Writing, Teaching, and Momming: Living Three Dreams, Connected by Kids

Photo via Visualhunt.com

The day after Donald Trump was elected President on 11/8/16, America woke up to a country on the verge of a seismic shift. The next four years would bring earth-shattering change.

No. Doubt. About. It.

For many Americans — the majority, according to the popular vote — this news was shocking and devastating. Was I devastated? Yes. Was I shocked? No. Had I continued to live in my liberal bubbles of Brooklyn, Boston, and San Francisco, I probably would’ve been shocked.

But I had spent the previous 15 years living in Central Virginia which had vastly changed my view of America. On the one hand, it had challenged some stereotypes I had held of the South — partly because I’d been living in another liberal bubble, Charlottesville. This college town had shown me, first-hand, many fiercely inclusive individuals and groups.

On the other hand, it had shown me, up close and personal, a side of America that had not before been part of my Northern urban experience. Like Confederate flags waving proudly from cars rolling down the highway I take daily.

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So, that fateful morning, when I broke the news to my younger daughter, then eleven years old, she said matter-of-factly, “Well, there goes America as we know it.” She paused for a few seconds. “You know, Obama is the only President I’ve ever known.”

And that gave me pause. I felt a seismic shift within myself.

I hadn’t considered that fact. She was three years old when Barack Obama was elected. Then, as a first grader, she heard him speak in Charlottesville on his re-election campaign tour. Yeah. She had spent her preschool and elementary school years growing up in a country where the man who occupied the White House was a person of color. A highly intelligent and compassionate man who loves people including, and perhaps most of all, kids.

She, too, felt the loss and a concern for America.

Waiting on a very hot day — one hour for tickets, then another 1.5 hours before hearing President Obama speak. Miya was a trooper — and excited!

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Once upon a time, becoming a reading teacher to kids had been a dream. And it came true. As two educators, my husband and I moved from Brooklyn to Charlottesville to buy a house and start a family. At the age of 35 years old, I left the classroom and stayed home with our girls, my next dream realized. I stayed busy taking care of the girls and the house, volunteering at their elementary school, and working on my first picture book. When it came time to commit to a career in 2014, I chose writing for kids — yet another dream.

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When I woke up on 11/9/16, writing was still front and center. I was only 2.5 years into it, had just launched my website eight months prior, and hadn’t yet started submitting manuscripts. But suddenly, writing didn’t feel like enough.

Kids had long been at the heart of my goals, but now I felt a deep sense of urgency to be with kids — literally.

I was working hard at writing. Despite the blood, sweat, and tears, I was loving it. Yet the longer I worked at it, the more I realized that it would take a long time to publish another book… and to reach kids (and frankly, to also earn income — but that’s another blog post).

And each day that Trump continued in office as President, I sat in front of my computer screen in horror as kids were suffering at the hands of his administration. Economically disadvantaged kids. Kids of color. LGBT+ kids. Migrant kids. Kids seeking political asylum.

KIDS!

This is not to say that life had been perfect for them before — far from it — but this was a whole different ballgame. I felt helpless and, like so many other Americans, wanted to do something that would make an immediate and continuous impact.

Well, there goes America as we know it,” said my then eleven-year-old daughter. She paused for a few seconds. “You know, Obama is the only President I’ve ever known.”

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If I had multiple published books and others under contract, I’d have continued full steam ahead. I’d be reaching kids (and earning an income), as are many children’s authors with their books and school visits. I admire and applaud their hard-won achievements and continued efforts.

While chasing my writing dream, another dream re-emerged. Without letting go of writing, I found myself wanting to step back into teaching. I pursued my recertification in VA and applied for part-time jobs. On 11/7/18, nearly two years to the date when Trump became President, I started a job as a reading teacher at a highly diverse elementary school.

It feels right to be back with kids. And to be in a community with adults who are working, day in and day out, on behalf of kids. Each morning I fill up with hope and see the possibility for a better America when I walk through the school doors.

I’m making my way back into the classroom and learning alongside my students every day. I’m eager to help them gain skills to become better readers and writers. Just as much, I hope they’ll know that I’m on their side.

Getting to know my students, as they share favorite authors and books

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Especially during this transition time, I’ve had to pace back from writing. I miss it, like I missed being with kids. I’m lucky to be able to work part-time and continue to write; I’ll do so as long as my family can afford it. Regardless, I’ll always find a way to write.

