Change the World

Thursday—6:03 AM (CDT): On the Tarmac
I literally made my flight with 40 seconds to spare (thanks to the long TSA line.) And now I’m sitting in the best row of coach — that first row behind First Class, the row with the extra leg room. Score!

I am flying from here to Denver, then on to Phoenix for my first major public appearance. I am speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of Teacher Certification tomorrow. So today is a travel day, today is a preparatory day, today is a day to be nervous.

I’m not nervous about speaking. I’m not nervous about the questions I’m going to get during the Q&A session at the end of my speech.

Thursday—6:52AM (CDT): Somewhere over Kansas
I haven’t flown alone since I was 18. I always fly with my wife. We always travel together. I miss her already. We travel quite a bit together, so it just feels weird being on a plane sitting next to someone I don’t know (who, in this case, is a very nice old lady reading a book on her smartphone.

I’m listening to Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on my iPhone.

It was followed by the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” which is, coincidentally, my ringtone whenever my wife calls.

I miss her already.

I suppose the truth is this: I have no idea what I’m in store for over the next two days. I was really hoping to have at least one speech done before this, and I had one scheduled until the Wichita Eagle did a front-page feature about me and my first speech was canceled as a result of the backlash of people who didn’t think it was appropriate for a teacher who broke the law to impress upon future teachers about not breaking the law.

The logic of people — I swear.

People even tried to have tomorrow’s conference speech canceled for the same reason, but the person who asked me to speak stood his ground and kept me scheduled.

It feels like people don’t want to solve the problem. It feels like people don’t even want to talk about it. And it certainly feels like people don’t want the brutal truth.

But I’ll talk about it because this is my cause. This is my purpose. I can make a difference — I know I can, no matter how much hate the naysayers spout.

As I stood in the terminal with my wife before making my way up the escalator toward the TSA area, I hugged her tight and gave her a kiss.

“Well,” I said, “it’s time to go change the world.”

Delusions of grandeur? Perhaps. But maybe I’ll change the world for just one person, and I’ll never know anything about it. And all this will be worth it.

Thursday—7:22AM (MDT): Denver Airport – Terminal B
I seriously don’t understand why people are in such a hurry to board a plane. I’m sitting here in a comfy padded chair in the terminal outside Gate B38, and people seem to be chomping at the bit to get on the plane as soon as their “Group Number” is called. But why? Why would they be in a hurry to rush into the airplane and sit in a confined space, in a less-comfortable chair, when everyone’s seats are reserved? It’s not like they are going to get a seat upgrade if they’re on the plane earlier. Shit, people. This isn’t a General Admission event! Simmer down.

Hurry up and wait, I guess.

Although it’s still strange to be traveling without my wife, it’s nice to be in an area full of people where no one knows me. People walk by me like I’m no one, and it’s nice. I don’t worry about people I know seeing me; I don’t worry about people walking by and noticing me, it’s so nice to be anonymous. Every once in a while, I’ll see someone I know, and I never quite know what they’re thinking (unless they talk to me, in which case the interactions have always been positive); every once in a while, someone will recognize me after seeing the front page story in the Wichita Eagle newspaper about me, my book, and my speeches.

No one at the Phoenix hotel where I’m staying (also where the conference is being held) will know who I am, until after I speak.

Thursday—7:53AM (MDT): On the Plane, in the Middle
On the tarmac, once again. This is a first: I’ve never had the middle seat. Somehow, in all the years I’ve flown, I’ve always had Window or Aisle. Middle. New experience.

What’s the social convention regarding traveling alone? I remember Edward Norton’s character talking about “Single-Serving Friends” in the movie Fight Club (though I can’t remember if that was in the book too). Here it is…

It’s been my experience that people (for the most part) tend to avoid being assholes, so I’m not really worried about it, but still. Maybe it’s like being on an elevator where everyone just keeps to themselves. Or maybe it’s like sitting at a bar where a little chit-chat is acceptable and often expects. Regardless, I’m a social club chameleon so I’m fine either way.

This is United Flight #237.
37 is my lucky number.
This is a good omen.

Departing Denver. En route to Phoenix.

Thursday—8:27AM (MST): Death Over the Mountains
Damn, I’m sleepy. My original plan for this flight was to read my own book (as somewhat of a preparatory measure for my speech tomorrow). But honestly, waking up at 4:30 this morning has caught up to me. So instead, I’m listening to my favorite book on Audible and, of course, writing.

