Sunday, September 28, 2014

When September Ends

I said I wasn't going to be sad - and I'm not, really. Maybe it's because, at this point, I'm more fatigued than dismal that this life changing experience is coming to an end. At least, it was life changing for me. That could be because of when this season has happened, relatively early in my life and (relatively) early in my teaching career. I feel as though I have aged 10 years - not only in experiences, but in the physical toll that traveling alone, nonstop for a year has on your body. Never underestimate how difficult it is to drive, often in inclement weather, listening carefully to your GPS and trusting it to not take you over-the-river-and-through the-woods, stay alert for hours on end, with one eye on the road and another on the clock, hoping you'll get where ever you're going in time - or before dark. My back and stomach both feel like they have been crunched tightly in a fist since January.
This is what my odometer read at the beginning of August.

I'm not going to be sad. It was everything it was meant to be for me, and it's time to move on. My mental and physical capacity for having two full time jobs has reached its limit. After a year, it's time for a release of having somewhere to be, something to say, or someone to write for - at least on a tightly scheduled basis.

My lone speaking engagement this month was addressing the West Virginia Association of Retired School Employees at their annual meeting in Braxton County. It was also my last speaking engagement as the current teacher of the year until October 8th, when I address the state school board and give my farewell speech (is it really a farewell speech? Maybe reflection speech would be a better name for it). Regardless, I enjoyed speaking to those who have given a lifetime of service to education in West Virginia and have the opportunity to now advocate for our teachers and students from another perspective.

Nicolas County WVARSE members

One of the last one room school teachers from Tucker County.

That's not to say I wasn't busy. I have made four trips to Charleston since this school year began. Some were for selecting the next teacher of the year, others were for committees that I have been appointed to as a result of my title. Which is why, I guess October 8th really isn't as much a farewell as it is a "reboot." That's also what I have spent much of this past month pondering, in between lesson plans, calling substitutes, and grading papers - what happens next?
Marshall University Graduate School in Charleston
I've also started working on one thing I plan to pursue after October 8th. I am writing and illustrating a children's book about my year, with the main character none other than your favorite West Virginia state symbol. This is uncharted territory for me, but I figure Berkeley's blog is a good start for a story line - and I certainly have the pictures to inspire my illustrations. I have been doing a lot of research on how to get started with a children't book (among other things) - just wondering at this point if I can tell Berkeley's adventures in just 32 pages.
Those post-it notes are the beginning of Berkeley's book.

I also received this in the mail last week. It brought back all the excitement of that day, which was a much needed pick-me-up in the midst of mounting stress.
With President Obama in the Blue Room of the White House, May 1, 2014

Cecelia Mason's article on my year also was published  in Shepherd University's Alumni magazine. You can read the story at this link. What is it like to go to your mailbox and, in the midst of advertisements and bills, see yourself staring back at you? At this point, it's just another day in the life...
Thank you, Cecelia, for another beautiful article about my year.

This upcoming week, I am traveling to Princeton, New Jersey, for the final convening of our 2014 class of state teachers of the year. I'm looking forward to it (after I write yet another set of substitute lesson plans), not only to see the teachers that understand what this year has been all about, but because I need some direction as to what to do next.

The time out of the classroom is stretching me thin - remember I write this blog not only to document my year, but to give insight as to what this experience is all about, not just the recognition and glory, but the wear and tear. I feel (and have felt) incredibly guilty when I have to leave my classroom in someone else's care. Once I get to my destination, I turn off the guilt and focus on what I need to say and do, because I represent every teacher in West Virginia. Then, I make the trek home, exhausted, only to get up the next morning and give what I have left to my students.
Although I've been in and out, my 5th graders already know me well.

The pressure is immense. So is the reward.

Which is why, here at the very end as the season changes to fall, coming full circle from last year, it's difficult to not be just a little sad.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rewind Wednesday, Part 2: Last August 2nd

Okay, fast forward. Went through security and up the stairs.

It was really quiet except for my heart pounding so heavily it had to be audible. I was 15 minutes early. Good. Some time to sit peacefully and get a hold of myself. I sat down and looked into the deep, dark depths of my purse for a mirror to assess my crazy hair day situation.

It wasn't three minutes later I heard "Oh, good, she's already here."

I never found the mirror. Instead I found myself trying to listen carefully to what was being said to me over my heartbeat pulsating in my ears. I stood back up, and I don't know why it didn't bother me earlier that morning, but all the fluid and bruising in my achy-breaky legs just went woosh down to my toes. My legs felt like water balloons as I went through the door with a big smile on my face and my hand outstretched.

They all seemed so tall. And I seemed really young and short.

Meet the Press. Sit up. Smile. Look at them! Don't act like you usually do.  The enormity of it all overwhelmed me. How on Earth had I ended up here? Listen to the questions. I felt like the walls were closing in, inch by inch.

