Don’t Apologize For Your Strength

Recently, a person I admire asked me to tell another person some of the lessons I’ve learned from my leadership experiences. I wanted to come up with a better answer than:

To stop saying, “I’m sorry” all the time.

But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized the truth of them. Apology is as reflexive as breathing for me. If someone bumps into me, I’m immediately apologizing. When someone robbed my house, I apologized to the investigating officer for inconveniencing him by making him fill out paperwork.

When I became a team leader, one of my first leadership experiences, I spent most meetings as a mute, afraid to say anything that might upset people. As a department chair, I found myself prefacing a lot of meetings with: I’m sorry to take up your time… From my office at the district, many of my emails begin: “I’m sorry for the delay in responding…”

I’m aware that this constant atonement on my part is as annoying as the smell of cheap perfume. Some of the mea culpas, I’m sure, are due to my own neuroses, but I wonder how much is society’s conditioning? Research shows that we respond more favorably to women who exhibit their gender stereotype of empathy or behaving more emotionally. How much  of my internal pressure to ask for constant forgiveness is a form of benevolent sexism? This is often perceived as a tacit demand that women with even the smallest amount of positional power be hypervigilant of the moods and reactions of others.

If you don’t believe me about that last part, try this experiment that I’ve found replicates the same results over and over: The next time you’re at dinner with a mixed gender group, notice the body language of the men and women. Especially when someone is speaking. Men tend to lean back in their chairs, their comments directed to one other man at the table. Women on the other hand, lean forward, looking at everyone seated, scanning faces to gauge reactions. It’s present in vocal tone, as well. Men tend to make flat statements; women tend to put imaginary question marks at the ends of their sentences, as if they are asking permission to have the thought or opinion.

I’m not saying this always happens, but it happens enough in my experience that it’s noticeable.

As an antidote to the river of guilt that issues from me, I’ve begun trying to reframe my ideas around the concept of responsibility. I want to broaden my own understanding of the links between it and freedom. Constant apologizing creates a prison of my own making, every sorry is a brick of my own repression. So after five decades of feeling bad about breathing other people’s air and encroaching on other people’s space, it’s high time I choose to shut my damn mouth. It’s time to own my choices – the ones that gave me a profession, titles, respect, and accomplishment.

And I’m not a damn bit sorry for any of it.


   Day 6: What I’ve Learned About Responsibility, Choice & Strength

  1. “In a very real sense, by the time we are adult, we are the sum total of the choices we have made…One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes…in the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Soren Kierkegaard
  3. “It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.” Moliere
  4. “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?” Martin Buber
  5. “Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.” W.H. Auden
  6. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.” William Shakespeare
  7. “Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Photo credit: ericfoltz via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Stand Up To Stand Out

CBS This Morning introduced the 2017 National Teacher of the Year today and as I watched her poise and professionalism, I was proud to see such a great representative of our profession. But I also have to say that hearing Charlie Rose’s voice gave me a slight case of PTSD. It reminded me of the media training I’d gone through to sit in front of him, Nora, and Gayle in April, 2015.

To prepare me for the intensity of interviews, the Council of Chief State School Officers sent me to media training. This consisted of simulated interviews that were then recorded for playback to a panel for a critique. At the best of times, I am uncomfortable seeing and hearing myself on video; in this instance, it was excruciating.

The pretend interviewer was a former producer at Fox News who was a virtuoso of mixing softball questions with sharp jabs that kept me off balance:

“What do you love about teaching at your school, Ms. Peeples?” she asked, her smile as sweet and inviting as a cup of cocoa.

“Seeing the bravery of my students, Eva,” I said, smiling back. “Knowing that so many come from traumatic backgrounds, I love seeing them choose education for themselves and seeing them choose hope.”

“That’s a beautiful answer, but it covers up the fact that you teach students who are here illegally, right? ” she replied. “Your state wants to deport them, right? What do you want to say to your Governor about that?”

The panel watching this exchange with me stopped the video.

“You see your expression there?” Christina, my lead trainer, asked. “That’s what’s called a ‘microexpression of contempt’ and you need to know that your face does that when you’re mad.”

