Her name may be Jessica and she may be a recovering alcoholic, but this Teacher of the Year has more courage than any 10 warriors.
Alcoholics and addicts crave consistency. Oh sure, it looks as if we prefer our lives to be constantly going off the rails (otherwise why would they always be doing just that?). But in truth, we'd rather have a regulated day-in and day-out. That's especially true in our sobriety. Where we'll gladly make three meetings a day every day just to give our lives some kind of structure.
At those meetings (when they're around to be at anyway), we'll almost always hear stories of real courage. People stepping up and baring their soul for the world regardless of what that world may say, do or, more importantly, think. Yes, thankfully, addiction's stigma is lessening. But even in the rooms one can feel a sense of judgement. And if we're being judged among our peers, just imagine what rains down upon us in the so-called real world.
While candor takes courage regardless of the profession, some real world lives are trickier to navigate than others. Consequently some stories take a warrior's courage to tell. And when you hear such stories you've no choice but to sit up, catch your breath and say "Oh. My. God."
This is one of those stories.
Teacher of the Year
No, that's not a typo. Our featured recovering alcoholic was indeed Kentucky's 2019 Teacher of the Year. Her name is Jessica Dueñas. And she's not just a great educator. She's also a true warrior.
One doesn't get to be Teacher of the Year by accident. You've kind of got to build your entire life up to it. And the Brooklyn-born Dueñas did just that. Working and hustling and schooling in the Big Bad Apple. Earning a Bachelor's at Hunter College and a Master's at Brooklyn College before setting off to Louisville, where she earned Educational Specialist certification at Bellarmine.
Dueñas must've liked Kentucky, because after a couple years teaching back in Brooklyn, she returned. Dueñas' first stop was in Jefferson County. From there she want to Oldham County Middle School. She's been teaching Special Education there ever since.
Apparently though that's not all Dueñas teaches. Seeing an English-language need for Spanish-speaking students, Dueñas stepped up to help there too, creating a special hour-long class and, if necessary, even tutoring the kids at home. No, she's not officially authorized to teach ESL classes. She wasn't paid for the additional work either. She's just that kind of teacher.
"The incredible selflessness that she shows to her students is exemplary," said Oldham Country Middle School Principal Alissa Richards. "Jessica is just a gem. She goes above and beyond consistently for her students and families and community."
Indeed. In fact, Dueñas was a two-time Teacher of the Year finalist before finally winning the main prize. Meaning, yes, she was singled-out and recognized in every one of her three years at Oldham County.
Her Darkest Secret
Dueñas credits her parents with instilling in her a reverence for hard work and perseverance. In a back-handed kind of way, she also credits her alcoholism.
"For years, I've struggled to balance my life with my addiction," Dueñas writes in the Louisville Courier-Journal. "To cope with guilt, I worked diligently to be the best teacher, the best employee, the best at everything, because it helped me sleep at night."
Yes, it may sound counterintuitive, but what Dueñas calls her "darkest secret" was also largely responsible for her overachieving. And she diligently kept that secret buried beneath an avalanche of accolades. She didn't even tell her family.
"I hid my disease from everyone possible," she writes. "The very idea of someone telling my story without my consent was terrifying. The fear was crippling. What would others think of me? Would I lose my job? Would my students and their families turn their backs on me? My family and friends? What about my mother? She has always been so proud of me; my sister and I are her "American dream" children."
When a "friend" threatened to out her on Twitter, Dueñas just about snapped. After winning Teacher of the Year, she didn't just about anything. She simply did snap.
"I was struggling so much under the pressure of a new position and teacher-of-the-year responsibilities that I had a relapse," she writes. And everyone who's ever been in a room immediately understands. They also sympathize. Then when Dueñas decides to let her family in on her "darkest secret," the room-keepers applaud.
Then again, Dueñas had spent her entire holidays in rehab, so she really didn't have much of a choice. Still, it was a huge move.
It just may also have saved her life.
A Recovering Alcoholic
Dueñas was still "ashamed" of herself. And "disgusted." She hadn't accepted her illness yet either. Despite the proverbial cat being half out of the bag. She got a boyfriend. Also in recovery. And she tried to hold on.
Then came COVID.
"I assumed we were going to have an extended spring break," she writes. "And I anticipated an excellent opportunity to catch up on work. I hoped to build further on my relationship, get some well-needed rest and have an excuse to order food from local restaurants."
Not quite. For anyone. She relapsed first. Or maybe he did. It doesn't matter. What matters is that her boyfriend never returned from one of his relapses. She found him in his Louisville apartment. Blue in the face.
"I saw him lifeless, and there went my sobriety," writes Dueñas. "At that moment, I thought my dreams of a future vanished, dreams of marriage and a family, just gone. I was utterly devastated and horrified."
And alone. Significant other gone. Family a long, long way away. No meetings. No classes. And no routine. Things went even more downhill from there.
"Since the spring, I've experienced seven hospitalizations with stays from three up to 35 days," Dueñas writes. "My summer of 2020 was a complete blurred wreck that almost killed me. And I would have accepted that fate at that time."
And yet. Every time Dueñas thought too much was just too too much, something -- or someone -- stepped in. There's a word for it. Support. And little by slowly she "tried [her] best to move forward."
Thankfully COVID permitted one good thing: working remotely. Dueñas went back to Brooklyn and the loving arms of her family.
Oh, she once tried returning to Louisville. To the life that she'd built. The career that she loved. But she just couldn't. In fact, even the idea of going back "filled her with trauma." So she resigned.
Dueñas' last day as a Kentucky teacher was December 4th.
The 5th marked the first day of the rest of her life.
Oh, Dueñas will teach again. Of that the world can be sure. But right now she's decided to fully commit to her recovery. "I know I made the best decision ever," writes Dueñas.
"Today, I stand proud of who I am and embrace all parts of me," writes the proudly recovering alcoholic. "My recovery will no longer be my secret. Instead, it is my story to share, to tell others that we all deserve a fighting chance at a good life no matter how many times giving up feels like the only way out."
"Death is never a solution to any problem we have," she adds, "no matter how overwhelming it may feel. Always lean on others for help; we don't have to suffer in life alone."
"Recovery is possible; if you fall eight times, get up nine, fight for your life, you're worth it."
Applause for the Warrior of the Year
Recovery Boot Camp wholeheartedly applauds Jessica Dueñas' sobriety, as well as her immense and unmitigated courage. It takes tremendous bravery to face the demons day-in and day-out. To do so from such a position, with so many eyes upon you, takes an entire platoon's worth of bravery. Dueñas shows she's got that and more to spare. And we wish her all the very best in the world. And then some.
How about you? Are you battling alcoholism or addiction? Have you decided to commit to sobriety? Can you see yourself as a recovering alcoholic? Do you have true warrior spirit? Would you like to get it? Then please give us a ring. We'll help you help yourself. So you can go on and slay dragons. And most of all live a full and fully fulfilling life.
(Image courtesy Blue Diamond Gallery -- with great gratitude.)