The Benefit of Being Fair

A dozen years ago, before motherhood and after a calculated career change, I taught elementary school. Teaching consumed one hundred percent of my being. Working in a classroom with young people was all I cared to know.

For me, the first few days of the new school year were critical. They were my chance to set a tone with students and lay the foundation for an inclusive community. During the lead up to Back to School, I lost sleep mulling over Hi-lited lesson plans and rehashing ways to nip issues that come up with children in the bud.

One common cry in elementary school land was, “Not fair!” It was a catchy phrase that seemed to multiply when exposed to air. I liked to deal with the fairness struggle up front. And so, my week one repertoire included a story borrowed from a colleague about shoes.

A lot of times I hear students say, “It’s not fair!” So let’s talk about fairness. Say I was going to provide shoes for the entire class. Each person in the class wears a different size. If one student wears a size 10, I would get him a size 10. But I wouldn’t automatically get the others a size 10. I would make sure each child got the shoe size he needed.

My job as your teacher is to give you the pair of shoes with the best fit. Being fair is not about providing the same to all, it’s about giving each person what he needs so he can reach his personal best. In this class, I won’t always be equal – but I will always be fair.

I’m no longer teaching elementary school. Now, I’m on the receiving end of backpacks, homework folders and projects. My younger son, Skootch has academic needs which make him eligible for an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). He is taught in a small group, modified setting for reading, writing and math, receives help with speech and language and works with therapists during the school day to strengthen his hands, stamina and core.

Because G-d took a hole punch to the memory files in Skootch’s brain, concepts take longer to stick than for a typical 2nd grader. At 8 ½ years old, he’s still learning how to read and writing is a beleaguered task.

But these challenges have never deterred his thinking, attention to detail and capacity to be curious. As soon as Skootch figured out how to say words, he didn’t stop talking, questioning and trying to understand the world even when no one could understand him.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he came home from school eager to enter a play writing contest for grades K-2 organized by the local community theater. The contest was the culmination of a series of workshops taught by the teachers and theater’s educational staff. Selected scripts would be brought to life on the stage by real actors. Each winning playwright would even be awarded with a certificate from the mayor.

Before I had a chance to pull the entry form out of the folder, Skootch was fantasizing about giving the mayor his autograph. I didn’t want to discourage such enthusiasm, but I didn’t encourage it either.

I was worried for the guy.

For Skootch to endure the process of transferring ideas from his brain to the page after having worked seven hours at school and having tackled homework would be physically draining and emotionally demoralizing. I presumed these contests were for rock star students who read chapter books with ease, wrote fluent paragraphs AND have a hardy imagination. Skootch only checked off one of the boxes.

I was also worried for me.

What would the other parents think? Would they say Skootch cheated if I got involved? And although it’s never been my personal experience with the community, I couldn’t help but anticipate murmurs of disgust at school pick up. My child wrote a play without any help. All the kids should be held to the same standard. That’s not fair.

I folded up the flyer and approached the garbage. But there was Skootch standing in front of me, shaking his composition notebook. “Mom. Did you hear me? I want to write a play! I started it at school. It’s called The Robbers and the Security Guards.”

I took one look at his sunshine smile and remembered the shoes.

Screw it, I thought. He deserves to feel proud.

“Let me see.” Inside the notebook, I saw that a grown up’s handwriting had scribbled down his thoughts. “You have four days. You’ll have to work on it a little each day before or after homework. You tell me what to say and I’ll type. Okay?”

I sat down at the computer. Skootch bounced, skipped, tumbled and talked around the living room. He relayed character names, outlined the plot and explained the story arc. The boy had the whole thing planned in his head. He gave me the words. I typed, asked questions for clarification and typed some more. Every few sentences, he’d ask me to read back the lines.

For the rest of the week, when Skootch came home from school I asked, “What first? Homework or the play?”

Each time he responded, “My play.”

In the end, he submitted a 4 page, 5 act typed play to a slush pile 80 scripts deep. After a several week review process, the theater’s selection committee chose about 20 to perform. The Robbers and the Security Guards made the final cut!

