Monday, March 16, 2015

Conversations With Stuffed Animals

When I was about four years old, I asked my mother to write our address down.

She wrote it on the back of a plain, white envelope. I then took that envelope into my bedroom, which I had converted into a classroom. I lined up all of my stuff animals around the room, assigned them names, and made name tags for them. I then proceeded to teach each of them how to write our address; copying my mother's handwriting over and over again, until each student had a small piece of paper in front of them with the info.

Of course, I'm sure things were misspelled and not even legible, but the point being, even at age four, I had created a knack for myself. Not only did I personify each stuffed animal, giving them names and voices, I had begun the early stages of learning how to write.

And I was teaching.

My powerful four year old mind had the capability to believe I was teaching something to someone else. It didn't matter that they were just, in essence, stuff animals; stuff animals who couldn't think, feel, or speak (let alone write). I believed that they were real and that they could do anything I taught them.

That was all that mattered.

As I grew older, the animal voices I had created were replaced by characters in books as I became an avid reader in my young life, and then, as I grew even older, those characters in books that I read became characters that I would long to create on paper.

I began writing at age eight when I received a diary for Christmas.

The power of writing all my deepest, darkest secrets would carry me well into my college years. Somewhere, I have stashed every journal I've ever written in.

Into my teen years, I fell back into reading, spending summers between the library and pool, keeping a flashlight at my bedside so I could read while I should have been sleeping; bringing books to the breakfast table with me, my cereal getting soggy because I had to finish a chapter.

The only classes I did well in, in school, were English and literature, and the only extra curricular activity I partook in between junior high and high school was writing for my school papers; a characteristic that followed me yet again, to college.

Despite my love for books and writing, I always thought I'd maybe be a teacher, but I never got my license. I opted for following the passion route, and got degrees in journalism and creative writing instead. It wasn't until I was married and living in another state that I actually tried to make good use of at least my journalism degree. I lived in a small town in Illinois and managed to snag a job as a reporter for the local paper. It was a town of about 12,000; full of farmers, republicans, and long standing family chains. I was an outsider and was reminded of it most days.

*Most people currently in my life might not know this, but I am actually a very laid back person, a free spirit of sorts, and attended Antioch for grad school.*

People knew this when I was a reporter, and it really didn't seem to fly too well, my Antiochian mentality. Only after about a year, I left my post as a reporter and opted for trying to wrap up grad school, which had lingered around far longer than it should have. I was convinced that I'd find a job with such a degree under my belt. I'd looked high and low at every community college within a 50 mile radius from where I lived, and even contemplated commuting to Chicago if I had to (which would have been about a three hour drive twice a day).

Life is funny this way. I ended up temping for a long time and then finally took a job with an insurance company, where I stayed for about seven years, until I got divorced and moved back to Ohio. Teaching, let alone writing, went by the wayside, both replaced by a marriage that wasn't working, a house that I felt I didn't deserve, and a cubicle job that I hated -  it was all a future that was never meant to be. I tried to write during this time, but my creative mind and spirit had no fuel.

Your muse... funny thing about muses... they know when you are not happy. They know when they are hungry and you aren't feeding them properly. They know when you are hungry and you aren't being fed properly. Eventually, your muse will leave you, not because it wants to, but because you force it to. And getting it back - well, that is a chore in and of itself.

During those years in Illinois, I chased my muse away, trading it in for what I thought was the life I was meant to have. Turns out that what you think you should have, what you want, and what you get out of life aren't always the same things.

Upon divorcing and moving back "home," one of the first things I did was send my resume to community colleges, never expecting to actually find a job, but willing to sure as heck try. Because I was desperately stalled in the rebuilding stage of my life and needed to work, I took the first job that came along, which is as far a cry of a job than anything I have ever done. Yet, it provided medical insurance and paid enough to make at least the rent.

