theorangeinkblot

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Archive for the tag “philosophy”

Does Nothing Last Forever?

Those folks who know me know what a great year my younger daughter had in kindergarten last year.  And, they know what a great year I had as a regular volunteer in my daughter’s kindergarten class.  As the year drew to a close I became increasingly sad.  I wasn’t ready for the year to end.  How was I going to say goodbye to kindergarten?

I asked my daughter’s teacher how he dealt with the end of each school year and he replied, “Nothing lasts forever.”

I get where he was coming from.  It’s true, kindergarten couldn’t last forever and time inevitably marches onward whether or not we are ready to fall in line.  Something fell flat with me about that response though.  It seemed so….permanent.  High School had ended, and college and graduate school after that.  But even though they ended they lived on- through memories and lessons learned, sure, but most importantly through the continued relationships with people who were and still are important to me.

Last year, I was privileged to spend time with 24 amazing kindergarten students who reminded me that that the world is a curious place that we should never stop exploring.  They reminded me too, that a little bit of kindness goes a long way.  Their smiles and hugs brightened my days.  That they wanted to share their stories, jokes, and secrets left my heart feeling like it could burst from all the love I felt for those children.  To just walk away from all of that with a “nothing lasts forever” seemed impossible.

It turns out I didn’t have to worry.  I am still a volunteer at my daughter’s school and I see the kids from her class last year all the time.  I still get hugs when I pass them in the hallway; they wave wildly at me from across the cafeteria; they still pull me aside to tell me a joke or a story or a secret.

When you think about it, it’s not necessarily the experiences that we have that are  important but the people that we share those experiences with.  Relationships based on shared experiences connect us on a human level and allow us to understand each other better.  These places where our lives intersect with one another’s- where our paths cross, whether for an hour, a day, a month, a year, or a lifetime, are opportunities to learn from each other, to accomplish together, to support one other, and to recognize that we are all greater than the sum of our parts.

I guess we could just have these experiences, form these connections, and then just part ways never to speak to each other again.  Sometimes, we don’t have a choice.  People pass away or for reasons we are never privy to just decide to not be part of our lives.  Even then I wouldn’t say that nothing lasts forever.  Once someone has found their way into my heart they stay there forever right along with the things I learned from them and the ways that I changed because of them.

I suppose the ‘nothing lasts forever’ people have their reasons for being that way.  Maybe for some folks it’s just too hard to look forward and backwards at the same time.  Maybe it’s an ‘out of sight out of mind’ kind of thing.  Whatever their reasons I have no choice but to respect how they feel.

However, I am not a ‘nothing lasts forever’ person.  I am a ‘keep people forever’ person.  If you are someone I call a friend or someone with whom I have shared a meaningful experience or conversation; if you are someone who has showed me or members of my family kindness or have inspired me to be a better person then I’m going to keep you forever.  And if I can’t keep you as a fixture- as someone who wants to be an active part of my life in some way then I will keep you in my heart- forever.  That’s just who I am.

In my opinion, a more accurate statement would be that that nothing stays exactly the same forever.  Kids grow up, friends move away, jobs end, people die.  Things do change and we have no choice but to change with them.  But we do get to choose the people that we keep for as long as we want to keep them.  When we are especially lucky, those people choose to keep us too and those relationships are tremendously special.  It doesn’t matter if we see those people every day, once a year, or communicate with them only through letters, emails, or social media.  The important thing is that we find ways to stay connected and keep the conversations going.  The love and support that I feel from my friends who are hundreds or thousands of miles away is no less powerful than the love and support of my friends who live in my neighborhood- even if I haven’t physically laid eyes on them in years.

In the words of John Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”

Things may change but that does not mean they disappear.   The experiences we share, the connections we make, the conversations we have, the friendships we forge, the love we give and receive- all these things inspire and change us.  They shape who we are, who we become, they help to create the legacies we leave behind- forever.

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Feelings of Gratitude (Sing to the Tune of Changes in Latitudes by Jimmy Buffett)

Feelings of Gratitude (Sing to the Tune of Changes in Latitudes by Jimmy Buffett)

I sat down for a moment last week

to try and reflect on my year.

