I've never cared for small talk.
Small talk in the dentist's chair is even worse.
"So where do you work?"
"Where do you live?"
"Do you have kids?"
Meanwhile, I'm thinking the answers and then spitting them out in between suctions. Lovely conversational flow.
Through the broken small talk I manage to answer that I have a four year-old son and then the inevitable next question comes...the one I never quite know how to answer correctly:
"So, any plans for a second kid?"
I think to myself "Yes, there were plans and there was another child but he didn't arrive. And, yes, I still want another, but I'm scared."
I know this is NOT the answer she (or anyone else who asks in small talk conversation) is looking for. I know it would be too much and so I usually push the real answer away and, for the sake of keeping conversation going, just say what's easier: "oh yea, sure, probably one day here soon."
But I hesitate this time giving the canned response because even just thinking it brings up that familiar pang of guilt: I've glossed over my experience with my unborn (but not non-existent) second son as if he didn't matter--exactly what I feared would happen when we first learned we had lost him.
Maybe I had too much time to think in between suctions on this one or maybe I was just tired of trite conversation, but I decided to respond differently this time--to risk her possibly feeling uncomfortable in order to honor him and my own feelings. "We did want another and were expecting him this past February but we learned that we lost him early in the second trimester."
She didn't stiffen or stumble on her words; instead she stopped what she was doing, pulled her mask down, and leaned in close. She whispered, "I'm so sorry, I know that feeling, I had the same experience in between my two children. I'm so glad you said something because no one ever wants to talk about it." And that's when the REAL conversation began. The energy between us became completely different, we talked like two girlfriends at a slumber party: wide-eyed and leaned in close and finishing each other's sentences. Not because we're excited about what happened but because we found someone who could not only relate but was willing to talk about it.
When I headed out to leave we smiled and nodded to each other. We were no longer strangers but connected in some unspoken way.
The point is this: had I passed on TRUTH in favor of small talk and surface-level conversation, we could've talked for twenty minutes yet still left strangers. It makes me wonder if this is part of why so many of us feel disconnected from each other. It makes me wonder what would happen if we all traded small talk for being a little more real and vulnerable with each other. We'd probably find we have a lot more in common than we think.
If you're a teacher-mom like me, you know there's no sweeter feeling than the very first morning you open your eyes and realize it's summer break! When it hit me this morning a big smile spread across my face--not because I'll be away from the kiddos I love to teach or the coworkers I love to laugh with, but because summer means...
HAPPY SUMMER TEACHER-MOMS, ENJOY! 😎
I teach at the same school my son attends & with the craziness of the end of the year approaching—events, report cards, conferences—I’ve been switching my teacher/mom hats pretty frequently lately. It can get a little hectic but one of the many blessings of being both a teacher and a mom is that it gives you the ability to see both perspectives of two really important & challenging jobs.
Just recently I was added to a Facebook group that a local parent formed in support of teachers with the purpose of advocating for an increase in pay, and it’s gaining popularity quickly. Despite now being a Montessori teacher no longer part of the public sector, I care about this mission because I was a public school teacher for ten years, I'm a parent and concerned citizen, and I fully support any movement that stands behind teachers in general, regardless of where they work. But after being added to this group and observing the posts, I realized that, regardless of whether the pay raise comes to fruition or not, perhaps the greatest value of this group is the feeling of support it provides--5,000+ community members saying "we see your value and stand behind you".
It's a promising movement to witness. The parent-teacher dynamic has been an interesting one to observe in my years of teaching, both in the public and private sector. It's really been a mixed bag--parents who show their support, those who do not, and those who seem to land somewhere in the middle. I've witnessed such incredible support from parents over the years and it comes in a variety of forms. I appreciate that support whether it comes in the form of meaningful heartfelt words, gifts, or volunteer hours--whatever way they are inclined to express it. What comes through all of it is "I see you...I recognize what you're doing and value it".
But it would be ignoring the elephant in the room not to acknowledge the contention I've observed as well over the years, on both sides, between teachers and parents. For some, the parent-teacher relationship has become fractured. While it's the small minority, I have encountered parents who entered our relationship from day one with defenses up--a wall I knew I'd have to work to break down, and I've often wondered if it comes, at least in part, from their own negative experiences with school growing up.
The worst case of this I've ever witnessed was in a group meeting years ago involving a father & several staff members with the purpose of coming up with a plan on how to best support his son. He entered the meeting, having never met most of us, with such anger and distrust that I knew it could only come from his own history of negative experiences in school. He later revealed that was the case--he had long ago lost trust in teachers and school staff. Without that knowledge coming in, we didn't stand a chance in helping him or his son before we even got started.
Ideally, the relationship between parents and teachers should be one where respect is mutual and they work as a team toward one common goal: the growth and well-being of that child they will share for 10 months. If every open house or meeting started with each side voicing that as the mission statement for the year or the intention for the meeting, maybe any resentments that either side has coming in could begin to be diffused.
I've heard parents over the years who say "teachers don't support my child"--these are the ones often labeled "difficult parents".
Likewise, I've seen weary teachers who have many years behind them expressing sentiments like "parents just don't support teachers"--these are the ones often labeled "disgruntled ".
