Jonathan LaPoma: Looking for Humanity in All the Wrong Places

Sep 9, 2015 by

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An Interview with Jonathan LaPoma:  Looking for Humanity in All the Wrong Places

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Jonathan, first of all, tell us about yourself, your education and experience.

I’m an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, songwriter, and poet from Buffalo, NY. In 2005, I graduated from the State University of New York at Geneseo with a BA in history and a secondary teaching credential, and in the ten years since, I’ve taught in over fifteen American public schools as either a substitute or full-time teacher.

I’ve been writing for about fourteen years, starting with poetry and songs, then novels and screenplays. I’ve written two novels, seven screenplays that have won over forty awards/honors in various screenwriting competitions, and hundreds songs and poems. My work often explores themes of alienation and misery as human constructions that can be overcome through self-understanding and the acceptance of suffering.  I currently teach at a secondary school in San Diego, CA.

2) What led to you writing Developing Minds?

In 2009, I finished writing a novel based on my experiences living in Mexico for about five months after I graduated college. I was severely depressed and in a really bad place, but something about Mexico seeped inside me and made me chose life. When I finished writing the novel, I thought I’d said what I’d wanted to say about life and my experiences with it. But, in July of 2012, I took a road trip to Big Sur, and on the ride up the Pacific Coast Highway, I got to thinking about my experiences teaching at an at-risk middle school in Miami in 2007—and the personal, professional, and creative growths I had there—and realized the story wasn’t over. I started writing it almost immediately after I got back to San Diego, and finished the first draft in about a month.

DEVELOPING MINDS is a sort of a loosely-linked sequel to the Mexican novel, UNDERSTANDING THE ALACRAN, and it shows the protagonist’s growth while trying to fit into society after returning from Mexico. My intention with DEVELOPING MINDS wasn’t to demonize teachers or the public school system—I simply wanted to show a portrait of these as true to my experiences with them as possible, while showing how these experiences affected the main character’s maturation and eventual transformation as a writer.

3) What do first year teachers need to know that is not taught in Colleges of Education?

How to find the humanity. I think that Colleges of Education serve an important function in the growth and development of teachers, but there’s only so much they can do to equip teachers with the tools they need to not only survive as the head of classrooms, but to thrive. There’s nothing that can prepare a teacher to stand before a group of thirty plus kids and effectively teach quite like actually doing so.

When that door closes, you’re in there alone with not only the kids, most of whom want nothing to do with school, but you’re also in there with all of your fears, insecurities, and deficiencies. When you screw up, you screw up in front of an unforgiving audience, and no professor, advisor, or mentor can help you in the heat of the moment. A lot of people who succeeded in Colleges of Education can’t handle that kind of pressure, which explains why teaching has the highest turnover rate of any professional career.

But, if you can find the humanity in yourself, you can separate yourself from the harsh words and realize you are not those things students are saying about you. When you find the humanity in yourself, you can start to listen to these harsh words and have a better understanding of how and why they affect you, and you can begin to grow as on a personal and professional level. And, once you’ve found the humanity in yourself, you can start to find it in others, and help teach them how they can see it inside of themselves. There’s no teacher like experience, and I think any first year teacher would benefit from as much in-classroom experience as possible before they find themselves alone at the head of one. 

4) One statement of yours struck me—“We’re living in a society riddled with mental health issues” I know this- you know this- the survivors of Columbine know this, the survivors of the movie theatre shooting know this, and the list goes on. Who need to know this, and what needs to be done?

I don’t think most people do know this—at least, not to the extent they should—and everyone should. When people hear “mental illness”, I don’t think they have a realistic understanding of what that is. They conjure up images of Charles Manson or James Holmes, and don’t realize that the problem is right in front of their eyes—or perhaps, right behind their eyes. To most, mental illness is something foreign. Something to be feared. Something to be used in a debate on a topic like gun control to deflect the blame from where it really needs to be placed.

But it’s right here, walking among us. I’m a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, depression, and OCD. These are things that went undiagnosed when I was a kid. Even when I was having panic attacks on a near-daily basis, it all went under the radar. I got good grades, played sports, had friends, but I was suffering terribly through it all. I never even knew I had a problem until I finally followed my instincts into a psychologist’s office when I was 27—about 16 years after the OCD hit me full on and took over my life. Suddenly, all of the suffering, chaos, and confusion throughout my life started to make sense.

