backstory

Understanding Our Backstory – A Little Kindness Goes A Long Way

Understanding Our Backstory – A Little Kindness Goes A Long Way

“It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backwards. But one forgets the other principle: that is must be lived forwards.”

– Soren Kierkegaard

I was the second person to board the very early morning flight from Chicago to Raleigh – and the flight attendant took one look at me and reacted with what I believe to be genuine kindness. “I need you to answer one question for me,” he said. His eyes scanned over my shoulder, searching behind me on the gangway for the rest of the passengers. I really wasn’t in the mood for games. Travel isn’t easy, and I was tired. Teacher tired. End of the school year teacher tired.The kind of tired that only teachers – or new moms – know. The kind of tired where you’ve been caring for someone else at the expense of yourself.

I must have looked as dumbstruck as I felt because he continued. “The question is, what can I do to help you?” Wait – what? YOU want to help ME?

Honestly, I could only focus on the origin of his accent. Russian? Australian? I seriously questioned who he was talking to, stunned as I was. “Why don’t you just take a seat and let me take your bags?” he questioned, patiently waiting for me to step into the empty plane. At this point, I’m still having trouble processing and it’s getting embarrassing. This is Southwest Airlines, after all. Coach. Flight attendants are usually friendly, but NO ONE ever treats me like this. Gently he eased my carry on from my tightly gripped fingers and instructed me to sit anywhere.

Finally settled into my seat, he came up behind me and whispered “Remember – just leave all your stress back at the gate,” and kindly helped my husband and hundreds of other tired travelers prepare for their flight.

backstory

Choosing Kindness

How many times have people in my life chosen kindness at just the right moment- and I don’t remember them. Playing this all back in my mind, I hope he knows what a difference he made to me that day. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering or tragic that was going on, but I was spent. He had no idea, I’m sure, about anything having to do with me or my story. But taking those few moments to check in with me, to pay attention, made all the difference.

I’d just finished reading a fabulous novel, All The Missing Girls, before boarding and couldn’t get it out of my mind (be sure to check out my upcoming review and ‘Best of 2018′ book list to be posted soon). I struggled a bit with the narrative as it started with the ending and worked backward. In had to think, to get used to the reverse cadence of the plot and really pay attention to the details.

It really made me think about the backstory of my life – of my children’s, my students’ lives. How elusive it can be, even when we try to not hold onto it. How it can squeeze up at the most profound, unexpected times, only to whiplash our thinking.

Our backstory can frame the plot of our lives, even when we don’t pay attention to it; it can chart our course.

What is the backstory of your life?

It’s probably not a question we can ask directly, but one we should directly pay attention to. Just imagine what life could be like if we knew more about each other. Would we be more empathetic? Compassionate? Or less tolerant, figuring we should know better?

What’s the backstory of my life?

Thirty-six years after my parent’s divorce and I still feel that chasm they created. There’s no blame. No right or wrong. It just is. How many of my students are dealing with their own divorce backstory that I don’t have a whisper of information about? Have my own children learned about life and love from watching me and their dad? How has my divorce backstory influenced me from living my parenting life forward?

Twenty-eight years after my first day of teaching I’m once again changing course with my career. I started before NCLB – and still, I shudder at the idea of teaching like it’s 1991. It’s only by looking at my teaching backstory that it comes into focus. I know I haven’t been a perfect teacher; I know I’ve made mistakes. But I can’t stay there – that would be too easy. I can’t keep one foot in the past and expect to make it into the present…I’m just not that flexible. I have to live my teaching life forward.

backstory
Early parenthood, 1996.

Twenty-two years after my first child, I’m definitely understanding life in reverse. She finshed college, launching now into her adult life. My baby is leaving soon, moving across the country. I’ve almost got an empty nest…isn’t that a perfect excuse for understanding life backwards? Second guessing everything I didn’t do? Seeing where a + b didn’t exactly = C, but realizing that it’s ok? I understand fully Catlin Tucker’s comparison of teaching and parenting as a ‘delicate dance’. Suddenly, I’m realizing that the 22 years of parenting have really become the backstory of my teaching life.

Life must be understood backwards.