Along with my microexpressions of contempt, I also flubbed opportunities to “bridge” back to my main message, forgot to use stories to illustrate my points, and generally was a shaky mess. I felt like a total failure and it was hard to keep from crying.

“Look Shanna,” Christina said. “You’re an A student or you wouldn’t even be here. But that’s not enough. You need to be memorable.”

That sentence stays with me, no matter what I’m doing. I realized that Christina crystallized something that is true of anyone who wants to stand apart from the multitude: They’re Memorable.

Shakespeare might as well have been describing so much of our current culture and media landscape in  Macbeth’s lament that life is “a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

That’s why it’s even more important that anyone seeking to be an advocate or a creative of any kind needs to find a way to be memorable. And of course, being memorable is closely tied to being authentic, being real, and sometimes even allowing yourself to have microexpressions of contempt when something makes you mad.

Day 5: What I’ve Learned About Individuality

  1. “ To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” –  Ralph Waldo Emerson
  2. “There are two very different kinds of conformity, but they tend, somewhere along the line, to blend, unless we are always aware of the difference. One of them is essential if human beings are to live with one another in a civilized way. That is social conformity, which is basically only a kind of good manners, which, in turn, is formalized kindness. The other, the dangerous one, is conformity to alien standards or idea or values because that is the easy way, or because we think we can get farther in our job or profession by not fighting for what we believe in, or because we will be more popular if we surrender our own convictions to fit the community.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
  3. “It’s so hard to stand up, to not compromise, to give up an account or lose a vote or not tell a journalist what they want to hear. But those are the only moments where standing for something actually counts, the only times that people will actually come to believe that you in fact actually stand for something.” Seth Godin
  4. “Don’t wait for the auditorium. Share your best messages now. They matter now. We need them now. Not later. As you do this, you’ll find that what you have to say slowly begins to matter to more and more individuals. And before you realize it, you’ve found yourself a whole group of people tuned into what you’re saying. And that’s how influence works: one audience member at a time.” – Jeff Goins
  5. “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” – Barbara Kingsolver
  6. “Most people are in fact quite capable of novel thinking and problem solving, if only their organizations would stop pounding them into conformity.” – Adam Grant
  7.  “In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes of more value to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others.’ John Stuart Mill

My challenge: Feel the fear and say it anyway, write it anyway;  wear it, sing it. Embrace it.

Photo credit: jean louis mazieres via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

How To Pay Rent For Being Alive

After my father died suddenly nine years ago, I thought I was a model of stoic grief. I wrote his obituary, delivered his eulogy, and I believed, tastefully handled the sadness that spread over the week of his funeral. None of that prepared me for the suffocating depression that overtook me like viral pneumonia six months later.

I didn’t realize that grief is a tsunami and what looks like low tide is really a gathering wave. When the full force of the loss hit me, I could only manage to lie in bed and cycle through alternating periods of crying or apathy. After weeks of this, the only thing breaking through paralysis was anger. It settled in the center of my chest, near my heart, warping my personality, overriding my senses to see and believe that everything was black and hollow.

A tiny pilot light of hope somewhere inside my head reminded me that books are my best medicine. “Why don’t you find a book that will make this make sense to you? If it makes some sense, then maybe you’ll start to feel better” it seemed to suggest.

And that is how I came to read Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the few books to change not only my thinking, but my life. Written in 1959 by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, the book describes his understanding of why certain people, like himself, survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust. The short version is a paraphrase of Nietzsche: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.”

For Frankl, the “why” centers on three actions: engaging in meaningful work, caring for another person, and courage in the face of fear. These choices – and they are a deliberate choice, Frankl believes, are what give our lives purpose and meaning. Reading the book helped me to choose a loving action, even if it were something as small as being able to smile at my daughter or be brave enough to get dressed for work. Reconnecting to why I decided to teach who and where I did helped me find my way out of the despair. Most of what I know about how to live a life of purpose and meaning, I learned from his book. For me, purpose and meaning come from connections to my family and friends, engaging in the meaningful work of teaching and working with teachers, and in choosing to feel the fear, but still do whatever it is that scares me.