We see this labeling and generalization of groups in many areas of our culture: in politics (Republicans labeling Liberals as __________ and Liberals labeling Republicans as __________), religion, race...you name it. But, in my perception, all of it stems from the same cause: a feeling of "you're not seeing me, you're not hearing me" over the years that builds up and leads to deep resentments, and those resentments create walls. The taller the walls get, the harder they are to break down, and that results in a sort of learned helplessness. In other words, after enough negative experience or frustration with a particular group, we begin to generalize the whole as "bad" because dismissing them is easier than the energy it takes to remain open-minded, open-hearted, and consider people on both sides as individuals.
The only solution to division in politics, race, and yes, even the parent/teacher dynamic, is to be willing to break down that wall of built up resentment whether it's on the parent's end or teacher's end. And the only way to do that is to be willing to see things differently--for teachers to begin looking at parents as individuals and parents to look at teachers the same way, considering them on a case-by-case basis.
I'm a teacher and a parent and I can say that one of the many reasons I respect the opinions of my son's teachers is that I know firsthand everything that goes into this incredibly difficult and important job. It's like my sister who used to wait tables--she's the best tipper ever. Why? Because she understands all that goes into the job--she respects it. Someone who hasn't done a particular job may be ignorant to all the challenges it involves beneath the surface. And I believe the lack of respect we receive from some members of the community—not all—stems from exactly that: an ignorance as to the level of skill, training, multitasking, organization, time management, creativity, and patience it takes to do this job well.
But, when it comes to poor relations between any groups, isn't ignorance often the root cause?
A lack of understanding?
Assumptions rather than facts?
Not having walked in the other’s shoes?
Lack of respect is often bred through ignorance, and ignorance comes from lack of information. So part of our responsibility as teachers is to inform the public—including the parents of our students—of our credentials, certifications, and expertise. At Open House each year, I hand out a personal letter to parents that includes my philosophy & mission for the year and, attached, a resume of my education, experience, and training. It’s not bragging or showboating, it's communicating "your child is in the hands of a highly-qualified professional”. If your doctor has his or her credentials hanging on the wall, you should too as a professional. Some teachers may argue "why should I have to sell myself to earn respect?" I see it more as facilitating a paradigm shift that needs to happen in the way the field of education is perceived, valued, and respected.
What I believe teachers have been trying to work toward for so long is not just higher pay but the recognition of two main points: #1-that the job we do carries an incredible amount of responsibility and a workload often not proportionate to the time alloted and #2- dispelling the notion that certain caretaking/service jobs should be done for "the love of the game"--the idea that, if you ask for more fair compensation, you are not "in it for the right reasons". Yes, many of us (including myself) are primarily driven by love for what we do and who we serve but, at the end of the day, this is a career--a line of work. What we do is of great value--perhaps THE GREATEST value. And we choose every day to not only teach them rigorously but to put their safety first, even as the job continues to grow more and more dangerous by the day. We are not asking to be millionaires, we are simply asking to be able to breathe a little easier at the end of the day having worked a job that carries so much weight.
But let's be real, these are not new ideas--these points have been raised over and over and over again throughout the years. I'm not sure the message falls on deaf ears, people hear the words...I just think the perception is the problem--that we're somehow whining or complaining, rather than raising valid points that warrant consideration.
This raises an interesting but important question of why that perception is there in the first place. Others will undoubtedly disagree, but I believe that part of what’s behind this perception is that teachers are a predominantly female group. If members of a largely male-dominated field ask for more compensation, they are often perceived as advocating for themselves, while we are perceived as complainers. I can't help but wonder if this has to do with a larger collective perception around how people perceive men vs. women speaking up for what they need.
The movement I feel happening at this time in history, in so many arenas, is about ending generalizations about whole groups of people--whole genders, whole races, whole political parties, whole professions--and to move toward respect over ignorance for that which we do not know. When it comes to compensating teachers in a way that more fairly matches their level of responsibility and workload, I cringe when I hear the phrase "the fight for higher pay". Who are we fighting? Our public? Our public includes other school staff, our classroom parents, our neighbors. The term “fight” immediately invokes defensiveness in those on the perceived "other side". News flash: there is no other side. We, as a community, are in this together for the collective good of our children. When teachers can pay bills without robbing Peter to pay Paul they can sleep better at night, they're less stressed, they feel valued, "their cup is full"--and that only means better stuff to give to our students.
So no, I’m not really an advocate for "the fight for better teacher pay". Rather, I'm more interested in participating in an evolution of how our work is perceived & valued. This doesn't happen overnight, but when it does and our work is more highly valued by the public, the higher pay will result as a natural byproduct of that change in perception. In a sense, we're fighting the effect rather than addressing the cause.
I think I also speak for many teachers when I say we're so grateful for those of you, like the Facebook group mentioned previously, who already show us that shift in perception--you are contributing to that evolution and you keep us going. We see you, too.
While the word "teacher" is used throughout this post, there are a number of roles that make up a school staff who work just as hard and add just as much value to our schools and are also underpaid : paraprofessionals, extended day staff, custodial staff, school secretaries, front desk, cafeteria staff, I'm sorry I can't mention you all but THANK YOU...we see you, too.
I was born in 1980 and had about the best upbringing ever. Of course my mom would've been awesome in any generation, but in honor of Mother's Day and the popular "Top 10" countdowns of the 80's, here's the top 10 reasons why being raised by an 80's mom was bitchin'. (I apologize in advance for the forced overuse of 80's slang.)
