Are you sick of hearing about our house fire yet?
Don’t worry. I am, too. But bear with me through a final post on the subject.
It’s one I have avoided because I hate to cry when I type. But in the end, this isn’t about me. Not directly.
It’s about an assignment I did with my senior English classes for more than a decade.
On the last day of school, I had my students write letters to themselves which they stamped, addressed and turned in to me. I stored the letters for five years. Then I mailed them back.
My hope was that at the age of 22 or 23, they would read their own words and remember:
What their goals had been. Their interests and concerns. What made them the most happy. What they wished might differ in their lives later on.
Occasionally one of them would ask What if we move?
I had them add alternate addresses in the return-label spot. They’d write email contacts below the seal. I even searched for a few students on Facebook when their envelopes came back to me.
But I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the assignment because it had flaws. I knew some kids would never receive their letters, but I decided that the benefits outweighed the costs.
Then our garage caught fire in January and we lost everything inside. A lot of junk, I’ll admit. But also family pictures and old yearbooks. Boxes from my childhood. Writing journals. Diaries. My wedding dress.
Treasures that remain irreplaceable.
The loss that hurts most, however, is the final box of letters from the Calabasas High School Class of 2008.
This was their year to receive their letters. And I’m so very sorry that they’re gone.
I’m well aware that some students wrote nonsense simply to complete the assignment. Others probably forgot their efforts the moment they handed in their envelopes.
But many took pains to be meaningful. They included poetry and artwork. Phone numbers, prom pictures. A few even contacted me with new addresses, anticipating the day I’d send their letters.
And now they are gone.
Believe me, if I could save only one thing destroyed that day, it would be this box of letters. But since I cannot, I’m writing them this five-year-letter of my own in which I’ll share a few lessons I’ve learned as I move forward in this life.
So here goes.
It’s Mrs. Gardner. Your 12th grade English teacher. You know. The blond lady who was crazy about Hamlet. And all of you. The one who tried to memorize everyone’s name on the first day of school.
Yeah. That one.
I’m going to start with the usual old-person advice for the future.
Examine your life. Change what needs changing and fix what is broken. Important detail: Don’t wait for someone else to do this for you or it will never happen.
Smile and cry and laugh a lot. Both by yourself and then again with others.
Say I’m sorry if you do wrong and when people apologize to you, try to be gracious.
Read a lot, of course.
And get regular check-ups. Eat good food. Keep active but also rest when you are tired. In short, carry your body through this world as if it were precious cargo. Because it is.
You are important to me (still and always) so I ask you first to be safe with your health.
But then I also want you to promise you won’t be safe with your heart.
Take risks and welcome extraordinary opportunities; don’t settle for adequate surfaces. Dig deep until you find what moves the ground beneath you. Love spectacularly, in your loudest voice, ignoring whispered fears that your sentiment won’t be returned.
You are loved already and more than you may realize.
I guarantee that, at the moment of your birth, you began collecting hopeless admirers. So admire them right back; then invite newcomers to join your pack.
Surround yourself with people and things and experiences that are irreplaceable to you, despite the knowledge that such surrender carries with it the potential for great loss.
When you lose something you can’t replace, it means you have connected outside yourself – to someone, some moment, some dream – at a level that cannot be recreated.
But this also means your joys on every other day have been that much brighter and more meaningful for having risked such pain in the first place.
Above all, seek out and spread your light continuously.
Because if that’s not the purpose of life, I don’t know what is.
With great pride and respect,
That crazy Hamlet lady.
(But you can call me Julie, now. Please.)
I like dark comedy. A lot.
So I tried to write something funny about the house fire we had in January.
Gave it the old college try, as they say. Whoever they are.
And the truth is that we have laughed. More than once.
- About the call we received that day from the firewood guy saying he couldn’t deliver our shipment. “I don’t know if you realize this, but your entire street is blocked by fire trucks.” (We were expecting a half-cord of wood when the flames broke out. Hilarious, right?)