Food on my table, I’m healthy and able

Surrounded by those I hold dear.

I sometimes ponder the meaning of life.

Does anyone know why we are here?

Life goes by fast so let go of your past

And just hold your family near.

It’s feelings of gratitude that change your attitude

Light up your face with a smile.

You can’t feel hateful if you’re feeling grateful

So make counting blessings part of your lifestyle.

Serve others selflessly and you will have

Warm and fuzzy feelings inside.

Be mindful of living a life that is giving

And keep your mind and heart open wide.

If it all ended- you were gone tomorrow

What legacy would you leave behind?

Love one another. We’re sisters and brothers.

Bear in mind we’re all intertwined.

It’s feelings of gratitude that change your attitude,

Light up your face with a smile.

You can’t be insightful if you’re feeling spiteful-

So make counting  blessings part of your lifestyle.

Maybe what we need is a little less tolerance and a little more empathy…

When I was in high school, my mother took me to see ‘Dancing With Wolves.’  As the theatre lights dimmed and the opening credits appeared on the screen my mother (who had pre-screened the film) leaned in towards me and whispered, “Don’t get too attached to the horse.”

I have always been one of those sensitive souls who seems to feel the pain, joy, sadness, and frustration of others, whether they are a real person, or a fictional animal.  I cannot watch Dumbo without crying because I am imagining that I am the mommy elephant being separated from her baby.  When I saw Monster’s Inc., I really felt the fear of a small child who is afraid of the monsters in her closet.  Despite my overdeveloped sense of empathy (which is at once my best and worst quality), I feel that in general, there is a lack of empathy in this country, which is impeding our ability to move beyond rhetoric and unite as Americans.

It’s important to not confuse empathy with sympathy.  There seem to be a lot of folks out there who ‘feel badly’ for the situations other folks are dealing with.  Sympathy can be a good thing, don’t get me wrong.  Feeling sympathy allows us to feel compassion for others and can lead us to show mercy or extend a helping hand to a person in need.

Empathy goes a step further.  When we feel empathy, we vicariously experience the feelings and thoughts of another.  Through empathy, we can put ourselves in another set of shoes and allow ourselves to step outside our own reality and experience the reality of another individual.  The reason that empathy is so important, in my opinion, is that it allows us to let go of bias and judgement and see a person or an issue from a multi-faceted and broader standpoint.  When we think about an issue or a person from a broader standpoint, we gain a broader understanding of that issue or person.  A broader, more complex understanding of an issue or person, allows for more variables, and requires us to think more deeply (even if it makes us feel uncomfortable for a little while).  Thinking deeply is what opens ourselves up to deeper levels of learning, understanding, humanity, and puts us in a place where we can we can talk about our differences without feeling threatened by them, and potentially come up with some solutions.

I have heard people say that empathy is something we either have or we don’t.  That it cannot be learned.  It does seem to come more naturally to some than to others.  My older daughter, despite being extremely sensitive and emotional when it comes to her own feelings, has tremendous difficulty putting herself in someone else’s shoes, while my younger daughter who is more stoic about showing her own emotions, constantly surprises me by her vicarious responses to the emotions of others.

Whether or not empathy is learned or something we are born with a natural acclivity for, trying to better understand where individuals are coming from- especially individuals with whom we disagree on things- is an area where we can all strive for improvement.

We hear a lot in the media these days about tolerance.  It seems that there is always somebody writing or speaking about the need to be “tolerant” of each other’s differences.  When I hear somebody asking me to “tolerate” somebody else, it really rings of being asked to “humor” them.  We tolerate (or don’t tolerate) behavior from toddlers and puppies, and other entities that just don’t know any better.  Showing “tolerance” doesn’t seem to move us any closer to understanding each other.  Nor does it seem to bring us any closer to creative solutions to difficult issues.

I would rather see people trying to empathize with each other- put ourselves in each other’s shoes, imagine ourselves being raised by each other’s families, with each other’s values.  Think about how our own individual histories and stories have brought us all to the place we are today.  We are products of our life experiences and we all have value and validity.  We are never going to look at the world in exactly the same way.  But if we can expand the way we look at the world, and think about issues in a less dualistic way then it gives us a lot more room to search for common ground and work together to find solutions to the problems that affect us all.