#10-She didn't have to leave the house to workout. No gym daycares for us. She got her aerobics on and her mom on at the same time. As you can tell, good habits rub off.
#9-They fed us awesome food before we knew it was bad for us. All this working out came in handy for the 80's kid. Unlike today, you were winning as a mom if you threw your kids a McDonald's birthday party. Chef Boyardee, Jell-O Pudding Pops, Smurf Berry Crunch, Kool-Aid in ALL the colors (red dye, schmed dye)...sure, they were just a little processed, but no doubt our snacks tasted way better than organic puffs and hummus.
#8-And speaking of not knowing what was bad for you yet, there was TV--and a lot of it. We 80's babies were really the first generation that had access to TV on a regular basis (some of my friends even had one in their room!) and moms back then weren't condemned for parking us in front of it from time to time. Some of my best memories of childhood involve TV: doing Jane Fonda workouts with my mom, having fancy snacks while watching the Miss USA pageant with my sister, and watching MTV countdowns with my friends. And I turned out okay nonetheless--go figure!
#7-They let us adult at a much earlier age (or at least pretend to). They say kids these days are in such a hurry to grow up but they've got nothing on our generation. The way we spent our youth trying to look and act like adults would not be very PC today. At six, I thought I was Krystle Carrington from Dynasty. I owned a faux fur coat and could be found in it on any given outing holding my bubble gum cigarette with one hand (that boasted those fabulous plastic toy fingernails of course) while applying Avon lipstick samples with the other. You could say I had the best of both worlds: the look of an adult without all the stress. My biggest worry in life was whether to apply the "office" or "evening" filter on my Clairol make-up mirror to get just the right look.
#6-They weren't distracted by smart phones & social media. I remember my 80's mom cleaning house, cooking, exercising, working, and playing with me but through all of it I remember her present, not distracted. I feel so fortunate to have grown up in a time when I never had to think "I wish she'd put that down and focus on me."
#5-She let me indulge my 80's fantasies. Through the Thriller jacket phase at 4, the lacy Madonna glove phase at 5, and the never-ending playing of the Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam record at 6, my mom always let me be ME. I'm sure deep down she worried about me singing Madonna songs in my room instead of nursery rhymes, but she was also smart enough to draw a lot of attention to it by forbidding it. The truth was, I had no idea what I was singing about, I just loved the music and that love for music turned into a love of dance, which became one of my biggest passions in life.
#4-We had the perfect balance of parenting styles back then. Every time 80's moms set the milk carton down on the table for breakfast they had to be reminded of missing children, which made them keep a close eye...but they didn't helicopter either. It was a time when it was still acceptable to let us play spotlight until 8:30 at night with our neighborhood friends (without a cell phone!). Where one could argue that kids in previous generations didn't have a voice, we also didn't have TOO MUCH voice--or at least we knew when to use it. My 80's mom had us on a leash, but it extended far and was only pulled back in when necessary.
#3-Our 80's mom looked more like our big sister. During a more materialistic time before yoga pants were all the rage, the 80's mom cared about her appearance yet wasn't as "buttoned-up" as earlier generations. Her style was much more hip--a lot like ours, actually. When I was ten my mom and I shared Benders (not the alcohol kind, the curler kind) and banana clips, slouch socks, and even perfume (remember Love's Baby Soft?) We dressed more like sisters than mom & daughter and I loved it. I'm just glad she never let me get the perm she had.
#2-She was a cooler mom probably because she wasn't so stressed out. There's been many a blog post written about this one. Parenting decisions didn't seem so scrutinized back then--we ate non-organic food, could ride bikes without helmets, and as the saying goes, we've lived to tell about it. And though you could argue that changes like improved bicycle safety and a greater knowledge of what we're feeding our children have been for good, it also meant less pressure for moms of that time. And she didn't have thousands of other moms to compare herself to on social media either.
#1-It was a material world, but I wasn't raised by a material girl. I think back to our modest upbringing and think "how did Mom make sure I had the cool Keds, one good pair of Guess jeans, and the dance lessons I wanted on that budget?" But really I do know how--by doing without for herself. I don't remember her getting her nails done, I remember her doing them herself--and well. She babysat on the side and made us modest (yet delicious) meals so we could have the things we wanted at special times...not all the time. I could expect not to get a toy on any average day at the store but could expect to have the recital outfit and dance shoes I needed. In other words, she mastered getting us what mattered, while putting her own wants second. And that's something that never goes out of style.
Close your eyes and take yourself back to your middle school years for a moment.
No thanks, right?
For almost all of us, middle school was a time of awkwardness and the search for acceptance. It's also a time when a massive shift begins to take place: for the first time peers start to matter as much, if not more, than family. Forming our own identity as individuals and developing a sense of belonging become the basic needs that we're trying desperately to get met.
The awkward years certainly didn't escape me. In sixth grade, my family moved from West Virginia to Florida and, from my eleven year-old point of view, I may as well have been moving to a foreign country--everything about my world suddenly felt different. I figured two things out quickly: that everything that had been cool back home was definitely NOT cool here and that the girls here were way more advanced. A girl in my 6th grade English class talked about smoking and sex--things that weren't even remotely crossing my mind yet. By the end of that first day I'd been made fun of for my accent, clothes, and body. Things were not off to a good start.
