What I Wish I Could Tell “My Girls”

If it’s one emotion I continuously feel while teaching, it’s that I do not miss high school. Not. One. Bit.

Why would I ever want to return to a time when I was painfully self-conscious, quiet, dependent, and stressed about the future?  I look back at pictures and scoff at how atrocious my fashion sense was, how my naturally curly hair was just a total frizz ball, and how strained my smile tended to be. I had a lot going on in high school, and where school was ultimately the place where I discovered my true passion, uncovered my talents, and made irreplaceable friends, it was nevertheless a place where I wasn’t really comfortable to just be myself.

Lately, I’ve had a few conversations with students that remind me just how difficult point in life can be. Students stressed over completing schoolwork and holding down a part-time job mix in with girls who fear what boys will think of their eating habits during a recent “Mix-it-Up” day where they were told to sit with new people during lunch in an effort to increase diversity awareness.  It’s moments like these when I wish that I could sit all my girls down and have a heart-to-heart about the bright light on the horizon where it is so much easier to be yourself, but that lesson is one that will surely come with maturity and experience.  For now, I’ll have to try to integrate the following points into my everyday interactions with them.

1) There will be a day when you aren’t self-conscious (or at least THAT self-conscious) around guys.

You’ll let them see you without makeup and tell them your darkest secrets.  They will be your best friends, and they will break your heart, but eating in front of them, my dears, will no longer be a concern.

2) Do not define yourselves through the perceptions of others

People are cruel.  They may talk behind your back or forget to call you or text you and not even realize what that does to your bruised and broken heart. But those actions are in no way a reflection of you – they are merely a reflection of another.  Yes, they can be an indication of what you may want to work on in the future, but no one is defined by their flaws.  Work on them, but cultivate your strengths as well – those are your gifts and it is an injustice not to use them.

3) Pursue your passions

Parents put unbelievable amounts of pressure on their children.  I’m sure many of them feel it is for the child’s benefit, but when that comes at the expense of them not exploring their interests, it does a huge disservice to them and their personal growth.  Find a way to explore something new – if nothing else, you will learn more about yourself in the process.  You being  a woman does not mean you can’t enter a field that tends to be more male-dominated.  You may have to work harder to make your mark, but the important thing is that whatever you do with your life makes you happy.

4) Find a mentor or two…or twenty

The opportunity for mentors can be difficult to find when you are younger.  But the more you have, the more you will learn what to do and what not to do.  I have so many teaching mentors, mentors for student leadership, and mentors in my major, as well as for everything in between.  Each has given me an example to follow as I become who I want to be.

5) Everything works out in the end

Fact: Life is one giant unknown.  You’ll sit and watch the successes of your friends and wonder why that can’t happen the same way for you.  But everything, EVERYTHING, works out in the end.  What seems like a perfect fit may pass you over, and you settle for what you believe is second-rate, but as the days, months, and years pass by, it becomes ever clearer to see that you are right where you belong.

 

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Patience is a Virtue (and a virtue won’t hurt you)

Patience.  Lord knows I feel like I don’t have a whole lot of it lately.  I’m anxious for the next few months to go by so I can finally say I’ve survived my first-year of teaching (which, as my mentor likes to remind me, I only have to go through once).  I’m anxious to finish up my two grad classes so I can have a whole two months off, the longest break I will have had from academics in three years.  But what’s been on my mind most lately is how desperately impatient I am to become the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.  The kind of teacher who makes you realize that you have talents you have been too down-on-yourself to recognize. The kind of teacher who inspires you with her passion, who gives you experiences in the classroom that change what you want to do in the future. 

I want to be the kind of teacher who made ME want to be a teacher.

