I quit my job.

Today is my official last day at my current job, a position that has given me incredible experience, educational advancement, challenges for personal growth, and colleagues who have become my friends. And really good pay to boot! I went to college to be an English teacher, but after graduating I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for a high school classroom. (I would have been eaten alive, and I don’t mean by zombies.) So I went to college, part 2, to be a person who studies literature and puts off getting a real job a little longer. During my first year in grad school, I was a graduate student assistant, which those of you who have done anything similar know essentially means a hard-working, poorly-compensated instructor. (But we wouldn’t trade that experience for the world!) During that year, I realized that I enjoyed teaching college students–they were a little bit more mature and motivated than high school students, and I only had to see them 1-3 times per week, for about an hour at a time!

During my second year in grad school, though, I accepted a full-time staff position in the Graduate Writing Center. I took it because I was flattered to be offered it (by my thesis chair, to whom I owe both my career path for the past 10 years and my interest in Victorian literature) and because the pay and working conditions sounded better. I started as the instructor for a graduate-level basic writing course (I was teaching grad students before I had finished my master’s—talk about imposter syndrome!); two years later, I became the director of the Graduate Writing Center, and eventually I became the director of nearly all of our university’s tutoring services. I had never intended to go into writing center work (which is a field of its own, a vibrant and growing one), but I professionalized myself into the field: reading the major journals, attending conferences, getting involved in organizations, and learning to speak the writing center language. All along, though, I was still thinking of myself as a teacher, picking up courses even though my eventual faculty contract didn’t require me to teach (even though this made me crazy busy) and trying to stay current in the fields I would be teaching. When it came time to get my Ph.D., I didn’t go for a degree in writing center studies, nor even composition, but literature and criticism. The degree wasn’t practical for my job, but it was practical for the career in teaching that I still believed I would have.

As time went by, I received advancement opportunities, leadership experience, and pay increases for which I was (and still am) grateful. But trying to have both my administrative career and a teaching career on the side was making me crazy, and often it was my “real” job as the tutoring center director that suffered. I knew I should give something up, but while the classes were where my passion truly lay, the administrative work was where most of my pay and all of my benefits came from. And, let me be clear, I didn’t hate that work. It just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

So a couple of years ago, I started applying for jobs elsewhere–not just in other schools, but in other states, where I could hit “reboot” on my life, reassessing things that were cluttering up my schedule and my mental space–not just professionally, but personally. And just last month, I received a job offer that would allow me to do so, and I took it. For the first time in my academic career, I won’t be a director of anything; I’ll just be a plain professor (well, associate professor). And I’m very happy about that.

I’m not sure what this will mean for my plans to rebrand this as a Hufflepuff leadership blog, since I won’t be in a leadership position anymore except insofar that all teachers are leaders in a sense. I’m thinking about making it more of a (sometimes Hufflepuff) emotional intelligence blog, which is basically what it has been recently. I’d still like to use my fictional characters Patrick Weasley and Becky Weasley, and maybe even Sam Larson, who appeared last week. As always, I am open to your suggestions.

As Bilbo Baggins once said (in the movie The Hobbit; please don’t hate me for quoting it), “I’m going on an adventure!” I’m glad you, my readers, will be adventuring with me.

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Children’s Literature Conference!

I’m here at Shenandoah University’s 33rd Annual Children’s Literature Conference in Winchester, VA. Specifically, I’m here in the dorm room (complete with inconveniently tall beds) that I’m sharing with my friend and conference veteran Allison Scoles (look for her picture book blog starting later this year!). Now that we’re three days into the conference, I want to give you a recap of what I’ve heard so far.

Monday: First, there was a power outage, and everybody freaked out, but the show went on. (Someone actually quoted P.T. Barnum, with proper attribution.) Our first presenter, Laurie Ann Thompson, author of books for young activists such as Emmanuel’s Dream and Be a Changemaker, bravely gave her presentation in a dark, stuffy auditorium. Her description of her middle school experience was what stood out to me most. I wish I’d written it down, but basically she said that she’d tried to be as unremarkable as she could–invisible, if possible–in order to avoid unwanted attention. I can understand that desire, and I think many people can. She also spoke of her career in software engineering prior to becoming a writer; this became a theme of at least the first couple of days of the conference: very few people follow a simple trajectory from childhood dreams to school to being a famous writer.