There’s two approaches a new girl in my position can take: try desperately to be noticed and accepted by the A-listers or try desperately to just get through each day unnoticed and fly under the radar. I became good at manipulating so that I could do that latter. I made good grades and stayed quiet in my classes so that teachers wouldn't notice me and I found ways to dodge social times before and after school by pretending to be sick. The guidance counselor's desk sat across from the clinic. After awhile I began to dislike the way she traced me with her eyes as I headed there each day.
Finally one morning she struck up a conversation. I don't remember many other teachers' names from back then but her name was Mary Cooper. She asked me if I would help her in the mornings with work and it was during that time that we would have conversations. She didn't grill me with questions about whether I was happy or needed help, we just talked as I worked. I was kind of on to her game but deep down it felt good that someone at school was finally seeing through my act. Over time she helped me develop the skills I needed to find the two things every middle schooler is looking for: acceptance and belonging.
So I look back at those difficult years and I think to myself: Thank God I had Mary Cooper and thank God I didn't have a smartphone.
Because the search for belonging and acceptance can get messy if you have access to pretty much anything and anybody at anytime. A world of information at your fingertips mixed with raging hormones and poor judgment seem like a recipe for disaster. I look at my four year-old and wonder how in the world I'm going to navigate this territory. I didn't have a cell phone until I left for college and it certainly wasn't a smartphone--the world he'll go through puberty in is an entirely different one than I did. Trying to keep up with it & keep control over it feels overwhelming.
When it comes to our kids & technology, there are so many layers of concern: the instant access they have to so much information, the addictive nature of social media and gaming, the “stranger danger” aspect of chatting online, the list of concerns is long. Here's a few reasons why it's especially tricky territory for our tweens & teens:
#1--Hormones & The Adolescent Brain
The ages of 10-15 are a time of dramatic changes in the brain. Hormones are raging so hard that they have a similar impairment on logic as alcohol. Proportionally speaking: if the effect of testosterone in the adult male brain is equal to one cup of beer, adolescent males are walking around with the equivalent of a gallon!* This impairment in judgment often leads to more risky behaviors like skipping class, cheating, or exploring inappropriate content online.
What doesn't help is that the adolescent brain also struggles to make the connection between their choices and the long-term consequences--they often fail to see the "big picture" of things, including how their own behavior affects others. When you ask a twelve year-old boy "don't you realize how your behavior is disrupting the entire class?" and he answers "no"...he's probably telling the truth. We, as adults, have to help them make that connection. The failure to fully understand long-term consequences of risky behavior is especially problematic in the online arena: once something is posted, it's out there--possibly forever.
#2--There's No Escaping It
I can remember during those tough days of almost constant teasing from my peers just counting the hours until I could get home. They would tease me on the bus, walking off the bus, and walking through the neighborhood. But when my feet hit my yard, I could let out a breath of relief. I could relax and get away from it until the next day. At home people loved me, I belonged.
While some teens today can still seek refuge within their own families, they don't have the luxury of fully escaping teasing & bullying just because they’re away from school. Cyberbullying is now the most common form of bullying and the harassment is taking place mostly via text and social media. Had I had a computer or phone back then, even home wouldn't have been a refuge.
#3--The Need for Acceptance + Belonging = Social Media Obsession
The 24/7 nature of the online world makes it difficult for us, as adults, to breakaway. Think about how hard it must be for kids still learning self-control. Add in a yearning for the acceptance and approval of your friends and it can cross over into an unhealthy obsession. Here are some interesting statistics from a survey of teens* in regard to technology use:
With such disturbing statistics, it’s clear that our kids need a place to ask questions and seek guidance, and of course our hope as parents that they will reach out to us for that. But even teens who report feeling close with their parents said they shy away from reaching out to them about these issues. Why? Because they're afraid if their parents know about what they’re seeing or the struggles they’re having around technology, their electronics will be taken away. This leaves parents in a tricky predicament--how do we help if we don't know what's going on?
While these statistics are troublesome, the solution isn’t as easy as cutting out technology use altogether—not only is it nearly impossible to actually enforce, it removes the benefits that technology brings to their lives as well (and it does). Teens who were surveyed about how they feel technology positively impacts their lives reported benefits such as increased confidence, a broader knowledge of what’s going on in the world, & a wider array of friends, from cultures and backgrounds they might not otherwise be exposed to. They also share that the use of text messaging, as opposed to face-to-face conversation, allows them to perfect & accurately express exactly what it is they want to say and prevents the miscommunication of “not getting the words out right”.
According to the girls' empowerment network Smart Girl Society, social media actually has some benefits as well, including increased awareness around social issues and exposure to opinions and beliefs outside those of their immediate family and friends. In other words, social media and other forms of technology open our teens to a wider world--which, of course, can be both good and bad.
