The joyful heartache of growing up

I seem to stay the same, but all around me children are moving on. The semester is ending this week, my students will wave good-bye and new groups will come in, many I’ve had before but are now older, many seniors for whom this will be the last semester of high school. Then they’ll walk away.

At home, I will have new grandbabies this year, a new in-law joining the family, and adult children on the move in all directions. I feel the need to chase them down, as I did when they were toddlers racing to the toy section of the store. But now, they run faster than I can.

My only consolation is that my adult children with families also express their happiness at their babies’ milestones, then complain that their children are growing too fast.

I think every generation for thousands has endured the same joyful heartaches.

Children grow away

 

Something’s wrong when children don’t have questions (but sometimes, I really wished they didn’t)

I wrote these lines before I became a high school teacher. Now I sometimes wish my students would stop asking questions. Take yesterday, for example:

Me: Today we’re going to start Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which is–
Students: What’s a shrew?
Me: So glad you asked! Remember when we were discussing archetypes, and one of them was a shrew? Here’s a perfect example–
Students: I thought a shrew is a small mouse?
Me: It is! And what do you know about those small rodents?
Students: They’re mean.
Me: Yes! And that leads into–
Students: And they carry rabies, right?
Me: Uh, I’m not sure–
Students: If you get bit by a shrew with rabies, will you get rabies?
Other students: You get rabies from raccoon bites, right? We had a raccoon in our trash and that’s what my grandpa said.
Me: Yes, I’ve heard that about raccoons, but I’m not sure about shrews. I would assume that–
Students: So you die if you get rabies, right?
Other students: No, you can get shots in your stomach. That should cure you, right?
Yet other students: Mrs. Mercer, if this is a Shakespeare play, are people going to die from rabies in it? Or is that only raccoons?
Me (now not even sure what play we’re about to start reading, so I look back to what I wrote on the board: Taming of the Shrew): Look, let’s get back to Shakespeare–
Students: I can look up rabies and shrews on my phone. Can I get my phone to look it up?

Somewhere at this point I blacked out.

Ok, not really, just wishing I did. Somehow I got them back on track, but now I’m thinking about a version of Taming of the Shrew which is a tragedy where everyone dies of rabies.

children no questions

Get Book 2, Soldier at the Door, here.

Try to smile, even if it looks scary

After spending a wonderful but fast week with my children and grandchildren in Washington DC, and getting home late last night after driving through snow and ice, and taking down all of Christmas this morning, and trying to wrap my head around the idea of returning to school tomorrow (who thought a two-day week after Christmas would be a good idea?!), and realizing that I’m very far behind in grading, but still trying to plaster a hopeful smile on this weary, weary face, this quote seems quite appropriate to begin the new year:

strained smile

I’ll do my best to face my students tomorrow with a “naturally pleasant face,” but it’s gonna be tough. I just checked the weather, hoping for a sudden snow day, but alas–the weather gods are against me. It’s going to be partly cloudy and 36 degrees. Curse you, decent weather!!!

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But being with all of them again (even though two sons, two daughter-in-laws, and a granddaughter are missing) is totally worth it. I’m a wife, mom, and grandma first, and always.

Get Book 2, Soldier at the Door, here.

Thank a mentor today–they probably don’t realize how they’ve inspired you!

Today I sent an email to my old AP Biology teacher, Doyle Norton, who I found again four years ago. I graduated from high school in the 1980s, but Mr. Norton has influenced me as a teacher, even now. He was creative, hilarious, yet so intent about us learning the content. I was thrilled to pass the AP Biology test! Four years ago I wrote him and told him how much he meant to me. He wrote back the greatest, most enthusiastic email–typical for Mr. Norton!

Today, as I started planning for my third year of teaching AP English in a few weeks, I thought of Doyle Norton again and sent him a follow-up email. I realized I’d never told him I was an AP teacher now, too, and I thanked him profusely for his teaching style which I try to emulate (even though biology and English aren’t exactly interchangeable). I’m awaiting his response (I sure hope he’s still kicking around–he’d be in his seventies) but it felt great to say, “I’m now getting to pretend to be you!”

