To Improve is to Change

I’m not a bad person – I’ve just done some really bad things.

I was reading an article the other day . . . about me.  It’s rare that I find an article online about me anymore that I haven’t read, but I happened to stumble upon one from KCTV5 in Kansas City posted on March 13, 2012. It was written quite soon after my arrest because the article didn’t publish my name (which is probably why I’d never found it before). “Because the teacher has not been charge,” the article said, “KCTV5 is not publishing his name.” But essentially, the article said the same thing all the others did, with one very significant exception – mentioning something that even I didn’t know.

My story was featured in the Kansas City area news as well as the Wichita news because even though the crime occurred in Wichita while I was teaching at Wichita East High School, at the time of my arrest I was teaching at Eudora High School in Eudora, Kansas; a small town half-an-hour southwest of Kansas City. I liked Eudora. It was a quaint and friendly small town where everyone knew everyone, and seemingly liked everyone. It was only a few minutes outside of Lawrence, the town to which we’d moved after leaving Wichita.

Eudora had become my safe-haven; Eudora was my clean slate; Eudora was my chance to do things right. I’d ruined everything for myself in Wichita, so moving to Lawrence, Kansas and teaching in Eudora was my do-over. And in Eudora, I really was doing it right.

So in this KCTV5 article, the sibling of one of my students at Eudora High School was interviewed and said something that I didn’t know and hadn’t heard. When she was interviewed, she said “a group of students went to the principal on the teacher’s behalf hoping he wouldn’t lose his job over what they believed to be gossip and nothing more.” I was floored when I read this. “Told the principal nothing [was] wrong with him,” she told the reporter, “he was a good teacher and they were just rumors high schoolers started.”

I had no idea this occurred. A group of my students at Eudora High School actually went to the principal and stood-up for me. And for a solid moment after reading that, I felt really good. And then, for a subsequent solid moment, I felt really bad.

The good feeling was a great feeling. It felt amazing to know that I’d had such a positive impact on the lives of these students that they felt the need to step-up and defend me, knowing that I wasn’t the kind of person who could have possibly done the things of which I was accused. And in a way, they were right, sort of.

The bad feeling was a terrible feeling. It felt terrible to know that these students couldn’t possibly believe that I was guilty of doing something that I had most certainly done – so in a way, they were wrong, sort of.

I only remain in contact with one student from Eudora High School, one of my senior English students, a happy and spunky girl named Alisha. Alisha is now a successful young woman and mother, enjoying a successful career and a very happy relationship with an awesome guy, living together in Lawrence.

A little over a year after I came home from prison, Alisha got in touch with me. She told me she’d been trying to track me down for years and was afraid I’d fallen off the face of the planet. One of the first things she did was tell me how much of a positive impact I’d had on her life as a teacher. And  one of the first thing I did was apologize to her, sincerely and profusely.

Here’s the thing: After my arrest, she spoke with a group of students and they all wrote me letters, hoping I was okay and letting me know they didn’t hate me, and mostly stating that they knew I couldn’t possibly be guilty. The letters were mailed to my house in Lawrence and I received them the day we returned to Lawrence from Wichita after my arrest, to move out.

Was I guilty? Well, yes and no.

Yes, I was guilty of having an inappropriate relationship with a student several years prior. But that’s not what the news said at the time. The news – especially in Kansas City (which is the closest metropolitan area to Eudora) – said in their headlines and stories that I was arrested for rape. Well, of course I never raped anyone. But the news networks didn’t care. “Rape” is a much stronger buzz-word than “inappropriate relationship” so that’s the word that got the flashy headline attention.

Anyone who knows me – at all – knows that I simply don’t have the capacity to physically and forcibly rape someone, especially after being a victim of rape myself. But regardless, that was the charge the sleazy Wichita detective slapped on his paperwork, so that’s the charge the media ran with, truth be damned.

During that conversation with Alisha after reestablishing contact, she accepted my apologies after I told her I’d essentially lied to her when we spoke after I received those letters. I told her I just wasn’t prepared to admit what I’d done and I lied to her, and I felt terrible for lying. But she said, “You didn’t lie.” I wasn’t sure what to think of this until she elaborated. “You were accused of rape, and I just knew there was no way you could have done that.” This made much more sense to me. “I know now that things happened, but I also know you would never rape anyone.” And she was right.