I’ve been so upset lately realizing that I don’t believe that any of my students share my same love for history. And it makes me feel like a failure. Now, granted, I don’t have any quantitative evidence those of us in education are so fond of analyzing, but it’s just a sense that I have.  Some seem to be interested, at least, but I feel like in failing to inspire them, I have failed all those teachers who have inspired me. Like the fifth grade teacher with a penchant for leopard print dresses who made me actually interested in science for a time, or the junior year history teacher who I always thought back to as I studied educational theories and instructional methods in college.  And then there was the high school band teacher who revealed the beauty of classical music and working as a team, and the thesis advisor who revealed the beauty of Shakespeare’s plays to me. 

But I have to remind myself that just because these educators made such an impact in my life doesn’t mean that they had the same effect on all the others who sat in those classes with me. Or that they were able to accomplish it all in their first year of teaching.  It takes time and practice. And patience. Lots of patience. Because with each failure comes a little lesson of what to do better next time. 

I remember how impatient I was to start teaching. My first day of observations in the fall of 2010 was filled with nerves as I got up at what is an ungodly hour for college students. I wore a dress and heels and practiced how I would introduce myself to a teacher I had only emailed a handful of times.  Several weeks in, I delivered my first lesson to a room full of painfully quiet high school freshman, a review on different religions that they had been studying. As much as my voice quaked and my hands shook, I loved it. I drank in every moment, reassured with a rush of giddy excitement that I was actually pursuing the right career for me, and lamented the fact that there would be no education classes for me take the following semester, thereby putting these experiences on hold.  

So what I was once impatient to begin I am now impatient to end, at least for a time.  So I must remember my inspiration, remember my passion, and remember my purpose, and remain patient that slowly but surely I will become the teacher I want to be.

Remembering Inspiration

I’m terrified.

There, I admitted it.  The day is finally here when I stop talking about wanting to be a teacher and actually become one. And it has me shaking in my boots.

And I’ve kind of been a mess the past few weeks.  I’ve had unexpected moments where I’ve asked myself if I can really do this.  Even after an amazing practicum experience, the nerves had settled in and reached the places I didn’t think they could.

So when I found myself down the road from the cemetary where he is buried a few weeks ago, I knew I had to pay my respects and remind myself of the man who still inspires me to do this.  The last time I visited, it was a cold and crisp winter’s day, light snowflakes floating from the sky.  I took the drive out there after having just met what was to become one of my first classes for student teaching, one of the first groups I was to be responsible for, and I knew I needed to visit to remind myself of why I ever wanted to do this in the first place.

Let me explain…

Dennis Wrenn. Teacher. Musician. Life-changer.  For four years I sat as one of  hundreds to walk through the doors of his band room.  I am far from a gifted musician, but music has breathed inspiration and love into my life, and Mr. Wrenn was a part of that.  Beyond instilling within all of his students a love of music, he also showed what it means to be a teacher.  He never stopped believing in his students, and took the time to get to know them, even when during any given class period there could be over one hundred students in front of him, all with varying levels of interest.  Some were there because they hoped to pursue careers in music one day, others because they were cultivating a hobby, and the last group because their parents wanted them to be in band.  But regardless of why they were there, I don’t think a single student could have left a year of rehearsals with Mr. Wrenn and not feel cared for.

When I was a junior in a high school, I took a pretty big risk for me and volunteered to play second piccolo for one song.  While flute, which I had been playing for six years at that point, and piccolo have the same fingerings, it’s a challenge.  You have to focus the air flow a certain way and it’s hard to create a pure sound. But someone needed to do it, and no one else volunteered, so I figured I would.  In hindsight, it really wasn’t all that terrifying, but to the timid 17-year-old who was full of self-doubt who I was at the time, it was a surprise that I would ever take such a risk. By the time the concert rolled around, I was so nervous.  I didn’t want to mess up (it’s hard to not hear a piccolo after all), and I was afraid I would fall off the stage when I changed seats from the second row of flutes to the first row.  But at each rehearsal, Mr. Wrenn never lost faith in me.  He encouraged me and rejoiced at every improvement, never betraying any sense of doubt or regret that he had let me fill the role.  That faith continued until the night of the concert, and when it was all over, he congratulated me on a job well-done.  I confessed how nervous I had been, but Mr. Wrenn just brushed it off, giving me the impression that he had known I could do it all along and that he had never doubted me.