-About the bill for the first of several payments on the BRAND NEW BRAKES we’d bought:
(Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s classic!)
Surely a sharper writer could slay a post on the humor that ensues when a family of four (plus two dogs and a guinea pig) are unexpectedly displaced from their home for days, weeks, months. Half a year.
I guess I’m still too tired. Or not tired enough.
But there is a story from that day that haunts me, Scrooge-style. One I feel compelled to share today. I call it A Tale of Two Sirens. Naturally.
Because who doesn’t love Charles Dickens? Besides, of course my 15-year-old son. Nevertheless.
It was best of times, it was the worst of timing.
The afternoon of the fire, Bill had gone for a run, uncharacteristically taking his phone along. (In case the wood guy calls!) When the smoke and flames erupted in our garage, he was on the trails unaware of the drama unfolding at home.
Until our daughter Karly called his cell.
He couldn’t understand her hysterical words. Something about a fire. About our house. Bill began to sprint home hoping he’d misunderstood. Surely we were fine and he’d return to discover I had the situation under control.
Unfortunately, I didn’t. Have the situation under control, I mean.
By the time Karly made her call, I’d surrendered to the inevitable. Our home was burning and I was the adult in charge. The one orchestrating the rescue of our dogs. The one allowing flames and smoke to spread while I struggled to keep everyone safe.
I didn’t want to be in charge, though.
Although the minutes seemed to crawl in my head and heart, the fire department responded quickly and it wasn’t long before I caught the first faint sounds of sirens coming toward us. Like music to my ears. Our salvation.
At the same time, Bill also heard the sirens. For him, the sound confirmed his deepest fears. His family was – quite possibly – in danger and he was a mile away on foot.
I fought tears of relief; he tried not to vomit in terror. The rest of the story doesn’t matter. Not today.
What strikes me is the truth about two people interpreting the same information oppositely. Bill and I are both intelligent and caring. Well-intentioned. Conscientious. And yet.
While I heard the sirens as a blessing, they signaled to him a horror beyond his control.
At the time, no one could’ve convinced us we were wrong; and now I find myself considering other issues we, as a society, debate. Staunch in our convictions, we listen to the same speech but hear it differently. We read the same words, yet the conclusions we draw diverge.
On the economy. Religion. With sex, love and marriage. On public education. Gun control. The environment. And health care. What constitutes good parenting.
Wouldn’t it be helpful if – rather than condemning each other – we assumed most human beings have strong opinions for a reason? That where reason fails, emotion takes its place?
Instead, we dash off wicked remarks, hide behind anonymous comments, spread misinformation with our sweeping generalizations. We do not offer the benefit of the doubt; we highlight maliciousness and ignorance. Instead of requesting clarification, we claim the other side must be selfish or insane.
Perhaps some of us are, in fact, crazy. Ignorant. Even malevolent.
But a difference of opinion doesn’t make this so.
We can be passionate about ideals, driven to effect change, angry when the issue moves us; but when we engage in vitriol and debasement, we lose the message in the noise.
We risk amassing an army that’s fighting an entirely different battle than we intended.
Society may never reach consensus on controversial subjects; but as individuals, we can resist the urge to blame and criticize. To claim our opponents don’t care about their families. Their country. Our world. We can treat each other with respect, not rudeness.
Less violence, more compassion.
That’s how we give our voices strength, how we lend meaning to the tenets we embrace.
And therefore, going forward – in both my words and deeds – I promise this:
If you can listen to my opinions without cruel words, judgment or prejudice, I will do the same for you.
Even when I’m sure that I am right.
6:00 AM: At buzz of alarm, leap from bed confident that TODAY you’ll work on your novel. (Your NOVEL!)
6:05 Guzzle coffee while checking email for news regarding previous novel. No news. Decide not to worry because the novel you’re writing TODAY is the bestseller. Definitely.
6:07 Check Facebook and twitter. Click on several links but do not read yet. You have IMPORTANT THINGS to accomplish.
