969761_10201540412453116_327911912_nYesterday my family and I decided to take a walk to the beach, something we have not done at all this summer even though we live within walking distance. Neither Samantha, nor I, are “beach people” – we like the idea of being near the water but find the annoyances; sand everywhere, the not quite pure nature of Long Island sound etc. of beach days outweigh the joys. When Sam and I purchased our home almost ten years ago we figured we would go to the beach all the time and if nothing else, enjoy the sites, sounds and majesty that our shores provide on an almost daily basis. We figured the proximity of the beach would transform us into beach bums who would idle away their summer break on Long Island’s north shore. Sadly history has proven otherwise, as I can count on my digits (toes included) the number of times we have made the short stroll to our beach.

The relative lack of excursions to the beach means that I can recount nearly every trip we made down there, with one trip in particular standing out: the walk I took alone after Rees died. As I reflect on that particular journey it seems as though I can recall every step, smell, sight and sound from the entire trek with indelible accuracy. I also acutely recall all the people I saw down at the beach who were no doubt there to survey the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy’s wrath. I remember feeling a sense of irony from the site of the peaceful and serene waters which belied the reality of the turbulence and thunderous force of those very waters that crashed upon these shores merely hours earlier. I expected to see a boiling, angry sea that reflected my emotional state after my own personal storm, only to be met with serenity and peace – a state I had not yet even begun to fathom possible for myself. I recollect the people walking down the beach making the same observations about the logic defying current conditions, but also pointing out all the changes to the beach that only someone with intimate knowledge of its condition prior to the storm would recognize. I realized that since I lacked a prior frame of reference about the beach’s condition before the storm I could not possibly see the damage that was so obvious to them – and in that instant it hit me that every single person there could not recognize the damage done to me for those very same reasons.

I walked farther down the beach that day than I had ever attempted before, kicking stones and tossing rocks into the sea as I  meandered along its shores. I remember seeing some larger stones, wondering if they had the mass to overcome my buoyancy, and thinking that perhaps I could just take one with me out into the sea allowing myself to experience death the way my little boy did and ending my pain in the process. The thought was fleeting and seemed almost prescient; a way to make a final connection with my boy and allowing me to be with him again. As I continued to walk that thought eventually ebbed away like the receding tides lapping the shore I traversed.  Just as the receding waters of the outgoing tide reveal a previously unseen beach beneath them, I began to visualize my importance in the lives of my family. Thoughts of ending my pain gave way to the reality that my family needed me and I eventually returned home.

Yesterday’s walk marked my first trip back down to the beach since that day.  Throughout my journey I found myself comparing this walk with my previous one , using my acute recollection of the previous walk as a frame of reference to see the differences in not only the condition of the beach, that I was unable to notice in previous journeys, but the condition of my soul.  During our long walk along the beach, the longest I ever took, I attempted to ascertain how far my own recovery from my personal superstorm had come.  In my mind’s eye, I knew that I was in a better, more peaceful, place than my prior walk but I struggled with putting a definitive stamp that I could quantify on it.  It was not until we arrived home that I had my answer:  Beach glass.  As I walked yesterday, instead of kicking stones, I stopped to pick up the pieces of beach glass I saw glistening in the sun.  Beach glass; pieces of shattered glass that unlike freshly shattered glass is rounded and smooth.

One never hears stories of people collecting shattered glass for a very specific reason:  Shattered glass represents the dangerous, sharp, potentially deadly remnants of something that once served a useful purpose.  In many ways, shattered glass is a metaphor for death: The broken remains of something that can never be put back together again – its only purpose to act as a dangerous reminder of what once was.  Beach glass, on the other hand, represents something entirely different: hope for life renewed in another form.  Beach glass can only come from pieces of shattered glass that undergo a metamorphosis caused by inadvertent action of the roiling sea.  With the inevetable ebb and flow of the tides, the pieces of shattered glass along the shores are transformed into something new.  The pieces of glass will never again be what they once were, yet that does not matter, as each fragment is now its own individual whole of something different and beautiful – a softer, delicate reminder of what once was now existing in a new form.  As I watched my daughters sift through the pieces of glass we collected yesterday I realized that they represent the perfect metaphor for my soul: a shattered whole whose pieces will never be put back together yet with the proper conditions can become something new and just as beautiful.  It was at that moment that I realized it represents Rees, whose physical form is no longer with us, but whose pieces are the beach glass of my world.  Rees is no longer here in the form in which he was forged, but his spirit remains. As I continue my journey down life’s shores I now know to stop and look for those pieces of beach glass.  I will never have the whole again, but the more I take the time to look, I can always find Rees’ pieces.

impactSince the creation of ReesSpecht Life I find myself profoundly more aware of the impact we have on others’ lives on a daily basis.  Our mission to change the world, one piece at a time, will always be our charge and I believe we are accomplishing that goal every single day.  What I forgot in all of the amazing moments of the past few months is the impact I had as a teacher, and continue to have, prior to ReesSpecht Life (and I do not mean my running into the wall, which is a literal impact – albeit with a wall!).  This past June marked the end of my 13th year of teaching science at Great Hollow Middle School and in many ways it was my most difficult and most rewarding year.  My students this year were put through their own tumultuous time with a school year truncated by Super Storm Sandy and Blizzard Nemo, and through the loss of their Science teacher for a month and a half after Rees died.

