Tag Archives: writing

Invisible

“I love wearing sunglasses,” my mother would say, flipping a large brown pair of shades on. “I feel so invisible!”

When I was little, I didn’t know what she meant. How did covering her eyes make her feel invisible? But even more importantly, why was that a good thing?

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I’m sitting in the middle of a seminar on using ancient writings in our own work. My friend, Kate, and I are intrigued by the premise, but neither of us is so sure it applies to what we write. Regardless, the dark-haired, dark-skinned man with the beautiful British accent has us listening attentively to his quiet words. He uses terms I don’t understand, he tries to get us to respond creatively to an upsetting image of a man sitting atop a wreckage that was presumably once his home, and suddenly I am feeling a little anxious. The words I’m choosing to describe the image are not strong. I don’t know Sanskrit or Middle English, or apparently English, as I have to cross-out and write again.

I have so many questions for this man, like how do we use beautiful, interesting words but not sound like intellectual pricks? or, how has this practice informed your own work?, but I am silenced by a young woman in the back. She is perhaps a few years younger than me (or older — at this point, I have no concept of age), and her hand is popping up every few minutes. She is clearly well-educated and articulate (two things we should value), but I bristle against her neediness. I have compassion for her neediness, but I do not want to be associated with it. Her neediness represents my own deep desire to be acknowledged by this writer-thinker man, and now it will never happen.

At the end of the seminar, he leans back in his chair and says he welcomes any questions. Kate and I get up to leave. The young woman from the back hurries forward, eager with even more thoughtful questions, comments. I hear her proclaim herself a Classicist, and I realize why I feel so uncomfortable: this jostling for teacher approval reminds me too much of college, of the constant push and shove of attention-needers and attention-givers. I had chosen not to participate then, and as I leave the tiny room with the loud fan and the thoughtful seminar-goers, my questions and ideas still locked up inside me, I wonder if I missed out, both then and now.

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Saturday, I drove to our day-long choir rehearsal with the top down, a green Red Sox baseball cap on, and a pair of sunglasses. Suddenly, I knew what my mother was talking about. Invisibility, when undesired, can cause pain. Feeling unseen or unknown can pop up eight years later at a writers’ conference in an embarrassing and surprising way.

And yet, invisibility sought is power.

The ability to see but not be seen, to observe unobserved. After all, isn’t that what being a writer is all about? How could one observe the world from a stage? Or the same with artists: the artist observes the subject, not the other way around. As I drove in my unintended disguise along the highway, down the winding streets to rehearsal, I felt as though I saw everything but no one knew what I looked like. I was invisible, it was chosen, and it felt good.

It is strange to me that this same feeling can be so debilitating if not desired. In some ways, I think I imagined myself unnoticed in college, and from there, it became the case. Like I tell my students when they sigh, “No one likes me!”, there is no better way to make sure that is true than to think it. I see them separate themselves at lunch, hide away in their phones or their books, and the self-fulfilling prophecy unfolds before my eyes.

If you behave like no one likes you, no one will.

If you leave a seminar with your questions still bubbling up inside you, no one will be able to engage them.

Maybe your invisibility, then, is always a choice — sometimes desired, sometimes not, but always chosen.

An Hour a Day

Yesterday, as I was leaving school for the summer, I thought: Why does this always end with a whimper? The build-up, the high-energy anticipation of finals and graduation and students’ summer excitement dissipate, and I am left cleaning out my room, attending meetings, and, at the end of the day, wandering out of the building with the sense that this cannot be the end.

It is the end, though, and the 2017-2018 school year is over. In many ways, this year has been fraught with anxiety. Getting married is always a little daunting, but doing it in November with two days of honeymooning is perhaps lunatic. Poor Gabe had to adjust to my moods and my fears and my intense joy (although he claims none of this was surprising to him), and I was expected to jump right back into my life although it no longer looked like my life. The students never know what to call me, and my coworker says it’s my fault (“Pick one!” he teased). What I picked is too long, so the students are left oscillating between Miss Hawkins, Mrs. Knell, Ms. Knell, Mrs. Hawkins, and the poor things stutter just like I do when I introduce myself to new students.