Upon hearing the news, Skootch pretended to faint. The proud playwright counted his sleeps until opening night of The Vision and Voices Playwriting Festival. When the evening arrived, our boy marched his size 4 shoes the two block walk from our house to the theater with a smile wider than usual.

Together with my husband and a packed house of young writers, moms, dads and teachers, we watched twenty children’s words come to life. Our son, who on paper, was never expected to realize such a Language Arts feat showed me what determination, hard work, talented teachers, a little faith and a side of help can achieve. As Skootch climbed on stage and smacked the mayor’s hand, I could tell he was very proud. We all were.

The festival was a magical reminder of how funny, thoughtful and astute very young children can be when given a forum and the freedom to express their voice. The experience was a reminder that under each surface, big ideas loom large. Imaginations are always racing, even when fingers and mouth muscles can’t keep up.

For us moms and teachers who share their lives with children who need a reassuring Yes you can, a typing hand or a custom shoe, don’t hesitate. After all, it’s only fair.

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These 5 Quotes Held My Hand in 2017. In 2018, There’s No Letting Go.

By December 31, 2017, I couldn’t wait to devour the cheese plate, suck down some champagne, watch Mariah redeem her lip sync and wave goodbye to what I found to be a distressing and draining year.

I’m not one for grand resolutions. In my experience, they tend to be over rated and short lived.

Instead, over time, particularly since I’ve started to write myself, I’ve found the words of others to be a reliable source. Words give me pause, hold me accountable and shape everyday decisions.

As I pray, hope and gear up to work for a better 2018, here are 5 quotations that summed up my mindset and kept me moving during 2017, and continue to offer inspiration as I brace for what’s next.

“This land was made for you and me.” Woodie Guthrie

Masses of pink hats sang this on the National Mall during the Women’s March in Washington DC.

“The words you speak become the house you live in.” – the Persian poet, Hafez.

My daily mantra for confronting CrossFit challenges, managing career expectations and dealing with general self-doubt.

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” – Lebanese artist, Kahlil Gibran

As my two boys continue to grow, Gibran’s words from his poem, On Children are a stab in the heart reminder to teach independence so when the time comes, Bubbe and Skootch can live life on their own terms. The poem also encourages me to do my part to leave our world a healthier place so they may have a fair shot at doing so.

“We the people of the United States” (we are a democratic republic, not a dictatorship) “in order to form a more perfect union” (we are a work in progress dedicated to a noble pursuit) “establish justice” (we revere justice as the cornerstone of our democracy) “insure domestic tranquility” (we prize unity and peace, not divisiveness and discord), “provide for the common defense” (we should never give any foreign adversary reason to question our solidarity) “promote the general welfare” (we care about one another; compassion and decency matter) “and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” (we have a responsibility to protect not just our own generation, but future ones as well).

The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution as dissected by Sally Yates, former Deputy Attorney General in her Op-Ed, “Who Are We As a Country? Time To Decide” was published just as the forces counting on me to feel complacent were winning. Seeing America’s core values written in simple terms was the jolt of stay woke I needed that day.

“Baby, I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).” – Demi Lovato

For any fellow human who at some point during his or her life, stood up, spoke up and refuses to go back.

“Use all your heart, all your might and everything will turn out right.” – Me (as far as I can tell)

The words heart and might may have come from the Jewish Shema or Deuteronomy 6:5 although that wasn’t my conscious intention. These are the words I say to my boys anytime they are in a position to learn, go out on the court, get nervous about peers or have to take on the world.

Perhaps during the next 365 days, I’ll try to heed my own words.

Consider it a small goal.

Welcome 2018.

5 Tips for Conference Attendees

Creating art is often a self-indulgent, solitary craft.

So each spring, I make a point to attend a 300 person conference hosted by SCBWI, a trade organization serving the KidLit community. For two days, writers, illustrators, literary agents and editors who are committed to making books for children and young adults hole up in a hotel to teach and take workshops, socialize and share.

Making the emotional transition from a solo gig to an environment packed with peers and prospective partners requires a hefty dose of vulnerability, grit and guts.

I’d rather tackle burpees over a barbell than participate in an event where it behooves me to talk to strangers, explain projects or pitch ideas. But year after year, I close my eyes, swallow the medicine and go.

