Live a while, and you experience loss. I would call Michael J. Napoletano a deep friend. We met when he transferred to my school for sixth grade. We haven’t quite parted, though he died three years ago. His illness and death dealt my family and me a bitter taste of loss because he’d become part of us.
If we are fortunate, we all have such a person in our life, but the catch is that someone is going to suffer down the line. A life fully lived is bittersweet.
Today is Michael’s birthday and seems a good occasion to return to writing this weekly post after a short break. (My new knees are doing well, thank you!) We talk about him just about every day, so he has never quite left the building. He had no acquaintances. He didn’t allow anyone to remain in that status.
Michael played many roles in my life, in the lives of my wife and children, and in the lives of his legion of friends. He made people comfortable and enabled them to feel listened to and welcomed. I’ve been thinking about just how much that matters in life. It can lead to key turning points.
When one feels that sense of welcome and belonging, one is more likely to be oneself—to be a bold version of oneself. And that empowerment is what we need when we learn and grow, whether that learning occurs in an educational setting, a personal relationship, or a moment of truth—such as recovery from substance use disorder, from criminal life, or from any of the other traps in life. We might reach a moment when we can actually make a difference for ourselves (and others), but without the capacity to go forward at all costs, we may never make that next step. Often another person plays the role of helper or enabler, be they a teacher, counselor, parent, or friend.
Michael would have laughed if I ever told him that he empowered me. Those who knew Michael know that he also would have hurled some richly obscene insult at me. Perhaps I might have ventured into new arenas in life without his indirect impact, but I know that with him as my muse, audience, and cheerleader, the odds for me taking bold action increased. He never told me to do a darn thing, but my experiences with him changed my views about myself and about what I might attempt. I hope that I’ve had similar impact on at least some of the students I’ve taught and counseled.
Such life learning and growth doesn’t always go like clockwork. People are complicated and life is messy. We screw up. That’s why we need people who give us second, third, and fourth chances. And sometimes even more. Michael gave chances whenever he could.
If we can be Michael for someone, we do a lot.
I miss him bad. The loss of Michael will never be filled; however, I’d be a fool if I didn’t recognize and treasure the lasting impact he continues to have in my life and in that of so many others.
Do you have any Michaels in your life? They might be a best friend or someone you encountered once. Honor them with a response to this post. Tell us about the difference they made for you. I believe that by studying such human connections we can learn much about learning and change. That’s why I wrote Open Admissions and that’s why I stay connected with you.
Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the “Turning Points” weekly blog on nedbachus.com. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. Bachus’s article, “Learning From Turning Points in Our Teaching Lives,” was featured in the May issue of NEA Higher Education Advocate, which reaches over 150,000 college faculty in the U.S. http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/1901eAdvocate_ThrivingFinal.pdf