Mr. Cassel

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.

Jolene

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.