Still Here – A Tribute to Charles Jefferson

Charles trying to blow one last time

“Don’t look at me…”

I think towards the man sitting next to me, as we soar some 25-30,000 feet up in the air. Tears overwhelm my eyes.

“It’s not fair.”

Those are the only words that cross my mind.

“It’s just not fair,” I whisper to myself as I finally give in to reality.

Charles is never coming back, and I have to accept that.

I look out the window, watch the clouds pass slowly by, and tears fall uncontrollably.

Seattle, one day earlier

I’m on a ferry to Bainbridge Island. It takes about 30 minutes to cross, and the ride is usually relaxing.

When the sun is out, the Sound is breathtaking in a subtle way. If you’re not paying attention, you miss it.

Ferry Ride - the Sound

I’m on my way to see Charles and Cyndy, two people who have been influential in my life and work. Two people that are family to me.

In times past, I’d head over to talk about big ideas and how we could make the world a better place to live.

But not this time. This time is different.

EHAS

I first met Charles and Cyndy at Cleveland High School back in 1998. I just started working in social services with homeless youth, and my boss asked me if I could attend a meeting there.

Cleveland staff were looking for alternative ways to reach “difficult” students. There were five of us in the room. I don’t remember what was discussed, but Charles and Cyndy approached me and told me about EHAS (pronounced ē-häs), their alternative program for students with challenges. I made an appointment to stop by and see their facilities.

EHAS was located down in the basement of the Madrona Church. I walked in and right away I noticed how comforting, really welcoming this place was.

The entire space was divided into sections. There was a classroom, a music studio, musical instruments, books, and various prints adorning the walls. It was a wide open space, and Charles welcomed me with a smile and asked if I was ready for the “dime tour”.

We all sat down, and Charles explained how EHAS worked.

Students would get suspended or expelled and be referred to EHAS. If students “cooperated” with the program, they would be reinstated back into public school.

What does “cooperation” mean?

I witnessed engaging dialogue about life, discussions about the nature of reality, politics, corruption, racism, self-empowerment, finances, building a professional network, and the power of the mind.

Charles talked about how music is the gateway, a universal language for the mind. After classroom discussions, there were some exercises, and eventually, youth would enter the studio and express what they learned through music.

Their teaching style brought the shy student out of her shell. Low self-esteem would dissipate over time and confidence would emerge in some who had given up. Some of the transformations were just flat out amazing.

At the end of every program, there would be a completion ceremony celebrating the students and their journey. Charles and Cyndy would explain the program to onlookers, pass out the music CD they produced in class, accompanied by a professional portfolio of their work.

Parents would marvel and share their perspective of their child’s journey and a Seattle Public School’s representative would speak. Some youth had probation officers who added their testimony, usually perplexed at the positive results themselves.

Through music, Charles and Cyndy reached hardened youth, and saw many of their students re-enter the public school system. But more powerful than that, their students left with a renewed sense of purpose.

Every person has a song

I remember Charles explaining what EHAS means, and it immediately stuck.

Everyone
Has
A
Song

In Native tradition, the elders say that every person has a song. Everyone has a purpose. Everyone has a voice inside, waiting to be expressed in a way only they can do it.

Charles and Cyndy found unique ways to help youth find it within themselves.

I was convinced. I soon joined their board, and not too long after, contributed my time for spontaneous, pop-in workshops for students and curriculum development.

Charles-isms

Charles happily played the game with youth. He had a great sense of humor and an infectious laugh. He also stuttered and would proudly declare it in front of students who suffered the same affliction to make them feel at ease.

Despite all the changes and new faces that came through those doors over the years, Charles always had his script down pat and adapted on the fly. As a jazz musician, Charles was used to improvisation, and it found its way into the classroom effortlessly.

He would start sentences with, “Once again,” as if someone had violated a sacred principle and he had to retell the lesson. He also affirmed it when something was proven “once again.”

However, there’s one phrase that will always be etched in my mind:

“We’re still here.”

He said it after Seattle Public Schools turned EHAS down for more funding.

He said it after getting low-balled on contracts despite the results they consistently achieved.

He said it while struggling financially after both he and Cyndy poured their heart and soul into EHAS over 18 years.

“We’re still here.”

It was a statement of defiance. You know that cockroach? The one that just can’t be killed, no matter how much you try? That cockroach would use this phrase.

“We’re still here.”

It was always “we” to Charles. He and Cyndy were a formidable team. They were complimentary in almost every way. Charles trumpet, Cyndy french horn. Together, they were a complete symphony.

“We’re still here.”

I always felt a sense of hope after he said it. I don’t know why, but it was the way he said it. It was a rallying cry. It made me want to fight even harder.

“We’re still here.”

No matter what the struggle was, “still here” was a sign of optimism, yet full of rebellion.

