s wrong. Because I was wired that way. So I’m gonna tell Kaylee growing up ‘you can be attracted to whoever you want. You can like whoever you want. You can be friends with anyone.’ I was raised to be… frigging racist. and even though I’m not, there’s still certain things that linger.”
I was really shocked when Jolene shared this with me – not only because I know her so well and would have never expected it, but because I’d never heard somebody be so honest about this. Beliefs that have been ingrained so deeply, no matter how wrong they are, are difficult to overcome.
She’s no stranger to judgment, though. I told her about people I’ve talked to that feel that too many people are taking advantage of the government – relying on financial assistance rather than finding a better source of income – and asked what her message would be to those people.
“People tend to lump people together and say that everyone’s taking advantage of it when we’re not. I get government assistance but it’s really difficult to keep up with. I mean, I get food stamps, but I don’t get them right now because I don’t have the time to go to social services and redo all my paperwork every six months. Everyone can do to a certain extent for themselves, but I think whoever that person was that you talked to probably has a really limited view of the world. Some people, like in my example, I have health problems – physical, mental, and though to some people it may seem like I’m not doing much for myself, I am. Just getting out of bed in the morning is a problem for me. So getting up, going to work, remembering to go to appointments, making the appointments, doing all the paperwork, that’s a lot for someone who isn’t completely in sound health.”
She compared herself to other young people we work with.
“His family let him work a job when he was a young teenager. They let him get a job and they had the financial stability to, you know, let him do his own shit and he had everything that he needed. He started that way. And then there’s people who are given a crap hand and can’t get a good start and just can never really catch up.”
Jolene’s showed me many ways of looking at things that I’d never thought of before. She has a unique perspective because of the places her life has taken her.
I have friends that post on Facebook about how violently depressed they are and then when you reach out to them they ignore you. They don’t really want the help; they just want to whine. But I know there’s people who will say something and they really mean it and nobody reaches out to them. And it’s really sad. I think people have good in their hearts but I don’t think they use it enough. And it might not be entirely their fault, they might be having a lot of stuff going on in their own life that they can’t handle themselves or that they’re trying to figure out themselves or they’re just too busy with work and it gets put off.
Because of her past, she is able to speak to issues that don’t get much attention.
“Mental health care needs to be way better. Dealing with social services, as far as getting help if you’re poor… CPS, that needs to be wildly different. Foster homes need to be checked a lot harder. Parents who should have their kids should have their kids. Parents who shouldn’t have their kids shouldn’t have their kids.”
Jolene didn’t have the most solid, loving foundation growing up. It would be easy to hold onto bitterness from those times and give into the resentment towards those who made her childhood so difficult. However, Jolene puts all efforts into making sure she does the best she can – in her job, taking care of herself, and raising her daughter. She’s truly a person who’s able to overcome her past and recognize her faults, using them as tools to grow.
Growing up, having two grandmothers was always normal to me. I never questioned it or thought of it as unusual. I felt the same unconditional love and support from my grandmothers as I did from all my other grandparents. But as I got older I started to wonder about their pasts. How did it affect my mom and aunt? What was it like coming out, especially decades ago? What type of barriers did they have to break through? I’m so thankful that both of my grandmothers had the courage to pursue the life they dreamed of. I can’t imagine what my family’s lives would be like if they hadn’t. I’m so lucky to have such strong, courageous role models in my life.
I met Jordan at work, assuming he was the usual teenage fast-food employee. He was always smiling and polite, doing all the work he was asked to do. I was shocked when I learned he was part of “the program”: a place that helps young men reintegrate into society after they’ve been convicted of a crime.
“I remember when I was six – and it was so funny that I knew what this was – I was so young. It was probably bad. But these guys are doing this blood handshake, but it was so long. When I sat there looking at them, it felt like it was an hour. But at that time, they had payphones and stuff, so my mom was at the payphone and I’m looking at it. And I’m just like, ‘yo… those guys are doing a gang handshake.’”
Jordan grew up in Trenton with his mother, grandmother, and uncle. Being in that area, there were many things he was exposed to that most children aren’t. Money was always something they worried about.
“The only person working was my mom, and she’s trying to stretch her money across four people.”
At a young age, he had to start helping his mother support an entire household. There was so much pressure to help his family financially; Jordan inevitably slipped into the behaviors he had been surrounded by.
“As I got older, it kind of shifted a lot. I kind of became the head of the household. I started actually working at AMC when I was fifteen, right before I turned sixteen. Started working. You already know my history so… started doing my thing. Hopped off the porch, as we would say. Started selling a little bit of drugs here and there, doing a little paid stuff here and there. But yeah, pretty much started getting money by myself, you know what I mean?”