“I’m M….” I say, shaking their hand, blinking, because if I say Miss Hawkins, I feel like I’m lying. If I say Mrs. Knell, I feel like I’m talking about someone else. Usually, I settle for something like Ms. Knell or even Ms. Hawkins Knell, and the interaction is far more awkward for people watching than it is for the new student who will forget my name entirely.

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This is the first full day of summer, and the first day of my writing challenge: write for one hour every morning. I feel like Hemingway and Woolf and all these writers I admire and loathe at the same time are sitting behind me, with typewriters, a cigarette dangling out of their mouth, and a glass of bourbon, muttering, “Come on, seriously? You’re daunted by writing one hour a day? You haven’t got the stuff.” I hear their typewriter keys clicking furiously even while the birds are singing out my open window, and I think, You’re right. I haven’t.

What is THE STUFF?

I went to a Barre class for the first time at the YMCA last night, and as I worked up the most disgusting sweat and realized the 60-year-old woman in the corner was way stronger than I, I realized that maybe ‘the stuff’ to go to a Barre class and finish without dying is the same stuff I need to do this challenge.

Maybe ‘the stuff’ looks more like writing a 5k than being creative genius.

Maybe ‘the stuff’ is the same thing that gets me up out of bed at 6:00AM during the school year.

Or, maybe ‘the stuff’ is the fake-it-till-you-make it attitude that has gotten me through many of life’s challenges so far.

If I tell myself “You’ve got this!” every morning, maybe I’ll have a slim pile of poems or a well-crafted essay come September.

There’s also the chance that what I will have is not so much a beautiful finished product but a stronger writing muscle. The ability to sit and write for an hour without stopping. The well-worked creativity that has been hiding for some time.

Either way, I don’t know how people write outside of a writing community. That’s what I emailed my writers’ group this morning as I embarked on my first hour of slow and dutiful typing. I know I couldn’t slog through the hard times without other writer friends who remind me that process and product are inseparable, and that a good dose of reality mixes well with some naive optimism.

Summer 2018 looks scary and exciting, and while I may not know exactly what to have my students call me, I do know that as a writer, I am Catherine Hawkins, and that feels about right.

Walking to Know a Place

This morning, I put on my cheap white Old Navy sneakers and headed out the door of our new home.

When I moved to Somerville, it was the beginning of a beautiful summery September. I walked everywhere. I quickly learned that the bike path, while not faster than College Ave, at least offered more beauty and quiet. I peered into shop windows. I wandered into a vegan taco shop (accidently) and was sorely disappointed by my cheeseless/meatless taco. I discovered I didn’t have to go to the artsy, hipster (and, ultimately, quite depressing) coffee shop in Davis, but that delicious coffee was around every corner. I learned that cutting through Nathan Tufts park was the best way to prolong a good phone call or enjoy the last rays of a setting sun.

When I moved to this new town, with its rich history and fascinating blend of socio-economic statuses and educations, it was the cold, snowy month of November. Gabe and I got married Thanksgiving weekend, and even though it was a beautiful and fun celebration (there were points in the evening when he would lean over to me at our little table for two and whisper: I wish we could live this over and over again), it didn’t leave much time for settling in. Christmas flew upon us in a whirlwind, and I was suddenly asked to split holidays and change my ideas of how things go. By the time the New Year started, I had only tried two restaurants in our new hometown, and for this pretend-Bostonian, that is shocking.

I didn’t take a single walk.

I drove to the post office, the town hall. I drove to the famed sports bar/restaurant for a buffalo chicken calzone (not even close to Mike’s). I drove to the YMCA, worked out, and drove home. I drove to the DMV and sat groaning for over an hour, only to be told that I needed to change my name with Social Security first. I gripped the edge of the counter, leaned backward and said through my teeth: “I am not mad at you, but I am very mad.”

Not only had I moved to a new state, but that state was not so sure it wanted me.

It’s taking me awhile to settle in because I’ve been confined to my car. Or I’ve been in our condo, trying to set up our home in such a way that we want to spend time here. We’ve arranged furniture, cooked new meals, cleaned the bathrooms. I’ve been so consumed with teaching and life changes, that I haven’t actually settled in.