It didn't take long, and then I cracked. Between going through my don't list over and over and debating whether to not to wear my glasses after all (they ended up on the floor after I knocked them off the table), I cracked. I was not going to maintain my composure. In an instant, I was sure that I had ruined everything I had convinced myself wasn't even possible.

Well, what do you do when your in a situation like that? It wasn't like I could get up and leave. So, the only split second option I had was to just be myself. After all, how many people would ever make it as far as that little room? Time to just let it go and forget all the things on the don't list.

I was too emotional. Too silly. And dramatic. Meet the Press had effectively become Oprah's couch. I was just Erin, 5th grade teacher, not pulled together teacher-leader. I'll never see them again, I thought. What difference does it make? I'll just be me, there's nothing to lose now.

My leg really hurt.

And that's how it went for thirty-or-so minutes. I didn't just wear my heart on my sleeve; I added glitter to make it stand out.

Then it was time to give my speech. Now, people dear to me had invested their time in listening to me speak, encouraging me to be confident. In my mind I had now disappointed them more than humanly possible. I owed them all to give it my best on that speech, even if I had blown it. And so I did. I spoke from my heart, where every word had come from, because that's what every person I represented deserved.

It's a little strange giving a big speech to a small group of people. Or maybe I took the assignment completely out of context.

No sooner than it began I was out the door. Embarrassed. Ashamed of myself. I filled out paperwork and quickly was escorted to the main entrance and into the sunshine.

I called Brad. He was already there in the parking lot. I could see him. But I wasn't moving.

"Do you see me? Just walk this way."

I still wasn't moving.

He ended up getting out of the car. Again. All I could muster after spilling my heart out for 45 minutes was a barely audible "It's over."

And then I got in the car.

"I can't believe it! I did everything I shouldn't have done! It was horrible. It's over. It was never going to happen anyway. That's it. That's it?! Why did I say that? It's over. I'm so embarrassed. It is so over."

I said that all the way home. Over and over. For about 4 and-a-half hours. It's a wonder that he didn't make me get out and walk home. Stopping the car first would have been a plus.

A month later, I was in the throws of a new school year. I had effectively blocked any thought of my interview or speech unless asked, then I had my "It just wasn't meant to be" line all ready to go. I got a letter in the mail congratulating me and advising to have some remarks prepared in case I was the teacher of the year.

I almost threw it away. Then I thought better and just tossed it in a pile of random papers on my desk.

Two days later, I was chilling on the couch after school. Great day, but a long, tiring one. It was going to be a good year. I whipped out my phone and engrossed myself in a round of Angry Birds.

I was so intent on using the white "egg" bird that NEVER drops the egg in the right spot I didn't hear Brad come in the room.

"Did you get a letter?"

"About what?"

"Don't you need to write a speech?"

I made a face. Nosey. "I don't need to write any more speeches. It's over. There's no way. Don't look at my mail." I went back to bombing the ugly green piggies on Angry Birds.

"I think you better write a speech."

"I love you too, but I know when it's not going to be me. Stop bothering me and don't look at my mail."

"I think you need to get ready for October 9th."

Mr. Persistent. Humph. There's no way. It's over.

And then, I got a feeling. The feeling you get when someone is possibly hiding something from you. When you're the last to know. What if...

I let the black bomb bird disintegrate into the virtual sky and went to go dig up that letter.


Well, we all know how this story ended. You just never knew how it started.

I'm asked a lot about what makes me the teacher of the year. Eleven months in and I still don't have the answer people are looking for.

It's not about being all pulled together. Or having all the right answers. Or how many committees or student teachers you've served.

As I said in part one, we aren't always kind to ourselves in this profession. So much is expected, and we often feel we come up short. We not only want to feel empowered, but know that others see our potential, too.

We're all looking for someone just like us.

I'm proof that broken, flawed people with purpose and determination can be leaders, speakers, and amazingly enough, role models. Sometimes your purpose is revealed to you in ways you would never anticipate.

Be different. Be the difference.

But most importantly, be yourself.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rewind Wednesday, Part 1: Last August 2nd

I haven't done a Rewind Wednesday for a while. I'm giving myself an hour to type this, then I have to get some rest before I spend the day at school tomorrow and then drive four and-a-half hours.

But what I have to say is important - to someone, hopefully. If not, it's just an important reflection to me about how this journey began.


I didn't even hear my cell phone ring. I was asleep, in the kitchen, with my forehead resting on the island. I had come home from Germany three days earlier and was still incredibly jet lagged. A few minutes later I drowsily checked my voicemail, not even lifting my head up. I think I dreamed a phone was ringing.

When I heard the message, I went from half asleep to almost falling off the kitchen stool.