But even after five years of treatment, some people still try to convince me there’s nothing wrong. In those rare instances when I bring it up with others (usually because it’s unavoidable), some will deny it (“Oh, you’re just being dramatic”) or diminish it (“Yeah, I’m sooo OCD too. I, like, always have to make sure my underwear are clean before I put them on, LOL…”). I’m not asking them to diagnose me. I’m not asking them to treat me, or even to listen to me complain about it. I’m simply asking for their respect and understanding, and I often can’t even get that. My best weapon for fighting my disease is in knowing I have the disease, yet in the society we live in, I feel tremendous pressure to simply say, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with me. I just need to pull myself up by the bootstraps and stop whining.”

It’s absolutely twisted—if anything’s crazy, that’s crazy. Would you ask someone with pancreatic cancer to just get over it? Yet, every day we ask that of people who are suffering depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia, anorexia, drug and alcohol addiction… and shame the hell out of them when they can’t, which only makes the problems worse (and, can lead to situations like Columbine). I am the face of mental illness. Your little brother is the face of mental illness.

Your best friend is the face of mental illness. Hell, you may be the face of mental illness, and until we see that and have a full understanding of what that means, “mental illness” is going to continue to be something that unnecessarily plagues our society.

5) Convincing any principal that some children have mental health issues, or psychological issues or psychiatric issues is very problematic. Any ideas?

This question could be asking two things: 1. Is it problematic because the principals refuse to believe some children can have these issues, or 2. Is it problematic because, once the principal is convinced, it can hurt the school in some way? In my experience, most principals I’ve worked with are aware that a large demographic of their students suffer mental health issues, so it hasn’t really been a problem for me. I’m sure there are old school principals out there who think any and all mental health issues are simply made up, but I think we’re living in a progressive enough time that most principals are aware they exist (or are, at least, aware that lawsuits over such issues exist). As for the second question, I think helping students with their mental health issues can only be good for a school. Open, honest conversations about such issues will make other students more empathetic to the suffering of their classmates, and may even encourage them to explore issues of their own.

6) We seem to be concerned about test scores – should we be more concerned about suicide and self – injurious behavior? And drugs, and alcohol, and pot and sex?

I think test scores should take a backseat to just about everything, including suicide, self-injurious behavior, drugs, alcohol, pot and sex, but I don’t think that helping students with these issues should be the only priority. We need to find a balance between creating environments safe for students to overcome their mental health issues while at the same time encouraging students to stay on top of their academics.

Students with such issues absolutely do need empathy and understanding, but they also need structure and accountability. Many students suffering from such issues can benefit from having structured routines where they’re able to make advances, no matter how small, with their academics. A lot of these students already have low self-esteem, but if they’re able to make such gains with their schoolwork, it will show them that, even though they’re suffering from difficult problems, they can still make achievements in the world outside of their problems.

Obviously, students’ issues will vary in intensity, and those who need time away from school should have it. I think it’s important that teachers are aware of such issues, and find ways of helping students who suffer from them to create strategies for learning and academic growth. When students are growing on both an emotional and academic level, they’ll be better prepared to face the challenges they’ll experience when they leave the schooling environment.

7) When you talk about Developing Minds- are you trying to increase Critical Thinking, or Higher Order Thinking or just thinking in general?

I didn’t really have a specific plan—I simply wanted to tell my story. DEVELOPING MINDS is more a coming-of-age story about a young writer whose experiences working in an at-risk school inspire him to face some of the issues that are inhibiting his ability to write and to develop on an emotional level, and it’s less a story about some young, punk kid learning how to survive the chaotic American public school system and become a great teacher.

But I did want to raise awareness for some of the issues plaguing the American public school system, mainly because I felt there were some parallels between these issues and those affecting the protagonist’s development. Some of these issues include assessing labels to complex things which reduce them into easily-classifiable stereotypes, ignoring child abuse/neglect even when it’s painfully obvious, pushing kids to master subjects/tasks when they don’t have the requisite skills to do so and calling them failures when they don’t achieve… While I didn’t have a specific plan when I started writing the book, I do see now that I wanted to do two things: 1. Give readers a realistic portrait of what’s really going on in America’s public schools without exaggerating or romanticizing anything, 2. Challenge readers to think about the obstacles that are blocking their own development on a personal, professional, and creative

8) Teachers today are retiring early, and seeking other job options. Is this a good thing or a bad thing or are we losing some of the best due to stress?

It’s probably a good thing for them. I can’t imagine myself doing such a stressful job at that age, and after putting in their time, they absolutely deserve a break. I think it’s a bad thing for the education system, however. New teachers need mentors to guide them through the hazards of the job, and if the good ones are all retiring early, that would mean the rookies would have to fend for themselves—in which case, you’ll see more horrific situations like you do in DEVELOPING MINDS…

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