Sunday, February 14, 2010


Thought I'd share another Lost Post from the Amazon archives...

When I was a junior in high school, I had a grade advisor (who shall remain nameless):  a woman who loved to complain.  You'd trot down to her office, allegedly to discuss your future, and she'd start babbling:  "I don't know why I took this job. I have kids of my own.  I can't take this."   I’ll never forget one encounter when She Who Must Not Be Named asked me what I wanted to do when I got out of school.  I said I either wanted to go into art or writing. "Look at these English grades," she huffed, dismissive and contemptuous. "Forget being a writer. Go into art.

Inspiring, wasn’t she?   
I was never a great student—or even a particularly good one.  By the time I entered Midwood High School, I was sullen, cynical and psychologically damaged.  The guy whose favorite activity was to sit in the back of the class glowering at everyone else.  (I also had a raft of learning disabilities.  In those days most people had never heard of learning disabilities, so there was no one around to say, “Hey—I think I know why you’re struggling.”)  No surprise, then, that I wasn’t exactly the cream of the Midwood crop.  New York City had three types of high school diplomas back then.  There was an academic diploma for the kids heading on to college; a commercial diploma for the kids moving into the business world; and then came the absolute bottom of the barrel:  the general diploma—for the kids riding the express train to obscurity.  Or maybe jail.  Or maybe both.  Over the course of three years I fell, with a total lack of grace and a deafening thud, from academic to commercial to The Dreaded General.
Perhaps my supreme frustration, as I tumbled into the high school abyss, was that nobody really saw me. Not their limited perception of me, but my deepest, truest self:  call it the Authentic JMD.  (Our Great Educational Institutions aren’t fond of subtle distinctions, they’re all about generalized type-casting:  “You’re an A student, you’re a moron.  Now get back in line!”  Once you’ve been typed, there’s very little you can do to shatter the mold they’ve squeezed you into.)   For some magical, inexplicable reason (well, maybe not so inexplicable—but I’ll get to that later), I came into this life knowing who I was and what I wanted to do and nothing, absolutely nothing, was going to stop me from doing it.  But the Powers That Be at Midwood—embodied in She Who Must Not Be Named and many more like her—could have cared less.  Every day became a battle to hold on to that Authentic JMD; and, as time went on, I found myself losing the war.
Then an angel descended into my life:  my eleventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Kimmelman.  Perhaps because I was able to express the Authentic JMD through my in-class writing, Mrs. Kimmelman got a glimpse of the kid behind the sullen mask.  She nurtured and encouraged me.  Let me know that I wasn’t a drudge or a drone or an empty-headed dolt.  That I mattered.  And she made sure that, in my senior year, I was put into an honors English class.
It was in that senior honors class that I encountered another Guardian Angel, a teacher—Mr. Benowitz was his name—who became a true mentor to me, both creatively and spiritually.  He’d invite me to join him for lunch and I’d spill my guts, ranting and raving about life, the universe and everything for thirty or forty minutes a shot.  He, in turn, would nod and then drop a Pearl of Wisdom that would seep into my confused brain and, occasionally, set off a brilliant flare of awareness.
In Mr. Benowitz's class everyone was expected to keep a journal, which he would read and comment on.  Despite my initial reluctance, journaling was one of the single most liberating  things I ever did.  I’d lock myself away in my room and write and write and write and write.  Whatever I was thinking or feeling, I would scrawl down in a mad fever, raging—as only a hormonally-imbalanced seventeen year old male can—against society, the government, religion, my fellow humans and the God (if there even was one) who seemed intent on making my life utterly miserable.  I also wrote short stories.  Well, at that stage of the game I could never actually complete a story, so I would write these utterly bizarre, truncated pieces which usually ended up with somebody killing their parents or turning into a monster and exploding.  My journal was filled with page after page of wonderful, terrible, embarrassing, hate-filled, despair-ridden, illogically hopeful adolescent angst.  It helped me to grow as a writer—in the writing life, there’s nothing more important than being unafraid to expose your naked psyche on the page—and, even more, it helped me as a person.  My journal was my lifeline.  It kept me sane.  (The other things that kept me sane were books, comics and rock and roll.  Writing a song was even more liberating than journaling.  And, when it came to catharsis, nothing could beat being in a band and playing Neil Young’s “Down By The River” really, really loud.)
What these two teachers gave me, how their encouragement helped heal my wounded spirit, can’t be underestimated.  They truly were angels in my life (the truth is, She Who Must Not Be Named was an angel, as well:  her opposition to my dreams only fueled my passion to manifest them and that, too, was an incredible blessing).  The fact that I’m writing about them more than thirty-five years later speaks volumes about the extraordinary impact they had on my life.  But equally important—no, more important—was my ability to know myself.  To have faith in myself, in my creativity.  In my dreams most of all.  I've come to understand that this faith in ourselves is one of the greatest gifts we can receive—and that it comes directly from God (which means, of course, that I was never as alone as I often felt.  Something I began to understand by the end of senior year.  But that’s another story—covered, in depth, in my graphic novel, Brooklyn Dreams.)
It’s been my experience that our most passionate dreams—the ones that hold tight to us and never let go, no matter what terrifying hurdles we encounter—come not from us, but from the Divine.  It often seemed, in those days of struggle and opposition, that the whole world was conspiring against me.  With time and wisdom I came to see that there was a conspiracy:  a benevolent conspiracy that guided me, sometimes gently and sometimes with a firmer hand, over the hurdles and onto a path that was perfect for me.
I know there are people out there who feel the same way I once did (the way I still do on those days when my spirits lag and my faith depletes):  ignored and forgotten, crushed and frustrated.  If you’re one of them, I want you to remember that the universe is much bigger, and far more compassionate, than it sometimes seems.  And that self-knowledge and self-belief trump the Nay Sayers every time.  There really are angels out there, some of them shimmering—winged and golden—just beyond the periphery of our vision and some of them standing—flesh, blood and imperfect—right in front of us.  When they appear in your life, allow them to help you.  Surrender to the Benevolent Conspiracy.  And never relinquish your dreams.  The magnificent dreams that God is dreaming in us, through us and as us.