That one, short moment of kindness by a flight attendant – a moment like so many others that we don’t even realize can define our future selves and inform how we see ourselves. And as parents how many of those moments define our children; how does our back story cause our children’s reflection to shimmer or shatter?

backstory

Life must be understood backwards, yet lived forwards. I don’t think we can avoid it – or embrace it. It just is. It’s the gift of aging. Maybe all we can do is just choose kindness – simply asking someone what you can do for THEM. You never know whose story you might be changing.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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purge party

It’s A Purge Party – And You’re Invited!

Back in May, a few weeks before school let out for the summer, I decided I needed to have a purge party. In the last 27 years, you see, I’ve taught a huge variety of curriculum and grades, I’ve gone from overhead projectors to DLP to Chromebooks and devices, and yet my paper files were still there, haunting me from five huge, overstuffed beige metal filing cabinets.

I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I needed support…and fortunately, as every teacher knows, there are ALWAYS kids who love to help.

Grateful, tired teacher with purge party helpers.

Here’s how the purge party began:

I thought it would be simplest to start with my bookshelves. This year I returned to dedicated time for READING in my classes, and boy, did we all love it. Every day starting off with 10 minutes of relax and read helped us all to calm down, focus, and get lost in stories. And as a result, I bought new books…which meant purging titles I have had for decades. I didn’t think it would be too big of a deal – books are books, and surely I could make some space without too much heartache.

Letting go of books, to me, is like leaving old friends – and I realized just wasn’t up to that part of the purge party, so I asked some of my most voracious readers if they’d like to help…and boy, did they help!

We purged out an entire bookcase, and then she ORGANIZED what was left! Best of all, as I tried to sneak back some beloved titles, she reminded me that, “OMG, Mrs. Wolfe, you have TOO many books about baseball…and no one is going to want to read that one -just get rid of it!”

This is one huge reason my purge party was a success – I was reminded that while I might feel huge attachment to the books in my room, kids in 2018 have different tastes and I needed to make room for more current titles.

A few other students caught on to the idea of my ‘purge party’ – and to my huge surprise, volunteered to come back the day after school was out to help.

I honestly couldn’t believe they showed up. I HAD promised them a treat from Dutch Bros….but to show up eager to help at 8:30 a.m. the first day of summer? I’m the luckiest teacher…

Another sweet purge party helper!

Here’s how the purge party went:

The purge party went something like this: I open a file cabinet drawer, said just recycle everything, they look at me like I’m crazy, and then proceed to fill my green bins over and over and over with 27 years worth of PAPER.

I tried not to hyperventilate. I tried not to dig through the file folders and workbooks and transparencies, and just let them PURGE.

purge party

It was hard clearing out all those memories; I’m transitioning back to 7th grade ELA next year and this felt like the perfect time for purging. I’m grateful to be surrounded by loving students willing to not let me look back, and instead keep supporting me, pushing me forward and reminding me of the fun year they had. And not one part of that ‘fun’ came from those metal drawers.

In truth, I haven’t even touched those five filing cabinets for years. I was trying the ‘if you don’t see it/touch it/use it’ theory to make purging easier for me. I was never again going to teach French, or Yearbook, or 7th grade History…and if by some chance the Universe sent that curriculum my way again, I was now opening up the possibility for something new to enter.

It was a long, emotional day for me. The kids ate pizza, got caffeinated and silly and somehow, by 2:30, the purge party was done. Most of the kids stayed the entire time, supporting me and each other as we cleared out the old and made way for the new possibilities. I’m not sure any of us were really ready to leave, actually. 

The purge party continues:

The success of my purge party inspired me to continue at home. This summer, I’m starting to clear. I’ve done some drawers and closets, and already made two deliveries to the donation center. I’ve brought bags of books to the Little Free Library around the corner. I’m scratched by rosebushes by clearing dead debris in my garden. I’m spreading new mulch and propping up lilies that bloomed so big they fell over.  And I’ll be honest – I’m feeling a bit anxious about it all…just like watching my classroom memories disappear into the recycle bin, my home holds 24 years of memories. I have to learn that right now, clearing out doesn’t mean the feelings are going; instead I’m allowing space for possibilities as we enter this new phase at home and embrace the empty nest.

So this week, on my solo staycation, I’m taking the quiet time to pay attention to the places at home and life that are out of balance and making a daily practice to purge, to put away, and to allow the light to shine in and on and through, one minute at a time. 