Day Four: What I’ve Learned About Service

  1. “…being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”  – Viktor Frankl
  2. “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” Shirley Chisholm
  3. “I don’t know what your destiny will be. Some of you will perhaps occupy remarkable positions. Perhaps some of you will become famous by your pens, or as artists. But I know one thing: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” – Albert Schweitzer
  4. “What is to give light must endure burning.” – Viktor Frankl
  5. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.” Gandhi
  6. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
  7. “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men – go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families… Walt Whitman

My challenge: Pick something off of Whitman’s list and create a small act of service to it.

Photo via Visual hunt

There’s Always Enough Time

When I was in eleventh grade, my English teacher, against her better judgement, set up a record player for me during our third period (Can you imagine, kids – a time before Spotify and earbuds? When vinyl wasn’t just cool, it was literally the only music storage device we had?) This setup happened so I could play “Time”  & “The Great Gig In The Sky” by Pink Floyd to illustrate my understanding of “stream of consciousness” as a literary device. I didn’t really know if the song met that criteria, I just wanted an excuse to play Pink Floyd at school.

The song spoke to me at 16 because it described a feeling I couldn’t quite put into words. Maybe I should’ve been reading more and maybe I would’ve found a deep river of melancholy in classic works. But I was a 16-year-old odd duck who read the liner notes on albums and thought the secrets of the universe reveal themselves through the stereo needle on each groove.

Both tracks take about 15 minutes to play, so I was doubly heroic to my classmates for both getting a famous stoner album played in class as well as taking up class time. I was clueless about its association with drugs, I just knew it haunted me in a way that other rock music didn’t. This is partly the genius of Alan Parsons, the album’s sound engineer, and partly because of  Clare Torry’s powerful wordless singing.

Still today, I find these lines meaningful:

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time

Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

This couplet describes the borders of my daily experience with time and focus. Within those borders are work and rest and trying to balance the two is something I still can’t manage very well. I’m such a poor steward of the time given to me. I’m either burning up hours trying to keep all the commitments I’ve overloaded myself with or wasting them trying to find the exact otter GIF to text someone. I binge watch shows on Netflix I don’t really like that much (The Walking Dead being the chief time suck in this category). I don’t read books like I used to, preferring instead to skim Internet sources like an over-caffeinated squirrel. 

One thing that a birthday teaches you is that you have fewer spins around the sun left to you with each celebration. But it’s also true that, as Og Mandino says below, I can always undo these extremes of waste and worry in the next hour because time is the one thing we each have in our account in the same measure every day.

Day Three: What I’ve Learned About Time

  1. “Each of us has, as my husband’s rather grim-faced ancestress pointed out, all the time there is. Those years, weeks, hours, are the sands in the glass running swiftly away. To let them drift through our fingers is a tragic waste.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. “You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.” Og Mandino
  3. “Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.”
    Henry Van Dyke
  4. “No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”  Epictetus
  5. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
    “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” JRR Tolkien
  6. “Time is a game played beautifully by children.” Heraclitus
  7. “Furthermore, as muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone, it could be argued that those who sit quietly and do nothing are making one of the best contributions to a world in turmoil.” Alan Watts 

Sometimes, the best thing you can do with your time is to follow Van Dyke’s advice and love someone or something as a way to feel the expansive luxury of the time given to you.

My challenge to you is to create something loving – whether it’s another piece of a passion project or a text to someone who needs to hear from you.

Next post: Service

Photo credit: phil.shen.2020 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Learning To Fight What Scares You

Fear is a central fact of my life and my ever-present companion. From the time I noticed that my list for Santa didn’t include the Barbies, makeup or other things the girls in my class wanted,  I knew I was different. No other girl asked for a chemistry set, a BB gun, and walkie-talkies. That, along with the stacks of Spiderman comics in my closet, set me apart and made me afraid that I wasn’t the kind of girl anyone in my family expected.