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Doyle Norton, circa 1986, on a biology trip to southern California

It’s an immense responsibility to share your vision of the world with the rising generation. That vision needs to be shared carefully, honestly, fairly, and beautifully. I’m still working on that, and will for the rest of my life.

Today with the Light the World initiative is the suggestion to thank a mentor for their influence. Try it. You’ll make everyone’s day–especially your own!

control world students see

My philosophy for teaching–don’t think about it too much

This sums up my approach to teaching, especially my first year.

Now that I’m in my third year . . . no, this still rings true.

(I do think about it, really, but it’s impossible to judge just how a lesson plan is going to go. Every single day . . . impossible.)

pgoing just fine

Get the prequel The Walls in the Middle of Idumea here!

Coming Home Will Sustain You (or, how a 50-year-old embarrassingly crashed a Homecoming dance)

This past week was Homecoming at the high school where I teach. My students who were sophomores when I first started are now seniors, and since the first week in September I’ve repeatedly heard from them, “I can’t believe this is my last [fill in the blank].” Some say it with great relief, others with great melancholy. Most feel both.

I confess I never understood the purpose of Homecoming as a high schooler. But I’ve grown sentimental in my middle-age. This week as I watched students dress up, dress down, act up, and break down, I’ve discovered why this week, which is frequently ridiculous and silly, is also a needed ritual. (You can read about my discovering the prom ritual here.)

A first-year teacher commented how the sociologist in him was intrigued to watch this week unfold. That made me wonder how future generations–anthropologists who will find our photos and artifacts–might view our rituals. For example, they may wonder what is the significance of dressing as each other.

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Or dressing so that we look like a school for lumberjacks.

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Would they discover that the cause of this flannel plaid wardrobe choice was in honor of the absent and beloved science teacher who’s currently battling cancer, and is why more than half the student body dressed as he does every day?

Homecoming week

Surely future anthropologists will not understand Meme/Vine day, because I still don’t and I live in this time period.

As for crazy sock day—well, seeing our worship of designer shoes, they may conjure up some meaning there.

But the greatest ritual at our school takes place on Friday. No, it’s not the football game—although future researchers will understand that cultural significance with such ample data available. But they may not understand why we remain in the cold wind and rain, huddling on butt-freezing metal and whimpering, “Please, just let it end!”

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No, the greatest ritual at our school is called “Field Day” although it takes place indoors away from all wet, cold fields because hey—Maine.

A variety of tasks, worthy of gladiators (or lumberjacks) and requiring great skill and bravery are set up in our gymnasium, pitting each of the four grades against each other in a melee of screaming and shouting amongst duct tape, giant marshmallows, raw eggs, sacrificed Ding-Dongs, stretched out pajamas and balloons . . .

and large ropes with gladiator trainees on either side pulling for their lives.
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Not all these things occur at once, of course, although now that I’ve written that, I could see our intrepid associate head of school (or as I now think of him, Chief Gladiator Trainer) endeavor a way to combine it all into one massive challenge.

The events are intense and bizarre. In the past, Cheetos have been sacrificed for horrific displays of prowess and beard-ness (because hey–Maine). That ritual disturbed me greatly, for I love Cheetos, and four bags were rendered completely inedible, unless you also like the taste of shaving cream, which I don’t. (Please don’t ask how I know that.) Another past event required hundreds of balls and four competitors pretending to be “hippos” which are hungry. I’d love to see a future anthropologist puzzle out the meanings to those.

However, painting one’s face is common to the beginning of these rituals, as it has been for thousands of years among hundreds of cultures.

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Dressing to identify with one’s group is also historically common, as is parading through a town together to demonstrate your position in society.

72344228_10156925630843983_596751260141486080_oIMG_0532But will future anthropologists understand that these, below, are not really a king and queen? (And when I was helping to sash them, the king wanted the queen’s sash, and since he is the king, I started to obey and give it to him, which would have rendered his queen the new king. But then she insisted that she was the queen and wanted the queen sash. Because she was the king/queen, I had to give in. Some monarchies in history have collapsed faster than this.)
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But why? Why such ritual?

Our Chief Gladiator Trainer says he wants to build “school spirit,” which I think is code for, This will carry you, folks. (He always says “folks,” our Chief Gladiator Trainer. I can’t write anything in his voice without “folks.”)