It’s hard to imagine a fifteen-year-old selling hard drugs, but it’s easy to fall victim to that lifestyle when it’s what you see everywhere, all the time.
“The way I look at Trenton is… it’s like… raw. Raw material. You’re gonna get it just the way it is. As far as people selling drugs, you’re just gonna see it – that’s just what it is. As far as the downtown area, where cops are literally on every single block, people still do it. They don’t care.”
This way of life will always be a part of him, even when he’s far away from the city.
“To me it always seemed normal, you know? Even whenever they have shootouts and stuff like that. It’s to the point that I can’t even really go to sleep unless I hear a little bit of noise – like a TV on, something like that. ‘Cause I don’t do quiet. In my town, there’s cars always driving by … So I’m used to it.”
Despite the challenges, he managed to do very well in school. When he was just in elementary school, he decided to start taking his education seriously. He didn’t want to treat it as a joke like so many around him did. From then on, he got honor roll every year, and was even accepted into multiple programs for exceptional students.
“I’ve always been that person that can get an F in the beginning of the marking period and then average it out later to a B. So I was like, ‘You got this. This is Jordan. Come on.’ And I didn’t have it. It was just going down and down and down and down. So I’m kinda happy that saved me a little bit. I would’ve been dropped out probably.”
In the months before his arrest, Jordan went into a downward spiral. Because his friends often skipped school, he started going less and less. His grades plummeted; he saw himself heading towards the life he had always feared. He admits that a part of him is glad he got caught – otherwise he may have never been taken off that path. Although there were some positives to his arrest, there were many internal struggles he faced as a result.
“I probably would say the biggest, biggest, biggest obstacle I had to face was – I can’t express this enough – the fact that when I got locked up I realized that I could not help my mom anymore … I wanna run. I wanna get away. I just wanna go and help her. But if I do that, I’m gonna make it harder on myself.”
He harbors guilt for another reason as well: since his time in the program, his grandmother has passed away. He realized that he lost time with her because of the trouble he got into. And now, she would never get to see him get out.
“When I was working at AMC I had all these free movie tickets and I was taking these girls; I should’ve been taking my grandma. Or when I was at Wawa … I should’ve brought her a BLT or something.”
What I’ve seen in Jordan is something I never expected. He’s not a dangerous criminal; he wants to make the world better. He doesn’t want to end up as another statistic like so many of his peers have.
“There’s people in my town that die at fourteen. They didn’t even get a glimpse of life yet … I don’t wanna die before I make sure my mom is good. If I die now, she’s gonna be in Trenton for the rest of her life.”
Jordan has one of the biggest, brightest personalities I’ve ever known. He’s someone who constantly looks for ways to make people’s lives easier and to make the world better. He dreams of giving back to the place he grew up in. Growing up, he wasn’t lucky enough to have positive examples to follow; Jordan hopes he can make a difference for those who find themselves in the same position he was in. He wants to be able to give kids from his area the opportunities that he never got.
“There’s so many people that’s made it out of Trenton and never looked back. And I used to always hate that. I’m like ‘damn.’ You never hear about success stories from Trenton, New Jersey.”
Jordan grew up in a household supported solely by his mother, surrounded by people dealing drugs openly on every street. He knew no other lifestyle. When all you see is one city, it’s hard to imagine a world outside of it. I’ve been told countless times not to trust guys from the program because they’re “thugs” who will trick you into believing anything. But when it comes to Jordan, he couldn’t be farther from that. His intentions and heart as genuine, if not more genuine, than the people I talk to every day. He has the potential to move on to better things, leaving people wondering how he ever lived this lifestyle.
Of course not everyone is a diamond in the rough; some people don’t want to change. But Jordan is a perfect example of someone who doesn’t let their past dictate their future. He doesn’t look at this program as a punishment, but as an opportunity to grow. To Jordan, it’s not a temporary setback before returning to his old ways. While he’s in the program he’s working hard to create a future for himself. He’ll do whatever it takes, from moving up in his current job to attending college classes in preparation for future ones. Every day, he moves closer towards his own success – not forgetting his roots, but never letting them hold him back.
“Um babe, are you allowed to bring up, or do you wanna bring up, what happened to your real dad? I mean, because that was part of your childhood. And how that impacted you?”
“Well, I mean, it was but I don’t really remember enough of it to comment a lot on it. I remember a couple of things.”
“But it was traumatic, that you remember sitting on the edge of the bed and you were crying because your dad died and nobody was there to comfort you. So that’s, to me, very significant.”