I’ve been working on a historical fiction picture book manuscript, off and on, for 1.5 years. I’ve taken it as far as I can and will be submitting it soon. Fingers crossed! Then I’ll be returning to a picture book biography manuscript that I set aside last month. Can’t wait!

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We can carry multiple dreams in our hearts. They don’t die. They just need to be patient until it’s their turn again. Sometimes it takes a seismic shift, sometimes not.

I’m very lucky that I can pursue two dreams: teaching and writing. Wait, make that three: being a mom. Teaching, writing, and momming – for me, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. They bring challenges, including the challenge of juggling it all, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My new classroom, filled with books!

Until we meet again,

Amy

All of Those Hats!

From Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

When I was child, I assumed that I’d have life all figured out by now. I’d be set and coast into retirement. Life would be simple at this point, because I’d no longer be searching and striving. I’d have my family and home and career. The End.

Not!

Well, in some ways, life is simpler than it was at earlier stages. But in other ways, it’s more complicated.

First, I now know that each of those “things” – family, home, career — requires a great deal of time and energy to maintain and grow. Yep, they don’t just happen on their own.

Second, each calls for a different hat. A different set of skills and responsibilities.

Third, those hats change in shape as needs and demands change.

I can’t think of a month in my life when I’ve felt more acutely the wearing – and juggling — of multiple hats. And by “hat,” I don’t mean going through the motions. Quite the opposite, I mean investing my heart.

In May, I’ve been:

  • a student of writing.
Soaking up the expertise of Editor Alyson Heller at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Picture Book Retreat.
  • a writer.
Writing at home — oh Howie, of all places to rest your sweet head.
  • a presenter.
Giving an inservice based on my book at my awesome local public library.
  • a student of education.
Updating my teaching certification; studying in my car while my daughter is doing volunteer work.
  • a mom.
Listening to my daughter’s voice recital, 1 of 5 musical performances my daughters took part in this month.

I’ve worn additional hats, but I’ll stop there.

Each hat has sub-hats. OK, I’m taking this metaphor way too far, but you know what I mean, right? Being a parent isn’t just about watching your kids’ performances. Being a writer isn’t just about sitting at a computer.

On the one hand, all of these hats are wonderful. Each is a teacher — no matter the role, I consider myself a student, still learning. Every day. It’s a privilege, really.

On the other hand, managing all of these hats can be overwhelming, so I’ve gone back repeatedly to these three mantras:

1)  I can’t do it all (at least not all at once). I have to let some stuff go. Hence, this symbolizes what my house looks like. Inside and out.

And this is what dinner sometimes looks like. More and more.

2) I can’t do it alone. When I went on the writer’s retreat, my husband was occupied a good part of the time with graduation weekend at UVA where he teaches. So two friends graciously helped by transporting our girls to places.

3) I’m doing the best that I can. And that’s good enough.

I see it on social media… and I hear it from friends and family in real time… and I just feel it in our country: we are all so busy.

You may wear more or less hats; you may have more or less support. Whatever your case:

Now, I’m off to take a walk in my neighborhood. I hope you’ll take a breather, too!

Until we meet again,

Amy

Still Reading to My Daughter…For Now

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

My younger daughter, Miya, poked her head out of the bathroom before taking her evening shower. “Mom?”

I looked up from my laptop to her face which held an unusual mixture of eagerness, curiosity, and concern.

“Are you ever going to stop reading to me?”

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Her question, like the look on her face, held so much meaning for me. Twelve years of books. Twelve years of connection. In sum, her childhood.

Of course, I’ve known for a long time that I wouldn’t read to this girl forever. But I’ve continued, often neglecting other things and letting her stay up past her bedtime.

She has given no signals to stop. I had thought by now, she would have. As she has grown from infant to tween, we’ve run the gamut from board books to picture books to middle grade books to younger YA books.

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Her question came a week ago, the evening after her second day of middle school. Of course. That made sense! She had had half of her classes on the first day and the other half on the second day. She had caught a glimpse of her new life.

Her first two days of middle school went very well, bringing her (and me) relief and excitement. But being in a school with 600 other preteens and teens…well, she felt it: she’s no longer a little kid. And her school workload is increasing.

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Are you ever going to stop reading to me? I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I let a couple seconds tick by.

“I hope not. I hope you’ll never get too busy with schoolwork that we won’t find the time.” I decided to leave out the part about hoping I’ll never get too busy, either (even though I feel I already am, but…).