“You will remember these days when you screamed for each other, high-fived your buddies even when they failed, gloried when they succeeded, and vowed that next year you’ll defeat the others, together. Even if you’re apart. For years, you will remember these days.

“This will carry you, folks.”

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But that’s not the end of Homecoming week, for there is a dance. The strangest ritualistic endeavor yet. Cultures have danced for thousands of years, for a variety of reasons–some rather heathenish.

That was the worry of my fellow chaperones–their first dance as new teachers. Just what are we watching for? After giving them a few ground rules (I chaperoned several dances last year), we watched them dim the lights to nearly nothing so that the Glow Dance could begin.

(Did they worship lightning bugs, future anthropologists may wonder, that they have black lights, white shirts, glowing tape on the floor, and glow sticks around their bodies? Yes, yes we do.)

I heard another one of my seniors lament, “Our last homecoming dance!” I smiled and thought, Unless you’re a teacher. My fellow chaperones discussed the music and what was trendy when they were in high school a mere ten years ago, and that’s when it hit me: aside from the Chief Gladiator Trainer who made the rounds every fifteen minutes, each of the four other chaperones were the same ages as my oldest children.

Even as I bopped a little to the music, which I didn’t understand, I realized that I’m 50–Wait, am I old?!

Yes, yes I am. I was even complaining about the music, but then again, the 27-year-olds, were also grumbling, “The stuff they’re playing these days!”

But our gladiators in training were beginning to bounce, to dance, to chant and scream the lyrics, and I grew nostalgic. My homecoming dances feel only five years ago, not over thirty. This may be their last homecoming dance, but it won’t fade from memory. 

“This will carry you, folks.”

After commenting to a fellow chaperone, “What the heck are they playing?” I posted this on Facebook:

Fusion music

Noticing that one of the students acting as DJ liked my comment, I wrote him this from across the dance floor:

ask and you shall receive

The very next song was the B-52’s “Rock Lobster.”

And there I sat, on the edge of the dance floor, with one of the greatest dance songs from the 1980’s playing.

And suddenly I thought, Folks, sometimes you get to go back to Homecoming.

Sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll find a group of kids who don’t care that you’re over-weight, over-age, and over-ridiculous. They’ll play you “Rock Lobster.”

What I did next couldn’t be helped.

I screamed, “NO!” (meaning “YES!” of course) and I rushed on to the dance floor, forgetting my chaperoning duties to make sure girls didn’t crowd the boys’ bathroom, and I danced.

Well, I call it dancing. What others may call it, I didn’t care. For thirty seconds I thought, You can still be an out-of-control 17-year-old, no matter your age!

Then for the next thirty seconds I thought, I hope my younger chaperones know how to work the defibrillator in the office. I may need it. 

Because I was trapped. Once they saw me weirding out to “Rock Lobster,” the rest of the students circled around me and started chanting. What could I do? I had to keep going.

I had another thought: If I danced like this an hour a day, I’d be as skinny as them again. 

Then I thought, If I dance like this for another five minutes, I’ll bust a hip.

I didn’t make it to the end of “Rock Lobster.” I gave up two minutes in, but still the kids were kind and cheered me.

As I strolled back to my post, exhausted and overheated and praying both hips would keep moving, I muttered to myself, “Yeah, you can go back again, guys. Don’t worry about this being your last Homecoming. That’s the whole point of Homecoming–doing it again. Coming home again. This will sustain you, folks. This will carry you.”

Thanks, WA students. You’re seriously the best place to come home to.

(Thanks to WA Development for letting me use some of their photos, and an extra big thanks to Ryan Conley, who told me to write this [“We need an epic post about Homecoming. I’m sending you photos to use.”] and who played for me “Rock Lobster.” You’re epic.)

Blurry evidence dance

Blurry photographic evidence I was dancing at Homecoming. And blurry evidence really is the best kind.

There is always hope and options; bizarrely, we don’t seem to want them.

I’m astounded at the level of ignorance people numbly accept. Never have we lived in an age with so much knowledge and data so easily accessible, yet we want very little of it.