Overall, I'm not sure the basics of how we should approach responsible internet & social media use is all that different in the long run than how our parents approached other topics of concern with us...for the most part, maybe the old philosophies still apply:
At the heart of responsible technology use is self-discipline—a great thing to model for our kids. A mentor of mine shared that the word discipline comes from the word disciple, which means the student or follower of a leader. Maybe, when it comes to technology, our role should be “leader by example” more than “enforcer”.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic in the comments below or on social media (oh the irony 🙄). For more tips and helpful information, check out the links below:
"How To Teach Your Kids To Use Social Media Responsibly" (Huffington Post)
"Are There Positive Effects From Social Media For Teens?" (Smart Girl Society)
"Parenting in the Age of Online Pornography" (NY Times)
"The Secret Social Media Lives of Teenagers" (NY Times)
*Much of the information from this post came from the knowledgeable speakers at the 2018 Orlando Innovative Schools Summit. Follow them on Twitter for more helpful parenting & teaching tips:
Tracie Berry-McGhee, Therapist/Speaker/Author/Founder of SistaKeeper
Brian Mendler, Speaker/Author/Expert on Working with Disruptive Students
Larry Thompson, Principal/Speaker/Author
Robert Jackson, Speaker/Author/Consultant
Steph Jensen, SEL expert/Speaker/Author
I walked into the spa last week to get a long overdue facial (long overdue in the sense that I'm 37 & never had one before). The aesthetician asked me to lie on the table under a bright light to take a closer look.
“We'll definitely need to work on the dark circles under your eyes--are they naturally this dark or have you had trouble sleeping?"
"Well I haven't had REM sleep since 2014, so..."
"And wow, your skin appears dehydrated...are you drinking enough water?"
I felt a wave of shame wash over me for not taking better care of myself. I wasn't trying to be snarky with her, I'm just tired of everyone telling me I look tired. I want to say "I probably look tired because I AM—I’m a teacher and a mom”.
I had answered a million questions about my lifestyle on the form I filled out beforehand: questions about how much sun exposure I get and how much sugar I eat. Maybe there should be a question about how many kids you have or how old they are. Toddler at home...check. No need for questions, you can assume I don’t have time for regular facials or a stellar nighttime skin regimen.
It's not that I'm neglecting myself because I've stopped caring or don't understand the importance of doing so—I do value myself.
I know I'm a better mom and have more to give when I put myself first.
I know I feel better when I drink green smoothies for breakfast instead of running through the drive-thru.
I know I feel better when I exercise.
I know meditating is a better option than the mid-afternoon second round of coffee.
I know eight hours of sleep is ideal.
I know, I know, I know, I know.
It just seems life is spinning so fast, it’s hard to catch a minute, let alone 20. Or that every time I try to (fill in the blank) ...there’s an interruption.
I dip a toe in the hot bathwater..."MOM!"
I get up extra extra ungodly early to catch up on writing. I take the first glorious sip of coffee..."MOM!"
I finally lay my head down to crash after a long bedtime battle...”MOM!”
But each and every time he calls, I will continue to come running. Because nothing I do in this life holds a candle to him. I'd give my own life up for him, and that's what I'm doing now, in little bits and pieces, here and there every day. And I will continue to stop what I'm doing and come running because it won't be this way forever--there are seasons in life and this, my friends, is the season of tired. The season of the extra ten pounds I always need to lose. The season of only being able to give 80% at work when I want to give 100%. But this season will also pass, as seasons do.
I know there will also come a season when I have the time to take better care of me. And, as frustrating as it is now to give some of those things up, I know that it will also be the season of missing that little voice calling for me...needing me. I’ll feel more rested & might look a little better, but I know my heart will long for that voice calling “Mommy”.
I’m not condoning just throwing in the towel on ourselves…I’m just done being hard on myself and having unrealistic expectations about it--EVERYTHING can’t be your number one priority at the same time. I want to be a great teacher, but I probably won't get teacher of the year in this season. I want to be healthy, but I probably won’t stick to a 100% clean diet in this season. I want to be a good wife, but I'm not exactly fulfilling his every fantasy in this season. Seasons for being the best at these things have been around before and they'll come around again. Right now I'm at peace with forsaking excellence at everything else so I can nail it at momming in this small window of time when I need to most.
I'm still going to fight the good fight--I pack myself healthy lunches, I wear make-up and take my hair out of a clip most days (ok, some). I write in little pockets of stolen time and, even though it probably does little good in the long run, I still exercise a couple times a week just for my own sanity. I'm under no illusions that "here and there" is how you get results at any of it. But here and there is better than not at all, I figure.
What I am giving up, though, is the shame that I can’t sustain it daily and kick ass at all of it, whether in front of the aesthetician or in front of myself in the mirror, because my reason is NOT laziness or lack of drive. It's a conscious choice to be the there fully--whenever needed--for my boy, in this short season of tired.
Earlier this week, as one of my students shared her biographical research report on Walt Disney, I remembered writing my own paper about him in sixth grade. My family had just moved to Florida from West Virginia and, having always been fascinated with all things Disney, I was super excited to now be living a little closer to the magic. I worked my tail off on that paper--I did my research, wrote in my neatest cursive, and just to throw in some flair, I cut out some pictures from Disney books I had at home and glued them to the cover for decoration (this was long before the days of internet cut + paste). I included my own dreams of working at Disney World one day in the conclusion. I anxiously awaited my teacher's response, but she was not pleased. "I'm shocked to get this level of effort from you...you normally hand in such great work. Cutting and pasting pictures from a book? You're going to have to do better than this if you plan on working for Disney one day," she laughed. She was wrong. It turns out you really don't have to work that hard, you just have to look the part.
I showed up at Disney's Human Resources office just looking for a job--any job. I graduated from college a few months earlier and taken a very grown-up job where I got to wear a suit and have benefits and bring home the same amount of money every week. The problem was, I was working for a jerk of almost Weinstein proportions. He crossed the line one day and being a naive and insecure 24 year-old, I didn't report him, I just walked out. I was living on my own and needed a job fast. Luckily there was one place in Orlando that was always hiring.