I hope you’ll join me on this one. I could use some friendly energy to help me ride out the flood of memories I’m sure will come. I’d really rather not have a purge party for 1! Give me a shout out and let me know if you’d like to be here with me in spirit!

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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solo staycation

5 Tips For An Awesome Solo Staycation

Everyone Needs A Solo Staycation

It’s finally summer – teachers know that we’ve logged our hours towards summer vacation on all those afternoon unpaid meetings, late nights spent grading, weekends logged on to the computer creating lesson plans, and working through our lunch hours. One strategy I’ve used to keep centered as I raise two kids and teach middle school is the summer staycation. Staycations are another reason that summer isn’t just for vacation anymore!

solo staycation book
I’ve got a great list of books I read in 2017 – http://jenniferwolfe.net/2018/01/the-best-books-of-2017.html

My summer staycation is solo – no kids or husband allowed.  I build up to it each year, keeping a ‘to-do’ list of all those big projects I can’t seem to get around to while juggling my job, dinner, dishes, laundry and sports activities.  Sometimes the list involves a big project – painting a room, re-doing the garden, or cleaning the carpets – and sometimes it’s a week of ticking off the myriad of organizing and tidying-up projects I’ve wanted to conquer since last August.  Always it involves following a few simple rules to re-focus, re-group, and remember who I am.  

solo staycation

Solo Staycation Rule #1:  Be prepared.

The key to a successful solo staycation is to have an idea of what I want to spend time doing.   Keeping a list during the school year helps me remember those nagging projects that would simplify my life cleaning out a memory chest, organizing the digital photos, or cleaning out the pantry, for example.  Being prepared also sometimes involves scheduling some help – having a repair person come, or having a girlfriend spend an afternoon helping choose paint colors.  Plus, checking off items on my list feels great!

Solo Staycation Rule #2: Stay home.

For me, staying home for a staycation means spending time alone.  So much of a mom’s life involves serving others, so I take this time just for me.  I try not to spend too much time socializing or shopping – I like to hunker down with a stack of magazines, some great novels, and the Oscar-winning movies I never saw, and just indulge myself.  Staying home helps me focus on creating a happy home environment, and doesn’t break my budget!

solo staycation
Stay home on your solo staycation and take a walk somewhere you’ve never been before!

Solo Staycation Rule #3:  Plan each day.

I’m a natural planner – I like to accomplish tasks each day, and my staycation is no different.  Without anyone else to take care of, my ‘me-time’ is drastically increased (no dishes or laundry, and the house stays clean!).  The first day I tidy up like a whirlwind, leaving me hours of uninterrupted free time.  Breaking down mornings and afternoons gives a little structure, and gets me off the lounge chair!

Solo Staycation Rule #4:  Create a welcome
home celebration.

The key to repeated solo staycations is to ensure your loved ones know you missed them, and that you appreciate the time alone. Take the last day and cook a nice meal (with their favorite dessert), cut some fresh flowers, and update your Facebook status to elevate the excitement
of their return. Try this pasta recipe I demoed on TV a few months ago. The smiles on their faces when they walk through the
door will make you remember why you work so hard all year long!

solo staycation

Solo Staycation Rule #5: Don’t feel guilty.

Being a mom is easy – but being a great mom takes a huge amount of hard work.  Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself – you will reap the rewards tenfold by having a more centered, positive, cheerful outlook after having spent some time just for you.

solo staycation

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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four agreements

Four Agreements and Trying To Be Real

The Four Agreements and Trying To Be Real

Have you read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz? I just finished my second read – I often re-read books in different periods of my life and find when I do, there is a reason.

This has been (and is still) a year of embracing change. It’s a year of as many endings as beginnings, of tears of happiness and fear of the unknown. Change is hard for me, despite how much I tell myself to embrace and enjoy and find the silver lining.

four agreements

And it’s not just with my children graduating and moving on to new stages of their lives. It’s not just me shifting from full-time mom to an empty-nester wondering how I’ll fill the afternoons and evenings without having a child wandering in and out of the house.

Part of is a shift in me – of stepping into a new phase of life where I’m feeling the gratitude of launching my children into the world, and feeling the thunder of a new shift happening in my career.

I don’t know what it is quite yet, but I do know the Universe is rumbling and gearing up, the earth beneath me is beginning to vibrate with possibilities I haven’t imagined until now.