6:20 Construct list of many many things to accomplish choosing from standard chores – laundry, dishes, groceries, bills, bank, dry cleaners, dog-walking, poop-scooping, room-straightening. Consider adding coffee-drinking. Decide that’s silly.
6:30 Awaken older child. Prepare his breakfast. And lunch. Consider adding breakfast and lunch-making to chore list but remember you’re not silly. Discover permission slip that needs completing. Skip emergency contact numbers because you will be at home writing ALL DAY. Add permission-slip-completion to list. Cross out because hellyeah.
7:00 Awaken younger child. Make her breakfast which she doesn’t eat. Eat her breakfast.
7:25 Take older child to school.
7:50 Check Facebook, twitter. Check email. Still no news. Click more links. Don’t read yet.
8:15 Take younger child to school.
8:30 Brush teeth. Floss. Consider adding dental hygiene to list. (Silly.)
8:38 Decide you’ll begin writing your novel at 9:00. Check email, Facebook, twitter. Twice. Read open posts. Do NOT comment (because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but you can’t read ALL THE BLOGS since you will be busy writing your novel!). Begin drafting new blog post on hurt feelings in the blog world. Call it blogosphere. Switch to blogisphere. Realize it’s 9:38.
9:39 Decide to begin writing at 10:00. Start laundry load, fill dishwasher, make grocery list. Cross laundry and dishes off chore list. Try to remember if you’ve brushed your teeth. Screen phone calls from friends and family who want to know how your writing is going.
10:00 Open manuscript file. Re-read recent pages. Edit. Remember to change laundry from washer to dryer. Check email, Facebook, twitter. Three times. Close internet to avoid UNNECESSARY TEMPTATION. Return to manuscript and re-read today’s edits. Notice dogs look thirsty. Check their water. They have water. Tell them, “We’ll walk later because I’m WRITING MY NOVEL NOW.”
10:45 Write new paragraph of novel!
11:15 Begin thinking about lunch. Consider asking internet if it’s too early for lunch. Remember internet is closed down. Re-read fresh edits and new paragraph. Read blog draft about hurt feelings in the blogisphere. Decide it should be blogosphere.
11:45 Eat leftover chicken parmesan while standing in kitchen. Check clothes in dryer. Realize you never pressed start. Press start. Put new load in washer. Start washer. Log onto Facebook and twitter to announce you forgot to start dryer. Check email. No news. Still. Yet.
12:30 Text writer-friends. Make plans to meet/Skype/talk about writing.
12:45 Decide you’re too busy to shower today.
12:46 Decide you’re too busy to grocery shop today.
12:47 Realize you have less than two hours to write your novel before after-school pickup.
12:48 So. Check if DVR is set to record Top Chef finale. It isn’t. Visit Bravo channel to schedule Top Chef. Notice Vanderpump Rules is on. Feel disdain for horrible programming. Watch rest of Vanderpump Rules.
1:30 Check email, Facebook, twitter. 27 people have “liked” your status re: dryer failure. Bask in popularity via self-deprication. Google spelling of deprecation.
1:40 Realize you’re still wearing pajamas. Don yoga pants, sweatshirt and running shoes to impersonate someone who has exercised. Or walked her dogs. Do neither.
2:00 Realize after-school pickup starts in 30 minutes. Re-read edits and new paragraph. Edit. Write second new paragraph! Calculate when bestselling novel will be completed at current pace.
2:20 Decide math is hard.
2:25 Be grateful you’re a novelist.
2:30. Depart for school pick-up confident you’ll finish entire chapter of bestselling novel TOMORROW. As soon as you’ve
walked your dogs.
Disclaimer: To those reading – especially my parents, my husband and total strangers – – this post is a joke. Like most writers, I’m a workaholic who never wastes a minute of her day. But as Facebook can attest, I am also a master of self-deprication.
You might have heard.
In fact you may be one of the many, many (many) people who has reached out to us in kindness because we’ve been well-supported and loved beyond all expectation.