For hundreds of years–no, for thousands of years, education was the coveted goal of nearly all people. To learn to read? Have access to a scroll? Learn beyond the basic numbers? Luxury! Some families would sacrifice all they had just to send one promising child to get an education, hoping he’d bring some of it back to share.

Now, we want only entertainment and sensationalism.
Give us crying teenagers terrified by exaggerated claims of global collapse.
Give us elderly politicians screaming about non-existent cover-ups.
Give us celebrities and journalists telling us how we’re all stupid and wrong.
But don’t give us reports of real suffering where we can help, or solid data about the actual changes in the world.

And certainly don’t give us any hope.

The high schoolers I teach are convinced the world is a horrible place to be. They want no part of it, nor do they want grow old in it. Unsurprising, many are depressed and without hope.

Decades ago I visited Washington DC for the first time and got lost in a less-desirable part of town. The person I was driving with told me to lock the car doors, that the people who lived there were “willfully dumb and dangerous.” I thought that was harsh, and said so. The person pointed out that those under-educated lived within walking distance of the greatest museums in the world, all for free. They could learn anything and discover everything, if they just exerted some effort. But they wouldn’t.

They didn’t want to know.

That was before phones and the Internet, before we could carry the world’s knowledge in our back pocket.

And still we don’t want to know.

We willingly accept only the shallowest of knowledge, and we limply accept the worst of fates. Our youth feel powerless, their only option to whine and throw tantrums at the world. They fight problems that don’t even exist, while ignoring larger issues that truly threaten to swallow them up. They’ve been given hopelessness, and actually believe it. They’ve given up their imaginations, so they can’t imagine better options. There’s little rebellion against the angst they’re handed; they just pocket it and skulk away.

I teach my students a Holocaust memoir, hoping they’ll realize that the hopelessness Gerda Weissman Klein faced was far more real than any manufactured issue-of-the-day, and not only did she survive, but thrived, just like hundreds of thousands of others, and millions of people all over the world today.

We have to flood not only the Internet but the minds of our families, friends, and youth we associate with hope, success, and optimism.

We have to tell them how many times the world was going to “end” over the past so many decades (my husband’s yearbook from the 1980s warned about the impending ice age, and how to survive it). And how none of those predictions have come true. None.

Our kids don’t know this, that we’ve been shaking our heads, rolling our eyes, and sighing heavily for fifty years at these sensational predictions. They don’t know that hope always exists all around them, and that a glorious future still awaits them.

We have to tell them! In our conversations, in our interactions, and in our social media. We have so many options and possibilities for our future, and bizarrely those options are frequently ignored.

Our laziness and easiness will destroy us long before the earth will collapse. That’s one prediction I hope I’m wrong about.

Walls meme horizontal People stupid

 

All boys have some brain damage or they’re not real boys. (or “You’re not going to believe what happened . . .”)

I have five sons, ages 7-25. All of them have some brain damage, and it happens something like this:

“Anyway, the little guy came barreling in there, and just as I stepped out, he turned and smacked right into my sword! Clanked his head, I’m sorry to report, but all little boys have to have some amount of brain damage, otherwise they aren’t real boys. And that’s how I met him.” ~The Walls in the Middle of Idumea, coming summer 2019

It starts when they’re babies and they roll into walls. On purpose. Again and again.

Then as toddlers they run into corners of tables, couches, and the walls, again. Sometimes on purpose, just to see if it will cause as much pain as before; sometimes on accident, because they’re actually running for the couch and somehow the wall got in the way.

As gradeschoolers, the brain damage occurs in too many ways to count, but here’s a short list:

  • bike crashes,
  • skateboard crashes,
  • walking crashes (they literally crash their foreheads into the driveway, and there was nothing around them to cause it, not even another brother),
  • tag-you’re-it crashes,
  • riding in a wheeled garbage can crashes (I refused to go help with that one, but got a hose instead),
  • let-me-hit-you-with-this-wheelbarrow crashes.

You get the idea.

When they’re high schoolers, brain damage occurs in more dramatic if not bizarre ways, such as falling out of 60 foot-high pine trees, or getting tossed out of a wheelchair a week after foot surgery when a friend (a teenage boy, of course) decides to entertain his temporarily invalid friend by taking him “four-wheeling” through the fields behind the house. (Fortunately the wheelchair suffered more damage than my son did. He moved to crutches sooner than he had planned.)