 

Be Brave

I was a few days into Resident Assistant training before the start of my junior year of college when my Residence Hall Director, Sam,  pulled me aside.  My father had just had a heart attack, was in the hospital and I needed to call my mom to make arrangements to fly home to New York.  As I left Sam’s office that day, visibly shaken, he offered these parting words- Be brave.  I have always remembered those words though I don’t think I fully understood at the time why they were so appropriate and important.

Last night, during Shabbat services at my synagogue, I was struck by a line in the prayer for healing the sick.  The prayer says, “May the Source of strength who blessed the ones before us help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”  While I was singing these words I was also remembering Sam’s advice from 1994 and contemplating the role that courage plays in our lives.  Why is it is so important to have courage?

After giving it some thought, here’s what I have come up with:

Courage is important because it allows us to experience the best parts of life.  Courage allows us to give our hearts fully and experience love even if it ends in heartbreak.  It allows us to give 100% to a situation even if we think we might fail.  Courage helps us to share our stories and make ourselves vulnerable even when we fear judgement or embarassment.  It helps us take on new challenges and think about things in a new way even if it makes us feel uncomfortable at first.  Being brave aids us in reaching out to those in need despite our fears of rejection or concerns that we are not saying exactly the right thing.  It gives us the strength to make a change when it’s easier to maintain the status quo.  We need courage to stand up for what we believe and speak out in the face of injustice.  Without courage we could not rise above adversity and make our dreams a reality.

My husband and I have spent a considerable amount of time this past year helping our daughter overcome some fears and anxieties of her own.  Her psychologist, who has been invaluable in this process, offered us this little morsel of wisdom- There will always be situations in our lives that cause us to feel anxious or fearful.  However, these feelings do not have to dictate our behavior.

For me, this is key.  It is not about living a life that is devoid of fear- such a life does not exist in my opinion.  But if we let those feelings dictate our behaviors, actions, and decisions we will never know what we are actually capapble of both in terms of our own personal achievements and what we can do to affect change in our communities.

Acting with courage is hard.  (If it came easy we probably would not think to pray for it.)  When I look at the choice between living a fear based life that will hold me back from achieving my goals, or living courageously and taking (small) steps every day towards self actualization, to me the choice is clear.  It’s clear, but it’s not easy.  It’s a conscious choice that has to be made every day.  I’m not always good at it, and sometimes it feels uncomfortable at first, but I very rarely regret making a courageous choice.  I am much more likely to regret having not done something because fear has held me back.  Sometimes, even when I act with courage, I still make mistakes. Mistakes are teachable moments.   The next time that opportunity arises I’ll be better prepared to handle it.

When I live courageously, I feel like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.  I feel connected to my inner self, my family,and my community.  I feel like I am getting what I need to feel fulfilled, and that I am also able to give back- be a better family member, friend, and neighbor.  When I don’t let fear hold me back I truly do feel that my life is a blessing.

There are plenty of things to be afraid of in life.  Fear of failure, heartbreak, embarassment, discomfort,injury, illness, rejection, and change (just to name a few) can hold us back from living the life we were meant to live.  What is fear keeping you from doing?  How do you choose to live a courageous life?

Independent Thinking: It’s like Pilates for your brain.

“It’s not our differences that divide us.  It’s our judgments about each other that do.”

                                             -Margaret J. Wheatley*

Like I said in my previous post (though you don’t need to read it to understand this one), the way I think about the world was sparked by my participation in The Appalachian Semester program (a semester long domestic study program for college students at a small private college in Southeastern Kentucky).   So before I get into my world view, there is one more Kentucky story I need to tell you.

It became apparent very quickly, that belonging to a church was a very important part of life in Southeastern Kentucky.  I got asked on several occasions by students who attended the college that I was visiting which church I belonged to back home which inevitably led to a discussion about my being Jewish.  This generally got one of two reactions.