Or maybe you don’t know me. Or my family. Perhaps this is the first you’re hearing about our ordinary afternoon that took a turn toward the surreal; about an old power strip sparking in the garage, the flames spreading too quickly for me to stop them.
I did try.
But within minutes our garage and all its contents were gone, my car in the driveway destroyed; by sunset we were told we’ll be out of our home for at least six months while salvage experts repair the damage done inside.
Someday I will share the details here. The sound and smell of our panic. The sight of ashes and smoke. I will put to words the fear, that moment of surrender when I stopped saying This can’t be happening.
Because it was happening. It happened. On Saturday, January 12th, at three o’ clock.
But today is not the day to rehash these details. What matters now is that we’re safe. Together. So instead of mourning the letters and pictures, the irreplaceable items we’ve lost, I’ll share the goodness that’s ensued.
There has been so much goodness. And I want you all to know.
- About the people – at least a dozen – who saw smoke and called 911 then jumped from their cars or emerged from their homes to help.
- About a stranger who tried to corral my terrified dogs before they could run back into our smoky house for the third time; the couple two doors up who then kept our dogs in their backyard away from harm.
- About the older gentleman who discovered my daughter sobbing two blocks away and walked her safely back to me when I’d been unable to find her.
- About the firefighters from Stations 34 and 37 who arrived in twelve trucks to save our home and attend to our health and welfare; respectful and calm, their faces spoke a truth: This is what we do, what we’ve always done.
- About a neighborhood that flocked to us with coffee and water, blankets and jackets, offers of a place to stay and home-cooked meals.
- About dear friends who dropped everything to care for Jack and Karly or loan us a car; friends who found a permanent home for our displaced guinea pig and friends who took in our beloved dogs until we could find a rental property to accommodate us all.
- About an English teacher who collected donations from her high school students who willingly opened their wallets, handing over lunch money to help a freshman boy they’d never met.
- About our karate studio that filled baskets with comfort items and snacks, kitchen supplies and pictures of my children, their new uniforms and black belts already ordered to replace those that were lost.
- About the flood of love, the messages of concern, the sweet phone calls that lifted us up when we were too foggy to see clearly.
We’re still too foggy to see clearly.
But what I feel is a triumph of the human spirit in our time of need.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of generosity over selfishness; of good over its counterpart. I believe that we waste our perilously short stay here on earth – our finite resources of strength and courage – when we spend time fearing others.
Call me naive, but I think the vast majority of us wants nothing more than to be needed. Wanted. Embraced.
And I know the smallest bit of light still conquers darkness.
This is the piano bench that belonged to my grandparents.
I found my old sheet music inside. “La Cathedrale Engloutie” means The Sunken Cathedral. It’s been three decades since I played this song. But I can hear it now. Inside my heart.
…and all you get is this lousy poem.
(In which I showcase our true natures.)
‘Twas two weeks before Christmas in 2012,
Once more into poetry’s breach I shall delve.
Sure, laundry needs folding and cupboards are bare;
But dude! I’ve got people who still claim to care
About what we Gardners have shoved up our sleeve.
So here you go, readers. It’s time to believe:
The kids rooms aren’t messy, their homework’s all done,
Their desks overflow now with trophies they’ve won.
Stanford and Harvard keep calling our home;
(Too bad I’m not here or I’d answer the phone.)
Both dogs have stopped digging and puking and such;
They won Best in Show because we have the touch!
The guinea pig’s Gifted; he cleans his own cage,
Our house smells like rosemary, parsley and sage!
Yes, all of my manuscripts finally have sold
And Bill has retired since our family struck gold!
(Or maybe it’s silver. I just can’t recall.
Achievements get blurry in bulk, after all.)
And yet I can still pull my tongue from my cheek
To say such perfection is not what we seek.
No, we push for happiness; savor our time,
Togetherness, warmth, off-beat rhythm and rhyme.
Before our walls echo with empty kids’ rooms,
We’re letting things slide while the family still blooms.