The power came back on right as Matthew Holm, the illustrator of the Babymouse and Squish books (his sister, Jennifer L. Holm, writes the text), was about to speak. This was a good thing, because he did a bit of sketching during his presentation. Confession: On Tuesday, I noticed that his sketch (of Squish the amoeba looking a little bit like Harry Potter) was still on the easel, so I sneaked up to the platform at the end of the day and took it. Why? Because it’s original artwork, because I love Harry Potter (“Really? You love Harry Potter?”), and because I think I have a little bit of a crush on Matthew Holm. I mean, he’s an adorable nerd with an infectious laugh who draws comics for a living, and who’s happy doing that even though he knows he’s probably never going to win a Caldecott. Also, during his roundtable session, he gamely answered a whole string of questions I asked about how a comic book illustrator would behave during the zombie apocalypse. I asked these for research purposes. (Seriously, the main character of my zombie story is a comics creator.)

After lunch, we heard from Ryan Higgins, author and illustrator of Mother Bruce, its sequels, and other picture books that draw from the comic tradition. He mostly told embarrassing stories from his life in a sheepish voice, but he also gave us what appeared to be a very detailed (though he claimed it was rushed) demonstration of how he uses an app called Procreate (snicker snicker) to draw Bruce, the cranky bear. I enjoyed seeing some of his juvenilia (including an illustrated joke book–I think I made one of those as a child too, or at least a page of one) and learning about his influences–from Calvin and Hobbes to his grumpy yet nurturing grandpa.

The last presenter on Monday was John Schumacher, or Mr. Schu, a former school librarian, now blogger, professor, and Scholastic ambassador, whose enthusiasm and energy make me feel exhausted just watching him. He referred to himself as the “Oprah of books” because he kept giving away books to people just because they waved their hands in the air. I guess he likes to see his enthusiasm mirrored! He mostly told stories about kids’ responses to books, some of which were quite emotional. It was an inspiring conclusion to the first day, but I felt like I needed to take a nap afterward.

Okay, I’ve done it again–my post is already long, and I’ve only done one day. On day two, we heard from some heavy hitters (three Newbery winners and someone who’s probably going to win a Caldecott one day), so I’ll save them, along with the equally awesome day three, for a later post. I suppose I should give you a “takeaway” from the conference thus far. Well, it’s been more reinforcing than revelatory for me. The presenters have been speaking about how children need to see themselves represented in books, to learn empathy through books, and to choose books they want to read. I already knew all that. But hearing each of the presenters explain these concepts in their own way and illustrate them through their own lives has been endlessly fascinating. I’m ready for day four (well, after a good night’s sleep in my weirdly tall dorm bed).

blog rebranding update and story excerpt

This summer–probably in July–I will finally be making the official, no-turning-back shift to the Hufflepuff Leadership blog. (Consider these past few months a soft opening.) In order to do that, I need your opinion. The colleague who will be helping me with the design is asking what I want the site to look like. Well, I know I want it to incorporate black and yellow and a badger; beyond that, I’m not sure. So here’s my question: Are there any blogs whose layout you admire? The topic is beside the point; I’m asking about things like fonts, use of white space, text organization, etc. Please let me know your favorites by commenting below.

And now, I’m going to take advantage of this time when my blog still doesn’t have a clearly-advertised focus and use today’s post to add to my work in progress, a road trip buddy sad comedy set in the zombie apocalypse. Every once in a while, I like to share a bit of this story with you (see an earlier excerpt here). Not into zombies? That’s okay; there aren’t any in this part of the story. Are you into Italian restaurants and/or mother and son reunions? Good, then you should keep reading.

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The restaurant looked (small and dim) and smelled (like a friendly ghost of garlic bread) just as Sam remembered it, except that the chairs and tables had been pushed back against the booths, leaving space for air mattresses and sleeping bags. Sam’s mother leaned over one of the chairs, bandaging a young man’s forearm. She was facing away from the door. Unlike her husband and son, Anna Larson was willowy. Her hair, which she wore in a braid like her immigrant great-grandmother must have worn hers, was nearly white, but the flannel shirt and faded jeans she wore gave her a youthful look that was surely unintentional. “Hey, Mrs. Larson,” said the man in the chair, gesturing toward the door with his free hand.