Dementia

I guess we all saw the signs. Charles would forget little things here and there. Cyndy talked about how his new prescription glasses never seemed just right.

“Oh, I guess they got the prescription wrong again,” Charles would sigh.

Things would slowly compound. I’d arrive for our discussions and he would greet me with a blank stare. Those stares got longer and longer over time.

Cyndy talked about times when they would drive to the store, and when she came back out, Charles would be sitting in the passenger seat — of someone else’s car.

This was only the beginning of a difficult, trying Job-like ordeal for Cyndy and their family.

There’s no need to go into the details here. If anyone has ever experienced a loved one going through Alzheimer’s or Dementia, then you know how devastating it can be.

It wasn’t an easy takedown. Charles is stubborn and full of pride. He fought and fought, until he couldn’t fight anymore.

Soon, he was trapped behind blank eyes that came to life from time to time. His body soon followed, and now needs to be supported by a wheelchair permanently.

Can you imagine not being able to walk again?

Can you imagine your mind disconnected from your body?

Can you imagine not being able to do what you love? A jazz musician without his trumpet?

Deserve’s got nothing to do with it

Charles and Cyndy gave everything they had to others. All I could think on my plane ride home is:

They don’t deserve this.

Stories like theirs don’t end this way.

But that’s a fallacy. And that’s tough to swallow.

In reality, the world is full of tragedy. People die in terrible ways everyday. Corrupt politicians and financiers exploit the masses with no consequence. Kids are forced to do things that are incomprehensible. Selfishness is the norm. And people who serve others, but barely scrape by themselves, die poor.

Life is NOT fair, nor is it meant to be. If societies can be set up to benefit certain people (and they are), and not others, there’s nothing fair in that. The truth is, Seattle Public Schools didn’t value the youth who slipped through the cracks as much as other students who had more “promise”. The truth is, the “last” in class are the least valued as EHAS and other fledgling programs around the world continue to fight for those students.

“No child left behind” is a societal and political lie. For people who really believe in this concept, for the teachers and educators everywhere that tackle that responsibility, they are often overwhelmed with a tremendous burden with minimal resources and support.

The burden Charles and Cyndy hauled wasn’t fair to them, especially considering their compensation all those years. Especially considering the time and effort they put in. Especially considering the personal cost and sacrifice they made.

They bled for Seattle and its children. All their partners and funders, from the City of Seattle to the Paul G. Allen Foundation, have no idea what they gave of themselves. Sure, they could’ve dropped EHAS much earlier and fended for themselves, but they chose not to.

In the end, they couldn’t let go of all the troubled youth, even for their own benefit. They fought and fought until everything finally broke down. Until they broke down. And when EHAS closed its doors, it was without fanfare, celebration, or even a little dap of love.

They left quietly. Things fell silent. And all the lives they touched became a distant memory.

Not long after EHAS faded away, Charles’ reality began to unravel.

Still here

I’m visiting with Charles and Cyndy at the nursing home. Charles is present, as Cyndy and I catch up. Sometimes Cyndy interacts with other residents. She’s familiar to everybody.

I take out my phone and cue up my jazz playlist. We start with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I place my phone on Charles’ wheelchair. “So what” permeates the room and Charles comes alive.

He has intermittent bursts of laughter, smiling, and toe-tapping.

Charles contorts his lips like he’s about to blow. I can hear his music teacher from long ago:

Don’t smile, pull back, pucker in the lips.

Keep your shoulders relaxed; not raised.

Play with confidence.

You must drive all fear out of your system.

Hit it hard and wish it well.

Cyndy reaches for his trumpet and hands it to Charles. Even in this state, Charles is giving his all to blow one last time.

I’m riveted.

Charles trying to blow one last time

We wait for trumpet sounds, but they don’t come. Despite that, the mood livens up in the room for a few moments, and Cyndy smiles.

We both feel his presence.

Charles Jefferson is still here.

Cyndy

I saved the best for last. The love Cyndy has for Charles through all of this… there are no words.

The pain, the struggle, the confusion, all the sleepless nights, through thick and jungle thick… there are just no words to explain this kind of love. None.

Through all of it, Cyndy’s still here, too.

I’m just in awe.

Cyndy+Charles

Epilogue

I wrote some of this post listening to 500 Drums, a piece Charles did back in the day. Charles had reverence for Native American culture (he had a bit in him, too).

He always had a way to make everyone feel included and welcome. He was quiet and to himself when he wasn’t with Cyndy, but still had a presence about him.

I hope to see him again, soon.

Update

It’s been awhile since I posted something. In May, I made the switch from the nonprofit world to a tech startup based in Barcelona.

I write for Typeform, and it’s been a great ride so far, and I look forward to more.

So I’ll be back and forth between Spain and the States.

Until next time.

Paul