With teenagers, driving tests, high school and more,
We’re holding on tightly and locking the door.
(Not really. It’s thrilling to watch the kids grow.
It’s just that we wish that the pacing would slow.)
So speaking of wishes, this list is for you;
And though I was joking before, these are true:
Hope your steel is stainless, your dentistry painless,
And that your co-workers aren’t terribly brainless.
May your rugs be well-braided, your stains (mostly) faded,
Your heart bright and friendly toward others, not jaded.
Hope you’ve got corn for popping and whipped-creamy topping,
Plus carts that aren’t squeaky when you’re grocery shopping.
May your gifts all be nifty, your giving not thrifty,
Your greys come in shades that are better than fifty.
Let’s try to give more and to judge a lot less;
To look at the artwork and not at the mess.
(I told you I had laundry to do.)
When asked for a sacrifice, let’s grin and bear it.
Good fortune’s made better when we can all share it.
Be humble and grateful; keep fighting, be strong;
Hear notes in the music, the words in the song.
And while we are moving our Elves on their Shelves,
Let’s also remember to laugh at ourselves.
Remember that sunrises chase each sunset,
And here’s one more thing we should never forget:
Our world that seems giant is really quite small;
Let peace start with “me” and then spread to us all.
If we were together I’d hug you and kiss you.
But since we are not, I’ll just sigh hard and miss you.
At least we share space on this big rolling sphere.
I thank you.
I love you.
Don’t blink, my friends. Just don’t.
…or at least not wet your pants while you’re there. (Probably.)
In case you didn’t hear (like most people on the planet) I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in Hollywood, California last weekend with the intention of learning about my craft and pitching a current project to as many agents as possible.
Having survived the experience, I’m now an expert. Naturally.
Okay. No, I’m not.
But I’m perhaps more valuable (shut up, I am) because an expert may forget crucial details after attending multitudes of conferences. I, however, offer the perspective of a new kid fresh from her first time with tips to ease your newbie mind. Or at least help you control your bladder. (Probably.)
Here’s a list to consult when YOU take the leap and attend your own writer’s conference:
1. Don’t worry about going alone. I attended the WDC with the wonderful Cheryl Rosenberg so I knew I wouldn’t be by myself (unless I peed my pants early and she ditched me). But most attendees arrived as singletons. They were friendly and willing to sit next to strangers or invite strangers to sit with them. A writer’s conference isn’t a social event so being alone isn’t the end of the world, it’s the norm. If you can’t convince another writer-friend to attend with you, don’t let your solitary status hold you back.
2. Do your homework. Research which participating agents specialize in your genre. Find at least one fact/preference/detail about each agent to reference in your pitch to show you want to work with him or her specifically. I took notes on index cards and practiced answering the question, “Why is your project a good fit for my agency?” Narrow your list to agents you want to see most. Your time’s limited and so is theirs. Don’t waste a minute of it.
3. Don’t pitch an incomplete manuscript if you write fiction. When an agent is interested, he/she won’t want to wait six months for your finished project. Non-fiction writers can pitch a book proposal rather than a completed work. (See Nathan Brandsford’s site for tips on writing an effective proposal.) Some writers attended the WDC strictly for break-out sessions to hone their skills; but conferences are expensive and my main goal was to score agent interest.
4. Do memorize your pitch so when you forget it (or freeze, like I did) you can still deliver the key details of your story off the cuff. When I actually got in front of the agents, my super-rehearsed version sounded awkward so I strayed from my script because it felt more authentic than reciting a monologue. Still, I NEVER could have done this if I hadn’t known my pitch cold.
5. Don’t worry about what to wear. Clothing spanned the spectrum from casual jeans to flowing skirts (even a Benjamin Franklin costume!) so wear an outfit you’ve had on a million times and won’t think twice about, something that makes you feel comfortable or fabulous. Fashion is NOT the focus of a writer’s conference. Wear layers (because temperatures vary between rooms) and don’t worry about shoes (I beg you) because agents can’t see under the table. No one will notice what you’re wearing. Unless you’re dressed like Ben Franklin.
