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fear and love

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I stood in front of a room full of undergraduate students hearing myself ramble through my introduction on the first day of our Personal Leadership in the University class at the University of Minnesota. I heard myself tell them about being a writer and an as-yet unpublished novelist. I heard myself talk about being a social entrepreneur, having created a career teaching the very thing that saved my life: writing. I heard myself talk about my teaching experiences over the past decade, and I may have even heard myself talk about being a mother of two children. But I’m not sure.

The truth is, I don’t know exactly what I talked about in my introduction because while I was standing in front of that room, I was experiencing an intense wave of nervous fear in front of 26 students, all eyes on me, on my and their first day of class.

What I didn’t tell them was that I have never taken a “leadership” class in my entire life, nor had I ever taught one. I didn’t say I was stepping on the pathway of this journey for the first time with them. And I certainly didn’t tell them that I really had no idea what I was doing, or where this path would take me.

Though this particular situation was new to me, this feeling of standing at the edge of myself, at the edge of my comfort zone, the winds of fear and uncertainty and the Unknown whipping around me, was not new. I’ve been there before, dozens of times, in dozens of rooms.

In fact, it has been on the shoulders of discomfort and fear that I have built my career and my life.

I grew up a blue-collar kid in a white-collar world. My house stunk of cigarette smoke and broken dreams. As I grew, I built wings with the strength I earned from the struggles I had experienced. With pen and paper, I lifted myself out of that situation and decided I would always follow my heart, no matter what.

The problem is, with love comes fear. They are the right and left hands of almost every decision we make:

We love to travel, but we fear if we will miss out on career opportunities.

We love our boyfriends or girlfriends, but fear they will not love us back.

We love racing, but we fear we will lose.

We love to create, but we fear we do not know how.

If we make the decision to follow what we love and step into the landscape of our dreams, we must know that we will meet fear along the way. And if we are to continue on this journey of the soul and spirit, we must make friends with fear. Because bravery does not exist without fear, and if we choose safety, to remain within the cocoon of what feels comfortable, we will never know the full extent of our truth and power. We will never know what it feels like to have reached beyond ourselves to see exactly what it is we are made of.

So the question to continually ask ourselves is, which voice are we following? Are we following love or fear? Are we leaning into life or away from it?

Though fear is uncomfortable, safety isn’t all its cracked up to be either. In fact, it is an illusion when considering the human journey and its true vulnerable nature. Anything can happen at any time. We could walk onto the street and be hit by a bus and become paralyzed from the neck down. Or we could lose someone we love in a moment. Or we could lose that job or that house or that lover or whatever.

And worst of all, if we side with safety and follow our fear, we risk extinguishing the very flame in our hearts that keeps us warm along this journey of life.

Though the path is always uncertain and I am still learning how to “teach” leadership, there is one thing I know for certain: inside each of us exists a still, small voice. It is the voice of our hearts, emanating from the deepest part of our souls. And if we listen to that voice, we will never have to look back on our lives and think, “I wish I would have…”

Instead, we will be able to stand firmly on the ground of ourselves and our lives and say, “I did.”

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kids don’t need us to teach them how to write

IMG_7376Kids do not need us to teach them how to write.

They already know.

What they need is a blank piece of paper, a pencil or pen that doesn’t slow them down, and a regular and sustained space of time.

Shackling young writers with grammatical rules is like putting kids in handcuffs, giving them a pen, and telling them to write.

I spent fifteen hours last week with young writers ages 9-11 at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  I was bowled over, amazed, charmed, inspired, affirmed, and in awe of these kids for whom writing bursts forth like a mountain spring–joyfully and ceaselessly.  They are the lucky ones, the ones that know they want to be writers, whose parents send them to “writing camps,” lifting them into the literary world at young ages.

But the others. The ones in public school classrooms across the country who do not have the financial and/or other resources.  These are the ones we must lift.  How?  Let them start with their own story, so rich, so vast, and within each and every child.

No need for expensive ipads.  Give them notebooks, gads of them.  Give them pencils and pens they love.  Block off 20 minutes of each day, and let them enter their lives twice–once in the living, and twice in the reflection of that living.

Give them time to write about what they love and what they fear, what they want and what they believe. Let them write freely, from their lives, their thoughts, their ruminations, their stories.

Because writing is empowering.  It is social/emotional character development with an added bonus of fluency and eloquence. Boom-shaka-laka.  Move aside and let the brilliance burst forth.

There will be plenty of time and material for grammatical rules and expectations of perfect spelling down the road.  Yes, students will eventually need to learn how to write formally and for different purposes.  For now, just let them wander around, like the children the are, in their notebooks.  Let them play with words, stories, language.  Let them learn about themselves, so that they care about what they are learning.  Give them a tool to dream into the future, set goals, and stoke the fire of those dreams and goals in their writing.

Let them write.

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Oliver, age 9

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teaching kids the power of their stories

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There is a power that exists in every chair in every school across the world.  The power is within us all, but remains untapped.  While we are busy teaching kids about the world outside of them, we rarely, if ever, give them time to understand the vast and rich world within.  Though mental health is a major determinant of success in life and school, curricula for social/emotional development has been absent from schools.

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The truth is, our greatest power resides within the power of our story.  When we teach kids to grab a hold of theirs and own it–the good, the bad, the ugly, and the magic–we show them the way to their strength, resilience, talent, compassion, and creativity.  When we teach kids to ask themselves questions like, “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” and “What do I believe?” we point them to the power within.

It is not high math and reading scores, STEM curricula, or a heavy load of extracurricular achievements that we need to face this complex world where, through technology, we are globally connected. It is through deep understanding of ourselves and our shared humanity that will ultimately bridge the great divides.

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When students are given time and space to write about their thoughts, feelings, and lives on a regular, sustained basis, they not only become elegant writers, they discover the wide-open landscape of their own possibilities.  This is the place of their greatest power.  This is the place where internal motivation takes over.  When we give students space and time to listen to their hearts and discover who they are and what they want from life, we empower them.

Every human being is spiritually driven to grow toward their greatest hopes and deepest dreams.  Our job as educators is to help students find theirs.

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.” -Benjamin Disraeli

This is the philosophy and assumption I bring with me to each classroom in which I teach.

I am honored to be part of a panel discussion at St. Catherine University hosting Richard Gold of Pongo Teen Writing, moderated by Mary Tinucci on The Healing Power of Poetry: Empowering Disenfranchised Youth through Self-Expression Wednesday, April 8th from 5:00-6:30.  This event is free and open to the public.  We would love to see you there.

(photos by Wing Young Huie, taken of my class at Homewood Studios. More photos of this class are displayed at North Central Regional Library in Minneapolis, Minnesota).

 

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