Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Pressure smack dab in the middle of my head irradiates down through my eyes, flowing into concrete tension in my neck while leaving my legs too wobbly to stand for long. There is no pill to remedy the ache, no tonic to flush the anxiety, no prayer for a miracle whose time has passed and will never come again. I am tired.

No matter how much we prepare for the death of a loved one we are never truly ready when that day comes. Everyone knows exactly what I mean, having lost a colleague, a friend, a spouse, a grandparent, a mother, a father, a sister, or - a brother.

For what exactly are we preparing? Are we organizing the visitation at the funeral home, searching for those special pictures to place in a memorial video? Are we talking to the children about the loss of a person close to them, struggling to explain death and its transition between life and the afterlife? Are we clearing our schedules of incidental duties so that we can "be there" for anyone and everyone who needs us? We all go about our business preparing for the death of a loved one, none of us really choosing to do the same thing but ultimately arriving at the same destination.

We all want to arrive at the point when we can genuinely and faithfully “let go” of the sadness, the heartache, and the hopelessness, without admitting, perhaps selfishly or shamefully, that we need to do so in order to move on with our lives. To live in a perpetual state of grief is not healthy and certainly not what the person we mourn would want us to do.

Central Catholic High School and the Wheeling community lost someone close to us this week: math teacher, baseball coach, God’s disciple, loyal friend, and loving brother - Jamey Conlin. We all have been preparing ourselves for this day since last spring, desperately praying for that miracle that never appeared while praying that God would be merciful to Jamey.

Jamey would stubbornly lecture us all about not making such a big deal out of him. Yes. He would.

Tuesday was a long day at Central Catholic High School. In my soul I knew the time had arrived. By eighth period I could barely pull my emotionally depleted body out of the comfy chair at the front of my room to conduct these darn book talks with my AP English students. I feared that they would see the lack of heart in my eyes, that I was tired from preparing for this moment, worn-out from the constant worry about my friend. 

Tuesday night we all received the news of Jamey’s passing in one way or another, whether it was a call from a friend or a notification on Facebook or Twitter. Countless people took to social media to express their love and respect for Jamey. Parents. Friends. Colleagues. Current students. Graduates. Everyone testified about what a wonderful person Jamey was, word by loving word attesting to the specific differences he had made in their lives. I placed one of my favorite pictures as my cover photo and told Jamey that he had “made the world a much better place.” 

Jamey, Nate, Me, and Betsy
CCHS 150th Celebration - 2015

But why do we have to let go completely? Sadness will eventually dissipate over time as our lives slowly return to normal, but we can hold on to something that will keep the person we have lost with us. Not pictures, jewelry, or letters. Those tangible objects fade, tarnish, and tear, even while personal memories exist within them.

What if we take a quality we most love or admire in a person and make it ours? Make this quality a living, breathing testimony to the person who is no longer with us? What if we did our best to emulate this quality in order to make our own lives and the lives of others better?

Over the course of the next week or month, I will gradually let go of my sadness and heartache, taking comfort in this transition as I consider which of Jamey’s remarkable qualities I will keep with me and aspire to make a part of my own life, choosing one which will continue to make my world, our world, a much better place.

Maybe the miracle for which we prayed finally arrived, just not in the form or time frame we had hoped it would. Maybe the miracle is our ability to surrender the best parts of ourselves to the hearts of others and never truly leave our loved ones behind.

Outside Jamey's Room

Jamey, This post is dedicated to you and all of your accomplishments. As I have said quite often, you have made the world a much better place. Thanks for being there whenever I needed you to be and for being the kind of person I want to be. Rest easy now, my friend.

Top Picture - Personal (Sign Creation - CCHS Students)
Middle Picture - Personal (Selfie Stick)
Bottom Picture - Personal (CCHS Students and Staff Creation)

Sunday, October 2, 2016


The soul.

As I began to write this post, I found myself starting over and over again because I kept coming back to attempting to define a word that is so abstract that people and religions have many ways to actually explain what a soul is.

I am not entirely sure why I am so obsessed with this word right now. I just know the inspiration emanated from my students this week, Homecoming at CCHS, and their creation of an alphabiography in senior English classes. The spark began there but grew throughout the week, ending somewhere around the football game and Homecoming dance.

The soul. 

A person's inner essence. For many, a person's connection to God.

I catch glimpses of the soul in other people when I notice their actions or inactions, the tone of their words, their interactions with others, or what they create artistically.