I first read The Four Agreements years ago – I’m not entirely sure why I picked it up for the first time. Maybe it was one of those titles I’d heard about and figured I should read, for cultural literacy’s sake.

four agreements

It made an impression but never was a guiding force.

It surfaced again last month, finding its way to my bedside table and into my lap for morning reading. I took it a chapter at a time, slowly digesting the lessons and realizing I had been wrong – the four agreements really were guiding me, I just hadn’t been paying enough attention.

The Universe has a funny way of placing just what we need in our path. I’d been re-reading notes jotted down months ago while listening to Ali MacGraw’s Super Soul Sunday podcast (you can listen to it here) – after my first listen, I’d written about finding my true self, but now, thinking about her stories and Don Miguel Ruiz’s four agreements made sense in such a different way.

Living your authentic life, finding the gratitude of each day is wrapped up in Ruiz’s words, his urge to:

1. Be impeccable with your word,

2. Don’t take anything personally,

3. Don’t make assumptions, and

4. Always do your best.

Makes perfect sense, right? Or is it a case of ‘easier-said-than-done’?

In my teaching life and my personal life, these four agreements are there every day, intertwined with spirituality, kindness, compassion, and non-judgment. Trying to remember that connecting with those in my presence is where I find the deepest joy, and that really, our pain is all the same.

The Four Agreements:

Being impeccable with my word means pausing, thinking, and honoring the power of language. Words CAN hurt, but they can also soothe, comfort, warm and empower us. Being impeccable with my word means honoring the time when being silent is stronger than yelling, and when breaking my silence requires courage.

Not taking anything personally is hard. Teachers tend to take everything personally. It’s a profession where many, many people think because they went to school, they can tell me (and other educators) how it should be done. These types of comments force me to remember it’s not me – it’s them. If I take it personally then I am ‘eating their emotional garbage’, and allowing their beliefs to impact my own ability to life MY authentic life.

Ruiz reminds us that making assumptions leads us to believe an often false truth, all because we don’t have the courage to question. Finding our own voice, realizing that not everyone in the world thinks as we do, and breaking bad habits with clear communication puts us on the path to personal freedom.

Always do your best – in my teaching world, kids feel pressure to BE the best. But that’s infinitely different than DOING your best. I struggle with helping kids realize that when you feel you’ve done your best, that’s good enough. Compete against yourself, not others. Go YOUR extra mile, and then rest. It’s not an easy concept. The last words I say to my son as he leaves each morning? “Do your best” and “I love you”.  I feel as if it’s my best gift I can offer as he ventures out into his day; Ihope when he’s not at home next year, those two phrases echo in his mind as he learns how to make his way on his own.

I won’t be able to connect with him every day – I won’t even hear from him every week, I’m sure. But hopefully, if I’ve done something right, the four agreements have been absorbed into his being the way they have in mine.

Do yourself a favor this week – grab a copy of this tremendous book, and savor it. Make this post the reason to bring the four agreements into your life – it may just change your life.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Facebook

Life and Death On Facebook

“We are walking each other home”

– Ram Dass and Paul Gorman

Hey there,

I should be at your funeral right now. A celebration of life, your memorial…I should be there. Except, I just couldn’t.

It’s been on my calendar and in the front of my mind since you passed two weeks ago. I figured I would slip in, soak up all the goodness and love people were pouring out in their tears and slip out, unnoticed.

And then this morning, as I was waking up, listening to the mockingbird outside my window and looking into the eyes of my mutt, so happy to see me, I absolutely couldn’t bear the thought of it all. Despite how brave you were, how you surrendered your fear of death and embraced everything joyful about life, I knew that the best way I could honor you, sweet friend, was with words.

Facebook

You see, I dreamed about Disneyland the night after you died. At first, we were there and everything seemed fine. I had been elected some kind of ambassador to Disneyland and wasn’t quite sure why, because I never had that same feeling about it as you did. I know everyone says it’s the happiest place on earth but happiness was never my strong point.

When we first met in 1991, I was always the glass-half-full kind of girl. We were both fresh-faced teachers, barely adults, excited to be at Jackman together, not quite sure what the heck we were doing but pumped up to make things happen.

Suddenly, we were pushing through the crowds. I was smiling –  people were paying attention to us. You always had a way of lighting up a space, my dear.