Reaction 1: You mean don’t have electricity or drive cars or anything? (Actually, that’s Amish.  I’m Jewish.)

Reaction 2: But if you’re not a Christian and you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your savior then you can’t go to Heaven.

Reaction 1 usually became Reaction 2 once I explained what Jewish meant.  Reaction 2 was followed by a very enthusiastic invitation to attend whichever church the individual belonged to.  Maybe they were awarded extra points per person ‘saved,’ as some of the college students I met were very concerned about the future of my soul.

Growing up, I had heard that there were people out there who believed that because I was not a Christian, I was doomed to spend eternity in Hell.   I had made the assumption that anyone who thought that, must be coming from a place of hate- you didn’t relegate to Hell people that you love.  Now, here I stood, face to face, with “the people” I had been warned about.  But I didn’t hear hatred in their voices.  I didn’t see hatred in their eyes.  That’s not to say that there aren’t people walking around with hate in their hearts.  It just wasn’t my experience.  In fact, except for one negative interaction with a woman from a group called ‘The Christian Crusaders’ I found that people were genuinely concerned about me and scared for me.  They wanted me to feel the same comfort and security that they felt through their relationship with Christ.  They were coming, at least in part, from a place of love, and in part, I think, a place of fear.

Being able to understand the intent behind their belief system allowed me to remove judgment from my side of the aisle and see them as individuals.  Despite my disagreeing with their religious beliefs, we shared many similarities. These were college students, just like me; active, service- oriented community members.  They worried about their grades, and were trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they “grew up.”   Our commonalities seemed to outweigh our differences.

This experience got me thinking.   How do we know what we truly believe?  If we just take the belief system we were raised with (be it political or religious) and carry it into adulthood without questioning it, is it really our belief system?  I had extremely strong opinions when I was in high school and college and I was pretty vocal about them.  It wasn’t until I took myself out of my comfort zone that I realized that some of those very strong opinions weren’t my opinions at all.  They were my parents’ opinions.  It had never really occurred to me before then to question what my parents had taught me, but beginning that semester in Kentucky, and for years afterwards, as I experienced life for myself I began to realize that I didn’t believe everything my parents believed.

“Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com”

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Should people take their belief systems out for a test drive?  If so, how does one go about doing that?   When we are young, we are tested constantly by our peers who try to get us to go against “the establishment.”  Whether through peer pressure, or games of Truth or Dare, kids are constantly pushing each other and themselves to test boundaries and see what they can accomplish.  As an example, sit down and watch snowboarding or BMX biking the next time it is on TV.   These young athletes invent all sorts of moves that seem to defy the laws of physics, and they do it by pushing past previously set boundaries to see what is possible.

As we get into adulthood it seems that we are pushed (by our peers and ourselves) to conform to the establishment, instead of against it.  People who operate outside the “norm” are considered “radicals” or “extremists.”  The OWS protesters are “hippies” and Michelle Bachmann is “crazy.”  In my opinion, people who push the boundaries serve a very important purpose in our society.  They force us to actually think about what we believe.  By sparking dialogue they get us to actually talk about the issues that are important to us.  They make us think about where we stand.  The problem comes in when we don’t take the time to understand why we believe what we think we believe, and how we can better communicate that piece to those who stand across the aisle.

As adults, we have the option of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people.  Instead of   encouraging each other to explore alternative points of view, we rile each other up and feel even more justified in our belief system than before.  We also end up feeling more “right” thereby making the other side completely “wrong” in our minds eye.  That works great for politicians trying to gather support from their base, but it completely disregards the valuable life experiences that we have all had that are at the roots of our belief systems.

If our system of values does, in fact, originate in our childhoods, then it makes perfect sense that our belief systems are different.  We live in an extremely diverse country with many different cultures, religions, and geographic topographies.  Just based on geography alone- whether you were raised in the mountains, near an ocean, or in the desert, changes the things that you value.  Once you throw religion, ethnic background, and socio-economic circumstances into the mix- it’s amazing that any of us have anything in common at all.  We are never all going to believe the same thing.  People have tried throughout history to make us all the same- The Crusades, The Holocaust, the recent genocides in Darfur and around the world.  It has never worked, and it will never work.

