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Lessons From a Crack Addict Who Broke Free

Anchor 2


Five years ago, Rory spoke to my students at the Alternative Learning Center in Rochester, Minnesota, for the first time. To enroll at the ALC, ninth through twelfth grade students have to meet at least one of the following criteria: 

  • perform substantially below grade level

  • be behind in credits for graduation

  • be pregnant or parenting

  • have experienced physical or sexual abuse

  • be chemically dependent

  • have mental health problems

  • have been homeless recently

  • have withdrawn from school or been chronically truant

  • speak English as a second language or have limited English proficiency

I often invite motivational speakers into my College Success class. Our school intentionally offers a section because so few of our students opt for Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, where they can enroll in classes at the local community college for free while still in high school. I needed to develop their inner belief that they can have goals past high school, and they can go on to further education if those goals require it. Week after week, with each new class, the students and I get to know each other through regular journal writing. I read their entries, sometimes blinking back tears, and mentally stagger at just how deep their wounds run. 

A student shared that her parents were in Mexico and she was living here with her uncle. At home, she frequently heard she was worthless, lazy, and incapable. Another wrote of transferring to the ALC when he was caught selling weed at his home high school. He was kicked off the hockey team—his mental health lifeline—and was angry at the world. Another spoke of his freshman year when his dad was in a coma and he had to help his mom decide whether to pull the plug or not. He’d been withdrawn and numb ever since. I read stories of addiction, toxic relationships, foster homes, bullying, depression, suicide attempts, anxiety, moving around… They all had one thing in common: a world of hurt. Life after graduation was the last thought on their mind. They were just trying to make it through the day. 

Throughout the year, I invite in various speakers recommended by colleagues to help my students get unstuck, even the tiniest nudge forward, and open a new way of thinking about themselves and who they want to be. When the speaker finishes, I ask my students to write a letter to them to share any connections or takeaways. Usually, they write for about five minutes, politely stack their papers, and pack up their bags.

With Rory, it’s different. He has a presence. He walks in wearing a black, tattered Rory’s Home Improvement hoodie with white paint stains. He’s a little over fifty, stands at five foot nine with a small frame of one hundred and fifty pounds. When he’s ready to start, he gives his shaved head a couple of nervous pats, slides into an armchair at the front of the classroom, and gets down to the students’ level. 

“I’m here to tell you my story,” he begins, “and it’s a fucking good one.” He looks straight at them, holding his gaze with as many souls as he can. When he continues, he moves his whole body while talking a mile a minute. It’s never scripted as he trusts the memories will come in the order he needs them for the audience in front of him. A different compilation of snapshots always leads to the same message: he made it and you can too. 

When Rory’s talk ends, I smile as I look around the room. Heads bent down over loose-leaf paper, a rush of writing. I finally call time so they won’t be late for their next class. There’s something special here, I can feel it—a strong pull between speaker and audience.


In 2020, with the looming threat of the Coronavirus, we moved to distance learning where I taught from home. That winter, I emailed Rory asking if he would be willing to be a virtual class speaker. A few days later, I received a gut-wrenching response from his assistant: Rory was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He had good days and bad, and right now, it was a bad day. The words blurred heavy across the screen. I was devastated. 


I sank back into my chair and thought of Rory sitting on my classroom floor with his knees tucked close to his chest as he spoke. If I was lucky, someone would have just run a dryer, and I could scoot up to it like this to stay warm. Then he would slowly stand, pointing to the imaginary laundromat and say: I own that now. It’s my office. And every time I pass that spot, I remember where I came from. One day at a time, he’d made it. 


But now this. How could a person bear much more? I sent Rory a message of gratitude for sharing his time with our students over the years. I was glad to hear he was slowly improving and managing his pain.


I made it through the school year despite wave after wave of new COVID-19 protocols, even teaching students quarantined at home and in the classroom simultaneously. Outside of school, I was managing my kid’s tantrums in the toy aisle over a Hot Wheels car he just had to have. I was ready for an outlet. 


That summer of 2021, I saw a group running laps outside of Burn Boot Camp, a local gym. I felt a pull, but with a rush of self-doubt. Growing up, I groaned every time the P.E. teacher assigned two captains to form teams. I knew I’d be the last kid picked. I was clumsy and couldn’t run or catch a ball. These formative experiences shaped my thoughts about what I was physically capable of… which wasn’t much. But now, desperate for time to work on myself, I signed up. 


When I looked around that gym, people could lift heavier weights, jump squat, and hold perfect form. And there I was, bent over and gasping. A few months in—and I’ll never forget this day—one of the stations involved jumping onto a twenty-inch black box. The modification was to step up and down, and that’s what I did without a second thought. After a few minutes, the trainer came over and asked if I’d like to attempt the jump. My answer was instinctual: I can’t.


He kneeled beside the box and gently encouraged, “I’ll be right here. You can do hard things. I’ll catch you if you fall.” There was no time to think. I took a deep breath, silenced the negative noise in my head, and jumped. My feet hit the edge and I fell backward, but he steadied me. I could hear sympathetic recognition all around me. “Go again,” he said. “Focus on bringing your knees up high. Swing your arms up for power. You can do it.” He didn’t know that decades of negative self-talk were flowing through me, that his words were helping to rewrite mine. I stared at the box for half a minute, trying to build up courage. I swung my arms and jumped with all I had in me. I landed it to claps and cheers. 