I remember my first day back at work after Rees died like it was yesterday.  I sat in the parking lot that morning, hands gripping the steering wheel – clutched tightly as the panic of facing my students and colleagues sunk in, trying to build up the courage to make the relatively short trek to science room 213.  I remember feeling like the eyes of the world (or at least all of Nesconset NY) were upon me.  I felt as though I could hear the whispers in other’s minds as I walked past:  ” Oh my God, he’s back”, and “I don’t know what to say” being the words I most imagined were running through their heads.  My Principal was the first person up to my room to greet me that morning and he gave me a re-assuring handshake and words of encouragement.  I was nauseous right up until my first period class walked through my door and then something incredible happened: nothing.  There was no discernible difference in my students from what I had remembered prior to Rees’ passing.  They smiled.  They exulted my return.  They welcomed me back – and one very special student said the words “I’m here for you.”. (Thank you James!)  I saw some trepidation from a few of them, but for the most part there was no change.

After losing Rees one of my first fears was how I could ever return to my classroom?  I felt as though the part of me that I channel for my teaching; namely my inner child, had died along with Rees.  I feared I could no longer put on the show of being “Mr. Specht” and instead I would have to act like  some Mr. Specht doppelganger – a guise I was sure the students would see right through.  Amazingly, and almost instantly, upon my return, I realized that Mr. Specht did not die… no, he was alive and well and looking to get back to life.  The next few days with my students found me settling right back in, telling my jokes and doing “my thing”.  For the 41 minutes I was in front of my students all was right in the world.  I am sure the peace that I found while teaching was just as reassuring to my students, who no doubt had wonders as to if I would truly be “back” when I returned.  For 41 minutes, five times a day, I was whole again – and it felt good.

It was during this same time that the real traction for ReesSpecht life started to take hold.  The planning for our first fundraiser was well on its way and the ReesSpecht life Cards were in their planning stages.  To be honest, ReesSpecht Life became my nearly full time focus – a distraction I needed to keep me from wallowing in the sorrow that welled up at the shore of my soul.  I continually focused on the impact that ReesSpecht life would have on others, and I even entertained thoughts of leaving teaching to run the foundation full time.  In my mind I now had the opportunity to make an impact in people’s lives that wasn’t going to be falsely measured by some bureaucratic ideal of standardized test results and value added scoring equations that make Schrodinger’s differential equation for the quantum behavior of light look rudimentary.  This idea was not quick to fade, and in some respects remains with me as a fantasy more than anything.  Would I love to tour the country doing presentations like I did at Stony Brook’s freshman orientation full-time?  You bet.  To me, passing on my experience with this tragedy and how it opened my eyes is just as valuable as teaching students about the scientific method – except their was one flaw in my logic, that until today, I did not realize:  I am making an impact in my student’s lives already and it DOES NOT MATTER what pencil pushing politicians, who are frankly trying their damndest to destroy public education, think about my performance.   The real measurement of my success is this:

“Hi Mr. Specht, 
This is (name withheld). We are currently in Disney about halfway through our trip and I realized some stuff that I thought I should share with you.

1. Well I have always disliked “It’s a small world” but now I hate it even more, while waiting on line I looked up and looked at the name.”It’s a small world”, THAT’S A CONFORMATIONAL BIAS!! It is really not a small world! Haha

2. The second one is about science, well today we are going to Epcot and I am excited to go on a certain ride.  Going in to this year I liked, enjoyed and was interested in Science. But after 182 days in room 213 listening to you I my feeling about Science was quadrupled and then doubled and then tripled and probably quadrupled again but you get the point. So this ride is the Living Earth (I think that is the name, it is the ride by Soarin about plants) and I am excited to go on it because this year in Bio I learned more in that class than any other class (both about science and life). So since I know all this stuff now I will be able to understand a lot about the ride.

So yeah this some stuff I realized because of bio this year. I hope your summer is going well and I hope you have a good class next year. Have fun in Disney. 

Once again I want to thank you so much for teaching me so much about science and more importantly life and how to live and get the most out of life.”