So today, I emptied the dishwasher. I prayed. I walked downtown. I looked at the buildings I passed. I smiled at the runners (I am still in awe). I met a high school friend for coffee, and she connected me with a friend who is involved with a local church Gabe and I are considering. I drank a hot coffee and tried to explain my experience with the Church, with church, with God, in a few sentences. It felt new and interesting to do this, partly because so many times I talk to the same people who have known my my whole life, or at least my whole adult life.

I walked over the river to the library and got my library card. That’s how I know it’s official. I checked out two books, partly to show the librarian I mean business.

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As you can see, I’ve decided not to stop blogging. I seriously, seriously considered it. I went over all the reasons it may be time to move on. I had a few good ones.

But then I set up my desk.

[the imperfection of the creative process — I couldn’t resist a little filter action, though]

It is the largest desk I’ve ever had. Gabe and I found it at a thrift shop and picked it up with my father’s truck two days later. I am still not using it to its fullest potential, but I have a lamp. I have plants. I have a candle.

There’s something about this desk that begs me to write at it, just like this new town begs me to walk its sidewalks.

Discover it for who it is. Bring to it who I am.

That’s what I plan to do here, as well.

Moving On?

When do you know if you’ve outgrown something? If something that used to bring you joy and challenge and even comfort now just leaves you a bit anxious?

I haven’t written in months.

I’ve jotted down a line here and there. A scrap of a poem. The beginnings of various essays. Some journal entries (due largely in part to my short story class I taught in the fall…)

But nothing for this.

And what is this, anyway? It feels a bit naive to think that a blog is a valuable use of my time. I do not plan on being discovered this way (notice: this way), and I wonder if it’s time to throw in the towel.

You’ve had a good run. Thanks, old friend. Time to move on.

This question is all the more pressing because this blog will expire on February 18th unless I decide to continue.

Do I pull the plug and hope that something else fuels my creativity the way this used to?

[Maybe I’ll finally write on Saturday mornings without a deadline forcing me?]

Do I admit that I have had writer’s block (which I don’t even believe in) for roughly a year and a half?

[Maybe all the places I’ve been/things that I’ve done/books that I’ve read will inspire me?]

Or do I plunk some money down, embrace this place as something that will continue to challenge and grow me, and make myself type?

Jury’s still out.

But this is the most I’ve written since August, so maybe there’s hope yet.

[Photo: Gabe Knell]

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Salzburg

I have been laboring over this piece now for days. It’s the first time I’ve ever sung alto in a choir, and my reading skills are finally being honed after years of skirting by on melody. My music is all marked up in a vain attempt to make sense of the accidentals and crazy key changes and seemingly senseless alto line.

I take a deep breath.

I plunk out the notes again.

Jen tells me to listen to the recording, to try to pick out my part.

“Copland thinks chordally, so it’s really helpful,” she says.

The first moment we began singing it in choir, I thought: Have I sung this before? How do I know this?

Ah, years ago. In Boston — Jen was the soloist and my mom and I had travelled down to see her. It’s a big piece. An overwhelming piece. And I could feel right away that I had heard it before.

It’s kicking my butt.

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Miss Hawkins, is English your life?

[Just one of them.]

In reference to Edmond Dantés and Mercédès:

Well, obviously they didn’t love each other enough, or they would have waited. They would have gotten married.

[Hold on: What about circumstances? What about life? Is it possible that you can love someone deeply but have it not work out?]

In reference to Aylmer and Georgiana in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark:”

I think he really loved her. He was trying to help her.

[Woah, woah, woah! Careful. What is love? Aylmer obsesses over a tiny blemish on his wife’s cheek, to the point where it is all he sees of her. All her beauty and charm and kindness means nothing. Is that love? Trying to change someone? Trying to make them perfect?]

In reference to a grammar grade:

Wait – so you took a whole point off because I missed a verb tense?

[Yes, it’s called grammar.]

Why aren’t you married yet?

[Because I haven’t met anyone I wanted to see every day for the rest of my life.]

Really?!

[Here is where I wonder at their ideas of love and marriage. How I find it more amazing that anyone has found someone they like enough to see every day than it is that I haven’t.]

Why do you like writing so much? It’s boring.

[No! My heart!]

Why would you want to become a teacher?