Mr. Wrenn passed away very unexpectedly while on tour with the high school jazz band in Greece when I was in my freshman year of college.  I will never forget the shock and sense of loss I felt when I heard the news from a friend who called me. I had been walking down a path with a friend and practically collapsed on the ground in horror, unsure of how to react.  Mr. Wrenn wasn’t just a teacher to those who knew him, he was a mentor, a friend, and a father-figure, so his loss was the worst emotional pain I had felt at that point in my life.  A facebook group was created where over two thousand mourners came together to share over two decades worth of stories of a teacher who made a difference in their lives.  Countless people shared stories of how this man had seemed to remember every detail about them that they had ever shared with Mr. Wrenn, even though, as the size of the group proved, he had thousands of acquaintances.  All expressed extreme grief over the loss of a man who in one way or another had changed their lives, inspiring them to take a risk and pursue their dreams.

So when I gazed at his grave a few weeks ago, focusing on my insecruties about teaching, it dawned on me: Mr. Wrenn wouldn’t have let me doubt myself for one instant.  I can almost hear the way he would have brushed off any remnant of self-doubt and how he would have encouraged me to the very end.  And if he would have believed in me, then I have to, too.  And with that realization I experienced a renewed purpose of why I do want to teach.  I want to touch the lives of students like this man did for so many others.  I want to give them the courage to take risks and try something new.  I want to share a passion with those with whom I work, fellow teachers and students alike.  So in the days when I don’t think I can do it anymore, I will remind myself of these goals and do all that I can make Mr. Wrenn proud.

Two of my high school friends and I with Mr. Wrenn at our Senior Year POPS Night, June 2008.

Your Friends Make Your World

Join me for a frappucino at Starbucks sometime; you’ll notice I do something strange with my straw wrappers.  After unwrapping the straw, I tie the crinkly paper wrapper into a knot and pull it until it breaks. Two of my dear friends from home taught me years ago that if the paper breaks perfectly so that the knot comes undone, then someone is thinking about you. If there is a knot in either side, well, then you are out of luck.

One of our yearly summer adventures

Now, I am not a particularly superstitious person, but I always follow this one little gesture through, although its not about whether or not someone is thinking of me (however, I will confess that I sometimes giggle at the broken knot if I’ve been thinking of someone, hoping that they are thinking of me too).  Each time the paper breaks, I feel like I am back with the three friends who always follow this trick, no matter where we are at the present moment.  In pulling that straw wrapper tight, I am transported back to when we were 16 and 17, meeting at Friendly’s for ice cream dates to stress over finals and AP exams, prom dresses and college applications. I can picture Jen’s scrunched up face as she concentrates on thinking of one of us in order to make the knot break (with minimal effectiveness), or remember the random restaurants from our yearly beach trips where all four of us have tied our straw wrappers at the same time to see who the lucky lady would be.

As the years have passed and life has grown all the more complicated,  reunions with these girls become tougher and more difficult to plan, so this single, mechanical action is like a reunion in memory, lasting just a few seconds, but bringing a small smile nonetheless.  One is currently completing an internship hundreds of miles away in Washington DC, another is seriously contemplating a move to New York City to pursue her dream writing career, and the last returned from Alabama last month from Basic Training in the Air Force and will be leaving to begin her study at medical school in less than a week, a step she has been planning go take since the days of those Friendly’s ice cream dates.

At Maura’s graduation from BU this past May.

