Our President wants to build them, This American Life has done a universal analysis of them, and in 2007 a Carnegie Mellon professor by the name of Dr. Randy Pausch was proverbializing them in his “Last Lecture” speech as he faced his untimely death by way of pancreatic cancer.
This quote has stayed with me across the years along with many of the lessons he preached in his final speech. I’m no stranger to the “walls” of life, and truth be told if I’d known 20 years ago how many rejection letters would come my way I would have saved them and made that my first book–The Art of the Rejection Letter. They really do have a way about them. The writer, intricately stringing words of flattery together making you feel like it’s an old friend getting back in touch, and for just a moment you think, “This is so nice. They really do think I’m a strong candidate.” Until “unfortunately” or “with deep regret” you are informed you weren’t strong enough.
The first of these rejections came at the age of 14, and 15, and again at 16. These rejections did not come in the form of a letter, but rather the omission of my name on a public list. One which declared who made the varsity team and who did not. For three years in a row I tried out for the varsity cheerleading squad, and for three years in a row I landed on the JV squad. Despite disappointment each time, I did not quit. Not only did I not quit, I never missed a practice, I began gymnastics to improve my agility, and you might have spotted me practicing my technique in local grocery aisles and department stores as I shopped with mom and tried to perfect my game. Finally, my senior year it paid off. Not only did I join the ranks of the varsity members, I was appointed the captain for the football cheerleading squad. But it was not sheer talent that earned me that title. To earn the top spot each girl had to write a leadership essay articulating their desire to lead the team. So, there you have it. Irony in its finest form. A cheerleading captain made her way through the power of the written word (and a fair amount of grit).
Rejection also came in the form of dances attended alone through awkward teen years and on into college with guys who seemed interested ten beers in, but not ten hours later. The letter collecting could have began in 2004 as I drove I-70 both east and west in search of my first teaching job. Then again when my doctoral application got snuffed. And then this year–perhaps the biggest rejection to date–that of not being selected as a Heinemann Fellow for their 2018-2020 cohort. A blow that brought a fair amount of tears and a couple extra glasses of wine.
But this blog is not sympathy-seeking. It is not one of bitterness or dates gone wrong (or not at all) or woe is me.
This blog is about clarity and time. It is about taking these moments at your “wall” to figure out what you really want. Taking time to determine what I really want, and more importantly need, has not been a strength for me this past year. I have struggled to find motivation and excitement in work and life, and I’ve had to really consider why this is so, because it is certainly not me. I’ve spent the last month or so trying to flesh out the different variables that have made this year feel different and I’ve come to one important conclusion–I say “yes” way too much.
As I’ve mentioned before, my top two strengths per Gallup’s Strengths Finder are WOO (Winning Others Over) and learner. What does this mean for someone like me? I want to do everything. The learner in me wants all the experiences. And I want make everyone happy. Between the two, I find myself saying “yes” to nearly every question or proposal that comes my way.
“Melanie, would you like to go to this conference or lead this project?” [“YES!” says the learner.]
“Melanie, can you complete task x, y, and z by tomorrow?” [YES!” says the WOO.]
“Mommy, can we go to the zoo or an art class or walk a trail? [“YES!” says the learner.]
“Mommy, they need a volunteer and a dish and x, y, and z for our class party.” [YES!” says the WOO.]
And once I sit down and collect all the yeses I’ve promised, I’m left overwhelmed. They become a to-do list, a thing get done or through, an exit. The spirit and excitement of the moment when the “YES!” was spoken is gone. Now I just want it done so I can get to the other side and hopefully feel less stressed. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I get to the other side and realize there’s a new collection of yeses to address, and it starts all over.
This past year I have tried to do way too much. This so called balance we strive toward? I have not had it. I’ve recognized that three years into motherhood, I’m still shedding layers of my former self. The single, energetic 20-something could say yes to everything, could keep up and do it well. The married, coffee-induced 30-something has to start letting some things go.
So, this summer I’m doing the hard thing. I’m learning to say “no”. A person like me looks at two free months on the calendar and immediately wants to start filling it. Then I remember the manic pace of last summer, and I know that’s not what I, or my family, need. There’s no time or clarity in the midst of mania. And this summer I’m giving myself time and clarity.
What does that mean for me? For one, I’m only saying “yes” to those things that fill my spirit. I’ve joined Penny Kittle’s book club, in hopes of learning from her immense wisdom and knowledge and connecting with educators from across the country and world. I’m going to Nerd Camp in July with some friends to be surrounded by all the reading goodness. We’re taking a family vacation with my parents in late summer. We’re going to the lake and weddings and the zoo and park and pool and making memories together. Nothing extravagant. Just little moments filled with laughter, learning, and love.
It also means I’m signing off social media for the summer (and maybe forever). The WOO in me likes to collect the ‘likes’. They are yeses to me. Yes we think you’re funny, yes your kids are cute, yes your adventures are fun. And they feed me, but it’s superficial food. I need time, so I’m taking back that which I’ve been giving to a screen. I need clarity, and I’m certainly not going to find it in a virtual world. My kids need a present mommy, my family and friends deserve a present relationship, and most importantly I need to be present with myself to feed my spirit authentically.
The good news is I love to write, and writing this post has been cathartic. I plan to return to the blog throughout the summer, writing both personally and professionally, so feel free to follow along here if you wish.
Finally, a month ago I promised a final blog post to show how our KC Kids Unite work wrapped up for the year. My “yes collection” at the time kept me from making this post. Follow-through is important to me. You do what you say you’re going to do, even if it’s a month late. So, here it is. Below are pictures from our city-wide writing celebration that spanned three days, 8 classrooms, and nearly 300 students. They worked together to create “One World” posters inspired by those from Teaching Tolerance, they analyzed art to consider windows and mirrors that represented them in society, they wrote about places in the city they love, and they thought about voice and action moving forward.
These kids are going places.