My belief in God is fluid.  I believe in something that cannot so easily be defined.  But even if we all believed that we were all created in God’s image that does not mean that God intended for us to all be carbon copies of each other.  If you believe that God created a wide diversity of plants and animals, and widely varying geography, and temporal climates, then why is it so hard to believe that he also purposely created an amazingly diverse population of people with a wide variety of abilities, talents, beliefs, and opinions?

I was born Jewish in New York.  But what if I had been born Muslim in Michigan or Buddhist in China?  In some ways, the initial set of beliefs that we get are random.  We are born at the starting line and given some general rules to live by while we figure the whole thing out for ourselves.  But I don’t believe that we are required or expected to die living by the same exact rules that we start with.  To me, that would mean that we didn’t learn anything along the way.

So how do we put our belief system to the test?  By actually putting ourselves in positions where we have to think about something that is not in our area of expertise.  Here is an example of how I try to test my own boundaries:

A friend of mine is a very active member of her evangelical church.  A few months back she posted on Facebook an audio track of a sermon her clergy member had given during services.  She asked people to listen to it as she felt strongly that there was a very important message about misconceptions that people have about Christians.  I wasn’t sure, being Jewish, that there was a whole lot I could learn from an evangelical preacher, but I decided to give it a listen.  The preacher was saying that there are folks out there who call themselves Christian but perhaps do not act in such a way that personifies true Christian beliefs (for example, people who resort to violence, or who are hypocritical in their actions).  He said that some people might look at those people and generalize about all Christians.   Christians, he said, (and I am summarizing, not quoting) do not want to be represented by the lowest common denominator.  And it was frustrating to him that these were the “Christians” garnering the most media attention.

I thought about this for a while and decided that I agree with him.  I agree so strongly that I’m taking it a step further.  NOBODY wants to be represented by the lowest common denominator.  Whether you are one of the millions of peaceful Muslims being poorly represented by a much smaller group of violent Muslims, or a Jew who does not want to be represented by a small group of ultra-Orthodox who hurl insults at children as they walk to school, we are all individuals who deserve to be judged based on our individual merits and if we are not privy to each other’s individual merits then we should just withhold judgment altogether.   It turns out I did have something to gain by listening to an evangelical preacher after all.

Change is hard and can be scary.  For some people, change only comes as a result of a life altering experience- serious illness or injury, or a great loss, for example.  For most people, I think change is a slow and gradual process brought on by our interactions in the world.  I believe that the greater our interactions and willingness to step outside our little boxes, so grows our capacity for change and our capacity for human understanding.  Perhaps if we approached each other with curiosity instead of with fear and anger, we could find a place where we could have a real conversation.

I think there is a danger in becoming complacent.  On a National level, we have reached a point where we have stopped listening to each other all together.  People seem to want to be heard- they are taking their issues very public- to Facebook, blogs, television, and campaign trails. But despite all the noise we are making, we are not hearing each other very well.

There are personal implications as well.  How many times have we sat at our desk at work, or lay awake at night staring at the ceiling and thought, “I’m in a rut” or “I thought my life would be different than this.”  We might even project our discontent onto other people thinking that our boss, coworkers, spouse, or children are to blame.  Maybe we are feeling that way because we have stopped listening to our own little voice.  We are tired and burnt out and busy doing a hundred different things- many of them things that we maybe don’t want to be doing at all.

So, faithful readers, I am issuing you a challenge- a truth or dare opportunity- if you choose to accept it.  I dare you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new for 30 days.  It can be anything.   Read a newspaper that you find to be biased against your typical point of view and see if you learn anything.  Try a new exercise program.  Visit a house of worship different from your own.  When you start to get that “I’m not so sure about this” feeling, just go with it.  Let your brain actually think about it instead of going straight to that place of anger or resistance.  Try something new for a month and see if it changes your thought process at all.