When it’s over, some leave the conference motivated and alive. I always left, after my writing had been criticized and critiqued, feeling demoralized, dejected and done. Tired of clammy skin, frayed nerves and a cracked ego, in 2016 I took a break.

But without a conference lined up, I let life – parenting, work, presidential elections and Russian investigations get in the way. I wrote less KidLit. The more the dust bunnies nested, the more I missed the craft and writing community.

When the 2017 conference registration appeared in my email, I decided to try again knowing the only way to recharge my batteries was to change my approach.

These 5 things helped me to keep this spring’s experience in perspective.

Lowered expectations

In the past, I wheeled my bags into the hotel lobby filled with a binder of manuscripts, a personal agenda packed with scheduled critiques, printed copies of my story’s first page for a public reading, an elevator pitch for any peer or professional willing to listen and the expectation that my work would catch the eye of an agent or editor before the closing speaker’s remarks.

My preoccupation with an end goal only created stress which in turn, made it tough to stay engaged with attendees, pay attention during workshops and feel happy for others’ successes.

This time around, I opted out of critiques, avoided forums where my stories were read aloud and didn’t pitch ideas unless someone asked me. I also left manuscripts home and replaced the binder with a paper clip and a notebook. To get my money’s worth, I interacted with faculty during meals, workshops and in my capacity as a formal volunteer.

Lower expectations improved my mood and preserved my ego.

Took a risk

I signed up for a workshop billed for visual thinkers. The class seemed like the right fit for the way my brain works.

Upon arrival, I took a corner seat in the back row and noticed I was the only non-illustrator in the room. The teacher explained we were going to draw in an effort to generate ideas. He demonstrated and then told us to get ready to doodle. The artists pulled out their tools. I stared down at my pen.

“Draw a line,” he said.

I can handle that, I thought.

“Now switch with someone and turn the line into a living creature.”

My fingers froze. I was about to sneak out when a lady handed me a paper. I transformed her line into the best living creature I could.

“Switch again,” the instructor announced. “Add accessories.”

Oh for the love. A new sheet with someone else’s beautiful living creature came my way. I took a deep breath and sketched.

This activity went on until we had a developed character. The class concluded with each person speed drawing the character we started out with in different scenarios.

After it was over, I smiled. I remembered how much I loved to draw and felt proud to have gone out of my comfort zone.

At dinner that evening, I happened to sit next to the teacher. “Thank you,” I told him. “Your workshop was the most fun I’ve had at a conference.”

Stayed positive about the little things

At an event where there’s lots of new people, it can be easier to bond with them over the negative: room temperature, food quality, elevator speed, noise in the common area.

During the weekend, I did my best to heed the advice of my CrossFit coach. “Complaining is like a rocking chair; gives you something to do and gets you nowhere.”

In an arena where there’s a solid chance my creative endeavors will be sliced to smithereens, it made sense to harness as much positive energy as possible.

Took mental breaks

Conference days are 12 hour marathons. Whenever burn out set in, I skipped a workshop, took a walk outside or passed on the post dinner festivities.

And when I wanted to move the conversation away from KidLit without jeopardizing a chance to network, I chose a lighter topic like the 2 senior proms and the wedding party who shared the hotel with us.

Listened More

In the past, my mission during community meals was to secure facetime with the person who had the power either to sign me as a client or buy my story. This year, I vowed instead to listen more and lobby less.

At lunch, there were two women of color at our table; one was an industry professional, the other a writer new to the conference. I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but somewhere between soup and the entree, an organic, honest conversation blossomed about white privilege in publishing and in life.

Each woman described the heaviness they felt any time they left the safe space of their home and entered an environment, like a conference knowing their skin color, accent and culture would be judged and on display.

They shared their experiences as children, women and parents. Neither sought sympathy; only the acknowledgement that white people, particularly white men are not burdened with daily inquiries as to why they pronounce their words “funny”, won’t be called “an angry black woman” after voicing a strong opinion and never have to fear their son might be hurt or harassed during his travels because of the way he looks.

