A Man on Fire

The cerebral storm that has been roaring in my head has finally broke….and I feel an elation that I cannot describe….although true to my form, I will attempt to write what I feel.

After tumultuous dreams that were so lucid I woke up in my bathroom having scrawled my subconscious across my bathroom mirror like a madman vetting the demons from the depths of his soul I have finally freed my mind of its captor. Little did I know it would only take two friends, my wife, and my voice. There is something extremely special about Aqila Clement, Bradley Bergey, and Attia Taylor, rarely have I felt a freedom to speak so openly without fear of judgment than I do when I am with these three…..and tonight, their warm hearts and kind souls cured a man of a brain drowning in its own painful sea.

I consider myself a man of strength, the ability to carry other peoples pain and problems with my strong back and legs, but recently, after visiting Newtown and talking directly to people in the building when the purest form of evil reared its ugly head, I felt I had been hit me with an emotional uppercut that left me staggering….and yearning to just fall down….and stay down.  

After my trip, I chose not to speak to others about it. When I say the things I heard were emotionally crippling, I am not exaggerating. I did not want others to hear what I had heard. No one needs to have those thoughts bouncing around their head.

So I decided to carry them myself.

I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. At first it was, I was with my family in New England, a rare occurrence these days, I was distracted by them. Then I came home to Aqila, my beautiful wife, we spent every hour together for days and I felt strong, able to carry the weight and protect her from what was in my head.

But I should have known when I began to buckle, I should have recognized the signs. I began losing sleep, having nightmares, waking up and just watching Aqila sleep, scared to death I would lose her to a violent crime. Just soaking in every second I had with her, watching her blissful slumber, not wanting to close my eyes and leave heaven to enter the hell in my head.

Then one night I had a dream that rattled me. I got a phone call from a person who was desperate to meet with me because he claimed only I could help him, that his, that our lives depended on it. I didn’t know him, but he said he saw me posting online and claimed I could help him. We set a time to meet. Ironically I was back home in my parents house and was waiting, the hour he was supposed to arrive passed.

The hours ticked by, he did not arrive. So I walked out of my parents house and in only the way dreams can was instantly transported to Philadelphia…walking across the bridge at 30th and Market in Philadelphia, desperately trying to find the man who seemed like meeting me was a matter of life and death. I looked up, impossible combinations of animals were flying around and transporting people off the bridge to destinations all over the country, cows with wings took briefcase carrying suits to meetings, winged lions swooped down and took resistant citizens to places they seemed horrified to go to.

I didn’t question it, it just made sense. I felt the wind in my beard, I could smell the exhaust of vehicles, the slight singe of the sun on a cloudless day and the blended white noise of a city in a rush……the PECO building streaming the time danced across my eyes….then I saw him.

He ran toward me yelling, screaming as if his life depended on it. “HEY!! YOU!!! PLEASE!!!!”

I ran toward him, toward the edge of the bridge that had a benign but noticeable railing that dropped down 40 feet to the screaming highway below…”YOU!!! DID YOU…..”

Before he could get it out a winged lion with fiery eyes and a salacious snarl swooped down and grabbed him by the nape of the neck as if he was an errant cub and pumped his wings toward the sky.

Before he was out of ear shot the man screamed “Don’t wake up! If you do….I will die!!!”

I went to yell back but found I had no voice, the world spun and dissolved around me and I was struck as I stood face to face with a wild-eyed man who had the look of a individual just flushed from the bowels of hell.

My vision blurred and focused multiple times like watching one scene cross-dissolve into another and I realized it was me. I was standing there, marker in hand, in front of my mirror and in a fit of restless sleep I wrote….


I was rattled to my core. In all the nightmares, lucid dreams, and sleep paralysis experiences have I ever awoken out of bed finishing a complicated task.

I walked back to bed, told Aqila I had something happen to me and didn’t want to fall back asleep.

I fought with what I had experienced. It had felt like 12 hours, not a dream time 12 hours, but a real, everyday 12 hours. I was grappling with the inconsistency of time. Like the post effects of a chemically induced psychoactive experience I wrestled with trying to align my current world with the world I just left.

Like two angled edges, they didn’t line up. I fought my brain for control and wrestled reality from the grips of lucidity.

I sat there, looking at my wife, Aqila, so perfect a person just inches from me. I was immediately calmed as I watched her breath away a golden slumber I could only one day yearn for.

Aqila and I were on vacation and could spend every minute together, this, thankfully kept my brain occupied and I was able to push the demons into the basement of my brain.