And just to prove to you that I wouldn’t ask you to do something that I’m not willing to do myself, I have already started.  I have always been curious about the vegetarian lifestyle and have decided to go both vegetarian and dairy free for 30 days.  (Today is day four.)  I want to see if the experience changes the way I think about what I put in my body, or where my food is coming from.  I am already learning (I’m sure you’ll be reading all about it in a future blog) and life is a little more interesting than it was four days ago.

If you decide to take me up on my challenge, I would love to hear about it.  If you think that everything I’ve written is a bunch of malarkey, that’s okay too.  My belief system does not have to be your belief system, nor is it a threat to your belief system.  If you have taken even one thing from what I have written (like I did from the evangelical sermon) then I would encourage you to share this post and get some real conversation rolling.  Thanks for reading!

*Quotation is from Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future Berrett-Koehler Publishers; First Edition (January 9, 2002)

Part 2B: How I ended up following in my parents footsteps and pursuing a career in education, despite having a fool proof plan to go to law school and blah blah blah

This entry is a continuation of two other entries.  If you have not read the other entries, you can find them here:

http://wp.me/p1ZHOE-1O

http://wp.me/p1ZHOE-2P

Stepping Outside the Box

To say that I had stepped outside my comfort zone upon my arrival to the small college in Southeast Kentucky that would be my home for four months would be a gross understatement.  I had come from an urban campus of 5,000 undergraduates- 25% of whom were Jewish and many of whom were from Long Island.  I now found myself on a rural campus of about 800 undergraduates, presumably the only Jew for 200 miles.

My home campus had co-ed dorms and some co-ed bathrooms, 24 hour visitation, and while technically a dry campus, there was plenty of drinking going on behind closed doors.  The college at which the Appalachian Semester Program was based was located in a dry county, with an all female and an all male dorm.  There were strict visitation hours and if someone of the opposite sex was in your room, the door had to remain open and a 60 watt light bulb had to be turned on at all time.  (Under those conditions, I think the only thing turned on was the light bulb, which was probably the point.)

There were 12 of us participating in the Appalachian Semester Program (ASP) that semester from schools throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Mid-West.  Some of us felt more at home than others.  Despite feeling like a fish out of water, I did the best I could to gain as much as I could from this semester long, once in a formal education experience.

And what an experience it was.  Under the tutelage of our trusty professor who doubled as our tour guide, we explored Appalachia (in a 12 passenger van) from corner to corner.  We traveled North to Cincinnati for a conference on Urban Appalachia.  We ventured South to Knoxville, TN and visited the Highlander Center, Great Smokey Mountain National Park, and the TVA Dam.

In Southeastern KY, our group visited a coal mine, a snake handling church, community organizations, farms, schools, and local festivals.  We even crashed (sort of) a family reunion and were welcomed with open arms by our hosts.  I learned to quilt, weave, and log roll.  I even took a clog dancing class.  I could write an entire book covering all of the amazing places we saw, and the fascinating people we met.  It was the ultimate in experiential education.

The experience that had the greatest impact on me was my internship.  We had the choice of several internship sites.  My roommate (a social work major at her regular school) interned with the local social services office and got to accompany social workers on home visits.  Another in my cohort shadowed a mid-wife as she provided prenatal care, and performed home deliveries back in “the hollers.”

The internship that caught my interest (much to my own surprise) was being a classroom helper in a 2-3 grade combined classroom at the local, public elementary school.  We had visited the school one day to hear the father of a girl in that classroom talk about his experience as a coal miner.  In addition to describing his job, he talked about the difference between the unionized and non-unionized coal mines; the importance of health insurance (since so many coal miners have respiratory issues at some point); and getting caught in a mine collapse that he was lucky to be rescued from.  He talked about his hopes for his daughter’s future – that he wanted her to have the choice to go to college and be able to make her own decisions about what she wanted to be when she grew up.

We also spent some time that day interacting with the kids, some of whom came from extremely poor and underprivileged families.  They were a curious, energetic bunch, and couldn’t get enough of the attention that we were dishing out.  Maybe it was their hopeful, innocent faces.  Maybe it was their need for extra resources and hands in the classroom.  I’m not sure what it was, precisely.  All I knew was that despite not really feeling all that drawn to children in the past, and despite having no interest in pursuing a career in education those kids had stolen my heart.  I was where I needed to be.