Originally I applied for a job related to the type of administrative work I had been doing. But as I looked over the available positions, the auditions for character performers kept calling to me. I felt silly even considering it--it didn't exactly feel like the most responsible choice to leave a job with decent pay and benefits to work at a theme park. But as I started reflecting back on my dreams of working for Disney as a child and my love of performing, I figured that if this is something I wanted to explore, now would be the time to do it.
I decided to audition as an equity performer, a non-character role that involved dancing in parades and shows, but it became clear quickly that I was way out of my league. I grew up taking dance lessons but it had been quite a few years and it showed. After the first round of cuts where I was quickly eliminated, one of the judges asked me to move to another room and audition for a character role as Alice. I went into a room that was full of wigs and costumes, sat in what looked like a salon chair, and watched as the cosmetologist transformed me with a wig, make-up, and dress into Alice. It was funny that out of all the Disney characters out there, I was watching myself become the one that had been my favorite growing up. I returned to the audition room as Alice, did a much easier combination of dance steps (thank goodness), tried my best attempt at a British accent, and then waited with the rest of the performers to see who made the cut.
As it turned out, I did. They informed me that I'd be performing at various parks and hotels within the resort doing parades and meet-and-greets. I'd have to work at least full-time six days a week to make ends meet, but I was excited to take on a new adventure. Just like Alice, my curiosity had led me there and I was even more curious to see where it would go.
As a performer, you only actually work 20 minutes of every hour and I often worked 8-12 hour days, so there was a lot of time to fill. There was a green room with magazines and TV but I tired of that quickly. Out of boredom, I began exploring the employee library and it was there that I discovered a whole genre of books I had no idea existed. They were dedicated to nothing except bettering yourself: the self-help section. I had always been so confused by life and these books seemed like they had all the answers--why had nobody told me about this?! I spent 40 minutes of nearly every hour reading everything I could find. I was learning way more about myself than I'd ever learned getting my psychology degree.
It was also at Disney that I discovered my easy connection with kids. Working with adults had been hard, but kids were so much fun and it was a very rewarding feeling making a child happy, especially one whose last wish was to meet Alice. The Make-a-Wish program is very special and those kids will always hold a place in my heart. One day I was telling a fellow performer, a former teacher, how much I was enjoying working with kids and she suggested I look into teaching as a career. It was right around Christmas and I was beginning to tire of the long hours performing and few days off, so a change was sounding good. I also felt like it was time to move onto something that had career potential. I applied for a Kindergarten position at a school in Orlando just to see if I would get an interview and I did. The interview was on a Friday and went a little like this: I see you're breathing...can you start Monday? I hadn't really been prepared to take a job that quickly, but after meeting the class I couldn't say no--everything in me was saying "yes", as it had a couple years earlier when I auditioned for Disney. I was at another fork in the road and curiosity was calling to me once again. I started teaching and never looked back.
If I learned anything from my Disney experience it's to always follow your curiosity. Yes, one could say I've bounced around a bit in my life--my love life, work life, and creative life haven't followed a straight line, but it's all informed where I am now and I've gathered wonderful experiences and memories along the way.
I heard something in a TED talk once that has stuck with me--Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on finding your passion entitled "Jackhammers and Hummingbirds". She spoke of how some people are born knowing exactly what it is they want to do with their lives--knowing precisely what their passion is--and they go after it with a laser focus until they achieve their goal (those are the jackhammers). Others, she proposed, are made more like hummingbirds. They are guided by their curiosity. Rather than chase one particular burning desire, they explore what they feel called to do until the next thing calls to them and they travel around this way, bringing the experiences and knowledge they've gained from one thing into another--cross-pollinating--and in this way, usually stumble into what it is they're meant to do...for as long as they're meant to do it. She argues that there's not one "right" way to be, but just two different ways of being. This resonated with me and I've since embraced the idea of following my curiosity rather than try to fight it.
I remember a conversation with my therapist in my early twenties that went something like this:
"I see my friends knowing exactly what they want to do, settling down, getting married...I want to explore so many things...I could never see myself doing the same thing or being with the same person for the rest of my life."
"Then don't," she said.
"But isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing? Choosing a job...choosing a place...choosing a person?"
"Says who? Don't worry about what everyone else is doing, you're not them and you don't know their reasons for their choices--it could be those are the choices that make them happy or it could be they are choosing these things because they feel they should...either way, it's none of your business. Follow your own path, your intuition will guide you in the right direction. What feels right for you?"
"Not doing what they're doing...at least not right now."
"Then don't. Unless or until it does. You'll know."
I'm so happy I listened.
Approaching life this way has meant that I got to experience so many things I wouldn't have otherwise. I wonder where I'd be today had I stayed at that miserable job because it was the logical thing to do. Or accepted an invitation to marry my then-boyfriend because my friends were all getting married, when my heart was clearly saying no. Diverting off the main drag to explore the side road of my curiosity at different points over the years has led me to adventures I can't imagine having missed out on. It led me to Disney, to teaching, to Montessori, to my son, to my husband (our story went like this: he walked in a room, I wondered "now WHO is that?", and then set out to go find the answer). I'm still interested in finding more out about him, and that's the beauty of following your curiosity. It doesn't have to mean bouncing around from thing to thing, it can mean rediscovering something, digging deeper...that is, as long as you're still curious.