The industry professional emphasized our need to do a better job of making room at the table while keeping everyone else there. As writers, illustrators, agents and editors, at the very least we owe this to the children for whom we write and for the ones we raise.

I’ve returned home to the quiet of my desk. As I type, the hum of talking heads in the background keeps me company. My outlook is fresh, creative process inspired and commitment to young people renewed.

Time to do a better job.

PLAYFUL LEARNING SAID WHAT?…5 Great Reasons To Read Graphic Novels

I like to keep my tween reading, but helping him find a welcomed book or series has its challenges. Because my son is a visual learner who also struggles with focusing, the traditional novel format can intimidate and confuse him.

Fortunately, he’s found graphic and illustrated novels.

The proprietor of our local bookstore often finds me perusing his inventory for options. During my most recent visit to his check-out counter, the owner shared an observation; some parents discourage children from buying such novels.

He wished they felt otherwise. The storytelling in graphic novels is often superb, he explained. The ability to marry words and art takes talent and might inspire readers to try it themselves. The format also builds a reluctant reader’s confidence. Enjoying a graphic novel version of a classic tale today might encourage a child to pick up the original in the future.

Unfortunately, the owner has been hesitant to speak up; he doesn’t want to tell customers how to parent.

Playful learning outlines 5 great reasons to read graphic novels for anyone who might like to learn more about the benefit of illustrated books for older children or is just shopping for new suggestions.

And here’s a link to the Red said what? Pinterest page, which highlights Bubbe’s recent, favorite graphic and illustrated novels: Children’s Books: Thumbs up from a Tween Boy.

Happy Reading!

Why Write?

why-do-you-do-what-you-do-2

My favorite place to be is in my head.

As a young girl, I soaked in the bathtub with the boom box blaring, dreaming up dance routines and doodled across my paper bag book cover until graphite designs swallowed the cardboard colored wrapping.

But it never occurred to me to try my hand at creative writing; I didn’t like to read and the physical act of writing only ever led to a callus on my middle finger.

Then one of my teachers assigned our class the task of writing an original story, forcing me to apply my healthy imagination elsewhere.

Inspiration didn’t take long.  On the bus ride home from school the same day, I was struck by images for an opening scene so fabulous in my ten year old brain that I immediately took pencil to paper and composed what I believed to be the start of a master piece.

This rush of innovation convinced me I was the next Judy Blume.  I labored over my story, submitted the completed manuscript with the exuberance of A Christmas Story’s Ralphie, and waited for my Ms. Shields to award me with accolades and an A+.

My young author fantasy collapsed within a week.  As I read through Ms. Shield’s blanket of edits, I could hear the red ink cackling, “You’re not good enough, kid.”  Already a perfectionist, I cast my new ambition aside.

Sort of.

In high school I dabbled in poetry, in business school took fiction writing and literature courses, and as an elementary school teacher, loved to teach the craft.  Each time, self doubt swallowed the artistic undercurrent.

Then I became a mommy with young children desperate for a hobby that fulfilled me in a way diapers, laundry, and sleep training never could.  I sampled dance classes but lost interest when I couldn’t remember the routine from week to week and researched community art classes but concluded my drawing skills were best left in the margin.

Nothing stuck until one snowy morning on route to preschool drop off, words stepped forward.

My youthful, creative energy plunked down in the passenger’s seat beside me.  “You don’t need fancy degrees, a library spilling with classics or outside approval to write,” she explained.  “You have heart, experience, and curiosity.  It’s time.”

Here I am, six years later writing picture books for children and essays for the grown-ups in their lives.  Why?

I write to share my truth after 25 years of secret keeping.

I write to honor the child; to validate their place in this world, capture their joy, experiences and feelings and to preserve the innocent spirit I lost too soon.

I write so Bubbe and Skootch have access to a growing collection of their mother’s thoughts and beliefs so they may learn who I am in addition to being Mom

I write to model for them what it looks like to pursue a passion.

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of why I do what I do.

So whenever my ego swells, I become consumed with clicks, views and audience expectations, the idea pipeline shrivels, deadlines approach, rejections mount, a critique breaks my spirit or life just gets in the way, I take a breath…

relax into my favorite place,
hone in on my heart,
open the flood gates
and write.