So the students in Eudora (for the most part) thought there was no way I was capable of doing such a thing. But then I wondered, What did the students at East think when I was arrested? So I contacted one of the few former students from East with whom I still speak, and sure enough, my suspicion was accurate: When I was arrested, the students at East High (for the most part) thought I was most definitely guilty.

This poses one significant question: Why the discrepancy?

As I’ve written in the past, I see a therapist regularly – an amazing and inspiring old guy with whom I connect very well; we have a great laid-back and brutally honest rapport – we’re like Matt Damon and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Today we were talking about how I enjoyed teaching in Eudora exponentially more than I enjoyed teaching at East because, for some reason, I felt like I was genuinely making a difference in the lives of students in Eudora; not so much at East.

And on some levels, I think I kind of already knew this. For several years, I’ve essentially resented the way the students at East reacted to my arrest, while remaining humbly appreciative of how the students at Eudora reacted (which was, until recently, based solely on the letters Alisha and the other students sent me).

But then, my therapist asked me a question that made me pause and think.

“Do you think,” he said, “if you’d taught with the same passion at East that you taught with in Eudora, would you have made the same choices at East?”

“No,” I said after spending a moment in balanced contemplation. “Because when I was teaching at East, everything was about me.” He nodded as I continued. “I wanted to be the cool teacher, the popular teacher; it was all about my image and my ego.” Teaching at East – teaching at my own alma mater – was fueled by egocentric arrogance. The only reason I was so dynamic and flamboyant was to create the image of the cool and edgy teacher, not to be a genuinely effective educator. And that egocentric outlook was a direct contributing factor to my behavior, seeking out self-aggrandizing pleasures with women I taught with, and eventually, a student.

But when I crossed those tragic lines and had all those affairs, it brought me to a point in life when I knew I needed to change – change everything. So when my family moved to Lawrence and I began teaching in Eudora, I was the same guy, but I was driven by a different passion. Suddenly, I really did want to be a dynamic educator. Suddenly, I really did want to be a positive force in the lives of students – not for me, but for them. Suddenly, I wasn’t trying to hook up with the women I taught with. Suddenly, I wasn’t out partying every weekend.

Suddenly, I was a teacher.

And I think this was directly reflected in how my students and fellow teachers (and even my friends) viewed me. I was the same guy, but I was a completely different teacher. I was the same guy, but I was a completely different husband. I was the same guy, but I was a completely different person.

So it’s not that the East students were petulant brats who hated me without cause, they were merely judging me by the person they perceived me to be, based on who I was (as a person) when I taught there. Thus, the inverse was true at Eudora; they were judging me based on who they perceived me to be as well – the difference being, I was (as a whole) a better person when I taught at Eudora than I was when I taught at East, and that was directly reflected in my teaching, my personality, and my attitude.

It wasn’t the students‘ opinions that differed, it was me who differed – and this is the evidence I’ve always sought. This is my proof to me that I could change, I would change, and I did change.

I really had changed between leaving East and going to Eudora – I really had become a different and better person. Based on who the students at East (for the most part) thought I was, they had no problem believing that I was capable of committing those crimes; based on who the students at Eudora (for the most part) thought I was, they couldn’t possibly believe that I was capable of committing those crimes.

See? Two groups of people perceived me in opposite lights because of their perceptions of the type of person they believed me to be. The students at Wichita East High School thought I was a piece of shit – because frankly, at the time, I was; the students at Eudora High School thought I was a good and decent guy, and a passionate and caring educator – because frankly, at the time, I was.

I’d changed. I really had changed. And the change was on-going. I was slowly but surely becoming the kind of teacher, husband, father, and person I needed to be.

But that all came crashing down when I was arrested on March 9, 2012.

I committed a terrible crime and I needed to be punished. I understand that. And although I am the first to admit that prison changed me for the better, prison wasn’t the reason I changed. I changed because I knew I wanted to change – I knew I needed to change. I didn’t change my life because I “got caught.” The changes in my life began long before that. “Getting caught” didn’t make me want to be a better person – committing those sins in the first place made me want to change.

So I did.
And I still am.
And I will continue to change – to improve – until that cold lonely night when I breathe my last breath.