I miss them all terribly but no matter where life takes us, I know we will always be there for each other to share joy and sorrow. I recently got a job as a teacher, a dream I have consistently pursued since I was about 15 years old.  I wanted nothing more than to call a customary Panera date with these three to tell them all in person. These inspiring and talented young women have encouraged me every step of the way, and emit sincere “awwws” when I tell them a teaching story. I can always count on them to show true interest in my passions, just as I do for them. But we couldn’t all be together to share the big news, so I settled on a phone call ( as this was too big for a simple text!).  Tiff squealed with delight when I called her as she was making her way along the 9 hour trip back home from DC, while I received an ecstatic voicemail from Jen that night after a day of training in return for the one I left her about how I couldn’t wait to tell her the news until we were able to catch each other on the phone.  I’ve known all three of these women since we were in elementary school and after these years of our friendship, I recognized this moment as the step into adulthood.  We’re all college grads now, pursuing our dreams and passions, but I know that no matter where life takes us, we will always have each other.

The next few years are sure to be a bit tumultuous as all of my friends and I settle into careers and post-grad education, but I’ve accepted it. Distance doesn’t mean the friendships are any different, even if we are unable to be there in the way we previously have been for each other through literal physical presence.  But we’re still there.

In the days since graduation, I put a magnet on the large mirror in my bedroom that once found its place on the refrigerator of my senior year apartment.  It reads as follows: “Wherever you are, it is your friends who make your world (William James).”  So whether they are interning in DC, teaching in Kansas City or Connecticut, still living life as an undergrad in Worcester, completing a year of service in New Orleans, starting grad school in Providence or Pittsburgh, laying the foundations of their careers in the Boston area, or following a dream in New York, my world will always consist of my beautiful, supportive, one-of a-kind, gift-from-God friends.

Lessons from an Old Man to a Young Friend

The romantic inside of me grew about 10 sizes today. She’s been looking a little lean lately, since there hasn’t been much to feed her. Stories of bruised and broken hearts tend to wear away at her, diminishing her smile and sucking the rosiness from her cheeks. But today, she grew.

This is my second summer as an intern at a private museum, its contents owned by an elderly but still prominent local businessman with a true passion for American history that rivals my own. He seems to have done everything and met everyone, including starting his own nation-wide business, speaking to the United States Senate, building a hospital in Vietnam, opening a branch of his business in China, and orchestrating a million dollar fundraiser for a local food pantry. He is a bit demanding and it can be a challenge to fully follow his ideas, but over time he has come to call me his “lovely young friend,” even telling me once last summer that he regards me like a granddaughter. I thoroughly enjoy the one-on-one conversations that take place as he combs through the museum with me in tow, in search of a new project.  These encounters are rare, but I have come to crave the entertaining anecdotes and the irreplaceable wisdom that accompany them.  Today, as we came across an over-sized porfolio documenting his accomplishments with the hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he asked me, “Would you say that I’ve had an interesting life?”

“Absolutely!!” I exclaimed. By my age, this man had served in the Korean War and was on the path to starting his own business. “I feel like I learn something new and interesting about you every day!”

We began to walk back toward his office. “Well,” he said pensively, putting his hand on my shoulder. At this point, I expected to hear the secrets to great success and prepared myself to take copious mental notes. “I couldn’t have done it without a wonderful wife.”

“From everything I’ve heard, she sounds like a wonderful woman,” I said with a smile as my heart began to melt.

“It’s all her…without her, none of this would have been possible.”

We walked in silence and then he addressed his secretary, customarily signaling the end to our conversation. I returned to my desk, tears forming in my eyes over such a beautiful testimony of true, everlasting adoration for one’s spouse. From all accounts that I’ve heard, she has never failed to stand by him, through genuine trials and his grand successes, and he clearly gushes over her when she comes up in conversation.

Throughout this internship, I’ve learned so much about American history. It’s a history major’s dream after all, to be paid to conduct historical research and write about it on a daily basis. Watching my boss’s business, I’ve learned the importance of networking and utilizing one’s connections. But today I came to realize that I’ve learned a lot more from watching the man behind it all, removed from the business and the museum. For you are never too successful, too old, too powerful, or too well-connected to not owe your success to those who support you. You are never above showing your gratitude for them. You must pursue your passions in every way possible, no matter how lofty such a goal may be. And you must always, always give back to the community who produced you and molded you into the person you are today. While the little romantic within me grew today, so did the woman she hides behind in really appreciating these lessons.