©copyright 2010  J.M. DeMatteis


  1. Wonderful piece, JMD. And an inspiring thing to read.

  2. A strong belief in my faith is that of opposition. One of the reasons we are in this existence is to learn and grow. You can't build muscle without resistance. You can't know light without understanding dark etc...

    Thank you for this post my friend. I needed it. I feel like lately I've been learning a bit too much of the dark.

  3. Thank you for this post. You have been a flesh-and-blood angel for me today. I will start creating again.

  4. For me, Nicholas, the key to what you're saying is reframing the whole idea of opposition. Rather than seeing it as something blocking our path, I think we need to see it as opportunity in disguise. I don't claim to be a master at this -- far from it! -- but it certainly helps to keep it in mind.

  5. Very happy to be an Angel For A Day, Libby. Next time it's your turn!

  6. I read this the first time around, and it never fails to encourage. Perhaps apropos (but not coincidentally, I'm sure) I've been reading Chesterton's THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, which also details a grand benevolent conspiracy.

    Thanks for the reminder that we should not only take encouragement from the conspiracy, but also do our best to help others find their authentic selves.


  7. You're very welcome, David.

    If you enjoyed THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, I encourage you to listen to Orson Welles' 1938 Mercury Theater production of Chesterton's story.
    You can stream or download it, for free (and it's legal!), here:

    I suspect you'll enjoy it.

  8. Hey, thanks! I'll definitely do that.


  9. Will do.

    I've got it downloaded on my MP3 player now!

    Time permitting, I'd like to get around to some of the other Welles productions there as well.

    I'm a sucker for Shakespeare!


  10. Welles' Shakespeare productions were amazing, David..and there's quite a bit of it at the site.

    That said, I would have loved to have been there to see the groundbreaking theater productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar that he did in the 30's.

    His Shakespeare movies are also wonderful... especially CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. The sad part is, CHIMES -- which is probably Welles' greatest film -- is caught up in a legal mess and is very hard to find. And it's almost never shown. I was lucky enough to find a video copy of it some years back. Absolutely brilliant. And Welles the actor was never better.

  11. I was quite like yourself in school and remember the painful moments all too well. I was grateful for every Mrs. Kimmelman and Mr. Benowitz that helped me get through life's hurdles at such a young age and feel blessed by those who still nurture my adult self to this day. Anyone who challenges our ideals helps strengthen them as well. Thanks for this beautiful essay, Marc.

  12. It's really astonishing, Frobman, the effect ONE PERSON can have on our lives. It can impact us so deeply and continue to echo on down through the years in incredibly positive, and often miraculous, ways.