8 Steps to Taking Rejection

Four years ago I was a part-time teaching, newbie mother of two ready for more; more from the “real” me and ready to embrace a creative energy suffocated by Urb-Burb expectations, thirty-something responsibility, and motherhood.

One December morning while ushering Bubbe down the driveway en route to my work gig and his Fours class at our local preschool, an original story title dropped into my head.  The words sounded like something straight out of a child’s picture book.

I have been writing ever since.

I get great joy from piecing together a picture book story.  However, as a Fours mommy, yoga buddy, and KidLit publishing veteran kindly forewarned me at the outset, “Next to poetry, the most difficult thing to get published is the picture book.”

Translation?  Learn to take rejection.

Aah, yes.  Experiencing rejection from literary agents and editors when one is attempting to traditionally publish one’s work comes with the territory, and I have traversed that land more times than I care to count.

Regardless of how many I know who have paid it a visit; Rejection seems perpetually barren when I’m there.  It is a lonely place that stings the creative spirit, erodes an already exposed ego, and paralyzes dreams.

When all roads lead to Rejection, I am tempted to curl up and quit; but I don’t.  Instead, I take 8 steps and continue the journey.

Step 1:  Throw a pity party. 

Traces of the endorphin rush filled with hope and possibility that flooded my system upon hitting “Send” disintegrate, replaced by artistic misery when, after investing effort into a project, crafting a thoughtful query, and researching where to place it, the answer comes back

“No.”

Given the circumstances, wallowing in self pity is natural.  So I cry over cookies and cocktails.  When the party winds down, I take a deep breath and walk away; the mess can wait.

Step 2:  Find a shoulder or seek solitude.

After the party, I reach out to two people; my Dad and Mac.  They consistently tell me what I need to hear, “Just keep going.  You’ll be alright.”  There are days when I don’t feel like talking to anyone.  Then I find strength in silence.

Step 3:  Say “Thank you.”

From there, I send a professional note of thanks and well wishes to the agent or editor who sent the rejection even if the response is a form letter or the answer took a

very

long

time.

In my discouraged state, I try to remember that most people don’t relish in the failure of others and that relationship building and reputation are just as important as a polished, marketable, and unique manuscript.  Rejection becomes more tolerable of a place when I build bridges to cross.

Step 4:  Make a move. 

When the pain dwindles, I know it’s time; time to pull myself up by the bra straps, step into a pair of gritty calloused footie pajamas, zip them up to my chin, and get back to work.

Step 5:  Reflect.

Upon giving birth to a picture book manuscript, the last thing I want to do with my precious story is examine its flaws and make changes.  Reflecting on rejection is however, a catalyst for growth.  It is also a balancing act between an open mind and following one’s gut.

If specific comments accompany a rejection, I comb through them to see what makes sense, face my chronic weakness; submitting before a project is ready and ask myself,

What does this story still need? 

Then I write a bit or at least think about writing, and go on to the next step.

Step 6:  Get Feedback. 

Sometimes I’m more productive when I step out of my head and investigate outside the bubble.

I find it helpful to reach out to writing partners for additional guidance, sign up for professional feedback at conferences, seek out critique opportunities from valued resources, and listen to what the children have to say.

Step 7:  Embrace the nuggets. 

Through it all, I embrace the positives.

Rejection is laced with signs of life.  The first time I graduated from a form to a personalized rejection letter, I viewed it as cause for celebration because it meant I was growing as a writer.  Whenever an agent pays a compliment, a contest recognizes a story, or an editor publishes an essay, I am reminded that although my path to picture book publication has yet to be a straight line, it is moving in the right direction.

Step 8:  Try again.

To a catch a dream, one must cast a net.  Eventually, I submit my work to another agent or editor.  And while I wait for that response, I keep a writing schedule, form connections, enter contests, submit blog essays, apply for grants, and build a platform.  I continue to put myself out there because in the end, I make my own luck.

Marty McFly moments happen.  Just when I think I can’t take that kind of rejection, I do; because I love to write.

Wherever your passion lies, here’s to collecting nuggets, casting nets, and pulling in your 2015 dreams.

Happy New Year!