This is one of my favorite pieces of wisdom because I’ve found it to be so true in my own life. Any problem I've stuffed down, pushed aside, or ignored, only came back stronger until I dealt with it.
The "escalating whispers" in my life have come in many forms over the years, but one I continued to ignore most was the call of vulnerability — to allow the world to see me as I was, the real me, flaws & all. I spent most of my life having only surface-level friendships but very few close friends...and never really a best friend because the criteria for being someone’s BEST friend is intimacy.
My biggest fear for most of my life was someone not liking me, so I made sure I acted in whatever way necessary in order to be well-liked. And, for the most part, I succeeded. I was well-liked, just not well-known.
My wake-up calls to make a change came in many forms: the fizzling out of friendships, the break-up of relationships, and the recurring loneliness that came with not having a best friend to call when things got tough (that would require admitting things got tough). But the whisper I felt most repeatedly—like a nagging that grew stronger & stronger—was the urge to pursue my passion of writing.
The desire to write in itself wasn’t the problem, the problem was I had no interest in writing fiction novels, poetry, or newspaper editorials. My desire was to write about my own life--thoughts, observations, and feelings about the lessons I've learned and also stuff I'm going through in real time--a very ill-fitted dream for an introvert that has difficulty being vulnerable. Maybe that’s why the desire was there in the first place...maybe my soul was screaming to run free and be authentic while my mind kept tight hold of the reigns. Eventually I surrendered to the nagging & started a blog.
But this would be a safe blog, I decided. I would be careful not to share too much and the way I figured I could accomplish this was to only write about my experiences as a teacher. This way, I figured, I could satisfy my desire to write without divulging anything too personal. I wrote with the intention of helping--I offered tips & suggestions and, looking back, the tone read a little like this: “here...I know a lot and I am going to teach you all I know.”
While I did have some knowledge and experience to share that had value, my writing was devoid of connection, realness, and personality (you know...ALL THOSE THINGS THAT MAKE PEOPLE WANT TO READ STUFF). I began posting and realized pretty quickly that the only thing worse than having people hate what you wrote is to have them ignore what you wrote. I hardly ever had interaction with the posts I published and my readership dwindled instead of growing.
This all changed through what I now see as an act of grace. One day I was feeling super frustrated with ALL the madness that comes with being a mom & teacher and thought “oh my God I’m going to explode if I don’t get all this off my chest.” I sat down and wrote for the first time with NO rules— whatever came to mind went on the page. It was the fastest I’ve ever written anything, the words just flowed. When I was done and read it back, something felt different...good. Despite my usual inclination to keep my shortcomings to myself, my gut told me to share the post. And what did I have to lose? Virtually no one was reading my blog and if I was likely quitting anyway, I may as well make this my last post.
A little under an hour later I picked up my phone and saw that I had over 20 notifications on Facebook (that was a lot for me). My heart sank. “Oh s**t!” I thought, “what the hell did I just do?” I logged on to my blog page and couldn’t believe what I was seeing: the post had gotten over several hundred views and been shared over 20 times in less than an hour. (Commence panic attack)
I immediately had what Brene Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover”. I was embarrassed and filled with guilt for sharing with the world my frustrations about my personal life as a teacher, wife, & mother. I also regretted putting out there to the world that I didn’t have it all figured out—far from it actually. I wanted to unpost it, to take it all back, but I knew it was too late. I dreaded reading the comments, where I’d surely gotten slammed for sharing so much.
But as I read them, I was shocked that not one was negative. Most were along the lines of “thank you, you put into words exactly how I'm feeling.” I realized that the vulnerability and realness that came through when I wrote from my heart is what people had connected with. That’s what had been lacking in my writing, and in my interactions with others, all this time.
Connecting with people in this way was more satisfying and fulfilling than I could ever put into words--that connection was what I had been searching for my whole life, I'd just been going about it the wrong way. Showing my imperfections, letting my guard down—the very things I thought would drive people away—drew them to me. And my writing became the one place in the world where I felt I could go and be totally free.
This realization changed the way I approached not just my writing, but the relationships in my personal life as well. From that point on I made it my number one objective to stop trying to be perfect and just be REAL. I retitled my blog as my full name and decided that the only rule I'd have for my writing this time around is that there are no rules. I knew I could trust myself to be vulnerable and share in a real way, while still knowing what what was to keep private, just for me.
The whispers and nagging stopped as my outer life began aligning with who I was behind closed doors. I thought I mastered that whole vulnerability lesson until a new opportunity presented itself to take it to a whole new level. Isn't that always how it works?
I am now testing the boundaries of just how vulnerable I can be by trying for another baby after experiencing a loss. Knowing what that pain is like and still saying "yes, I'll take the chance of going through that again to experience the joy that’s ALSO possible" has required a BIG leap of faith for me. The ultimate act of vulnerability for me will be to hold a positive test in my hand and decide to choose faith and hope every day for forty weeks over fear.
When I was in the process of reaching this decision, I happened to watch the biopic Jackie about the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What I hadn't realized before watching the film was that she had actually been the mother of five children, not two. She miscarried with her first child, had a still born daughter her next pregnancy, went on to have Caroline and John, Jr., and then gave birth to a boy that only lived two days. What's even more remarkable was that she lost her husband only three months after her son's death.