I’m listening to the unabridged audiobook of Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman. I’ve read the book numerous times but failed to bring it with me. So, I’m listening to it. Neither of my Single-Serving friends has struck-up a conversation, so I’m leaning toward the elevator theory of demeanor. Maybe it differs based on the time of day. Maybe it differs based on whether or not I’m in First Class or Coach. Or maybe it’s me.

Killing Yourself to Live is a book about “a cross-country death trip based on a newspaper article.”

The Single-Serving Friend to my left is giving me a funny look because I’m drinking Mott’s Tomato Juice straight from the can; he ordered a “sparkling water.”

The book I’m listening to is a book about a cross-country journey where the author, Chuck Klosterman, visits placed across the country with rock & roll-related deaths, trying to find out why rock stars become more famous after they die.

I’m not famous. People who don’t know me and who I don’t know, know who I am; but I’m not famous — infamous maybe, but not famous. And I never will be. And I’m fine with that. I don’t want to be famous; I want to be impactful. I don’t care about recognition; I care about the significance of what I say. I’ve met dozens of “famous” people in my life, and I’m not one of them. Just because I’ve stood on a stage, signed autographs, and posed for pictures with people I don’t know, doesn’t make me famous; it just means I’ve done something people recognize. But I try to frame it in a manner that people recognize the message, not the messenger; the speech, not the speaker. Because it’s not about me, and I won’t become more famous after I die (unless, of course, I die colorfully).

Thursday—9:41AM (MST): Descending into Phoenix
For the first time, I just now got really nervous about my speech. The reality of the whole thing kind of hit me as we started our descent into Phoenix. Not sure why; nothing specific came to mind. It just kind of all-of-a-sudden “got real.”


Thursday—11:13AM (MST): Thin Air and Heavy Thoughts
I got lucky…

After the Uber driver dropped me off at this lavish hotel in downtown Phoenix, I made my way to the desk and spoke with a girl who clearly hated her job. She was trying so hard to be nice and sweet, but she clearly loathed her occupation. Okay, whatever. I just hoped I wasn’t too early.

I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, coast-to-coast, and more often than not, if I (or we, since my wife is usually with me) arrive at the hotel before noon, we typically have to wait to check-in. However, today I walked in before 10AM and my room was ready. Excellent. First order of business: Run. As soon as I unpacked my things onto the bed in the double room I won’t be using, I changed into my running garb and went straight to the fitness center. As an avid runner, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to do a solid tempo run on the treadmill while at a higher altitude, seeing as how I’m surrounded by mountains. However, it wasn’t as difficult on my lungs as I’d originally anticipated. I found this odd, considering I’m surrounded by mountains. Well, as it turns out, Phoenix is actually over 200 feet lower than Wichita. Who knew? Phoenix is in a valley surrounded by mountains, but not in the mountains. Oh well, it was still a solid run.

So, now what? Maybe I’ll go for a walk. Maybe I’ll see what’s within walking distance in downtown Phoenix.

I’m hungry.

Thursday—1:09PM (MST): Hard Rock, Soft Salmon
As it turns out, the Phoenix Hard Rock Cafe is within walking distance of my hotel. And ever since I stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, I’ve always liked that place. I stopped in for lunch and ate the best salmon I’ve had in a long time. But it also gave me a chance to sit and reflect. Sitting at a table in a restaurant alone and eating alone, sipping water alone — it tends to prompt a certain amount of personal reflection. I reflected on where I was (sitting in a restaurant, preparing to return to my hotel to prepare for my speech the following day). I reflected on where I could have been (teaching in a classroom, enjoying the feeling of molding the future of America) if I hadn’t ruined everything with my shitty choices. But as I sat, eating that amazing salmon, something occurred to me: This speech (and the speeches to follow) could (and hopefully will) be something that protects the future of America from the past of myself. There are many teachers teaching right now who are exactly who I used to be, so each speech I give, each blog I publish, each book I write may be the thing that protects one more student from the kind of teacher I used to be.

Did you know Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time? So the Phoenix “Mountain Standard Time” is different from Denver’s “Mountain Daylight Time.” In another two weeks, it will match up — the first Sunday in November. I remember that first Sunday in November. I remember it well. I remember it with horror.