As I listened to my grandparents’ conversation, I realized for the first time that I had no clue what their lives were like before they were grandparents. Why didn’t I know about this huge defining moment of my grandfathers’ life? I knew him – his personality, mannerisms, likes and dislikes – but I didn’t know who he was before Poppop. I had never thought about how much history was sitting right in front of me.
“I had a good childhood. I grew up in a time when we weren’t distracted by electronics and stuff like that. We would play a lot outside, but we had to make up our own games. We’d play whatever it was – either we’d go out and toss a football or a baseball, or we’d play army, but we had to use our imagination back then. Because we didn’t have any of these electronic tools – we had none of that. So it was basically you entertained yourself and you spent the vast majority of your time, especially when you were out of school for the summer, outside. And was it perfect? No, it wasn’t perfect. Was it good? Yeah, it was good.”
Besides the obvious struggles that came with losing his dad, he remembers his childhood fondly.
“I was a horrible student. I didn’t like school. There were certain teachers that I really really liked. I regret not getting more deeply involved with school work. I think it’s probably hurt me over the years.”
Although he has many happy childhood memories, his memories of school are not great. Growing up in a beach town, he was always by the water – which meant occasionally skipping class to go to the boardwalk.
“But I still think I could have amounted to more, you know? So my school experience was not great, but I don’t blame the teachers or the school for that, I blame me and my attitude for that.”
After school, he went into the military – one step closer to achieving his dream. He remembers being in the military as one of the best times of his life.
“First I went to Massachusetts, and then from there I went over to Japan, and then from there I went to Montana, and then from there I went to Texas, and then from there I got out. That was seven years of active duty, but I had twenty-three years of guard time, too, and we would travel all over the place. And I really loved that – the traveling part.”
Being in this line of work though, he witnessed some difficult things that still affect him today.
In Japan when I was in the military and I worked there from 1968 to 1970, I worked in a… it was called the Casualty Staging Flight, so it was CSF – 20th CSF. And we took care of all the people coming back from Vietnam. And they would come back, and they would be… arms gone, legs gone, tracheotomies, colostomies, blinded – injuries that you couldn’t believe. I mean, I worked there every day for two years, except for my regular days off. And I probably at that time was twenty, maybe twenty-one. So you’d have these burn victims come in and all these tremendously ugly brutal injuries and these guys were sent there from Vietnam and, depending on their injuries, they would either go to a local hospital in Japan or if they were injured bad enough, they would fly them back to the country. And I did that for two years. And it didn’t bother me then, I guess because I was young. But it bothers me today.
His struggle with education didn’t end when his school years did. It was something that seemed to follow him.
“I probably have never shared this with anyone, but when I was in the military, I never felt really smart ‘cause I had quit high school. And one of the guys that I worked with, he asked me about Ho Chi Minh, who was the head of North Vietnam, and I didn’t know who the guy was, and I got so embarrassed by not knowing with the whole Vietnam war going on, that I decided then and there that I was going to get myself educated. And while I was embarrassed, it was what I needed to motivate me to move myself up in life and to get an education. So what was meant for bad actually became good. So, that helped me throughout my life I think.”
He ended up finishing college, finally in a position to carry out his dream of being a State Trooper.
“I knew I wanted to go into the State Police. Myself, my brother, and my cousin, who were all about the same age, were walking down the Parkway down where I grew up. Well, you weren’t allowed to be on the Parkway. And so this trooper came along and stopped, and he chased us off. So, we ran down the hill, and then he left, and then we went back up the hill and started walking again. And he came around again, and he was such a gentleman, and his uniform was so immaculate, and the way he handled us – he could have treated us really badly, but he didn’t. He ended up giving us a ride to where we wanted to go. And I think that made such an impression that I knew at that point, ‘I want to be a New Jersey State Trooper, more than anything in the world.’ So that one experience, that one interaction, had a long-lasting effect. I only wish I knew who it was so I could thank him.”
It’s so interesting to me that he had such a simple dream that meant so much to him; it’s always inspiring to see one come true. Sometimes our dreams are perfectly attainable – not extreme – and that’s okay.
After retiring from the state police, he went into the FBI where he worked with terrorism, drugs, and gangs. Despite the taxing field of work, I don’t think he’s let the job harden him. The love and compassion I see from this tough ex-cop is the purest and realest kind. He wants so deeply for his kids and grandkids to be happy in life; it’s so nice to know that you have somebody rooting for you that hard.