The longer I've been there though, the more I see myself falling back into the "cubicle trap" I found myself in when I was married:

the notion that while I know I have to work to pay my bills and that I have to work to survive - and while the idea that I'm grateful for a job in a tough economy is semi-comforting - it's not ideally what I want to do. But I do it because I have to, and I tell myself it's security to a certain degree. And in the last few years, I've had nothing but insecurity, nothing but uncertainty, so punching the time clock every day has provided a comfortable, uncomfortable numbness.

Until August of 2013, when I received a call from a nearby community college. They needed an instructor asap for an English class that began that day with a no-show instructor. I am fairly certain the department pulled out a list from their resume pool and just started calling. It could be that I was the first lucky one to call back as soon as I got the message. It was a morning class, and since the time clock job is a night job, I jumped at the opportunity.

And so began my semi-professional career as a college instructor.

The only classroom experience I could bring was two years when I served as a co-teacher at an alternative school prior to even moving out of state. My experience was outdated by far, but my mentality was that even though I hadn't set foot in a classroom in years, because of the environment of it being an alternative school, where I focused on English and literature, I learned valuable tools working with at-risk kids that one, I feel, never really forgets. So did I feel I could walk into a college room and have at least some shred an idea of what I needed to do?

Oh, yeah.

For two years now, I've been juggling teaching and the time clock. It's difficult as it can be; the two worlds are as different as night and day. Every semester, I grow and learn, but still consider myself green. There are difficult students at times, unforeseen things that happen, lessons that I know I didn't execute properly, all sorts of things that don't always go according to plan.

then there are all the good things; the students who tell you they appreciate you understanding, that they appreciate you working with them when they miss a due date; the student that follows your cues and reads your edits and applies what you teach them and show them so that their next paper is better and improved. There are the students who know you will call them out to read their tentative thesis out loud because that's how you roll, and they read it and listen to everyone else's ideas, and they try to improve, and they participate (even if they aren't fully prepared).

There are the students that, during their week off for spring break, do their 50 point take home essay, pouring their hearts into it because you asked them to write a four page essay on the one book that has had the biggest impact on their life and why, and do it during the one week of the semester that they shouldn't be doing any school work at all.

Stuffed animals now replaced by living, breathing, young, strong minds that want to be heard and understood, who want to make their mark in this world, some how, some way... students that accept my flaws as a still young instructor, fumbling my way along as I try to make my mark as well.


This is why for some of us, our paths are defined when we are young, and if we are lucky enough to make it through all the rough, tough crap that life has to offer, and stand within the arc of the full circle that life creates, we can read each student's essay and smile because they shared words and events and books that matter to them. They have done what you have asked of them, and they have done so with grace and care and passion.

So thank you, previous classes, as well as my current Spring 2015 English 1112 class. You've all shown me that the early year conversations with my stuffed animals, as silly as it might all sound and seem, was exactly the path I was supposed to be on.

This is my Breakfast Club moment.

We don't always want to be defined by the job we do, nor do we want to define the job we do. Some of us think that success is a six figure income and a house on the beach. Some of us give so much of ourselves into a job we do, only to feel we have nothing to show for it and that no one cares, and then we too, stop caring.

Well, I'll define myself by my own standards, thank you, and yes, I can admit, with a grin, that I named all my stuffed animals and taught them how to write.

Here are the books my current students chose to write about. I've got a great summer reading list built here: 

The Escoffier Cookbook by Auguste Esoffier
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen x 3
Night Road by Kristen Hannah
The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas by John Boyne
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
The Big Field by Mike Lupica
The Little House on the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Help by Kathryn Stockett x2
Paper Towns by John Green
There's More to Life Than This by Theresa Caputo
Looking for Alaska by John Green


  1. Very insightful. My book, Siddhartha.

    1. Haven't read it. I always love knowing the books that people love, and I always try to remember what people tell me they read so I can check it out.

  2. I still have stuffed animals lined up in the bedroom... I don't teach them, but I do talk to them. Eh, but I'm crazy, so take that for what it's worth.

    I loved this post. Loved it!

    Love and stuff,

    1. Ahh thanks Michy, for taking the time to read my post! The things that lead us, right?


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