Thursday—8:17PM (MST): Get Ready, Get Set…
I have put this off long enough. I must make notes. After a much-needed nap and another trip down to the fitness center (to lift some weights and work off some of these nerves), I am finally prepping for this speech. This will be the first of many, I hope. I honestly have no idea what I’m in for, so I’m having to kind of prepare for anything. After a nice sushi dinner with some friends who live here in Phoenix, I returned to the hotel and hoped to sneak a peek at the venue where I’ll be speaking. However, the big rooms were closed-off, so I suppose I will just have to play it by ear.

If there’s anything at which I excel greatly, I am excellent at adapting and thinking on my feet. I have no idea if this crowd will be apathetic or adversarial or interested or … anything? I really have no idea what’s going to happen. And that’s kind of nerve-wracking, but it’s also kind of exhilarating. I feel the pressure, but I thrive on pressure. Yes, put me in a pressure situation and watch me thrive.

I never lose sight of why I’m doing what I’m doing. I do what I do because it’s the right thing to do. I give speeches because I have a story to tell and a perspective to give, and it will help someone, somewhere, sometime — I just know it. More delusions of grandeur? Perhaps. But no one ever achieved greatness by striving for mediocrity.

This is what I’ve been working toward, and now it’s time to get ready. It feels similar to the night before running a marathon — doing what needs to be done, preparing for the best possible performance and the most successful outcome imaginable.

I’ve been asking myself all day, What would constitute a “success” tomorrow? And I still have no idea. Since my only other speech prior to this was canceled, I really have no basis for comparison. I suppose my only measure of success will be whether or not I feel like it went well. But honestly, that will depend somewhat on the people and not so much me. I have full confidence in my public speaking ability and my knowledge of the facts, figures, and issue-at-hand. I guess I’m just unsure of the audience’s receptiveness of what I have to say. My perspectives and theories don’t often jive with the status quo, and some people don’t like it when the status quo is challenged. I guess we shall see.

Notes are done, iPad is ready, and I am ready. Time for a good night’s sleep.

Tomorrow, my public speaking career begins.

Friday—8:37AM (MST): I’m a Superhero
Grey’s Anatomy is one of my favorite shows. In Season 14, Episode 11, Dr. Amelia Shepherd is getting ready for a major brain surgery, and she begins to feel like she’s lacking confidence. So, standing in the scrub room, she puts her fists on her hips and lifts her chin, standing in a “Superhero Pose.”

I’m going to do this today.

I am going to stand in my hotel room, wearing my $500 suit from Express, and I am going to assume the Superhero Pose while listening to music from The Dark Knight. We shall see if the Superhero Pose actually works. Because even though I’m confident, I also need all the help I can get.

Friday—9:19AM (MST): Let’s Do This
I’ve been down to see where I’ll be speaking. I have a better grasp on the setting and physical context, so I can start to visualize everything in my mind. So I suppose there’s nothing left to do, no prep to be done, nothing. Time to just get it done, make it happen, and strive for greatness.

This is daunting. This is the moment I’ve been working toward since 2012, before I even went to prison. This moment is the culmination of years and years of reading, writing, and soul-searching. Everything I’ve done — all of my endeavors — have led to this exact moment, right here, right now. And hopefully, this is just the beginning.

I feel like I’m going into battle, not against the people to whom I will be speaking, but against the establishment that wants to keep me from speaking out — the people opposed me by having my first speech canceled and the people who wanted this speech canceled as well. And the only way to win is to fight through the resistance and make an amazing speech that makes a difference.

“The key, though, win or lose, is to never fail. And the only way to fail is not to fight. So you fight until you can’t fight anymore. Hold up your head and enter the arena and face the enemy. Fight until you can’t fight anymore. Never let go. Never give up. Never run. Never surrender. Fight the good fight. Even when it seems inevitable that you’re about to go down swinging. — Why do we even try, when the barriers are so high and the odds are so low? Why don’t we just pack it in and go home? It’d be so, so much easier. It’s because in the end there’s no glory in easy. No one remembers easy. They remember the blood, and the bones, and the long agonizing fight to the top. And that is how you become legendary.”
—Dr. Amelia Shepherd
Grey’s Anatomy
Season #11 | Episode #14
“The Distance”

Fists to the hips, chin up — Superhero. The Dark Knight.