Anna turned around and saw her son, who was wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Sam.” She strode toward him and hugged him. “We didn’t think we’d ever see you again,” she said, her voice muffled because her mouth was pressed against his ear.

“That’s what Dad said,” Sam said on a shaky exhale, pulling back to get a good look at his mother’s face. “And you’re…?”

“I’m fine,” she replied. “I’m getting to be a nurse again. It’s been–well, since you were born.” She turned around. “I think this is one of your old friends? He shot himself in the arm during target practice. We’re all learning here.”

The young man stood up. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a few years older than Sam. He had the arms of someone who spent a lot of time in the gym and the abs of someone who spent a lot of time around garlic bread. “I just grazed the top of my arm. Could have been a lot worse, as klutzy as I am.”

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Well, there, I introduced my new character, which was my goal. If you’re interested in learning more, let me know!

a chat with our Hogwarts prefect on leadership styles

Today, our favorite Hufflepuff prefect, Patrick Weasley (read about him here), is taking some time away from studying for his N.E.W.T. exams to chat with me about leadership styles.

Me: Patrick, you’ve said before that you don’t feel like your leadership style is very active. What do you mean by that?

Patrick: Well, other than when we do the Hufflepuff History lectures, I’m really not up in front of people that often. I’m not really into organizing group events or dropping in for visits when people are studying or trying to get ready for bed. That’s just not my style; I feel like I’m bothering people if I do that kind of stuff. But it’s amazing how often the younger students, especially, will come find me when I’m doing my own homework or relaxing. I kind of have “office hours” out in the common room–I don’t advertise them, but a lot of times I’ll be writing an essay or whatever, and a first-year will come tell me he’s homesick or somebody in one of his classes is being mean to him. Or her. Or they might just want help with homework. And we talk for a little while, or we go to the kitchens and see if the house-elves have a piece of cake we can take.

Me: So the answer to all problems is cake?

Patrick: Well, kind of. [laughs] I mean, there’s a reason why there’s that saying about tea and sympathy. Drinking tea, or eating cake, by yourself is okay, but it’s even better when you share it with someone who has the patience to just sit there and listen to you for a little while. Or a long while, if necessary. And I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest at this…

Me: You’re pretty good, from what I hear.

Patrick: It’s not that hard, though. [embarrassed laughter]

Me: It is hard, though! Listening can be exhausting. I know this from personal experience. But what about those times when being available and willing to listen doesn’t really address the problem–when you have to confront someone?

Patrick: I haaaaate it. I think this is the real reason why I’m in Hufflepuff! I never understood why Gryffindors and Slytherins seem to enjoy conflict. Conflict makes me want to hide under a rock.

Me: And eat cake?

Patrick: Yeah, for sure! But as much as I hate conflict, I’ve seen what happens when people avoid confronting each other about stuff. Roommates get bitter and quit talking to each other; people carry around all this worry about how so-and-so probably hates them…

Me: I’ve seen that too. It’s ugly. But I just realized something: You’ve conflated the word “confrontation” with the word “conflict.” I do it too; that’s why I didn’t even notice until now. Confrontation–facing misunderstandings head-on–doesn’t always lead to conflict, does it?

Patrick: You’re right; it doesn’t. Sometimes it leads to really great conversations. I’ve even seen it lead to friendships. But getting past that initial awkwardness and fear–that’s really hard. I don’t think it’ll ever be easy for me. I just have to trust that the other person is a human being who’s as willing to listen and understand as I am. Most of the time I’m right; if I’m wrong, and the person is a jerk–

Me: That does happen sometimes!

Patrick: Or if we just can’t see eye-to-eye…at least we tried. And it’s helped me to be braver, or whatever. And maybe it’s helped the other person in some way that I can’t see yet.

Me: Patrick Weasley, you’re a very wise young man. I should let you get back to your studying.