“Yeah, that’d be sad. It suddenly occurred to me that you might have to stop one day.” And then her face brightened. “If I get too busy, we could just sit together and I could read my [school] book and you could read your book. And you’ll finally get to read adult books again.” (Ha! I do manage once in a blue moon to read adult books, but in the end, I’d still chose kids’ books.)

“Yeahhh,” I said with a sigh. “That would work.” I smiled.

She smiled back, satisfied with our long-range plan. And then she closed the bathroom door.

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I was glad that she didn’t seem to think it uncool for her mom to still be reading to her. I was glad that she still wanted to spend her last moments of each day with me. I was glad that she loved stories so much.

I knew that this was not a signal to stop, but rather a signal to continue. Yay!

Yet I also felt a tinge of sadness, a little sense of loss. She was highlighting the inevitable next chapter; we would come to a point in our story when she’d read beside me instead of with me (which in and of itself, would still be a great deal).

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Miya and me in Wilmington, NC, in June 2008 on a family vacation

I’ve been reading to Miya nearly every night since she was born, except for the nights when we’ve been out of town (but sometimes, even then). We’ve read in hotel rooms, on my bed, on her bed, on her floor, in her forts… I’ve read half-asleep, struggling not to stumble over words. As she’s gotten older, she’s read to me when I’ve been too tired or I’ve had a headache.

We’ve relished this shared experience. For so many reasons. Some feel beyond words.

If I were granted a do-over as a mom, I’d do some things differently. But not this one.

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I started reading to Miya for the joy of snuggling together with books and with the hope that she’d fall in love with them.

As a reading specialist, I was also aware that kids (including older kids) benefit when books beyond their independent reading level are read aloud. I have felt very lucky for the ways that she’s gained as a reader, writer, and student.

But somewhere along the way, the heart of why I continued to read aloud shifted. It became more about what she’s gained as a person. And what we’ve gained in our relationship.

Together we’ve grown with and learned from characters. We’ve laughed a lot. And shed some tears. Many of the characters – and the stories themselves — have ended up feeling like our mutual friends.

And isn’t it comforting to know that even when we don’t see our friends, they’re still there?

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A few weeks ago, the white supremacists came to my adopted town, Charlottesville, VA, for a “Unite the Right” riot. Like most of the world, I watched in horror.

How do you explain this display of hate and racism to a child? Happening in her hometown, the only place she’s ever called home? A place where she’s been privileged to feel relatively safe?

As an Asian American girl, she’s encountered microaggressions. She lives in a household where we talk about issues of race and racism (and other -isms). But this was a whole new level of discussion.

After James Alex Fields Jr. crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, I sat down with Miya at the kitchen table. When I mentioned the KKK, a look of recognition crossed her face. And she did what she sometimes does during life events and situations, happy or sad: she brought up a book that we had shared.

“I first heard about the KKK in Gone Crazy in Alabama.” This is the third book in Rita Williams-Garcia’s heartwarming trilogy filled with African American history. We had read it two years prior.

I exhaled. I felt grateful that she had given me a path to discuss the horrendous events occurring just miles down the road. And I felt grateful to Rita Williams-Garcia for having given my daughter a historical context to work from and characters to care about.

I felt as if the story were holding our hands.

During that difficult discussion, I felt a keen sense of gratitude to all children’s book authors who send out stories that allow kids to learn about people and places beyond their own little corner of the world. As Kate DiCamillo, one of Miya and my favorite authors, says, “Stories Connect Us.” And these stories nurture empathy.

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So when will I stop reading to her? I don’t know.

I do know that as long as she wants it and makes the time, I’ll make the time. Even if it becomes one or two pages a night instead of one or two (or three) chapters a night. Last night, I realized that I hadn’t made this part of the plan crystal clear, so I did. Just in case. She said that she already knew.

And then I joked, “Oh, I’ll be that crazy mom FaceTiming you when you’re in college. ‘Hi, Miya! I’m here to read you a bedtime story.’”

She laughed, knowing that I was kidding, that even her book-loving mom has limits (I think I do, anyway).

Then something in her face told me that she realized what I’d assumed she already knew: I’ve gained as much as she has from our time together.

Whenever Miya decides…for whatever reason…to move on…I’ll feel very lucky to have had this privilege: two people holding onto one book and each other while navigating this beautiful, messy thing called Life.

Miya and me on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA, in June 2017 after her last day of elementary school

Until we meet again,

Amy