6. Do bring a granola bar or small snack and a water bottle in your bag or briefcase along with paper, pens, cash for parking and coins for vending machines. I got hungry and thirsty in between meals (duh) but grumbling stomachs and parched tongues aren’t good for anyone.
7. Don’t forget to order business cards to give to those with whom you connect. They need not be fancy; simply include your name and contact information. You can use these to take notes on specific people you meet. Along the “nothing fancy” lines, I brought a Ziploc baggie to store mine, not a card-holder. No joke. No one cares. (Thanks, Joann Mannix!)
8. Do line up early for a pitch session without pre-established appointments. At our conference, we didn’t book ahead of time with a specific agent or two; ours was a PITCH SLAM: 250 writers in one room with 20 agents for 90 minutes switching up in three-minute intervals. It was speed-dating for the literary world. I may suck at math, but you do not want to be the 250th writer entering that room.
9. Don’t limit yourself to pitching your first-choice agent first. I went in with seven options and used as variables the length of their lines and how good a fit I thought we’d be. Some writers waited more than a half hour for one agent and ended up pitching to only one or two people while my strategy afforded me face-time with six.
10. Do write down the interested agent’s specific instructions immediately. You think you’ll never forget the moment an agent says, “I’d like to hear more,” but your brain is on overdrive and you won’t remember when it’s over. Synopsis? Ten pages? Two chapters? Query in the body of an email? Trust me. Write it down. The back of their business card works great. (Thanks, Robin Bielman!)
11. Don’t forget these agents WANT to love your pitch. You’re a potential money-maker and they are mere mortals. I didn’t pee my pants (probably) but I was uber-nervous during my first pitch. My voice cracked, my hands shook, my eyes watered and I blanked on words I’d practiced no less than a thousand times. And yet. The agent understood it was my first pitch of the day. She nodded and smiled and I kept breathing and the next pitch became easier. And so on. If an agent is harsh, do what Ben Franklin did – grab your kite and key and move along. Then forgive yourself for being scared and realize that everyone else is, too. You will survive. (Thanks, Gloria Gaynor!)
And so my spectacular writer-friends, if you take even one piece of encouragement with you to your own writer’s conference let it be this:
Be proud that you are putting yourself out there. EVERY new experience is an opportunity to learn. You’ll come away from the weekend knowing more than you did when you arrived.
Even if it’s simply about yourself.
Cheryl took this picture right before we entered the room for Pitch Slam. If I hadn’t been wearing a jacket, you would have seen my heart beating. Pretty sure. And Cheryl? Thank you. From the bottom of my sick and twisted heart.
p.s. In all seriousness, if you’re going to a conference and have a question, shoot me an email or DM me on twitter. I’d be happy to send you a virtual hug or words of advice if I can.
I disappeared again. I know.
The funny thing (although it’s not really funny so forget I said funny) is this:
When I was “gone” this summer, I was actually still writing posts. It’s just that my blog was “broken” so only a few people were reading.
I kept posting. And reading other people’s blogs. Engaging in the time-sucking affairs of the blogging addict. Because it is like a drug, right? Complete with its own highs and lows:
A. The fear of losing readers B. The thrill of receiving comments. C. The heady rush of compliments bestowed upon you by strangers who become friends. D. All of the Above
And also, YES YES YES! I am wonderful! Someone notices me!
I soaked it up and worked hard at it, blogging. And – in the process – I neglected my fiction. My dream had long been to publish a novel. Someday. But on the path of scattered success, I self-medicated. With By Any Other Name.
So one day my blog was FIXED! and I published a post announcing I’m BACK! even though I’d never been GONE!
And then (because I’m an IDIOT!) I actually did stop blogging.
I was Gone Girl (which I’m reading now and damn, Gillian Flynn’s smart. Like, GENIUS!).
Then I decided not to post about not posting. Because it seemed oxymoronish; and I aim to be the regular kind of moron.
