08/03/2010 04:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Making a Difference... or Not?

Portions of the following adapted from my memoir, "The 99th Monkey."

I received some really disturbing news a few days ago. But first the back story:

Thirty years ago I was a teacher at a rather unique alternative high school in East Orange, N.J. Located in two adjacent old houses, the four faculty members lived in one of them, and the 24 students attended classes in the other. The classrooms were simply the rooms in the house, furnished with old beat up couches and armchairs. There were no attendance rules or grades, so you had to be a really good teacher for kids to keep showing up to your classes.

I taught theater, poetry, music, sex ed for boys (the blind leading the blind), a class on "Personal Transformation and Service" and Algebra II, using a textbook my father wrote in which I was featured in the verbal problems, usually mowing a lawn in 1.3 hours. (My father taught me Algebra II over the phone each night, keeping me one chapter ahead of the class). On the first day of my theater class, I ran through my repertoire of about 15 activities in the first six minutes, as the kids just shrugged their shoulders and said, "I ain't doin' that." Needless to say, I had to think on my feet.

These were all kids who had quit the public school system for one reason or another. The two scariest ones were Mike and Paul, who habitually showed up tripping on acid. I could always tell. It was a dead giveaway when I would ask Paul in the morning, "Hey, how ya' doin'?" and he'd respond, "Fire. It's the primordial element." Or I'd stand up in the kitchen to, say, get the salt, and Paul would observe with self-satisfaction: "I know what you're up to! I see what you're doing with those triangles: going from the table to the cupboard and back. Sacred geometry!" He outlined the path I had walked in the air with his hand, and I saw he was absolutely right: it was a right triangle, albeit with a slightly wobbly hypotenuse.

Mike was a lot scarier. He often expressed his anger by literally putting his head through the plaster walls or banging incessantly on the piano like an insane person. He spent the first two weeks of school quizzing me about all the foods in the staff refrigerator, wondering which items were communal and which belonged only to me. Weeks later, I learned that he and Paul had been hoping to slip me some LSD, and had concluded that my Vitamin B capsules were their best bet. Mike expressed astonishment when I refused his invitation to attend a "secret ritual" at midnight on Halloween in the woods, and demanded an explanation. This was my explanation:

"For some reason, when I consider your invitation, I feel a sense of fear welling up inside me."

Later that day he asked if he could see me privately; he came up to my room, his face made up in the style of a Japanese demon mask, stood before me and declared, "The only way you will ever rid yourself of this fear of me, is to kill me." And from behind his back he presented me with a huge kitchen knife. Inwardly I was as freaked out as he intended for me to be. But I calmly took the knife and asked, "Should I do it now, or shall I take you by surprise?" "It's up to you," he said, and I replied, "Well, I'd prefer to take you by surprise."

I finally won Mike over by sitting with him at the piano for hours every day, carefully transcribing to music paper every one of his random bangs in perfect musical notation, forcing him to make compositional decisions and to actually end up with a repeatable cacophony of sounds, complete with lyrics:

"My Daddy's becoming
a corporate executive.
Never suspecting
that he is a number."

The melody would have made Frank Zappa proud.

Mike loved having his music taken seriously, and by the time the school year was over and I moved back to New York City, I had become his cool older friend in the Village, a status I had to pay for in spontaneous trips to CBGB's at all hours of the night to see some of his favorite performers screaming and smashing microphones on the stage. He turned up at my apartment one day when a friend and I were painting Easter eggs. Mike's approach, appropriate to the punk spirit of the times, was to mix various dyes into a little pool of color on the counter, and then smash the egg down into it.

Actually, Mike was an angry, terrified genius, and I didn't quite grasp that at the time, because I, too, was an angry, terrified genius, only more polite. (Now I am no longer an angry, terrified genius. Now I'm just terrified.) Mike's poetry, even as a 16-year-old, exhibited an astounding spark of creativity and complexity.

I always wondered what became of him, and the other day, I found out. After "friending" Paul on Facebook--after 30 years!--he sent me the chilling, sad and horrible story of Mike, the tale of a tormented soul who devoted much of his adult life to drugs and alcohol, abandoned his friends and disappeared on his loved ones to hang out in shooting galleries in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, often lying and stealing, fathering two kids he had little or no contact with, descending into the underworld for months or years at a time, making some half-hearted attempts at rehab, and finally dying a year ago of a heart attack. He must have been about 45.

Now here's the tough question for educators and helpers of all sorts: Do we make a difference in people's lives, or is it really out of our hands? Because I remember when I worked at that school, I was giving 200 percent of my energy and love to those kids, fueled entirely by the notion that I believed I was having a positive influence, and in fact, that notion is what was supplying my own life with meaning at the time.

So what am I to make of this sad news of Mike's subsequent descent into the horrors of addiction and an early death? Was I kidding myself back then? Was I deluded to think I could have an impact, or make a powerful difference in this deeply troubled kid's life? Or was I in effect only using those kids to fill my own existential requirements for meaning and purpose? Was it simply that as long as I told myself I was making a contribution to others, then my own life had meaning? Or perhaps 200 percent was insufficient? Or was it just my youthful idealism and naiveté to imagine that any one of us has that kind of power, to interfere with another's autonomous choice to destroy themselves?

If you're waiting for some brilliant conclusion and answer to all these questions, I don't have one; the news of Mike's death and the story of what became of him after we lost touch was deeply troubling to me, and raised a lot of questions; maybe one of you readers, those among you who are educators, addiction counselors or in other helping professions, can offer me some answers. I welcome your comments.

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