Let’s do this. Let’s change the world

Friday—3:23PM (MST): Success!
The speech was — in my opinion — a resounding success! The people at the conference were extremely receptive, they asked great questions, I had great answers, and after it was all over, I spent over an hour talking to people individually. It went great! Honestly, I really feel like I made a difference today. I feel like all the preparation was worth it. Several people indicated an interest in having me do something similar at a later date, and I was even asked to contribute a chapter to a book currently being written regarding this very issue.

I think I changed a lot of opinions on who the “offender” is and how the problem needs to be addressed. People responded well, no one was adversarial, and I received an immense amount of positive feedback. And I was happy to meet some very wonderful people, signed some books, gave out my card — I really hope I made some good connections because I met some great people!

And by the way, the Superhero thing works!

Now I’m sitting at the airport after having my flight changed, so I’ll be routing through Houston instead of Denver, arriving home half-an-hour later than usual. But it’s kind of nice to have some downtime.

The Phoenix airport is a bit unremarkable, although they do have a pretty awesome seating area in the United Airlines terminal where I sat for an hour and watched planes take off. I love planes. I should have been a pilot.

But I’m ready to go home. I miss my wife and daughter.

Friday—3:38PM (MST): The End of the World As We Know It
I’m about to board my flight to Houston; the song “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)” by R.E.M. is playing on the airport’s P.A. speakers. Is this a bad sign?

Maybe it really is the end of the world as I know it? I mean, I’ve been working toward the opportunity to speak out to the education community since 2012, and now it feels like I’ve not only achieved that goal; I exceeded it. Maybe things won’t be the same after this; maybe people will listen to me after this; maybe those in attendance will return to their school districts across the country, carrying a changed perspective. Maybe I made a difference today. Maybe I made an impact today. Maybe today was the first major step toward fixing what I helped break. Maybe.

Regardless, a song with the lyrics, “It’s the end of the world as we know it” is probably a poor choice of song to be played in an airport.

Time to meet another Single-Serving Friend.

Friday—3:38PM (MST): Reflections and Conversations over New Mexico
Now that I’m sitting down with nowhere to go, I’m still asking myself how the speech went. Of course, I think it went well, but that’s just my own personal opinion. I’m glad I never felt nervous or scared; I was confident and calm throughout the entire presentation — I’ll say it again: The superhero thing works!

I’m typing this fervently on my phone as my Single-Serving Friend and I are discussing the turbulence we just encountered. In fact, it was so bad, I held her coffee for her as the plane seemed to roughly sway up and down, trying to keep it from spilling. It was quite a feat of balance, but I managed.

“So where are you from?” she asked.
“Wichita, Kansas,” I replied without excitement.
“Oh, I grew up in Wichita!” she replied with excitement. “I went to Southeast High School!”
“Oh yeah?” I said, chuckling internally at the irony — Taissa went to Southeast as well.
“So what do you do for a living?” she asks as the plane’s turbulence finally begins to smooth out.
“I’m a writer,” I reply, matter-of-factly.
“Oh, I love to read! What kind of writing do you do?” She turned slightly, genuinely interested in my answer.
“Nonfiction, for now,” I said, “but my first novel is almost finished.”
“What is your nonfiction book about?” she asked.
I paused. “Teacher misconduct,” I replied. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to point out that I was the teacher and it was my misconduct — that kind of thing can make someone quite uncomfortable, so I wanted to spare my Single-Serving Friend the discomfort of knowing she was sitting next to a criminal.
“That sounds interesting,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied, “I actually really enjoy writing nonfiction because I love the challenge of taking real events and real subjects and writing about them as though they’re in a novel. That’s where the real artistry is in nonfiction writing, and I think I’m pretty good at it.

We spoke for a little longer as our plane began its descent, and after the plane landed and reached the terminal, I gave her my business card and told her she could enjoy some reading there if she’d like. She was a very nice lady, and I will never see her again. However, she was definitely my best Single-Serving Friend of the trip.