This led into a pernicious and lingering fear of being judged. When you grow up Southern Baptist, there’s a particular way to gossip about people and still seem godly: the prayer chain. It sounds kind of like this: 

“Lord, we just want to raise up Lorene’s daughter, Father God, and her drinking. Lord Jesus, we grieve that her babies have different daddies, even though all the men she knows are nice…”

For my Meemaw’s sake, I knew a baseline expectation for me was to stay off the prayer chain. Waiting in line at the grocery store in my small town, I heard people talking about my parents. They were one of the first couples to get a divorce – and it was an epic, operatic production involving both those in high standing and those in low places. I learned to achieve to distract away from all the unpleasant truths about my parents and myself. 

Those fears about myself solidified into one central truth: I wasn’t the girl anyone expected me to be because I am a girl who loves girls. That fear of knowing I am gay metastasized into shame.

And that shame is inked into me like a tattoo, burrowed into my bones like arthritis, a taproot of guilt that burrows right into the center of me. You don’t get that out of you overnight. Brene Brown says we measure shame and guilt in people by the way they talk to themselves and the messages they give themselves.

My fear is borne out in messages I’ve fought even today. Fear that boils down to the basic belief that I am not good enough. It creates a strong pull towards being that worst of all F words: Fake. Faking whatever I need to be to make myself somewhat presentable and acceptable, no matter how painful, has been a long act.

But what I’ve learned most about overcoming fear is that even though it’s familiar, it’s also fuel. The same energy that threatens to paralyze me is the same energy that can be turned toward fighting what scares me.

Being authentic is a choice. Being brave is a choice. I’m grateful for books and the ability to find my literary role models. That’s one of the reasons literacy is so powerful because you find that others fight – and win – the same battles.

As promised, here are seven more things I’ve learned after 52 birthdays that I’m sharing this week. These are seven authors who helped me turn fear into faith.

Day Two:  The Best Things I’ve Learned About Fear

  1. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”- Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. “Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, – “Always do what you are afraid to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  3.          “The Litany Against Fear 

           I must not fear.
           Fear is the mind-killer.
           Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
           I will face my fear.
           I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
          And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
          Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
          Only I will remain.” Frank Herbert

  1. “You have plenty of courage, I am sure” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.” L. Frank Baum

5. “The very cave you are afraid to enter

            turns out to be the source of

            What you were looking for.

            The damned thing in the cave

            that was so dreaded

            has become the center.”   – Joseph Campbell

6. “Our courage grows for things that affect us deeply, things that open our hearts. Once our heart is engaged, it is easy to be brave.” Margaret Wheatley

  1. “I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.” Elizabeth Gilbert

These quotes are a mantra for me; their words wrapped around me like armor, making me brave and bold when I am scared and ashamed.

Next post: Time

Photo by Tom Margie/CC BY 2.0

Yes You Can Get Smarter Every Year

Birthdays, in my experience, become more odd the older you get. My friend Gini, when I told her I would be 52 this year, said: “Your fifties – you just live them. You’re not old or young. I never remembered how old I was in my fifties.”

So, on this even birthday year, I decided to make it more memorable by writing about things I’ve learned. My inspiration for this came from Srinivas Rao and Eleanor RooseveltI’m always inspired by her and I decided to give myself time to reread her slim, yet profound book:  You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys For a More Fulfilling Life . Written in 1960 when she was 76, Roosevelt positions her ideas around the practice of lifelong learning because, she writes, When you stop learning you stop living in any vital or meaningful sense.”

Rather than write a tedious or hokey clickbait post like “52 Things I Learned in 52 Years” (an actual title idea I abandoned), I decided to rely on my old teacher practice of chunking information. So instead of 52 things all at once, I’ll space them out in Seven-A-Day shorter posts each day this week with some bonus material on Sunday to round out the number.

Another feature of this post: the author’s names are links are to the books where I found the source material, so these bullets also function as a recommended reading list. Most of the titles are available at your library (find them with this awesome tool), free through Google’s massive project to scan classic works, or dirt cheap on Amazon.

