The Immortal Legacy of Lisa Laitman

Lisa Laitman retired from Rutgers in January. I’ve long said that she should not only have a statue at Rutgers, but at every college and university that has an alcohol and drug assistance program on their campus. We honored her at the 2022 Rutgers Recovery Graduation in May. I told this story to a room of about 250 people.

Lisa began working at Rutgers in 1983 as the first alcohol and drug counselor in the school’s history. She was asked to cover New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, and the Vice-President of Student Affairs wondered if she’d have enough work to justify her job. Crazy. Within a year there was another full time staff member and within another couple years there was a full time staff member at Newark and a few years after that there was a full time staff member at Camden. More staff were added. All because of her ability to treat and advocate for students. Thousands of lives saved, family directions altered. She pushed for an on campus recovery house. College officials said, “All dorms are substance free” and “What would this say about Rutgers that we need a recovery house.” Fools. Anyway, the first recovery house on a college campus in the world opened up at Rutgers in 1988. There were growing spurts and pains. Occasionally a moronic administrator would come along and try to stop funding the program. Lisa always won. Rutgers was the first. Now there are over 200 that have program or are trying to have programs. Because of Rutgers. Because of Lisa. I can’t write enough about her, but this story will have to suffice.

Spring 2010. A few students in very early recovery are chatting after a Narcotics Anonymous meeting on the Cook Campus. A car drives by. Slows down. “Hey, look at the addicts. Hello junkies.” An arm is thrust out of the window, holding a can. “Would you like a beer?”

I hear about it the next day. I’m fucking furious. I think how if I were there I would have wanted to chase after the car, open the door, yell at the two assholes and render a furious beating. Hopefully I’d realize that I’d lose my licenses, my job, and get arrested. Luckily, I wasn’t there.

“Did they get the license plate?” I asked, super hopeful.

“Yes,” Lisa responded.

“Great. Fuck them. We’ll get them kicked out of school and have a permanent mark on their transcripts. Let it follow them where ever they go. The fucks.”

“I have a different idea,” Lisa said.

I sighed. “What’s that?”

“I want you to reach out to them.”

I liked where this was heading.

“Call them up…”

Yeah, this sounded good.

“And have them come into your office and listen to them. Talk to them.”

I hated this idea. She could see it on my face.

“And then I want you to introduce them to the students they taunted. Don’t let the students know who they are. Just let them meet them.”

Fuck. She was going to make me work with the people who had mocked vulnerable students freshly in recovery. But she was my boss. More than that. My mentor. Role model. I did what she said. Not because she was my boss but because I respected her so much.

The first guy came to my office. The “look at the addicts” guy. He said he was sorry. Uh huh. Ok. He asked what was going to happen to him. I think I made him nervous. Good. Fuck him. I said I was taking him to lunch with the kids he shouted at. His face contorted. “Don’t worry fucko, I’m not going to tell them who you are.”

About seven or eight recovery students met us at a Skinny Vinny’s Pizza. Average pizza, but close to my office. The students welcomed the misguided young man. They assumed he was struggling and needed help, because he was with me and I brought him to them. They asked him questions. Supported him. Made him laugh. Talked about movies and stupid internet shit and probably bad music.

He came back the next week. Sobbed in my office. Said he felt like such an asshole. Was ashamed. I was glad he cried. But it made me misty a little too. Because I knew he was truly remorseful. Same thing happened with the “do you want a beer” guy. Weeping in my office, about what a fucking insensitive asshole he was. That he mocked people that were so good and kind.

I can’t tell that story without crying. I’ve told it a lot lately. I cry every time. I cried when I told it to 250-some people and Lisa standing right next to me. I wanted to beat them. Expel them. Punish them. She knew there was a different path. A better path. A path towards understanding and redemption. Think of all the horrific people in the United States with their awful political and social values that come from a place of ignorance and misunderstanding. Lisa’s solution might work really well with a bunch of them, but it would require someone like her pulling the string and making it all happen. So, really fucking unlikely.

You might think that the biggest winner in that story was the Rutgers Recovery community. Or that it was the fact that Lisa transformed two shitty dudes into a better version of themselves through a short meeting over pizza. And those are good thoughts. But I was the biggest beneficiary of that lesson, because Lisa taught me that a little listening and conversation and exposure to different people can make people see the error of their beliefs, speech, and ways. I think about that story every week, because I still think about beating on people and punishing them. And I try to remember the lesson that Lisa taught me, all those years ago. And to be better.

Never, ever trust a military recruiter

Those six words are enough, but I’ll expand on it for those that need further instructions.

A few days ago, a friend of mine told me that his kid got a text from an Army recruiter. His kid is a high school senior and never signed up for anything with any Armed Forces branch. Turns out, his high school gave his phone number to the local recruiting station (feels like some kind of violation, but I’ll leave it to some litigious parent to make a huge stink about this kind of behavior).

Back in 1995, I did sign up to be called. I talked to a recruiter and eventually took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). I got a perfect score. The recruiter specifically worked for a Tank Battalion, so I was offered to go to school to be a Tanker.

“Aren’t there any other jobs? Infantry? Intelligence? Psychological Operations?”

“Not right now. The Army is completely full. It’s tanker or nothing.”

Obviously, that guy was a fucking liar. I was sober about 45 days. Neither of my parents had been in the military (my paternal grandfather had been, but he died in 1980). There was no one around to tell me what most service members and veterans know: almost every recruiter is a lying scumbag.

Sure, there may be a good one, somewhere. But finding one is like finding a politician who isn’t influenced by money or a frat boy with empathy.

They lie to meet their quotas. They only care about their numbers. They aren’t there to help someone go to college or get money to help with the family or get trained in something that can actually help in the civilian world.

They lie about bonuses and benefits and duty stations and time off and anything they need to get you to sign the dotted line. They are like Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glenn Ross,” except they lack Baldwin’s hair and charisma and they use patriotism to fuck over the recruits.

On top of all this, there is a whole lot of systemic racism baked into the recruiting and placement process. Way more recruiting stations are in poor and urban areas, which is why the US military has a higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics than make up the general population. On top of that, minorities are constantly pushed into the worst military jobs that in no way prepare them for post-military life. Most of the cooks and truck drivers and fuelers I’ve ever met were black or Hispanic. Those are shit Army jobs.

If your kid wants to join the Army (or Marines or Navy), tell them to join the Air Force. I’m only half joking. In all seriousness though, make sure they talk to another adult who is in the military or who was in the military and can give them some real information and share their experiences.

To close, make sure that the potential recruit can answer these questions:

  1. Why do you want to join? Are you bored or running away from something? Is it the benefits? What are the benefits that are being offered?
  2. What branch do you want to join? Why? Have you talked to veterans from other branches?
  3. What job do you want to do there?
  4. Will that job prepare you for work or school after you get out?
  5. What will you do after you get out?
  6. Do you understand that if you sign a 3 year or 6 year contract and are miserable that you can’t get out?
  7. Have you talked to more than one recruiter?