Then there are the real dangers: cars, boats, four-wheelers, motorcycles, walking down the street (STILL they trip over themselves and get road-rash in the oddest of ways).

And now after teaching high school for two years, I believe this even more:

Walls meme brain damag boys

I love boys, little and big, my sons and others’ sons. Their daring makes them courageous, powerful, and hilarious. My three adult sons seem to be managing all right, despite their earlier mishaps. Or maybe, because of them.

They see that they recover from their exploits, learn something useful along the way, and now have an awesome story to share.

So I cringe every time a son or a student begins a sentence with a sheepish expression and the words, “You’re not going to believe what happened . . .”

Because actually, I will.

I know it’s scary; do it anyway.

This is my mantra, because I am a coward, always have been.

Yet I recently found myself sitting in Logan Airport in Boston, MA and realized I’d gotten there all by myself which, just a few years ago, would have been impossible.

I’m scared of traveling because too many things can go wrong.

I hate new things in general, like moving to new cities because I don’t know where the grocery store is, I don’t know how to set up my house, and my kids have no friends. And new states? Oh, even worse!

I dread starting new jobs because I worry my ineptitude will disappoint others.

All I’ve ever wanted is to hide in a corner and live a small, quiet life. I wanted to get married, get a house, and never go anywhere again.

To recall an old metaphor, I’m a ship most comfortable in the harbor.

Which is exactly why God shoves me out, wailing and flailing, because nothing ever happens where it’s safe.

I did get married over thirty years ago, and did get a house, and then another one, and another one, and another one . . . all together we’ve moved 15+ times (three times in eleven months’ time in 2017-2018). With every moved I clenched my muscles for months until I had boxes unpacked and figured out the new grocery stores. Understanding the new city or state could take years and I never feel completely at “home.”

We’ve also traveled all over the country, with up to eight children in tow, often camping and even flying, which means I’m constantly counting heads and bags. I once had a panic attack before taking off in a plane, and only because my husband was petting my back like a cat did I not leap to my feet and cry out, “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” (Since that was shortly after 9/11, the incident would have likely banned me from flying.)

But I’m different now.

My anxiety is greatly diminished, my fears held in check, my confidence stronger.

Medication? Nope.
Therapy? Not really.
Living in that secure corner of the basement? Not always.

So what changed?

Just over two years ago, my husband who was working in Maine told me I needed to visit him and realize this was where we were moving to. I hadn’t flown since that panic attack years ago, and had never alone. I was so terrified that I asked some people in my neighborhood to pray with me and for me. I drove in a blizzard to the Salt Lake City airport at 5 am chanting calming ditties like, “I won’t die, I won’t die, please don’t let me die.”

And I didn’t die. I made it.

And I flew again home four days later.

But everything I worried about going wrong did: my flight out of Bangor was cancelled because of mechanical issues so I had to wait 12 hours for another plane.

Then that flight got delayed because of snow, and in Philadelphia my plane was overbooked so I volunteered to wait for another flight taking off hours later. (My itinerary was shot to heck by then anyway.) That flight went to Texas and got in late which meant I was running full tilt in Dallas/Ft. Worth trying to find my connection. My new mantra was, “Crap, I’m lost! Crap, I’m lost! Crap, I’m lost!”

But I got to my plane with a whole three minutes to spare. When I finally landed in Salt Lake City—and in more snow—it was 2 am and I was so exhausted that I stopped halfway home and pulled over in a dark road to sleep in a freezing car for an hour, all by myself.

I reached home about 26 hours later than originally planned. But I survived and netted $500 from the airline for giving up my seat. I felt strangely triumphant.

I had realized that I could face problems and actually work through them. This little ship that I am (ok, rather a tubby tug boat) made it through the storm, rather late and very tired, but successfully.

That’s when I began to notice the change: I don’t need to fear and worry during stressful situations—I need to work through and overcome them.

Running away from scary situations doesn’t work.
Running through them does.