Day One: The Best Things I’ve Learned About Learning

  1. Be present and curious via Eleanor Roosevelt – “To this day I do not feel I have had a career. What I have done is to live every experience to the utmost. As I look back, I think probably the factor which influenced me most in my early years was an avid desire, even before I was aware of what I was doing, to experience all I could as deeply as I could.”
  2. Learning helps you feel better via T.H. White  – “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
  3. Learning makes you “bulletproof” via Alvin Toffler – “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”    
  4. You give yourself permission to learn via Mark Twain – “Never let formal education get in the way of your learning. ”     
  5. Don’t act like the smartest person in the room via Lord Chesterfield – “Never seem more learned than the people you are with. Wear your learning like a pocket watch and keep it hidden. Do not pull it out to count the hours, but give the time when you are asked.”     
  6. Everyone knows something you don’t via Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Shall I tell you a secret of a true scholar? It is this: every man I meet is my master in some point and in that I learn from him.”
  7. The person doing the work is the person doing the learning via Friedrich Nietzsche –  “The doer alone learneth.”

A birthday challenge from me to you: write your own list of learnings and share a link to it, or share your favorite quotes in the comments. Action creates its own motivation, so if you’ve been thinking about writing, consider this an invitation to get moving on one small idea.

Next post: Fear

Photo via Visual hunt

What I’ve Learned From 21 Days Of The Whole 30 Diet

I’m day 21 on the Whole 30 diet and several things have occurred to me:

  1. I feel markedly better
  2. I am a massive sugar addict
  3. This diet masks a tremendous amount of privilege

Let’s start with the positive — I do feel a distinct difference in my mood and people have commented on the way I look. Not that I look so much skinnier as I look brighter, happier. I have more energy and am able to make better choices because of the discipline of such strict limits: no sugar, no grain, no dairy, no alcohol, no fake sugar.

That’s forced me to drink more water, which has forced me to have to get up from my desk much more to walk down the hall to the restroom. This has created a pleasant result of painlessly incorporating the advice from the NY Times to work for a bit, move around for a few minutes, work again, then repeat. And I do feel happier. That’s partly the diet and partly being able to stay with my intention to be more present.

Which leads me to the next item: sugar. To my horror, I’ve discovered that the stevia I dumped into literally everything, including coffee, tea, over grapefruits, and packed into the protein bars I was eating, is banned in the Whole 30 diet.

Getting rid of stevia hurt almost as much as getting rid of chocolate, which hurt as bad as giving up red wine. And when I say “hurt,” I mean made me feel physical withdrawals worse than the nicotine I gave up eight years ago. Headaches, trouble sleeping and concentrating, irritability, and a lingering feeling of dissatisfaction centered on feeling like I was missing something or deprived of something. And I was. I was deprived of sugar in all of its forms except fruit. It’s cold comfort to drink peppermint tea and eat blueberries when I want dark chocolate and glass of red wine.

More than anything, this diet has revealed the extent of my dependence on sugar to cope with stress, boredom, sadness, and as a prop for social gatherings. It’s been quite literally, a shock to the system.

However, that sense of deprivation has sensitized me in a way I haven’t been and in a way that makes me feel ashamed and selfish. It’s created an awareness of deprivation in others and heightened my empathy.

I wasn’t aware of how much I’ve been numbing myself, particularly in the wake of the election. The more I numbed, the more I wanted to be numb. That all seems well and good until you realize that those feelings go somewhere. They’re an energy that gets stored inside my brain and pushes to be noticed. Deliberately numbing them is somewhat like deliberately blinding myself to the pain and need of others.

And I do that to not only my detriment, but to the detriment of any sense of community or peace or healing I might desire. And as it turns out, the Whole 30 has forced me to see how much privilege it masks. To do the diet well enough to fit it into my schedule, I’ve had to reconnect with cooking meals. It’s a good thing I not only like to cook, but know how to cook and how to shop for the lesser-bought foods it calls for like Swiss chard, spaghetti squash, beets, nut butters and coconut oil.

Being able to shop for and cook these meals means I have the privilege of time, which I hadn’t really noticed as a luxury before. I have time on the weekends and work a normal day with time left over to make food for the next day. Even having the time to plan such an endeavor as a restrictive diet is a privilege, not to mention the means to purchase all of it.

The restrictions mask another privilege — the ability to choose my calories. I live within walking distance of a grocery store and a health food store, both of which stock organic produce and meat in addition to their regular counterparts. Both of these combine in the privilege of having the financial means to buy more expensive food. To have the choice of eating a sweet potato, the privilege of an education that taught me to read and be able to navigate nutritional information. To think critically about how chemicals affect my body.