Soon it was time for school and the routine of life would take hold and our precious time together would be reduced to a couple of hours in the evening. I went to school, excited to be back in the classroom, excited to talk about cells, excited to show my students the microscopic world that exists in a drop of water…..excited to be rejuvenated by the youthful joy of a world still unexplored.

But the demons were laying in wait. Sitting in my classroom I began to think of the stories I heard, the evil, the pain, and my brain played it all out…..

“If a gunman walks down the hall he will shoot before he enters the room because my door is open, stay low, he won’t see you if you stay low, go for the legs, knock him down……”

I looked at the students sitting in view of the door, watched them reading quietly, smiling, looking at the clock…..”TACKA TACKA TACKA TACKA TACKA” ……..I saw bullets ripping through the air……I saw myself grabbing the thick teacher’s edition of my Miller and Levine Biology Textbook to hold as a shield to absorb the first shots to give me the chance to tackle him before he killed me….

I shook my head. Got up and walked to the door to ease my mind. I noticed a student’s eyes moving left to right as her head rested on her cupped hands just inches away from textbook.

“Let it go” I said to myself, “its fine.”

But it wasn’t. The demons were playing my neurons like a guitar and they knew the exact tune to bring me to my knees.

Class after class I relived the horrifying scenario of what I imagined the teachers in Sandy Hook felt. Their stories giving rise to a legion of demons who were using my mind as their personal playground.

“It’s fine” I said to myself, but it wasn’t.

Last night I was talking to our athletic director/trainer about my shoulder and being the first time since the holidays we also talked about our breaks. I began to talk about my visit to Newtown, and began saying things I haven’t spoken out loud ever…..to him……but I stopped. “

He has a 19 month old and I have only known him for a few months. “ I thought to myself.

I haven’t even said these things to my wife…..don’t unload in the middle of the gym, shake his hand and say goodnight.”

So I shook his hand, apologized for the brief moment of emotional vulnerability and went to pick up Aqila before going home.

Today I stayed engaged in student discussion from 8am-12:15pm straight. No breaks from talking, discussion, lectures, listening, or debates. I would strum my own song on the cerebral strings of my mind, the demons would not get a minute of stage time……

….and I carried this through the afternoon…..I watched intently as students I have known since the 2nd grade got inducted as 12th graders into the National Honors Society…..I felt happy….knowing they were on the right path…..that they are on the precipice of a great existence….then I caught something out of the corner of my eye….

My heart pumped, my muscles tensed, I saw a shadow walk by the door….”who was it? OK, move to the door, get between people and the door, if they raise a gun go low and move in an unpredictable pattern, watch the finger if it tenses, stand up, cut his angle, gain speed, take the bullets and let 210 pounds of full sprint crash into him……”

But it was just the AV guy making sure the mics were good.

“Damn” I thought to myself “Let it go, enjoy the moment, don’t live in fear”.

I shook it off and soon it was Friday afternoon, I needed the company of other teachers at a familiar watering hole to suppress my defiant neurons.

Good conversation of like-minded people flowed for hours and soon I was feeling comfortable, happy. Attia, a former student of mine from 6 years ago and the lead singer of our band was back from NYC after an illustrious internship with a major fashion magazine….”focus on her” I thought, “the success she has achieved, the proof that there is still faith to be had in humanity”…..Aqila sat next to her, they were laughing, happy, unaware of the demons dancing in my head, unaware of my inability to shake them, to shake the fear that each time a door opens I look up…..and for a split second play out my moves if the person coming through the door raises a gun…..

“…go low and move in an unpredictable pattern, watch the finger if it tenses, stand up, cut his angle, gain speed, take the bullets and let 210 pounds of full sprint crash into him……”

I pushed it down and we left….Attia asked if she could come over for a bit, and Aqila and I were more than happy to oblige. At this moment one of my favorite humans, a man of honest intentions and intelligent thoughts texted me to see about stopping by…..and within 20 minutes the ground floor of an apartment on Fairmount Avenue in the city of Philadelphia was filled with Aqila Clement, Attia Taylor, Bradley Bergey, me…and my demons.

I had purchased an expensive bottle of scotch whiskey blend to celebrate Bradley’s impending Phd degree and decided to break it out and toast him.

“To Bradley for defending your research and to Attia, to surviving New York City…” we clinked glasses and let the oaky flavor warm our guts…..

We talked, we laughed, I showed them my trailer for “Finding Alaska”, we watched a clip of our band’s performance  at the TLA when we opened for The Polyphonic Spree…..