I still think about those kids (who must now be in their early to mid twenties).  I think about Joe, the little boy who I tutored in math, who was just so grateful for the one on one time.  I think about Heather, one of five siblings who were living in separate foster homes.  A couple in Oklahoma had agreed to adopt all five kids and then, for reasons I am unaware of, backed out at the list minute leaving Heather and her siblings devastated.

I remember one little girl who got sick during the school day and had to lay on a cot in the back of the room because her house had no phone and there was no way to let her parents know she was ill.  I remember a couple of the 2nd and 3rd grade girls becoming Aunts that year, because their 14-year-old sisters had just had babies.  I remember Hannah, the daughter of the coal miner, who wrote me a letter after I’d gone, telling me she had named her puppy after me.

Mostly, I remember their teacher, Linda, who was doing an amazing job (with limited resources) of giving these kids a chance to choose their own destinies.  She told me that many of the kids would never leave the state, or possibly even the county and she wanted them to understand that “Kentucky is not the center of the universe.”  She wanted them to be proud of where they were from, but also be aware of the wonders that the world had to offer.  Linda’s classroom was filled with books that provided her students a window to the world.  She felt strongly that for a child to have a chance to change their circumstances, they needed to see that other options existed.

Linda taught me as much as she taught those kids.  I learned that if Kentucky was not the center of the universe, than neither was New York or DC or even the United States as a whole.  I was also learning that a career in education and a career in justice were more closely linked than I had ever thought- that how a system of education is implemented has the ability to level the playing field, propel kids ahead, or leave them in the dust.

Through the ASP, I was witnessing an America that I had only read about in the newspaper and text books.  I was seeing the impact of poverty on education and geographical access to various kind of resources in Kentucky, but knew that these are issues that are prevalent throughout the U.S.  I was learning that book learning is helpful, but there is no substitute for learning through experience.  I had come into this “domestic study program” after three years of college thinking I had at least some answers but found I really had no answers at all, only questions.

This left me wiser in some ways, but I was in no way closer to deciding what I wanted to do with my life.  I still didn’t want to be a teacher.  Honestly, after spending so much time with those kids, I didn’t think my heart could take the emotional toll of getting so attached to so many children.  But I do understand better now why so many of my friends have become teachers, and have come to truly respect the impact they have on so many young lives.

Before I left Kentucky, I went to talk to the Career Services director at the school I was visiting.  She helped me to isolate the values that I wanted to focus on in my career.  I was originally attracted to a career in the field of justice because I have always felt that people should be held accountable for their actions and behaviors.  What I loved best about my Resident Assistant position back at AU was the one on one counseling I got to do, and planning programs that introduced students to new ideas or made them think outside the box.  And I knew that taking myself out of my own comfort zone had raised my level of awareness, and consciousness about the world around me, even if I had sometimes felt a little uncomfortable in the process.

The Career Services Director told me about her graduate degree in College Student Personnel Services.  She liked working with college students because they were old enough to be able to articulate what they wanted or believed, but they also flexible enough to consider new ideas.  College students are learning about being accountable for their decisions and behavior, and many of them find themselves outside of their comfort zone when they leave home for the first time to pursue their degree. She thought it would be a good fit for me too and encouraged me to look into some programs.

I started my own research and the following fall found myself enrolled in the Higher Education Administration Masters program at Michigan State University, which led to my first professional job as a Residence Hall Director (I could write a book about that experience too), and then six great years as an Academic Adviser.  So I ended up working in education after all – higher education.  I even taught a couple of college classes, though teaching is definitely not my passion.  Ironically, the ultimate teaching job, parenthood, has taken me out of the work force for a little while, but I hope, that once I return I can jump back in to my career in higher education.

My time in Appalachia combined with my Graduate School studies helped me to define the values and belief system by which I choose to live my life. For the three of you out there that want to hear about that belief system, you are in luck!  In Part 3 (the final installment of this blog topic, I promise) find out why we are really not all that different from each other,  why we are all a little like those little Russian nesting dolls, and why grown ups should play more truth and dare.

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