[Here, I pause. Why? Do I tell them the truth? That it crept up on me and surprised me? That really, these twelve faces are the reason I became a teacher? And all their manifestations? They think I am not cool because I’m a teacher. This bums me out.]

Miss Hawkins, can I have some of your buffalo chicken calzone?

[No. Way.]

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As difficult as the Copland has proven to be, it isn’t the piece that excites me. It’s the Whitacre that puts bubbles in my blood, makes my heart swirl. I listen to it over and over. I imagine da Vinci, consumed, obsessed, like Aylmer in Hawthorne’s short story.

the sirens’ song

I wonder what it must be like to feel compelled to create. To destroy the boundaries that the known world has imposed.

I sink into the low notes with silky enjoyment of their depth.

I paint pictures with my voice.

[7th graders: This is one of my other lives.]

In Search of a Good Title

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So I wrote a poem for my writing class this summer. I sat down and wrote it without thinking. I didn’t let myself overanalyze, criticize, or edit. I didn’t stress over line breaks or punctuation or even the order of the stanzas. I blocked out the part of me that hates everything I write and forced myself to tell the story that had been brewing.

I wrote it and I passed it in. It came back in a yellow envelope with the rest of my writing for the term, and my professor had written comments. Nix this whole stanza, she wrote, and I agreed because the ducks didn’t fit with the rest of the poem. Her biggest critique? Where’s the title?

That was August, and I’ve been laboring over this poem for months now. My writers’ group critiqued it and Jon solved a huge problem in the last stanza: What if you used a colon to introduce what the narrator is imagining?

Oh my gosh, yes.

We went back and forth over whether a word should be singular or plural, how to say the sun was bright without sounding trite, but the hardest part was the title. I told them I’d keep working on it, that titles are historically hard for me, that it’s nearly impossible for me to find one that isn’t heavy-handed. And every other week or so, I shoot Kate a text: What about this one? Or this? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I feel like I slink away with my head hanging because I should have trusted my gut on that one.

Why is this title so particularly hard?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it. I think it has something to do with the simplicity of the poem. It’s not frilly. There’s no fanfare. It’s straightforward and real. Every title I come up with is not straightforward or real. They drip with sentimentality.

If I didn’t care so much about this poem, I’d probably just slap on some sappy sounding empty phrase and call it a day.

But I do care. It’s one of the few poems that left my head and did the work I wanted it to do. It did that work, but then it did more. It became its own creature. It got up and walked on its own two feet. I refuse to do it the disservice of saddling it with a cheesy label.

So, whatever you’re doing right now, imagine me, sitting cross-legged in a green velour chair, wracking my brain for a title that is honest and clean and simple.

It’s harder than it sounds.

Henri Nouwen and a Broken Lent

I begin the Lenten season with gusto. Perhaps gusto is not the right word, because it’s more like a settling in – a settling into the rhythms of 5:30AM and Henri Nouwen and prayer. I am not so good at this getting up and reading. My eyes cross. The words bleed together and I struggle to read through again, hoping this time to catch the nuance, the challenge, the peace.

I attempt to bring some of this contemplation, this observation, to my 8th grade homeroom. They get better at listening and at least looking at me as I try to spin words that reach them. Prayer requests usually revolve around upcoming tests, but once in awhile, I am struck by their depth of care for this hurting world.

We drive home from Maine and the sun is bright pink and as I catch it between the metal arms of the bridge, I feel sadness. Sunday is over, the next week spreads before me, and I focus more on the setting of the sun than the the brilliance of it against the gray sky.

I take a picture.

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It doesn’t even begin to capture the beauty, and I wish for once I could bask in glory instead of mourn an ending.

I hear stories of birth – moments that should be joy and laughter – but instead end in deep pain. But Miss Hawkins, I didn’t think that happened anymore. I didn’t think mothers died. But they do and they leave behind babies and husbands and mourners on multiple continents.

I try to navigate being a Christ-follower and being a student-leader and the sometimes waking in the middle of the night with the secret voice that says Just run. Nobody needs you anyway. Italy still looks good, and think of the writing you could do. You’ll never save all of them, so run away and stop trying.

Then I wake up at 5:30. I grind the coffee beans, put the tea kettle on, settle in under my nine-patch quilt.