Maybe it was how the trainer’s voice in my ear reminded me of Rory’s as he jolted my students out of thinking they’d never be able to move on from their situation. Or maybe I was riding the high of being capable of more than I ever thought. But that night, I voiced to my husband what had been rolling around in my head for a while: I think I’m supposed to write Rory’s story. I told him about Rory, how he had changed course in life, and about his cancer. I had no professional writing experience, yet there was something compelling me to do this before it was too late. Sharing the idea aloud scared me. I sat in uncertainty till I repeated you can do hard things long enough to email Rory at the start of the new school year: One, can we set a date for you to speak to my class, and two, I think I’m supposed to write your story. I received a reply soon after: Yes and yes—I think it’s time.


We started meeting on Saturday mornings at his home improvement business. His memories came flooding back, and I listened from the perspective of an ALC student and a teacher. We met for months, and soon, I had over a hundred pages of shorthand notes and many hours of video footage, not just from Rory. I had the opportunity to interview those in his inner circle as well—his wife, daughter, brother, friends, and former sponsees. 


With young kids at home, it was difficult to carve out time to craft these notes into a motivational book, so I took a chance. I applied for a sabbatical leave for the 2022-2023 school year, and it was granted. The sabbatical committee, the superintendent, and the school board recognized the impact Rory’s story might have on others. I hope that impact continues to go something like this: 


Student Letter #1: “Rory, you’re a reminder that it doesn’t matter if others say I’m not going anywhere in life. What matters is what I believe. Not many people try to see me at eye level so they don’t know what it feels like to struggle. I know a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do what I do for myself and my family while going to school and working at the same time. I needed to hear that my struggles are actually a sign of my strength… and to try to snap out of the negative mindset that I’ve always had.” - Emma


Student Letter #2: “I connected with how you were exposed to horrible things when you were younger. I struggle with addictions and past trauma and you showed me that I don’t have to be stuck in this place forever. No matter where I come from, I can always better myself. And even though you were going through a hard time, you’d think of others and how to help them, and that helped you too. I want that.” - Mario


Student Letter #3: “My mom has an extreme alcohol addiction, and I’ve been feeling suicidal. You told us that we could do whatever we wanted, that we don’t have to be our parents, that we can write our own story. It made me believe in myself again and to feel less alone.” - Angie


Student Letter #4: “I’ve always struggled with school. So when I pictured myself working with animals, maybe as a vet tech, I’d erase it from my mind as quick as it came. I’m working at a Kwik Trip gas station right now and figured it’s what I’ll keep doing. But hearing your story of how you’d sleep on the streets and then owned your own business was like opening a door I didn’t know existed. I’m still scared of my future and just talking about it makes my stomach turn, but I want to start putting myself out there now.” - Grace


To anyone crushed in the quicksand of I’m a failure, I’m lost, I’m a bad person, I’m defective, I’m unloveable… I can’t, I won’t, I’ll never—I hope this collection of learned truths from Rory’s life moves you to try, not just to exist but to live


When the book begins, we follow Rory in his addiction till he’s bent over with the weight of his failure. Though he couldn’t see it at the time, these experiences led to the twelve hard-earned life lessons that followed. Through each, he slowly recovered the belief that he mattered. Each lesson title is a phrase from Rory’s story, one that comes up most often as I go about my day—simple but so impactful in forcing me to pause and carefully consider what I’ll say or do next. That is Rory’s legacy: to inspire, to lift, to change, to move. 


I will ask of you what I ask of my students: When you hear his story, what connections can you make? What are your takeaways? What does it move you to change in your life? The reflection questions in the Appendix encourage an even deeper dive into Rory’s story and ourselves.


When Rory first shared that he often thought of writing a book from his experiences, I asked him why he hadn’t yet. Sweta, I can’t focus on one thing for more than two minutes. And imagine a Canadian goose pecking at the ground? Well, that’s me on a keyboard with two fingers. With Stage IV lung cancer, I don’t know that I’ve got the time for that. So he let me. Together, we connected the dots from his past to present and brought new meaning to his experiences. I’ve purposely chosen to tell Rory’s story in his voice so readers can sit with him, eye to eye. I want you to listen, laugh, and cry with him, just as my students and I have. 


Where Rory’s story ends, mine begins. When I started this project, I intended to simply record his memories. My first outline was strictly chronological. It was both an addiction/recovery story and a rags-to-riches tale. But over the course of our interviews, I knew his story had even more to give. I began practicing his messages and something magical happened: I gained confidence. My relationships with students and in my personal life deepened into meaningful, authentic connections. In fact, with Rory’s voice in my ear, I had the best interactions with students in my fifteen years of teaching. In the Afterword, I chronicle these transformative moments—moments where I felt genuine, present (and not living in my head), and ready to say yes to life. His lessons aren’t for the addict alone.

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