….then I showed them the video for “Man on Fire” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes…..a video I consider a perfect piece of art. Raw humanity setting the backdrop of a incredibly beautiful song….

…..and the barrier broke.

I told them the things I heard, the stories the teacher and the EMT told me, the horrors they witnessed, the parents standing at the police barrier outside Sandy Hook Elementary School as the sunlight turned to darkness….refusing to believe their children wouldn’t be returning home….standing there, waiting…….

I told them about why they only needed 3 ambulances……and no more.

I told them how Bob was stoic….describing the events with a strong face but pained eyes….

I told them how I was worried about my sister…..I didn’t want her to hear this.

I told them how we stood at the police barrier…..watching people cry.

I told them about about why they told the parents their children were dead instead of waiting for them to identify the remains…..they needed to know….they didn’t need false hope…they didn’t need to see.

I told them how they covered her eyes as they walked her out of the school….protecting her from a horrific scene that even the most devious minds in Hollywood wouldn’t create.

I told them about the description of the gunfire 

“….it sounded like someone dropped a bunch of folding chairs…..”

I told them how three people ran out of the office…..and only one returned.

I told them of the thousands of gifts left on the sidewalks that would be cremated and mixed with the foundation of the future memorial.

I told them how they shrink wrapped the students desks in an effort to preserve familiarity when those students returned to a new school…..

I told them how she hid under a desk…peeking through the hole for her computer’s wires to go through…watching him walk past….so close she could only see his black cargo pants…

I told them all of it…

I let it out…..I just kept talking…..I couldn’t tell….or maybe I didn’t care ……if they wanted to hear it. I needed to say it.

I felt the demons desperately trying to hold on as I expelled them from my brain…..I had people around me. Good, genuine people, people I could trust, people I cared for, people I would fight and die for……

…..I let it out.

I guess it just felt right. I could never just unload on Aqila, I didn’t want her to carry this weight. I didn’t want to talk about it with my parents, it was the holidays, and I didn’t want them to worry.

I thought, for two weeks, that I could carry this on my own, but I couldn’t. If you are friends with me on Facebook you have seen my emotional responses to gun control, my passion to prevent this from happening again. I have debated and argued to no end through various status updates and discussions.

This is why….these demons…..playing with my brain….forcing me, a man who cannot control words from being manifested into intensely lucid daydreams….

……a man who loves being in the classroom

…..a man who loves his students and loves his job

…..a man who just wants to wake up and not see news of a shooting in his city

….a man who doesn’t want to worry every time his wife leaves the house that she will be “…an innocent bystander.”

….a man who wants to end his days in the same place doing the same thing he is doing now

….a man who is passionate about the people around him

….a man who just wants to see people enjoy life…not lose it

…a man who truly believes we can find peace

….a man on fire

…walking down your street

…with one guitar

….and two dancing feet

….with only one desire

….that’s left in me

….I want the whole damn wold

…..to come dance with me.


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3 responses to “A Man on Fire

  1. John Romano, Sr.

    Glad to hear you are doing better. I enjoy “Oban” a good single malt scotch when I exorcise the Demons. However, it should never be drunk alone. Share 1 or 2 with close friends.
    love dad

  2. A Caring Student

    First, this was beautifully written. I have never experience such a trying time through literature in my life. Sometimes I realize that I take manys things for granted, but life is not one of those. After recently losing an uncle and being excluded from the funeral arrangements, being more cautious with my father because of his serious heart condition, and trying to keep my own issues from dragging me into the dirt, I have realized that there is so much to live for and so much to be thankful for. Every day I try my best to hold on to that optimistic outlook on life and encourage others to do the same. Lik inthis story, I try to suppress my demons by keeping a smile on my face. It’s harder than anyone can imagine, but there are just some things that are not meant to be discussed and therefore they are not mentioned above, but I want to leave off with a word of encourgement. You’ve got a good heart. And because there people like you that exist it gives the world hope for peace…

  3. John I just came across this post. We are really feeling the effects here in Newtown now that things have returned to “normal”. People are crankier after being flooded with well-wishes and visitors for the the first few weeks after the shooting and we don’t have those distractions. Dreams and trouble sleeping are commonplace. I think if you’re a parent or a teacher you have been especially been affected no matter where you’re from. You know more details than I do, so I don’t know how you are supposed to process that. The gun control issue has given me a purpose just like you. Many of us are marching in Hartford on the 2 month anniversary, it can’t undo what was done but hopefully it helps. I also think it’s not a bad idea for you to have a plan in place….sad but true.

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