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“Think of me as a coach,” T.J. used to say. He looked the part, comfortable in baggy jeans, short sleeves and sneakers, and his variety of trucker caps, patiently leading a room full of misfits through fundamentals of life. We sat at surplus high school student desks, T.J. at the front of the room with his whiteboard, depending on it as a life line to get him through each lesson plan, step-by-step-by-step.

His diagrams were carefully chosen and explicated. When he felt as if we had mastered a concept he would turn around and thoroughly scrub the board clean, taking a long time while he thought about what next to say. It brought back fond memories of my high school football coach–except T.J. was way smarter.

As this notebook entry shows, the weekly classes were concurrent with my job at the library. Cranking up the ghetto blaster before opening was our favorite way of acting out, and that week it was The Groove Grass Boyz.

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The great thing about T.J. as a teacher was his openness to going off topic. Responding to random questions with his own seemingly random questions, thoughts, and observations. T.J. was quick to pounce if he thought he spied a lesson in a student’s remark, or if something happened locally that might be relevant. Any bright thing to make a dreary topic more lively.

Towards the end of the 90-minute classes, T.J. more than once turned around to check the whiteboard and discovered most of what we were supposed to learn had not happened. It never fazed him. “Next week for sure,” he would say with a smile, giving us leave to go. There would always be another chance. Never-giving-up was the primary thing T.J. taught.

T.J. emphasized that he wasn’t an expert on human relations, or a doctor of any kind. If any of us had serious psychological issues they should seek help elsewhere. His background wasn’t in education, either. World history was his first college major and he had a fine time when he was young traveling around Europe visiting sites of ancient history. He might have gone on doing that indefinitely if not for the Draft and the Viet Nam War. So he joined the Peace Corps. Lots of interesting stories about those days, all of them somehow relating back to something he learned about dealing with people.

After getting his first job as a high school history teacher T.J. quickly realized that wasn’t what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing. He realized that as screwed-up as the Peace Corps was, he had enjoyed the challenge of helping people learn to help themselves. So he went back to college for a degree in Sociology and has had a variety of jobs since then. He was openly ambivalent about his job, its rewards and frustrations.

These notes are from Class #6, in which we’re supposed to make a list of the things you might do on an Ideal Saturday off work, and then re-consider the list for the benefit of people with whom you live and presumably love.

The reality TV show Survivor was still a new thing in 2002. T.J. adopted it as an exercise for our class, dividing us up into groups who must work together to survive life on a desert island. There was a shortage of students that day, so there were only 2 people on my team; me and George, a guy I would never in my life imagine even talking to. Hunting and fishing were his favorite activities, so our survival was pretty much guaranteed.

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There were lots of hand-outs, grainy, photo-copied pages of other photo-copies infinite generations past. Academic studies, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings meant to be taken home and studied later.

T.J. was very clear about the limited scope of what he had to offer and perfectly clear about his expectations. Attend every class you can. Participate when you’re here. Don’t come to class high, drunk, or drugged, because he’s seen all that before. It takes some people multiple times to get that he’s serious about court-ordered Anger Management.

“Be here and be present,” T.J. would say. “Do that 12 times. On the last day all you do is fill out the final evaluation form. If I can read your writing, you get a certificate of Anger Management, suitable for framing.”

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T.J. gave us a brief outline of how 12-Step programs work and their origins in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. He endorsed it, except for the part about needing to believe in a “Higher Power.” He went on about that for some time. “If you feel it helpful to believe in a Higher Power–go for it!” he concluded. “If it works for you, that’s all that matters.”

Civilization And Its Discontents was high on the list of books T.J. recommended for further reading. He told us about the split between Freudian and Jungian therapy, and how Adler separated from both of them. He covered William James, the rise of Behaviorism, B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning  were dealt with dispatch. He talked about the growth of self-actualization programs in the 1960s. He went into some detail about the development of drugs to modify behavior and the multi-billion dollar industry that has grown out of it. His conclusion was that psychology is not a science, there are no sure cures for anything, and that the field will always be changing.

It was rather a lot to pack into the first 60 minutes of our first class. Then T.J. talked about the history of personality profile tests, emphasizing that the results can mean a lot or can be useless garbage. “Garbage in–garbage out,” is a phrase I recall, because he went off on a brief tangent about the history of computer processing. The point T.J. labored to have us comprehend is there’s an infinite variety of personality tests and they all depend on the willing cooperation of the person being tested. Then he passed out a 100-question personality profile. We had 30 minutes to finish and then were free to go.

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