Plus who cares, really? I’m just Julie and you’re all BUSY! with probably too many unread posts in your own inboxes to worry about someone who’s gone.
To be honest, there were days that I wished for no new posts in my inbox. You see, I fail at moderation even when an endeavor becomes too much. So I kept on posting. And reading. And commenting. And replying. And sinking. And not working on my fiction.
Until suddenly I didn’t. (Post, read, comment, reply, sink.) I worked on my fiction.
I hoped no one would notice. But they did. You did.
I received personal emails and messages, inquiries about my well-being. Your concerns were lovely and daunting and eye-opening. I couldn’t simply disappear.
Gone Girl is a novel not a life.
I wrote my first post two years ago (the anniversary passed without a BANG! or a whimper) and in it I said this:
“My work never feels done. I could always write more. Edit more. Research more. Promote myself via social-networking sites more. So rather than navigating the waters of my career in a rowboat with at least one paddle, I am holding a teacup in front of an ocean, aware I’m supposed to do something, but not sure what. So, yes, this morning I’m the tiniest bit adrift, wading into the tide. But that’s okay.
It looks like a nice day for a swim.”
So I hope you *get* why I’m temporarily course-correcting back to my original goal. Because I sort of lost sight of the finish line while being loved by (perhaps) and loving you. (Not perhaps.)
I owe it to myself, my family – my children who are watching me – to finish what I started. And I’m trusting my friends to be patient in the interim.
Because I am not gone. I promise. I’m simply aiming my teacup at a different wave today.
With my head held high and my fingers crossed.
My heart still full of hope.
Dear Jack’s English Teacher,
Sorry for the generic nature of this greeting, but as of right now, I do not know your name. Or the names of any of Jack’s teachers. Not yet. You see, I’m dropping my son off for his first day of high school this morning and he won’t receive his schedule until after he arrives.
I assume this district policy seeks to minimize complaints or requests for schedule changes and I can appreciate the strategy since I also taught high school English for 16 years.
But wait! Don’t worry! This letter represents my official Parent’s Benefit of the Doubt – something else I appreciated throughout my tenure as a teacher.
Yes, I’m choosing to believe you are like I was:
Someone who pursued a career in education because she felt compelled to make a difference in kids’ lives; who tried every day (or at least most of them) to foster a welcoming environment. To inspire. To…wait for it…
My main goal wasn’t assigning vocabulary lists, grammar exercises, pages to read or study questions to answer; I wanted my students to know I cared about them, to trust I had their best interests in mind, to believe I could move them down a path of skill-sets regardless of where they started on that road.
I hoped – perhaps selfishly – to be their favorite teacher. To make each hour interesting and invent new lessons. To modify my assessments while maintaining high expectations.
At the bare minimum, I hoped they wouldn’t hate English.
Did I succeed 100% of the time? Of course not. I saw at least 120 students each day and I couldn’t reach them all. But I swear that I tried to. I did.
It’s been four years since my leave of absence and I still dream about teaching Dante’s Inferno and Act V of Hamlet, about reciting poems by Emily Dickinson.
I presented my students with the words of others, then asked them to write their own words that applied. We had discussions. Arguments. They debated, proved, reconsidered.
They learned. I learned. And I freaking loved my job.
I was overworked, under-appreciated, inadequately paid. At times it was very, very hard. But it was also kind of an honor.
Kind of like being a mother.
Which brings me to the heart of my letter. The heart of my life.
Two decades ago, I began teaching other people’s kids; today I hand my son over to you.
I hope he believes you care. That he thinks you love your job and want to make a difference. I hope he understands you’re not perfect but that he knows you try your hardest every day.
You might find that he’ll try his hardest, too.
I realize it’s difficult. I do. These kids come with divergent needs and abilities, different languages and home lives. You juggle paperwork and websites, new laws and recertification; you manage kids and parents, administrators and coworkers.
It’s exhausting. I felt it, too.