In order to develop their hand-crafted alphabiographies, my students focus on their first or last name then write paragraph descriptions of various aspects of their personality using each letter of their name. Writing about your personality or what you perceive to be your personality is not easy, but making a creative representation of this is even more challenging. While some jumped spiritedly into this activity, others struggled to find "their voice" as they wanted to make sure the final product represented who they are. 

My alphabiography that I share with my students for this project

That is not an easy path for anyone to walk. Life is a journey which is directed by the soul and whether we choose to listen and act upon the voice we hear. We all hope that our final product is one which represents the best of who we are, flaws and blemishes not hidden but overshadowed by the good that we do.

After an exciting week of these alphabiographies coming alive in front of all of the students who invested time, energy, and souls into the project, I asked them to allow me to take an individual picture of them with the final product. For some strange reason, I wanted them to hold the alphabiography in front of them and say "I am" before stating their name. Let me tell you something, I am not always sure why I make certain decisions, but I have learned to trust my instincts. But - the looks. The horrific gasps. The eye rolls. I thought the football team was going to hurt me. Others students wanted to hide behind their alphabiographies. Everyone did it though. Maybe they saw my soul in my request.

How did this activity begin my journey to this post about the soul? My students' enthusiasm thoroughly captured my interest in each project being created. As teachers we always strive to know exactly what our students are doing and that they are "on task," but it is rare when we have an opportunity, as I had with these alphabiographies, to be totally invested while students put so much of themselves into their work.

So as life during Homecoming Week continued like a well-oiled "machine" with activities from beginning to end, I began to notice more "souls" throughout each day, outside of the classroom. I became hyper-aware. When I am this way, I like to take a step back and just observe, seeing God's magic working around me as students quietly reveal sides of themselves when no one may be paying much attention.

There was the girl who accepted my last-minute request to write her own post for Weelunk, a local website about happenings around Wheeling. She was so scared. "I don't know if I am good enough to do this," she offered uncomfortably. I reminded her of our guest speaker who talked to the students the previous day about not listening to people who say "you can't do something" and to take control of their own lives. I told her this was her chance and that she should not be the one to tell herself that she cannot do this. The student wrote a heartfelt and soulful post and was so proud of herself.

There was the student who noticed that his friend was struggling to find his footing in class, having fallen behind on his work. It would have been easy for this young man to simply verbally encourage his friend to pick up the pace, but he professed his "belief" that his friend could do it and jumped in to help him muddle his way through his alphabiography. Honestly, the teacher in me thought he may have been helping too much, but the student knew his friend, he knew that he was drowning, and he helped him tread water until his friend regained his direction. I had to step back and let his soul speak.

Later in the week as we were trudging up the hill through the rain to the gym for the pep rally, I caught sight of one of my students removing his plastic military poncho to offer it to a girl who was being soaked by the downpour. She seemed unsure about whether to take it, perhaps because it was such an unexpected act of kindness. The young man practically begged her to take it but ended up putting it back on when she finally refused, laughing that she would be fine. These two souls brought a little sunlight into a dreary afternoon.

Another student has made his pregame cookout a tradition ever since CCHS moved its games to Bishop Schmidt Field at Wheeling Jesuit University. This guy has a tent in place, his food arranged, and his grill fired up by 5 PM as people stop on their way to the game. He and his friends graciously invited me to join in the festivities so I brought some pizza but definitely left room for hot dogs and grilled wings. You have to witness this kid. He soulfully cooks on the grill, making sure everyone has something to eat, smiling widely as his friends stand around, talking about their week and how good the food is. There is not a better place to be. 

The week was full of soul-sightings like these. Countless ones, each and every one just as enlightening, just as inspiring. Honestly, when we open our eyes and hearts, there is so much to see.

You do not need me to remind you about how dark and hopeless the world can be sometimes. Just watch any news channel or read any internet news source. Among the vitriolic discussions about Trump and Clinton, the polarizing arguments over National Anthem protests, the mounting anxiety over terrorism, sometimes we cannot see through the inner workings of this societal machine.

One of my favorite groups, The Goo Goo Dolls, released a song called "Soul in the Machine" which pinpoints what is at the heart of the machine of society. Us. "We are the soul in the machine." Society, with all of its dishonesty, violence, and fear, can grind away day after day, leaving us hopeless, but as the song says, "When you look up at the bright stars, we are a part of everything."

So this week I took a break from all of the turmoil that clanks loudly from the machine. This week I stopped to look and listen more carefully to find the souls that reside in all of us and found these genuine souls in the youth of today.

Taking a lead from Bruce, I have a musical companion piece to go along with this blog.




The Goo Goo Dolls. "Soul In the Machine." Warner Bros. 2016