Patrick: It was nice to have a break. Before you go, we should go check the kitchens and see if there’s any cake.

Me: Definitely.

Stay tuned for more leadership discussions with Patrick, as well as his aunt Becky, Hogwarts professor and Hufflepuff alum!

Puffs!

A week ago, I went to see Puffs, an off-Broadway homage to Harry Potter (but totally unofficial) that was filmed and shown on two nights in selected movie theaters. I am not a theater critic, and I’m certainly not a critic of plays that are filmed and then shown in movie theaters (though this does seem to be an art form–some creative camera work was involved in this one), so I’ll make my remarks from the perspective of a fan.

First, it was amusing to see how the writers bent over backward to avoid using copyrighted names, such as Hogwarts, which they referred to as an unnamed “School of Female Magic and Male Magic,” and Dumbledore, whom they always referred to simply as the headmaster. Other characters, like Cedric Diggory, were called by first name or last name, never both together. In many cases, it was clear that the writers were having fun exploiting the limitations–and, perhaps, gently ridiculing the idea of placing such restrictions on such household names.

The four houses were called Brave, Smart, Snake, and Puff, and the story focused on the Puffs, the house that has the least interaction with Mr. Potter in the canonical story, which meant that this house was the perfect vehicle for exploring the experience of a non-famous, non-chosen student who’s just trying to get through school with decent grades. The protagonist was Wayne, an American kid who ends up at the school by a series of unlikely events, probably fulfilling a fantasy of the writers themselves. I should point out here that the actors were all adults, which says a lot about the intended audience. I think the goals of this play were to make long-time Harry Potter nerds squeal with recognition at the inside jokes, to aim a little irreverence at a sacred cow (without becoming cynical or nasty, although some of the jokes were definitely for a “mature audience”), and to provide a bit of vindication for the Hufflepuffs. The childlike wonder of magic was not really a focus.

The play was only about 90 minutes long, and the seven books provided its organizational structure, so in this sense, it reminded me of a parodic play called Potted Potter that I saw a few years ago. (A lot of the humor came from the forced brevity, kind of like in the popular Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.) The plot stuck to events that happen in the books, except in one (ultimately rather anticlimactic) plotline involving the Death-Eater mother of Wayne’s friend Megan. The play is best enjoyed as sketch comedy rather than as a full narrative arc, although it does have a climax: the Battle of Hogwarts, as seen from the Puff perspective. I don’t want to give away spoilers here in case the filmed version ever comes out on DVD, but I will say that the until-now underrated contribution of the Hufflepuffs in this battle, recently pointed out by J. K. Rowling (wait–am I allowed to say her name?), was given its due here. I thought there were some tonal infelicities in this last segment of the play (i.e. some stuff that was played for laughs that I didn’t think should have been), but the writers redeemed themselves with a heartwarming scene between Wayne and the headmaster, which in itself was a vindication (since in the books, it’s only Harry who gets to process things one-on-one with Dumbledore).

As a Hufflepuff, I enjoyed Puffs; I think I would have enjoyed it even if I were a Brave, a Smart, or a Snake. I also realized that I switched between past and present tense in this post. I hope you didn’t notice.

I ran a marathon yesterday!

Back in January, I wrote a post about meeting Connie, the septuagenarian marathoner, in the hotel exercise room, and how she inspired me to (maybe) run a marathon this year. So I thought I should check back in and let you know that I did, indeed, run the inaugural Silo District Marathon yesterday morning in Waco, Texas. Last fall, I wrote about my visit to Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia empire (a word I’m using in a descriptive, not a pejorative, sense); this race event, which also included a half-marathon and a 5K, was their brainchild, which means that it was both warmly hospitable and efficiently organized. This was my first marathon, but it was Chip’s first road race ever, so I kind of expected to be able to keep pace with Chip (who is also about 10 years older than I am), but I was wrong–he left me in the Texas dust. So did Clint Harp (Fixer Upper‘s go-to carpenter and furniture designer), who was the team captain of the half-marathon. He, along with a lot of the other half-marathoners, passed me even though their race started about half an hour later than my race, which didn’t make me feel very good about myself. The competitive, Gryffindor part of me was merciless during the part of the race when we were sharing the course with those fast half-marathoners; I couldn’t believe how slow I was, but then again I could believe it because I hadn’t trained enough, hadn’t rested or eaten properly the day before…I’ve posted a number of times (see here and here) about how hard I can be on myself, especially in physical competitions, so you get the idea. But then, around mile 10, the hard-working, long-suffering Hufflepuff part of me kicked in, and I turned my mental energy to forcing myself to keep going–even if that meant limping, as it did toward the end of the race. (I didn’t injure myself, unless you count severe chafing between my legs, to the point of bleeding–I was just really sore.)