“I want them to be honest, with themselves and with others. I want to tell you and all the others to work hard and eventually the reward will be there. Life is not always easy. You’re gonna have some pitfalls, some downfalls, where you think ‘Gee, is it worth it?’ Well, yeah, it is. Because you’re gonna have those up times and they’re gonna outweigh [the down times]. Eventually, you’re gonna look back in your life and you’re gonna say ‘That was difficult, but I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I overcame it.’ But I guess another part of that would be just to respect others. And expect them to respect you. I guess maybe just being as honest as you can possibly be. There’s an old saying that says ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’, so care about other people. And that doesn’t mean you have to be a person that’s taken advantage of, but to be strong and to know that there are people out there that struggle, that don’t have it as good as them, to have individuality.”
My Poppop has also helped me to break some preconceived stereotypes of my own.
He left this comment on my last post. It may not seem like anything special, but it was one of the most meaningful comments I’ve gotten. In all honesty, I thought he might not want to read an interview about a transgender person because of his religion or political beliefs. He’s proven that just because we hold certain beliefs, we don’t always have to shut out or judge people that don’t. Even grown-ups can change; even people who don’t agree can listen.
I think the main thing my Poppop would want readers to take away from this is the importance of talking to your grandparents. They may seem a lot different, they may repeat stories, they may talk about ‘the good old days’ too much, but they’ve been where we are and where we’ll go. Nobody will admire, support, and love you as unconditionally as your grandparents will. And even though it may seem like a long time ago, they’ve been here and they’ve seen a lot along the way. If you’re as lucky and I am and have grandparents that love you as much as mine do, take a few minutes to call or text them. I know from experience that nobody will be as thankful for that as your grandparents.
Lee is one of the main reasons I started this project. Like I’ve said, I probably couldn’t have done it without encouragement from others. He was always there to listen to me talk about it whether we were driving around aimlessly or in the middle of a rush at work. Not once did he seem uninterested, constantly telling me how good of an idea I had. He’s one of the people that made me truly excited about what I was setting out to do. When I put my plans into action, I started thinking of people I’d like to interview. I realized Lee was perfect. He was such a warm, kind person; he always asked about me and how I was doing. We didn’t talk about him much. He directed such compassion and attention towards others; I had a feeling he knew how it felt not to get those things himself.
“I wish I could tell people more about me. But on the other hand, I don’t know. I don’t think I matter that much, I don’t think I’m worth it, so I just keep to myself.”
Lee was more than happy to let me interview him. The minute we sat down, I realized he had a story that people needed to hear.
“I always wanted to fit in. ‘Cause I was always different. And even though I was a tomboy and I didn’t like girly stuff at all, I always wanted people to be like, ‘That’s a girl.’ You know, labeled. I just wanted to fit in.”
Lee is transgender. It’s not scary. It’s not confusing. It’s not made-up. The body he was born in simply doesn’t match his brain and the way he sees himself. Essentially, someone who is transgender does not conform with the gender expression of the sex they were assigned at birth. While they are labeled as either male or female based on their external anatomy, a variety of internal factors can cause somebody to be transgender. There are many processes that occur before birth involving hormones and brain development that could cause one’s internal sense of self to contradict their physical body. (Click here to learn more about what being transgender means.)
“I always felt left out, ‘cause I felt so not girly and stuff.”
Lee grew up differently than most people do; something was missing. It’s hard for anyone but those who’ve lived it to imagine the struggle he must have gone through. But the confusion of living in the wrong body was just the first roadblock.
“Some people have literally come up to me and been like, ‘Yo, we’re having a bet. Are you a girl or a guy?’”
On top of the normal teenage struggles, Lee had to deal with figuring out who he was – and not in the typical coming-of-age way. At first, he thought he was just gay. He liked girls; maybe that was what made him so different. But years of confusion, conversations, and Youtube videos led him to the missing piece.
“I’m like ‘No, I’m not gay, there’s another word’ – another word to fit who I was, or who I felt as a person.”
He finally figured out why he felt so isolated. His body did not match the person he knew he was inside.
“It came to me coming out a second time.”
Figuring out the problem was just the first bump in the road, though. As he began physical affirmation of his gender, he faced many emotional struggles. Even when he was disrespected by complete strangers, he didn’t have the strongest support system to fall back on.
“Not everyone’s gonna get it, not everyone’s gonna be super accepting. I do have quite a few people in the [LGBTQ+ community] … those people have been pretty accepting. My mom, I live with her, she’s been pretty accepting but she doesn’t really get it. My sister, she’s younger, she’s good with it. My grandmother, I live with her too, she does not accept it. It’s like everything I do, she’s [asked] me, ‘Do you wanna have friends?’ … At work, I told them early on I wanted to be called Lee instead of my whole down on early name. So most people they either know already or they just call me Lee anyway ‘cause they haven’t heard anything else. But they’re pretty cool about it. Some of my close friends – they still slip up every now and then. It’s like, yo, that’s fine. And yeah I correct them but everybody’s doing their own thing. It’s like, you do what you can. And if it really bugs me … I just kind of walk away. I just try to avoid them.”