And I'm worried about getting hurt again? I'm wondering if I'll survive it? It seems anytime I'm caught up in the drama of my own life, I'm humbled by someone else's story. That’s the power of sharing our stories, sometimes it puts our own into perspective.
Some may wonder why she put herself through this again and again after experiencing such loss. I believe this is the power and strength of the love that comes with being a mother. We lay our hearts out there (sometimes again and again) for our babies, despite knowing the pain that could come.
Loss aside, just the daily experience of motherhood in itself is a constant opportunity to practice vulnerability. I heard someone say years ago that once you have a child it’s like walking around with your heart outside your body. I don't know what the ending to my story will be, I just know there's a nagging that's whispering to my heart, once again, calling for me to be vulnerable as a mother this time...to let my guard down & take a chance on love.
I guess there really is such a thing as being at a loss for words.
It's been a little over a week since the tragic shooting at a local high school that killed seventeen people. I've sat down to write every morning since and continue to just stare at a blank screen. Surely I have something to say about this, right? As a teacher, as a mother, as a human being with a conscience? I'm rarely at a loss for words--words are how I make sense of things. But with this...it's so BIG. In addition to trying to quantify the sadness of it all, there are so many issues that I feel played into this and it's just so entangled and messy. Where would I start? What could I say that wouldn't sound trite or oversimplified?
I log onto social media and see other people declaring they've found the answer to the problem of why this kind of violence is happening and what we can do to solve it and they all seem so sure of themselves:
It's gun control.
It's arming teachers.
It's lack of parental support.
It's that we aren't addressing mental health issues enough.
It's lack of discipline.
It's lack of mental health resources in schools.
It’s lack of social-emotional skills.
It's lack of God.
I even read an article declaring they had found the common denominator in all these shootings—they were all boys. So let's add that to the list:
It must be our boys.
Is it copping out or being non-committal to the issues to admit that I don't feel any one of those is solely to blame? What if it's not black and white, but really gray--all these issues interplaying with each other to get us to this place?
So, if I don't have a solution to offer, I asked myself what's the point in writing about the matter at all? Am I just to throw my hands up and do nothing? What came to my mind when I asked myself that question was my own experience with grief. I remember people saying "Sorry I didn't show up, I just didn't know what to say, I couldn't help you figure this out." And I remember thinking in response, "But I didn't need you to fix anything, I just needed you to be there, to show up." So rather than not show up at all, I decided to just be here and admit whatever it is I DO know: that I don't have words for grief this big and that there are ways I can help, but a blog post on social media is not going to be one of them.
What I don't want to model for my students or my own child is that we handle grief and loss during times like these by turning to our phones rather than toward each other, using the anger and helplessness we feel to debate policies with people whose minds aren't going to change anyway. I want them to see that changing the world is not something we're going to do with a blog post or article. I want them to see me taking action in the ways that I CAN help: to take my little corner of the world--my students, my son, those I interact with daily--and make sure every day that I'm doing what what I feel can help make a change.
I can continue teaching coping skills for the students who now feel anxious about coming to school, share mindfulness practices that reduce anxiety and promote empathy for others, and have students participating in activities that help not just ourselves but our school and community. And, yes, while these types of activities are strongly encouraged in the Montessori environment, I have many friends in public schools doing the same things--I've seen tremendous growth in the public school environment during the last decade toward understanding that the need for social-emotional skill development is just as important as academics. It may not be every school, but the movement is growing.
I also think to myself, though, that it takes more than just promoting what I want to see--that it's also about taking action toward changing the things I don't. As a teacher, I can commit to looking out for the good of all by making sure that there are not just resources, but also consequences, for those who choose not to participate in making the school environment safe. I can make sure I don't become complacent when I'm seeing and hearing things that feel like red flags in my gut. I remember years ago being frustrated by the delays and inaction of the people I was told to go through in the chain of command, trying to get help for a student who, I felt, needed it urgently. I relentlessly followed up and, when I was finally met with a very firm "you need to stop calling there's nothing we can do at this point", I went to my principal. When I did, I was lucky that our leader recognized the need and, suddenly, there was action. It's extra time, it's inconvenience, but if we've learned anything, it's that there's no room for complacency.
Of course, there's the other side of being a teacher-mom: my part as a mother. I know that within that realm of the things I can control, there's that small task of raising a human who will add good to the world, rather than take it away. I may not be able to control everything he ends up doing in this world, but I have to know I tried my hardest. And, if he's ever the one I fear would put others in danger, may I be brave enough to not be in denial--to recognize that and get him the help he needs in order to keep others safe.
What feels different about this particular shooting, at least for me, is that the aftermath feels different—maybe even hopeful. It feels like more people are actually taking action this time rather than just debating policies. I follow an author, speaker, and activist whose message is that, to put an end to tragedies like these, peace and acceptance is the path, yet I also see her on Twitter making demeaning and even threatening statements to politicians whose actions she does not agree with. For those who feel driven to take action politically, it's so valuable for our kids to watch us do our part to bring about change in ways that are productive and model the very behavior we desire to see in them.
Whatever issue we're passionate about, whatever our little corner of the world looks like, there are so many ways that we can take this energy and use it for good. Whatever we decide to do, our children, as always, will be watching. I hope to show them that in times when we feel grief and anger, it's okay to admit we don't have the answer, but we can still show up. This is all I know.