And then we moved to Maine—our third cross-country move. The first two long-distance moves were incredibly difficult, made worse by traveling with newborns, but I learned what worked and didn’t work. In fact, this third move driving for six days was, dare I say it—enjoyable? (The youngest child was six, which made everything much easier.)

I was glad that I hadn’t avoided those earlier scarier moves. I didn’t stubbornly stay in the harbor and declare, “I’m not going!” I confess I shed tears about leaving—in the past and this most recent move—and I needed friends’ and family’s help to get going. But we eventually succeeded.

And then in 2017 I took on a new job—teaching high school.

For the first three months I kept thinking, “It’s too hard, I’m too incompetent, every day is a new surprise. My gut is in constant knots, my tachycardiac heart is at 120 bpm every day, and I’m exhausted by 7 pm, but I still have lesson plans to write. It’s going to break me.”
Then I decided, “I’ll quit over Christmas vacation—they’ll have time to find a replacement.”
Then, “I’ll quit at the semester break in January.”
Then, “I’ll quit at February break.”
Then, “I’ll quit at April break . . . Wait, the school year’s over in less than two months . . . Can I actually finish?”

I did finish. And I didn’t break.

In fact, I didn’t even flinch when they asked if I wanted to come back for the next year. I’d already been planning how to rearrange my classroom and redo lesson plans.

I didn’t run away from the stress; I ran through it.

I didn’t stay safe in the harbor; I headed out into rough seas and am surviving and even occasionally enjoying myself. (And yes, I’ve been out on a lobster boat–twice–so I’m practically an expert on the ocean, thank you very much.)

Earlier this week I headed out alone again: drove two hours, then took a bus for four hours, then flew from Boston to Philadelphia to Roanoke, VA to visit my daughter and her family.

I didn’t even start stressing about the trip until two days earlier, and even then the stress was minimal, as in, “I need to do laundry and get my husband a freezer full of meals . . . nah, he can just take the kids to McDonald’s.”

I’m still a coward, but I do what scares me anyway. I think of the scripture where God declares that He will “give unto men weakness that they may be humble . . . if they humble themselves before me . . . then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

I’ve been very weak, and God’s making me stronger.
But what if I ran away from every challenge? What if I quit too soon?
Then I’d still be a terrified, paralyzed nothing in the corner basement of my first house.

But now it’s been five states, half a dozen houses, thousands of adventures—and none of that would have happened had I stubbornly stayed in that safe harbor.
I’m still scared of the rough oceans but now I’ve also learned to enjoy them.

And I haven’t drowned yet.

And neither will you.

scary do it anyway

Optimism, Gratitude, and Grit can together defeat fear

One of my favorite writings assignments I give my 10th graders is the “Optimism, Gratitude, and Grit” write-up. We’re reading a holocaust memoir, and we talk about the qualities the survivors had in common:
1) the ability to maintain hope and optimism;
2) a feeling of gratitude, no matter the circumstances; and
3) grit and perseverance to never give up.
I then read out loud the chapters in All But My Life detailing the Death March to Volary, Czechoslovakia, and have my students mark the novel with sticky notes whenever they encounter someone demonstrating those traits. Then they type up the lines and label each with what trait it demonstrates.

I tell them later that this was practice for their upcoming research papers, reading a text for specific details.

But I really hope it’s practice for life. They can endure nearly any trial and succeed in nearly any endeavor if they’re hopeful, grateful, and gritty. I have them take online quizzes evaluating their current levels, and explain that each of these traits can be learned and improved.

I love hearing the quiet rustles of paper as they mark another part of the text as I read, love seeing their lists and their labels, and I silently pray, “Let this leak into their brains! They’re going to need it all!”

In many parts of the country, teenagers and college students are becoming fearful snowflakes who melt at the slightest breath of trouble.

Most of my downeast Mainer kids, however, I think are a little tougher. They’re more like snowballs–packed firm and ready to fly.

Some of my students have shrugged at the book, claiming they can’t get into it because they “can’t relate.” I sincerely hope that they never do, but I worry that someday they will, too much.

And it’s then that I pray they’ll remember to always have hope, always be grateful, and never, ever give up. (That’s a much better lesson to remember than how to write a research paper.)

fear and success

Get the Forest at the Edge series here.