Friday—9:22PM (CST): Houston, We Have No Problem
Waiting for my plane to Wichita is just blah. I feel just blah, probably because I’m so tired. I know I’m walking like I’m tired, but at this point, I have no other gear. I think the mental exhaustion of the day has finally caught up with me. I feel like I’ve run a mental and emotional marathon. I mean, seriously, it’s impossible to speak about what I speak about without it being emotionally taxing. So now I’m just sitting here in this random terminal, waiting for the boarding to begin on my flight to Wichita, which is a plane so small that there’s no jetway. We walk out onto the tarmac and climb steps up to the plane. Wichita is such a podunk town, I can’t even get a big plane to take me home. But oh well; I’m so tired and apathetic, nothing is bothering me right now. My eyelids are heavy. People are bustling by me with places to go, and I feel like Howard W. Campbell again, having “no reason to move in any direction.” I’m sitting here because this is where I’m sitting; I will continue to sit here until prompted to sit otherwise (“otherwise” being on the plane). My brain and soul are drained. I know this will get easier as I do it more, but those speeches really take it out of me. I mean, I lay my heart and soul out there for all to see as I speak as genuinely and openly as I know how. So I’m not just giving some diagnostic description of the situation — I relive the pain every time I talk about it because that is what makes me an impactful public speaker.

Finally, it’s time to board.

Friday—10:31PM (CST): Cheating
We are somewhere over Oklahoma, I think.

I am once again listening to Killing Yourself to Live. This is my favorite book. And just now, a very relevant quote came across the book:

“Don’t ever cheat on someone. I’m serious. It’s not worth it. And I’m not saying this because cheating is morally wrong, because some people have a very specific version of morality that doesn’t necessarily classify actions as right or wrong. The reason you should never cheat on someone is because you won’t enjoy it. No matter which person you’re with, you’ll always be thinking of the other one. You will never be in the romantic present tense; your mind will solely exist in the past and the future. Let’s say you sleep with your mistress on Friday and your wife on Saturday: To an epicurean, this is a dream lifestyle. This is sexual utopia. But it never works out that way. When you’re having sex with your mistress on Friday, you will find yourself thinking about your wife. You will be thinking about how this act would destroy her, and how humiliated she would feel if she knew the truth. But then on Saturday, when you’re back in the arms of your trusting wife, your mind will immediately drift towards decadence. At the height of your physical passion, you will think back to how exciting things were 24 hours ago, when you were with a new, strange body. Except that it wasn’t exciting to be with someone else; it’s only exciting in your memory (at the time, it just made you wracked with guilt). So now you’re having sex with someone who loves you, but your mind isn’t even in the same room. And suddenly it’s Sunday; you have now had sex with two people on two consecutive nights, and you didn’t appreciate either episode. Algebraically, a + b = c and a + c = b. The only thing infidelity does is remind you of the people you’re not having sex with, which is something you can just as easily think about when you’re completely alone.”
—Chuck Klosterman
Killing Yourself to Live

Considering my history if infidelity, other than my former student, I found this passage to be quite relevant to me because I completely agree with it. And now that I’m living a life of faithfulness, I can look back and realize two things: a) I wish I’d known this when I was cheating; and, b) I wish I’d consciously felt this when I was cheating. I wish I’d been consciously aware of how unhappy I was with my own behavior and how my behavior was making my life worse, not better.

I will see my wife in less than an hour. Maybe I will hug her a little tighter when I do.

Friday—11:52PM (CST): Home, for now.
It was so nice to be greeted at the airport by a beautiful woman. That never gets old. Even though it was late and she was exhausted, she was still stunningly beautiful, like something out of the movies.

Now we’re home; we’re in bed and she’s already asleep. We are getting up early in the morning to drive to Colorado Springs, but for now, we are home, together.

I want her to be proud of me. I want her to know that her husband — who was once the epitome of epic failure — is trying to change the world. I don’t care if the “world” knows what I’m doing or why I’m doing it; I just want my beautiful wife to be proud of her broken husband. She takes care of me — she is the reason I’ve made it this far. I just want her to be proud of me. In a “world” which almost demands that she be ashamed of me because of who I was, I want to make her proud of who I am now.

And who am I now?

I’m a man who failed, and now is striving to succeed.
I’m a man who used to be a villain. But the villain has been defeated — My wife and I defeated him. Mere mortals cannot do that. Only we can.

Only Superheroes.

Only freakin’ Superheroes.

Change the world — one day, one speech, one page, one word at a time.