I was being contacted to schedule an interview for the 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year. I scribbled down a call back number and a date on a piece of paper clinging to the refrigerator, and cleared my throat. Then I started pacing. I paced as I called to schedule my interview. I paced the house as I sent texts to what I hope were people in my contact list but maybe some random people that accidentally got added (but sent nice texts back anyway). I paced the house for probably an hour and-a-half, until my leg started aching.

I tripped getting on a train in Frankfurt two weeks earlier. In an instant I was between the stairs of a train and the train platform. While the teachers who were with me lifted me up and got me onto the train safely, I badly bruised and busted my right leg so much that within 24 hours I was in Heidelberg University Hospital emergency room because I could no longer put weight on it. I managed to make it through the remainder of the trip with a wrap and some mega-antibiotics, but still wasn't the most graceful creature on two legs (I'm still not).

In one week I was going to have an interview to represent the education profession in West Virginia, and I could barely walk - or recount what time zone I was in.

While my friends and colleagues sent their good vibes, I felt less and less confident each day as I wrapped my head around it all. I knew it was possible - but I didn't think it would really happen. This has gotten out of hand, I thought to myself. This is too big, too much for me. I'm a terrible speaker. I do weird, blinky things with my eyes when I talk. My eye contact is horrendous. I'm too silly and emotional (the side effects of being in the fifth grade for so long). I look like a fifth grader. 

(Keep in mind, through a lot of practice and YouTube videos on public speaking, I have conquered my public speaking quirks. I'm not as bad as I thought I was, but at this moment in my life I felt incredibly insufficient.)
I read something recently, how we shouldn't treat ourselves any worse than we would our best friend. As teachers, often we are our worst critics. It's safe to say at this point last late July I wasn't being a very good friend to myself. If it's possible to bully yourself, I was doing it.

I went through the next week pacing the house (in between elevating my leg), Googling everything about any and all education issues in existence (and making note cards - I don't know why, but for some reason, I went on an index card kick for six days, and I never use index cards). I wrote a speech. I practiced my speech. I timed my speech. I made other people listen to my speech. Other people, namely the administrators at the Berkeley County Leadership Academy, listened to my speech to give me an audience. They didn't have to do that, but they did. The support and confidence I received from my Berkeley County school family was uplifting beyond anything I could possibly deserve. I reviewed my "don't" list:

Don't cross your legs over and over. Don't cry, even if you're nervous. Don't take your glasses on and off. Don't freak out and make a fool of yourself and Berkeley County. Don't be silly. Pretend it's "Meet the Press." Act like the accomplished teacher you are instead of a scared kid on the first day of school.

I was so nervous my husband drove me to Charleston, taking a day and-a-half from work, because I would have driven off the road at that point - or turned around and gone home. I shuffled my index card collection and listened to myself say my speech on my phone (I recorded it over and over, because I wanted to make sure I enunciated everything correctly) the entire four and-a-half hour drive. You can only imagine what great company I was to have in that car.

Eventually, I went to sleep that night. I think I wore myself out with my antics. The next morning when I woke up, my eyes were itchy and swollen - probably from lack of sleep and the detergent in the hotel blankets. I was having a crazy hair day that no flat iron could tame (thank you summer humidity). And I didn't like my outfit. It was black. A black suit. My mother said it looked nice and professional. I read that you should wear dark, solid colors to an interview. Only problem was that I didn't own any dark, solid colors - but I do have a lot of pink, red, and purple. So I found a suit, a nice, black suit, to wear for my interview - on a 90 degree day in August. I was going to roast in that nice, black suit - and pantyhose. Who in their right mind invented pantyhose?

I got dressed and ate part of a muffin that Brad brought up for me to eat. Somehow I got out of that room and into the car. Brad drove me to the Capitol Complex. I knew I had to go in Building 7 - where's Building 7? A very polite officer showed me from the car where to go.

Brad pointed and said, "See, it's right there. I'm going to let you out here so I don't have to feed a meter."

"Walk me to the door."

"It's right there. I have on my running shorts (which, side note, are hideously short). You'll be great."

I get out of the car and stand. The door is hanging open, but I knew if closed it he'd be off.

"Walk me to the door."

So Brad, in his runner garb, parked the car, fed the meter, and walked me, in my black suit and Payless heels (that I now have in every color because they are the only heels I can walk in), escorted me to Building 7. It was like crossing the Sahara Desert.

I got to the door. I had to open the door to go through security. This was really going to happen. I felt like all of my surroundings were melting away.

I stood there at the door. I've been to some large cities with skyscrapers, but in that moment that was the tallest, most foreboding structure I'd ever seen in my life. Suddenly, I realized Brad was gone. I head "Good luck," but he was high tailing it across the parking lot before I could respond (smooth move in hindsight).

I had no choice but to go inside, because I wasn't going to stand outside in my hot, black suit for an hour. I felt like I was about to enter an unknown world - and I was, just not in a way that I ever could imagine it.

I'm going to have to finish this story sometime tomorrow. It won't be Wednesday, but it will be worth it.