Finally, this diet has had the unintended consequence of being a spiritual practice for me, and no one is more surprised about that than me. I don’t mean to sound preachy or self-righteous. I know how easily I fall for and develop new interests, passions, and obsessions. I don’t expect to enter a monastery and become Pema Chodron anytime soon. I don’t even expect to stay a halfway decent version of my petty, anxious self. But most of all, I’m grateful for the spiritual cleanse of this diet.

Image Credit: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

How To Be A Dragonslayer

For some of us, the new year is also a new professional journey.

No one can tell you what’s ahead and that’s part of what’s exciting, but it’s also what’s scary. You wonder how you will battle the dragons ahead or handle the sea monsters that you can’t quite see, but that you know are there. Those monsters that regularly attack in the way of procrastination, inertia, and distraction.

Part of the journey is preparing for those monsters by having a plan for their attack or weapons to fight them. Every great story shows the heroes readying themselves for battle, whether it’s with a sword that turns blue for Orcs or a wooden stake to take down the Big Bad.

Continue reading How To Be A Dragonslayer

What I Learned From 300,000 Miles of Travel in One Year

For someone who never really traveled much in her life, this past year spent traveling as the National Teacher of the Year has been a huge learning curve and “growth opportunity” for me. In short, I think travel made me a better human being. That’s certainly what Pico Iyer believes and writes about here.I’m not sure if travel made me richer or sexier, but it definitely taught me to think practically.

After reflecting on my year, I put together a list of stuff I learned for any of you who may be traveling a lot this summer (or year). Some of them may seem dumb, but I assure you, I learned each of them the hard way.

What I’ve Learned:

  1. Always pack flats or other comfortable shoes.
  2. Window seats let you see some cool stuff.
  3. Be nice to airport staff — you might do something really stupid like leave your carry on bag on the plane in Philadelphia and need their help.
  4. Stay calm and be nice to TSA agents — even if they are rude and yell at you like the ones in Newark. Don’t let that kind of behavior ruin your day or your trip. And often, TSA agents are kind and respond to kindness (and it would be hard to beat the sweetness of those in Manchester, NH).
  5. Be adventurous — use TripAdvisor, Yelp or other apps to find interesting things to see, to do and places to eat. Google Maps walking directions have taken me all over big cities and made me feel like a native.
  6. Be nice to fellow travelers — they feel the same as you. Many are flying for sad reasons. Little kindnesses, I’ve learned, have the biggest impact when you’re alone and vulnerable.
  7. Be nice to all hotel staff. You might get things like champagne and macaroons in your room, or chocolate covered strawberries.
  8. Drink lots of water — it makes a huge difference in your mood and energy level.
  9. Don’t drink booze on the plane. Just trust me on this.
  10. Exercise! Even if you can’t hit the gym, walk in the airports. You’ll feel 100% better, I promise. And stand as much as possible in the airport. Sitting makes you sad and tired.
  11. Pack a small Bluetooth speaker to make yourself feel at home in hotel rooms. Hearing my jazz music helped ground me on those nights when I suddenly awoke from a nightmare in a generic room and didn’t know where I was for a few minutes.
  12. Pack headphones and download your favorite music. I don’t think I could fly without it. Once, when my plane hit a vicious wind shear in Denver, I decided that if I were going to crash, Ella Fitzgerald would be the voice carrying me to the other side.
  13. Dress nicely to fly and smile at everyone, especially the crew. I’ve been surprised by the change in my treatment when I quit wearing sweat pants and frowning.
  14. Travel apps I love (for iPhone/Mac): TripIt (many times, it texted me flight updates before the pilot announced them or flight attendants knew what was happening), Signal, (which I use to text my family for free on international trips), Gate Guru (which always helps me find food in airports, and once helped me find a place that sells MacBook Air accessories when I left my power cord at a venue), Boingo (because I need stable, accessible wi-fi and this is the best, but a little pricey, option), CamScanner (a free app that turns receipts into pdfs for expense reports and then exports them to email — amazing), and Day One (a journaling app where I keep notes about this year along with pictures that spark my memory)
  15. Tweeting positive travel experiences at the businesses is a nice thing to do — especially if you get great service. One flight crew gave me free food and vodka (which I didn’t drink, but just collected in my back pack only to have it fall out in front of a community leader when I went to find my glasses).
  16. Sign up for reward programs — they’re worth it. Using a reward program got me the last seat on a flight home, a hotel room that magically appeared at a “no vacancy” hotel, and discounts on food.
  17. Life really does begin right outside your comfort zone. Take the risk of introducing yourself to someone new. Everyone knows something you don’t and what they know is often exactly what you need to learn. I’m an introvert, so I’ve had to push myself to interact with those I find seated next to me on various transportations or dinners. By doing one small thing and asking: What are you excited about right now? I’ve met fascinating writers who shared books with me, a man who’s spent his entire adult life traveling all over the world, a nice couple who showed me how to maneuver in the Beijing security line (who knew there were “secret security lines that magically open up?), speakers who shared their best pro tips with me (that’s for another post), and so on.