I read Henri Nouwen, a passage from the Bible, a prayer. I tell God in full honesty that I do not know how anyone gets through this life without Him.

I drive to work in the sunlight across the marsh. I pour another cup of coffee from a co-worker’s ever-full coffeepot. I ask for prayer. I smile at everyone.

This, I guess, is the place I should be. This place of “What would I do without you, Lord?” I know that it is in this place that good work is done.

 

So many terrible things happen every day that we start wondering whether the few things we do ourselves make any sense…Here the word “call” becomes important. We are not called to save the world, solve all problems, and help all people. But we each have our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and to give us the strength to live out that call with trust. Then we will discover that our faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.

– Henri Nouwen

 

Too Personal

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“Why haven’t you been writing as much?”

“Oh, you know, don’t have much to say these days.”

Which is true. Lots of thoughts, not a lot of formation.

But the real truth?

“I read your blog – not all the time. Sometimes I feel like it’s too personal.”

So, there you go.

That’s what’s been keeping me away – this quick sentence from a friend that has made me reevaluate and second-guess almost every post I’ve thought of.

I don’t think of this blog as too personal.

“Really? You do?” I asked. “Because I was thinking how I leave so much out, how there are always these glaring holes of what’s really going on.”

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This weekend, I posted pictures on Facebook of my trip to Brooklyn to visit my recently-relocated friend. We were smiling in the sun and looked absolutely ridiculous with ring pops.

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What I left out was that we both tired of those ring pops before they were gone. That
I got lost on the subway a grand total of three times. That I had blisters like you read about. That I wandered the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone with a backpack weighing thirty pounds slung across my belly “to protect the art.”

That I couldn’t sleep on the train ride there or home because my mind was racing to the blur of the landscape.

Even today, I posted a picture of the girl I babysit. The caption?

A woman after my own heart – how do you not love kids who beg you to take them fishing?

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The sun was beautiful on the water, it was still and quiet. The lily pads were in bloom and blue and red dragonflies swooped together among the flowers.

What I didn’t write?

That five minutes later, I had two whiney kids who couldn’t cast for the life of them (and apparently aren’t able to put a worm on a hook). There was pushing and accusations when a brother knotted the line, whining because it was so hot and the water bottles I’d painstakingly packed were “warm.”

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It was only about half an hour later that I decided:

You know what? Let’s just sit with our feet in the water, ’cause this is exhausting and I can’t take it.

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So what am I trying to say? Something about social media? How it’s a manicured version of ourselves? How we present only the good and beautiful and leave the ugly at home?

A little.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are somethings that need to be ugly. It’s the unique parts that make someone worth reading, that make writing resonate with you.

Sometimes armpits are hilarious. Sometimes they’re just gross.

More than that, though, it’s an echo of what I’ve written about earlier.

There’s always more going on under the surface. Perhaps I do get too personal here, but it’s usually because it feels comfortable. It feels like the space to write things I care about. It feels like the space to figure out what it means to be me – both as a writer and as a human.

I’m sorry if that’s too personal.

After the Burning [Guest Post]

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I’m honored to share Hannah’s story. I met Hannah when she started dating my childhood friend, David, and I even got to be part of their wedding last summer. I resonate with a lot of what Hannah has to say about expectations. You can read more of her writing at her blog, hannahlynnmell.com.

 

When David and I moved to Kansas last summer, I envisioned countless bright scenarios: making our first home together, establishing ourselves in a new arts community, gathering a circle of warm-hearted midwestern friends. We drove the moving truck cross country just three weeks after our July wedding, headed toward David’s first full-time teaching position and a shockingly inexpensive high rise apartment in downtown Wichita.

The low cost of living meant that I could piece together part-time work instead of looking for a full-time teaching job myself. The set-up offered precisely what I’d hoped for: ample time to write. I’d unleash volleys of cunning, heartfelt essays, utilize the glittering Interweb to network with likeminded creative-types, and watch my freelance career begin to unfold.

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You can smell the punch line, can’t you? We make our plans, and the good Lord chuckles. I love writing and revising essays; I don’t love submitting and resubmitting them. After ten minutes on Facebook or Twitter, I’ve had my fill of social networking for the week. It wasn’t that I spent the year in ardent pursuit of my dream but met with disappointment; my ardor dried up by the end of autumn.