Even as he begins to clear the emotional hurdles, there are many physical ones that Lee is still facing today.
“There’s this thing called gender dysphoria which is kind of an odd feeling – it’s more than ‘I’m a guy in a girl’s body’; it’s hating different parts of your body because you’re not in the right body, kind of. So it felt good at the same time – getting rid of that heavy weight, that barrier or whatnot – but also it made me point out certain things that I really don’t like about myself, that I wanna change and stuff like that. But that takes time, unfortunately.”
Many of the steps transgender people take to affirm their genders are very costly – the two main ones being hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgery. However, he’s still hopeful that he can take these important steps in the future.
“Everybody who’s transgender goes through their own different path or story, not everyone’s the same … so it’s hard to see what route I wanted to take and the best way to get there.”
Though there have been some bumps in the road, my point in sharing Lee’s story is not to say that he’s had a sad life. Lee’s story is one of triumph and bravery and staying hopeful in the darkest times. Despite the hatred he’s seen, he still manages to put nothing but goodness back into the world.
“Think about what you’re gonna say and what you’re gonna do because everybody’s going through their own thing … I try to be nice to everyone I meet ‘cause you don’t know. You just don’t know. One compliment – one good thing – could lead to another thing.”
All Lee wants is to be the best, truest version of himself. I wish the world wasn’t a place that held good-hearted people like him back because of something so unrelated.
“Honestly, I’d try to put them in my place in a way, but I’d also kind of be like … if you don’t like me or accept what I am, you know, disassociate. Kind of cut it off.”
It’s very easy to say something doesn’t exist just because you haven’t experienced it. I really hope Lee’s story can help people see things from other perspectives and try to keep an open mind. He has received hatred time and time again for things out of his control, yet he still continues to radiate positivity. He respects everybody, even if they don’t respect him. If Lee can do it, I think we can all try a little harder.
I’m so glad that people finally get to hear Lee’s story. I know that it deals with some topics that some may not be familiar with or comfortable talking about, but I hope reading this can change that. It’s so important to educate ourselves about social issues and the people around us. All politics aside, Lee is an amazing person and the world has a lot to learn from people like him.
It’s always bothered me how little I know about the people around me. Their experiences, beliefs, feelings – the things that have built them. For a while it was okay. The usual pleasantries worked, and I had no real reason or idea how to change the way I interacted with people.
When the idea for this project first came to me, there was a handful of people I spoke to about it. In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have gone forward with this if it weren’t for them. The outpouring of encouragement I received early on is what pushed me to keep going. Along with support from those I first told, the willingness of people to let me interview them gave me a motivation I had never felt before.
The idea to interview and write about people came from two places. One was frustration. I was so tired of people failing to see things from more than one angle – myself included. Too often, we shut out anyone or anything that might challenge our own beliefs. The second place was desire. Desire to learn. Desire to tell stories. Desire to change the world, even if in the smallest ways possible.
I’d like to mention that not everyone I interview is perfect. Most of them are far from it. In truth, I disagree with many things I hear. However, I’ve realized that it would be hypocritical not to share everybody’s story. I’ve concluded that I should simply tell the truth. Sometimes it’s ugly; sometimes it’s beautiful. But I truly believe that the people I’ve written about have good in their hearts. Whether we agree on certain things or not, I know they all believe that they’re doing the right thing. I hope that reading their stories can help others choose listening over ignorance.
The people I’ve interviewed have given me hours of their own time to let me do so. They’ve opened their hearts and their minds to me and answered my questions exactly as I’ve asked them to. This is why I’ve decided to tell their truths as they are, regardless of my stance. It’s perfectly okay to disagree as long as we’ve heard each other. Beliefs shouldn’t be set in stone – they should expand and evolve as we educate ourselves further.
I’ve interviewed co-workers, family, teachers, and friends. In the future, I hope to progress to people I don’t know. Each person I’ve met with has significantly influenced my life. At the very least, they’ve taught me new things and helped me grow as a person. I hope that in sharing these stories I’m giving others the opportunity to be impacted in the same way. I don’t think these (extra)ordinary people have gotten enough credit.
Thanks so much for reading! First interview will be up Wednesday. This person means a lot to me and I’m so excited for others to hear his story!