Image credit: Yimeng Wang, my host for a tour of Shandong Province, China in March, 2016. I’m with the Zhangqiu Middle School Journalism Club

The Deep Magic

A takeaway from this last month of speaking and traveling is:

We’re saved by what we create, and by who and what we love.

For me, teaching is always triage – an emergency room where I try to apply reading and writing to the wounds my students have. Sometimes, a good story can save your life. Not always, but sometimes, and that’s enough for me. 

Reading aloud is a small thing, but it’s what I love. Creating learning experiences where the clock stops, where I don’t worry about how much weight I’m gaining or how I look when I turn to the side, and where we – whomever I’m with – are transported by story. Either our own stories or those we love by others. 

Nothing gives me energy like reading a really good piece of literature aloud to an audience who really needs it. The photo above is a gift of energy from my former students, Nat and Karen.

About a week ago, I was so exhausted, I thought I would burst into tears in the canned vegetable aisle at the grocery store.

Then I read this:

“Would you come read Skippyjon Jones to our kids in the afterschool program?” Nat messaged me.

At first, I thought: “I’m too tired.” Then I worried: “I have too much to do.”

But what you love pulls you. And so reading pulled me out of my pinched and crabby feelings.

Skippyjon Jones, a masterful series by Judy Schachner about a cat who thinks he’s a chihuahua and imagines epic adventures for himself, is a can’t-miss read aloud if you go all in on it. My juniors and seniors always want me to read it to them. I was a little worried about reading to small people because I don’t normally work with those under age 14.

And, the kids in their after-school class, Karen confided, “think reading is evil. They hate it.”

To read aloud well – to transport both yourself and your audience – you have to be unself-conscious. It’s taken me a long time to get there and even so, I still get shy.

I’ve stood at the back of my classroom because I was afraid to read “The Tell-Tale Heart” like I knew it should be read.

One of my most memorable experiences was reading Ray Bradbury’s “The Last Night of The World” to a group of seventh-grade boys who told me that reading is stupid. The story is mostly dialogue between a husband and wife, but the sense of dread that Bradbury creates chilled those inner-city kids on a hot August morning.

The story’s horror comes from knowing that the end is really coming and there’s nothing you can do. What is there to do, Bradbury asks us, but those last little comforting habits like hugging someone close, washing the dishes, and saying, “I love you” one last time?

“That felt real, Miss,” Anthony said. “It was like a scary ride that stays with you.”

That’s what the best read-alouds and the best lessons feel like to me: a ride that kind of scares me, but also gives me that adrenaline rush from doing something fun.

And we don’t give ourselves or our students enough fun because of so much pressure for “achievement.”

So, I’m giving you permission, just like I always have to give myself, to have fun. Read something you love. Go all in. Do the voices. Sell it. Make it feel real.

In this grinding month, give yourself one day to not worry about “the test.” Give yourself  – and most importantly, your students the gift of energy through the pure joy that comes from deliberately designing a day around a story you love.

Deep magic comes from joy.

Create some today by sharing what you love.