Turns out I thrived on the bustle of teaching full-time. Waking early, putting on pretty clothes, riding my bike to school: my old routine suited me far more than staying in my pajamas and plunking away at a computer keyboard. When I found myself brooding at school, singing joyful songs with children snapped me out of it. In my new life I depended on afternoon voice lessons to buoy my spirit – and teaching students via Skype fell far short of teaching them in person.

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As autumn ended and winter set in, I grieved the loss of my Writing Career as though it had actually existed. I knew that I’d continue to write, but I unhanded the illusion that it would make me famous or even pay the bills. Okay, “unhanded” is a graceful but inaccurate verb. God had to pry the illusion from my sweaty, clutching fingers the way I’ve seen parents wrest dangerous objects from their toddlers.

Meanwhile, David’s teaching job dragged him through a disillusionment of his own. I don’t know which made me weep more: watching my husband struggle or letting go of the person I planned to become.

Fast forward to spring. Autumn and winter make a lot more sense when the world begins to blossom. Letting go of the person I planned to become? I’ve begun to recognize the loss as a gain.

Lines of burning grass create pattern on landscape at dusk

In the tall grass prairies of Kansas, spring is a time of burning. Native Americans started the tradition of setting fire to the old grass in order to instigate the rapid growth of new grass. Viktor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” In prairie terms, we could slightly revise that: What is to give life must endure burning. As I survey the charred landscape of our time here in Kansas, I see fertile soil and green shoots. New dreams arise from the ashes of my surrender. David and I make plans to return to Massachusetts. I begin to outline a novel.

Catherine asked me to write about living the in-between. As she astutely observes, “We’re all there in one way or another.” David and I have experienced the in-between in full force this year, but I can’t remember a season of my life that didn’t feel like a transition. Like a baffled student, I return to the same lesson again and again. I’ll say it confidently now, with the windows open and the lilacs in blossom: the new life quickening within me will feed next year’s flames. When the grasses fade to yellow and the cold sets in, I’ll weep and question and eventually let go. I can’t tell you next year’s particulars, but I’m learning to love the pattern.

Hannah writes, Skypes voice lessons, and teaches yoga in Wichita, Kansas. She met Catherine through her husband David, one of Catherine’s childhood friends. Her blog lives at hannahlynnmell.com.

[Photo: James Nedresky at Flint Hills Images]

A Blossom in February

IMG_1696You know that moment when you think: This person is going to be good.

My midwestern friend, the one whose marriage we celebrated with dancing last summer, is good. After three years of separation, three years of poetry-writing, slaving over images and words and form, she has become a poet.

Our senior year, as our friendship was forming, I remember wanting desperately to have her gift. Her sensitivity to acknowledging the small, her ability to work within structure. I thought she knew what she was doing then, but now?

Now, I see growth and shimmer where there was only the hope of it before.

~     ~     ~

[I bought two copies of a friend’s book of poetry last week, and they arrived in the standard yellow mailing envelope. Two, thin chapbooks. A Bow from My Shadowit’s called, and my pride over knowing such gifted and hardworking poets makes me give that extra copy away, a gift and an acknowledgement of artistry.]

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For two years after college, I wrestled with what to do next. I wanted so badly to get my MFA, to write and stay in the world of creativity and critique. Part of me still wants this – still longs for a group of people who will force me to put thoughts on paper and shape those thoughts into something remarkable.

[I go to my writers’ group every other Thursday. I read to them these things I’m hoping are poems, and I eat up their praise and critiques alike. Better writing is happening because of these thoughtful, diligent friends.]

When I listen to my friend talk about her program, I am proud and jealous, happy and wondering.

Did I make the right choice?

[The same friend whose book I just bought said to me: “I write best when it’s not all I do.” And I knew this was true of me, too. I didn’t do my best writing in college, when it was forced from me. Sure, the revising and peer editing helped, but now? I am inspired by so much. When I doubt, this is what I cling to.]

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And so, on this gray February Sunday, I watch as my friends blossom into themselves. I read their words with quiet joy and a pen. I write that poem that’s been bouncing around, and I begin the research for my Classroom Management class, because my path is shaped differently than I ever dreamed.

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