PE teachers and English teachers don’t always gravitate towards each other, but being in the midst of a brand new school, kids who hungered for relationships and trying to build a community, we bonded.  That’s the way you were with everyone – your big smile, huge hugs, and endearing personality charmed everyone – especially our students.

Stopping mid-stream, I bent down and picked up a wedding ring off the ground and put it in my pocket. It seemed like someone must’ve dropped it but I wasn’t sure why and everyone was so happy I didn’t want to stop and damper the mood.

I only invited three work friends to my wedding in 1994 – you were sweet enough to come, helping me make my special day perfect. You just had a knack for that.

life and death on facebook
Pam and Carrie at my wedding – yes, she wore white!

We found ourselves on some sort of up in the air train or bus  – people kept sitting down and getting off, and at one point you leaned over and whispered, “I’ll be back in a second,” and you jumped to the side of the freeway. Another person came and sat down next to me – he had trouble with his legs. He was telling me how he couldn’t roll over and was having trouble with mobility.

John always liked you, you know. We were an unlikely pair, you and I – an ex-Goth girl turned English teacher, and an ex-basketball star turned PE teacher? Introvert and extrovert. Do you remember that time we went to CLMS with Ann and Tina? I’m pretty sure that was my first official work conference – all I remember is the laughter.

facebook
The three PE teachers – and me, behind the camera. Unlikely friends.

 

People kept coming onto the bus, sitting down, getting up, trying to get going. I asked the man next to me where you were and somebody shouted, “She’s over on the other side!” and there you were, smiling that enormous grin that filled up the whole room. It was taking forever to get to Disneyland, the traffic was bad, and you started talking about all the challenges in life. The mom behind me was arguing with her son because he wanted to get off, go out on his own, and I leaned over the seat and told her I knew how she felt – I let my son move away and eighth grade, but he came back. I told her was all going to be OK and we kept on the journey.

I remember the last time I saw you. It was after I started teaching AVID, and came back to Jackman to see the program there, but I think I spent more time with you than anyone else. It was so strange walking back through the gates, across the quad and back into another time. I had become a mom by then, and you’d met Nat and were so happy with her. I remember getting back in my car, driving around the neighborhood, and thinking I shouldn’t let life get in the way of seeing people I really care about. I wish I’d listened to myself.

I didn’t quite know what to do so I got up and started feeding people. I was cutting a cake into little tiny bites, hoping it was going to be enough for everybody – and suddenly, the train stopped. We were finally at Disneyland, and everybody started pushing to get off the bus and I lost track of you. And I didn’t feel so much like people were paying attention anymore – it was just over, we were going our own ways, not unhappily or happily, just moving through the journey.

I found out you died on Facebook. Not what I ever expected to read the morning of April 9, 2018 – that your journey on Earth was over. I was shocked. You looked so strong in your photos, so happy. How could you be gone?

facebook

I’m going to miss you, Carrie.

You were brave with your life. I’m grateful that Facebook brought us back together over the last decade. I’m grateful I got to watch as you filled your life with happiness and smiles, and that I saw you adore your family, your travels with Natalie and your Ladd-strong battles with chemo. I love seeing pictures of our old friends from the beginning years – people you stayed connected with, but I let go. When I look at my wedding photos I can hardly remember the girl I was in 1994; it was before I even knew really who I was, but you were there smiling cheering me and John. I can’t believe I can’t return the favor, that I can’t finally drive across the causeway, pull up a chair with you in a garden, drink a pint and just laugh and remember and let you know how important you were in my life. I’m sorry my kids didn’t get to know you, and I’m sorry that they didn’t get to see what true bravery looked like. I’m sorry I left it up to Facebook to keep in touch.

But my dear, sweet Carrie, please know that you are carried with me into my classroom every day. You’re in my heart when my students need a hug or someone who will listen. You’re with me when I look into the faces of children who struggle to get to school or to simply smile.  When I see a teacher being goofy, dancing to their own tune at an assembly, I know you’re with me, too. And you’re there, always, when a teacher friend walks up, puts her arm around me, and gently says, “Hey, Jen”.

You’re all that, and more, Carrie. I hope you understand now why I couldn’t slip into your service today, and instead, I sit alone in my room, gazing out at the treetops, writing these words, glancing up at my calendar that reminds me that although this is the month we lost your body, your spirit will always be right here with me.

Until our souls meet again,

Jen

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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