For my friend Mikal, an inspiration, who died far far too soon

Rest in Peace my friend, please know that the world was better for you having been here.

Please know that you changed my life. That you taught me important things about being a grownup, a guide, a teacher, a leader, and a friend.

Please know for sure, that I am not the only one. Know that your friends, classmates, peers, teachers–that all of us–were blessed to have known you. You were a young man who could push us to our limits and far beyond.

I cannot speak to the specifics of your passing, which was a tragic accident regardless of the details, but I can speak to your life and in your honor, try to speak the truths, and the be the man, I think you would want me to be.

Before I begin telling your tale my friend, I want you to know that Val gave birth to a beautiful baby girl this week, and that we are giving her the Hebrew name Michaela so that we will always remember and be inspired by you and our time together. Val told Rue and Nate that you passed–you were always so awesome with my kids. It was an extreme week in our house full of sadness and joy, but in my family’s traditions it is considered lucky to bring a baby to a funeral to help carry on the spirit of the the departed.

I also ask your friends, teachers, and supporters to please feel free to post their love and remembrances as well (feel free to send them to me if you have any trouble posting or just want me to do it). Click on the title to view the post with Mikal’s friend’s comments. 

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Dear Mikal,

(A letter that will now only be sent to the winds and be carried only in the hearts of those who come after).

It is certainly no secret that you and I love each other and I think anyone who knows us knows that it is tough love. You have often told guests about how we would yell at each in my office. In answer to my, “Mikal, you are yelling at me,” you shouted back, “Well if you are going to be in my support network, you are going to have to deal with me!” I know I am not the only member of your team to take some heat.

That was you–despite a lifetime of failure on the part of adults who were supposed to support, love, nurture, and care for you–you always believed in me, in us, and in yourself.

You believed in your people. You invested in them. You took action when they needed help and you used one of your great strengths, the ability to get help for yourself, to help everyone around you as well. You would always ring my phone, “Mr. Gabe, Gee needs help, you gotta help my man Gee.” “Mr. Gabe, the basketball team needs…” “Mr. Gabe, see if you changed the rule, the students would…” “Mr. Gabe, I just developed a partnership with this organization for you and this is how it will help all of us…”

You called yourself the CEO when we were together, and you ran your life like a professional. Taking care of responsibilities, working actively to maintain relationships with people who matter to you, and trying to do the right thing at every turn. You made your fair share of stupid choices my friend (what would we have talked about if you hadn’t?), but your heart was the purest gold.

In the name of telling the whole truth like I know you’d want me to, that heart did sometimes get you into trouble. You found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time or over-committed to a shaky cause more than once. A very few tried to accuse you of being out of line, but I witnessed your good heart and honesty proven true time and again.

We have talked at length about the serious abuse you experienced and you have always been incredibly open about the traumas you faced. Man, you had been through it and back again and you never, not once, stopped trusting in the basic goodness of others–we are such fools like that. You always accused me of being naive and I guess I am, because I never expected you to leave me so suddenly.

You lived in homeless shelters and saw your few meager possessions stolen. You were in the care of the Department of Human Services (DHS) for your entire young adult life, and you worked the system to your all. You got the adults around you to allow you into independent living at 16 and then honored their faith in you by being awesome at taking care of yourself (At least until the end. God, I miss you so much.).

I know you wanted to be somebody my friend, I want to make sure that you know you made it there. I was there when you spoke beautifully before the city’s School Reform Commission in defense of your school.  I was there when you told the Commissioner of DHS your story and advocated for system changes. I was also there when you convinced adults around you to live and act differently towards young people. I was there to be inspired and to see you inspire those around you with big dreams of what is possible. You forged those dreams in the deepest experience of what it means to have little, to have to work hard, to have to ask help time and again, and to know that ultimately, you were lucky to have whatever blessed days you had.

I will close today with a famous Arise story that is truly you, Mikal, and one that educators and general readers of my blog may particularly appreciate. I have gone on far too long and you would be telling me that those dummies out there aren’t going to read all the way through and I should have put the important stuff up front. 

One of the first stories I heard when I got to Arise was about Mikal and the PSSAs–a state mandated test that all students must take. The test is high stakes, especially for a tiny young school outside the norms like Arise, and there was significant pressure on all parts to ensure that students took and completed the test. You attempted to inform the proctor, the school’s CAO, that you did not feel able to take the test and when she pushed you to do it anyway, you snapped as so many stressed out, traumatized teens will do (God did I hear you tell this story like a thousand times).

But unlike so many Arise desk flippers before you, after an enraged Mikal turned over the table, you grabbed your test and stormed towards the office where the then school leadership, board members, and visitors from the Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, including its sagely leader and role model Chaim Peri, were meeting. You went from person to person, waiving the test in their faces and challenging them–Can you answer these questions!? Can YOU!?” 

Your rage at the insignificance of the test in the face of the enormity of your experience rang true then and it does now. You always believed that important things should be treated importantly and unimportant things were wasting all of our time.

Mikal, I maybe could answer those test questions, but I will spend a lifetime answering the much harder ones you have challenged me with–What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to be successful? Why do bad things happen to good people? And most importantly, how do we justify our unshaking hope and optimism that the world will be better tomorrow if we work for it? How do we keep our faith when we are faced with such sudden, and senseless loss.

I was so lucky to have my few blessed days with you, Mikal. I will always remember then lessons you taught me. I will work relentlessly hard and be relentless in improving myself. I will be responsible to my family and to my friends and I will treat them with love everyday. I will make sure that those I love know it as I know you did and as I certainly did. I will try so hard to follow, just a little, your model as the responsible friend willing to make the calls, texts, chats, to maintain an important relationship. I will continue to speak truth to power and I will defend those who need it with all of my energy, passion, and love.

Your grace lives on in me, my friend. You rocked my world, I will will miss you terribly, but I will live my life with joy and hope in your honor.

I love you.

Mr. G.

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6 comments

  1. Omg Me. G that was really really nice I read the while thing honestly if it was something else I wouldn’t have but I know that kel is watching over me you really just made me cry it’s really not easy loosing someone your age and someone so sweet honestly if it was somebody else I don’t think it would have touched me like this but the fact that it was somebody I know was determined and was going to make it to the too of the world made it hard to understand I still just sit and wounder why kel tho but what I do know is God put his son here for a reason and Mikal touched all of the lives that it’s was ment for him to God wanted his son home so he called oh him , and kel took his hand if Heaven had a phone he would be calling je telling him to send him the latest clothes and phones lol
    I love you kel

  2. Hello Gabriel, I was cleaning my desk and was about to toss the DHS newsletter from November. I glanced over it and didnt read it until today. I saw Mikal mentioned in an article regarding AIC and how some members were going to read a poem by him and he recently passed. I read what you wrote and I was touched and in tears because I could feel your love and pain for this beautiful young man. As a social work professinal for over 25 yrs I can feel his pain and the journey he traveled being a child raised by the system. Despite all the abuse he was subjected to he still had a burning passion to succeed. I am sorry that as an employee of DHS that I am just reading about this young man by happenstance. Peace to you and thank you for sharing your story and rest assured Mikal’s untimely death is a tragedy but you have kept his spirit alive.

    1. Thank you so much for your post, Ms. McMillan. In my time at Arise I had the opportunity to meet and work with so many caring workers. You are on the front line every day and I think those outside the field would be amazed to know of the range and depth of the support you provide and must provide, to help keep our struggling young people in the social service system on a path to stability, confidence, and health.

      Thank you again for everything you do.

      Gabriel

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