Because that’s really what a marathon is about; forcing yourself to go on. With shorter races, things like technique matter a lot more. A marathon is about sheer endurance, which I like to think I have a lot of. (I’ve written about that too.) The race materials from this weekend kept referring to us as athletes, but I don’t think it requires that much athleticism to finish a marathon (at least not the way I finished it–barely dragging myself across the finish line); it just requires a willingness to endure pain. I’m not sure what that says about me. I think it may mean that I have a psychological problem. But I’m weirdly proud of it.

Today my quads are really hurting–it hurts for me to go down stairs (going up is okay) and to lower myself into a chair. And when I’ve been sitting for a while, I get stiff and have trouble getting back up. And I need to go home and put some antibiotic cream and bandages on that nasty chafing. Notes for next time, and notes to anyone who’s thinking about running a marathon: Seriously consider wearing pants or longer shorts, even if it’s hot. And maybe don’t run a marathon in Texas, where 75 degrees doesn’t mean a beautiful, balmy day like it does here in Virginia. 75 feels a lot hotter in Texas, where they seem not to know about clouds or shade. And also, make sure you train for an actual marathon–I meant to do that, but the longest training run I had made time for was 11 miles.

My most important piece of advice: If I can run a marathon, you probably can too. Chip Gaines would probably say the same thing about himself, though I’ll never underestimate him again! Our race t-shirts and the banner over the marathon starting line said, “You were built for this.” There’s obviously a home renovation pun in there, as well as a Purpose-Driven Life-style spiritual meaning. But when I think of people who are “built” for running marathons, I think of tall, willowy people; I don’t think of people who look like me (i.e. a hobbit). So I take inspiration from that as well–you may not think so to look at me, but I was, apparently, built to run a marathon.

safer and friendlier schools

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that my fan-fictional Hufflepuff prefect, Patrick Weasley, wants to go into the Ministry of Magic and work toward making school a safer and friendlier place for students. I didn’t get to clarify what I meant by “safer and friendlier,” so I want to take a moment to do that now. I fear that when some people read that phrase, their immediate reaction may be to grumble about how we make things so easy for kids these days and how we should be teaching them to grow up instead of coddling them. I’m glad these hypothetical curmudgeons brought this up because teaching kids to grow up and to thrive–i.e. teaching them resilience–is exactly what I’m concerned about too. 🙂

Before we can even have a conversation about resilience, we first need to understand that it’s necessary and acknowledge that childhood is hard. I wrote a post about this last fall, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that childhood is hard for everyone–you’re figuring out who you are and who everybody else is and how the world works–but it’s especially difficult for children who experience major forms of trauma. I just watched an excellent webinar by Dr. Allison Jackson and sponsored by Emote, and I’ve been given permission to share it, which I’ll do as soon as the recording is available. It’s the first in a series on identifying and addressing trauma for educators and anyone who works with children; for me, it’s relevant to both my children’s literature teaching and my volunteer work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children. Normally the word “webinar” doesn’t suggest engaging viewing, but I had tears in my eyes at one point during this one, and they weren’t tears of boredom.

When I talk about making schools safer and friendlier for kids, I’m not talking about making everything cheerful; I’m not talking about making everything easy–those things are impossible. I’m talking about letting kids know that they’re acceptable, even if they don’t have designer clothes and fancy lunches, even if they are a different size/shape/skin color from everyone else in the class. And then I’m talking about teaching them that they have the responsibility and the power to be kind to others. I will say more about this in future posts–or maybe Patrick will!