For almost nine months now I found myself searching for ways to make an impact on the world and make this a better place.  Turns out I already was;  I was just blind to it.  Most students who have yet to have me know me as the teacher that “Runs into walls”.  For almost my entire career I thought the only thing I was impacting with great force was the wall into which I ran.  Turns out that impact reverberated throughout my classroom all the time.  Who knows where life will take me in the next few years.  Perhaps there will be a day where I leave my classroom to pursue my dream of taking ReesSpecht Life global, but right now, right here, I am making an impact in others’ lives and that is all I will ever need to consider myself successful.  If you have not performed a random act of kindness today, perhaps you can do one that will mean more to someone who impacted your life than you could possibly know:  thank a teacher you had that impacted you, or your children.  Let them know you recognize their impact on your or your child’s life.  ReesSpecht life, always.

IMG_0719(1)The finality of death is never really truly comprehended until you face it and stare down its gaping maw.  When I peer down the abyss I see that my little boy is gone forever from the mortal plane and will never, ever grace me with his physical presence ever again.  When I look around my home I see constant reminders of the life he lived for those brief 22 months.  I moved the couch the other day only to find one of his little cars that he no doubt left behind to pursue some other grand adventure and never, ever will play with again.  When I found it my initial reaction was to leave it there as it was something that connected him to me.  I did not want to “clean it up” as that symbolically would mean I am removing him even more from my world.  As time passes, finding pieces of him grows more and more rare yet those moments still arise, and when they do I am re-acquainted with that acute pain and recognition of his absence.

I recognized early on in this ordeal that the only way for my soul to survive this loss was to do something to honor his memory so that I, and my family, could keep his spirit alive for not just us but others as well.   I wanted, selfishly in some respects, to create something that would keep more than just his memory with me.  I endeavored to create something that would perpetuate his spirit for as long as I walk this Earth and in the process do something that would make an impact in other’s lives.  ReesSpecht Life was born out of the dual dynamic of self-preservation and a need to help others as we were helped.  ReesSpecht life is what mitigates those dark times when I find pieces of Rees with the hope that we can make a difference in this world in his name.

Our first step at making a difference occurred in April as we purchased meals for 3 families in our community that were dealing with their own significant losses.  Sam and I could not help but feel Rees’ presence when we made that order.  The next, and most financially significant goal we accomplished, was awarding our two $1000.00 scholarships in Rees’ name at our district’s two High Schools.  I felt Rees’ spirit in that auditorium the night we awarded those scholarships, and I know that all of those present felt it too.  That night I saw Rees making a difference in other’s lives from beyond the barrier of death and it elevated my soul to a new plane.

Our most recent attempt at making a difference is the first act that affirms what I wrote in my essay “Why?”(click link to read if you have not already).  A month or so ago my wife was informed about a little girl named Julia who was diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia.  This brave little girl had been in and out of hospitals for the past couple of years and has not yet conquered the cancer trying to claim her.  When asked what she wanted the most she stated very simply: “a pen pal”.  Upon hearing this my daughter Abigail, who is Julia’s age,  immediately volunteered to be her pen pal.  We then asked family members if there was anything else she required or wanted and we were told that there were special head coverings she preferred so we ordered them.  Her family told us that due to the nature of her illness she had to limit her contact with others due to her compromised immune functioning.

A pen pal, it seems, was one way for little Julia to connect to someone outside of the medical personnel and immediate family members that attend to her on daily basis.  Abigail was excited about the prospect of writing to Julia but lamented the fact she would not be able to meet with her until she was healthy.  It was at that moment that my little girl had the idea of making the pen pal something more than pen and paper.  She recognized that if it were impossible for others to visit with her directly, perhaps there was another way to talk to her and make contact:  through Apple’s facetime on an iPad.  I immediately asked Samantha if we could do this through the foundation and we  purchased the iPad and a ReesSpecht Life case and waited until the time was right to give the gift to Julia and her family.

Sadly, Julia’s health has gone through more downs than ups recently and coordinating a meeting just was not feasible.  A couple of weeks ago I spoke with Julia’s Mom, Erin trying to arrange a meeting so we could present this gift to her.  Her strength and resolve to do whatever she could for her little girl resonated so strongly with me.  She commented on how strong she thought my wife and I were for doing what we are doing in Rees’ name, but I told her it is she who is the strong one.  What happened to Rees literally happened in an instant and our pain was acute.  Julia’s mother has endured the torturous act of watching her little girl grapple with a disease that has a 50% chance of killing her and has remained steadfast in her determination to see her daughter get better.  I understand all to well that perspective is a funny thing in these matters, and strength is merely an outsiders interpretation of how people survive in circumstances they never wish to find themselves in.