I faced tables stacked with Hamlet essays, Inferno projects and poetry explications. I sometimes woke up frustrated, tired, sick or moody. I was, after all, a human being first. Then a teacher.
But above all other things, I am a mother.
So I’m trusting you to try your best this year. Plus every year after that. For my son. For my daughter who’s coming next fall. For all the children of all the parents who trust you to try.
And if you find that you’re arriving at school more often annoyed and burned-out than energized and fresh? Consider a new grade level. A change of curriculum or campus. Another career entirely.
(Easier said than done. I know.)
You didn’t accept a position in an office or firm. You committed to a career teaching children. You owe it to them. To your hard-working colleagues. To yourself.
Please. Whoever you are.
Try your best. It’s what all our kids deserve.
With sincerest respect (I promise you),
This is Jack at his preschool’s Mother’s Day party ten years ago. I left my classroom during my prep period to attend.
In related news, I could use a hug today as he starts high school.
As the title of this post indicates, I’ve been slightly scattered lately. Like goofy-happy one minute and teary-eyed the next.
Perhaps this is because my oldest is starting high school and my baby’s beginning her 8th grade year. And while I’m insanely proud of my children, I also feel cornered by the passage of time.
I can’t escape it. None of us can. Another hard truth from Captain Obvious.
(You’re so welcome.)
I still remember being an 8th-grader and freshman. I pretended to have confidence, strength, style. But in reality, I was a bundle of insecurities trying on personas that fit poorly.
(Like my jeans.)
My kids are different from me; and not because they don’t beg for Jordache or sing Journey’s “Open Arms” into the mirror all day long.
They don’t worry about following the crowd. They’re comfortable being themselves even when such authenticity diverges from the norm. Teenage Julie could’ve learned from Jack and Karly.
In fact, her 43-year-old self’s still learning. A lot.
So I’m at The Kir Corner sharing one of the first lessons from my children:
Let your heart – not someone else’s opinion – be your guide.
You’re invited, too.
Then afterward, if you want to meet up to sing Journey, I’m available.
(You’re so welcome.)
“I love you.”
I say it all day long. No joke.
I tell my kids (who sometimes mumble it back and sometimes speak clearly).
I whisper it into my dogs’ ears while they lick my face and I try not to think about where their tongues have been.
I text it to Bill if he’s not home and I’ve made mistakes often enough that the phone now auto-corrects to I love youm.
I leave comments on posts of bloggers I adore:
I love the story of your failed potty-training efforts. And I love you. So let me know where to send the diapers and wine. (Not necessarily in that order.)
No one’s surprised to hear me admit I love my dogs and kids and husband. Of course I do.
And yes I love hilarious posts that remind me of the bright side to mothering teenagers (acne sucks but diapers suck harder); and indeed I love the bloggers who write these posts (enough to share my time, heart, words and wine with them).
I love my friends. A lot. My extended family. A lot. I love writing and reading and sleeping (holy crap do I love sleeping).
And running (when it’s not too hot). And eating food (even when it is).
I love the ocean waves and music. Evenness. Asymmetry. Peace. I love learning and also being mindless. I love working hard and succumbing to laziness. I love success and – as a hopelessly cock-eyed optimist – I try to love failure for the lessons it teaches me.
But I know – like many of us – I throw those three words around too lightly. I say them without thinking. When I’m not being purposeful.
And I don’t think that’s awful. Of course it’s not awful. I mean, who in her right mind doesn’t want more love?
A wise man – who wasn’t even Henry David Thoreau if Wikipedia is to be trusted – once said it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
(Forgive the ending preposition. It was Hal David’s idea.)
I think all of us (at least sometimes, or perhaps more often than that, even) should take a moment to truly mean what we say. To give as much thought and emotion and intention to I LOVE YOU as we give breath.
I want every single person I love to know that’s how I feel. I hope they do. And to the one who promised to stick with me forever sixteen years ago today:
I hope I’ve succeeded in not just telling my love but showing it. And I hope you believe…
I meant it.
I mean it.
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