We sent the package to Julia yesterday, and she received her iPad today.  Julia’s Mom texted my wife the picture you see attached.  If ReesSpecht Life were to suddenly cease to exist from this moment on that picture will stay with me forever as a reminder that we accomplished what we set out to do:  change the world.  When I say change the world it is all a matter of perspective as the world we changed wasn’t the Earth as a whole, it was Julia’s.  My little boy continues to grant me the gift of perspective and with this new found perspective I see things much differently than I used to.  Looking at that picture I see my two smiles – one from a little girl who now can make contact with others where previously she could not, and the other from my little boy whose spirit made that possible.  Our little boy’s life was brief, but in that picture I can see his legacy is eternal.


P.S.  If you wish to support Julia in her fight against cancer you can follow her facebook group here:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Team-Julia/209083372495616

We can all be Rees' pieces!

We can all be Rees’ pieces!

I have not written a thing in over two weeks, and counting my last post on the 24th of June, it has been almost a month and I have only posted 1 blog entry.  My dearth of writing is attributable to two factors:  1)  As a teacher the end of the school is the most hectic time there is and I had very little time to write due to the intensity of the demands of my profession.  2)  My writing is fueled by my emotional state and my emotional state has reached a new plateau that I did not expect and has thrown me off a bit.  If I were writing an educational blog I would bore you with the tedium of the end of school year craziness that every teacher experiences, but seeing as this is not about that it is reason #2 that I am writing today.

The past three weeks or so have found me in a different place emotionally.  The daily pain I experience is not nearly as acute as it was for most of the past 8 months and I am not sure why.  I find the time to smile more and enjoy the little things.  The asterisk that has adorned my life* is still omnipresent, yet I find it muted and less pronounced.  Samantha and I have found the time to laugh more, and I am more comfortable talking about my feelings regarding Rees to her.  I notice that I do not cry at inappropriate times nearly as much:  Though today I  found myself balling at the end of Planes, Trains and Automobiles – a movie I have seen at least twenty times and previously only laughed out loud at and certainly never shed a tear to.  I am finding solace in doing the things I used to and can smile when I see other little boys with fathers.  I can go to bed some nights and just close my eyes and sleep without seeing unfortunate images of little boy that I know will forever haunt me.  While I may be more content now, as I discover some semblance of inner peace, it appears to come at the cost of losing bits and pieces of Rees’ memory and for that I ashamed and scared.

One of my newest dilemmas is the price I must pay for my new found tranquility.  The old axiom that “There is no such thing as a free lunch” rings true here.  Apparently the cost of my inner solitude is losing my memories of Rees.  I have to give a piece of Rees to get peace for myself.  It’s a cruel exchange and, as far as I know, it is the currency my soul must sell in order to make myself whole again… It is almost as if it is some cruel mathematical equation:  broken self – memories of Rees = Whole self at peace.  To make myself whole again, I must give up pieces of my little boy to find peace and it is a transaction that I cannot avoid.

How can I remember Rees without losing my soul and my sanity in the process?  If I spend time trying to remember my life with him I find myself growing sullen and filled with despair that I shall never experience that life again.  If I allow myself to heal, I lose those very feelings of my life with him in it and in the process I lose him even more.  It’s like climbing a mountain: the higher and higher I go, the further away my departure point becomes until it is no longer visible.  I don’t want to forget my little boy, yet I don’t want to be sad all of the time.   These two sentiments appear to be mutually exclusive and there is nothing I can do to reconcile them.  I cannot ascend the mountain of happiness without losing site of my little boy at its base – and carrying him with me is not an option as the burden is too great.  I am literally stuck between a rock and my happy place…

In many ways the climb up this hill is like riding an escalator:  automatic, unyielding and ever moving upwards.  If I walk with the escalator the climb is relatively faster.  If I stand still I am still propelled upward.  The only way down is to run backwards at a relative speed that is faster than the moving staircase.  If I wish to remain in place I still need to walk backwards, but at a rate equal to the upward movement of the stairs.  Going backwards is not an option in this case, and as such  I already find myself forgetting that I HAD three children.  It seems like my daughters are all I ever had and that there is an ever fading whisper of some alternate universe in which I had a little boy who made my life complete.  It is as though my brain sees the summit only and is forced to forget what lay behind in order to ensure I continue moving upwards, unimpeded.

I do not want to move back down the hill I have climbed the past eight months.  I also do not wish to forget my little boy.  As I move forward into my uncertain future the only thing I can change is the present.  Presently, I find myself more at peace than I have felt in the previous 8 months, yet I have found I am forgetting what my life with Rees was like.  Perhaps, rather than trying to fight that upward movement I can accept that the summit is my ultimate destination and my journey has only just begun.  I may be losing site of what was left behind, but I can always use a looking glass to bring those distant sites closer.  Maybe the best way to make this climb is to keep moving forward and look back on my time with Rees with a rose-colored glass, keeping focus on only the things I want to see.  I know the summit is somewhere up there, and who knows?  – maybe he is already up there, carried by angel’s wings, waiting for me at the top…