Few things brighten my day like a steamy cup of coffee and inspirational, thought-provoking reads in the morning. It’s a ritual that I daresay I’ll keep until the day I die, whether I’m curled up on my couch with a book, devouring the Sunday New York Times on a plane, or catching up on my favorite blogs amidst the buzz of my favorite coffee shop.
Writing is a strange process. I’ve been writing my entire life, and I’ve only recently realized the art of writing inspired, which is to say that I’ve realized the struggle of wanting to say something and knowing what you want to say, but not being able to put that into words until one day, randomly, divinely, it seems, you just know. The words come, one after another, seamlessly, flawlessly, and you almost can’t believe that you’re writing them. And then you wonder: Am I writing them? Or am I piecing these words together only because I’ve been divinely tapped on the head?
Allow me to share two such moments with you. The first happened after I got married. My wedding day was one of the best days of my life, and I wanted to capture it, all of it. Not just the play-by-play of moments, but the unmatched feeling of happiness I felt from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep that night.
The day after the wedding, on our way from Birmingham to our cabin in the Smokies, my new husband and I stopped by Barnes and Noble for coffee, and I bought a journal. I tried writing as we drove, but nothing came. Days later, I tried writing again, sitting on the porch of our cabin in the midst of crisp mountain air and the ambient glow of nightfall, and still, nothing happened. I kept trying—the Saturday we returned home, a few weekends later at the lake. But eventually, I gave up. I knew how I felt, but I didn’t know what to say.
My moment of inspiration came while I was lying in bed one night more than three months after the wedding. Wide awake, husband asleep, the wedding not even on my mind, and all of sudden, word-by-word, the story just started appearing. Inside my head, a paragraph formed, then two. I was awestruck. I jumped out of bed and wrote the whole story I had wanted to write for months, from start to finish, in about 30 minutes in the wee hours of the morning.
My second moment of inspired writing came just a few weeks ago, although it was even longer in the making. I’d wanted to write this story for so long, in fact, that I even wrote about not being able to write it. When I finished writing, I shook. My dimples ached. I was overcome. I had finally drawn forth a handful of words that, despite their brevity, seemed to sum up nearly a year (a year!) of my life.
This second story, the story of my year as a teacher, I’ve included below. You’ll notice that very little of it is about teaching, but that’s because very little of my year as a teacher was actually about teaching. I’d tell you what that means, but you have an entire story waiting to explain it to you. Besides, it ends with a message I couldn’t possibly attempt to reword.
How Tornadoes and Teaching Helped Me Rediscover My Calling
I was standing outside the student media building getting ready to produce my first newspaper as an editor when I got the news.
Our house was gone. As in, my roommate survived the tornado by covering herself with a mattress in the only room of our house left standing.
You see, I lived, and still live, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In April 2011, my junior year of college, I lived on the corner of Forest Lake Drive and 16th Street in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that became woodchips as one of the biggest tornadoes in state history tore through our city. It was a little more than a week before the end of finals, a little more than a week before graduation, a little more than a week before I would officially become a senior.
…read the rest at Literally, Darling.
I’m not one to cry, but I did. I almost lost it. You see, I was so overwhelmed. A mere song before walking down the aisle, it dawned on me. This is actually happening. After all we’ve been through, this is happening.
I woke up calm as sunrise. All day, I felt the tingling peace that sweeps over a girl when someone plays with her hair, all the way from mid-morning mimosas to the first step into my dress to the very last pre-ceremony picture. I laughed with my photographer, rejoiced in small rays of sunshine, let go of the tiny, insignificant details.
In the bridal suite, I could hear the songs we had picked out weeks before through the speakers overhead. Songs by rugged, red dirt guitarists with raspy voices singing about love that lifts one’s feet off the ground. My bridesmaids leave, go outside, line up. Alone, I realize. This is happening. After all we’ve been through—five years, summers nearly 700 miles apart, misunderstood gestures, historic tornados, hazy futures, a painful breakup, an emotional makeup—and this is finally happening.
I wasn’t quite sure when to step outside. When I did, there stood my dad, right on cue. He tried to talk to me. I can’t remember what he said. All I could do was stare straight ahead, straight at nothing, and breathe. Keep it together or your face is going to turn the color of their dresses.
We’re given the cue to leave our spot behind the wall and start walking. I am overwhelmed again. When have I been to a wedding where I knew this many people? Why, never. This is my wedding. I know all these people. These people are here for me.
And then, I see him. Am I smiling? I can’t tell. I feel as though my face is shaking.
I nearly lost it after the first line of my first set of vows. I, Stephanie, take…
My voice begins to shake. Tears well up and fall. I look away and breathe. I finish, voice trembling. He is collected, like a rock. He smiles at me with his whole face and rubs the back of my hand with his thumb. The second set is considerably easier.
He kisses me, we turn to face the crowd, and I am glad for the song to which we have chosen to leave, because the song is how I feel, like feet-stomping bluegrass starring a high-spirited banjo and fiddle, like a song to which you just can’ t keep from dancing.
When the time came for us to leave for our honeymoon, we didn’t want to go. We wanted to keep sipping wine and smoking cigars and spending time with our families and friends on the banks of the river where we got engaged. Fifteen minutes later, the sun set. The cigars became nubs. The bouquet was tossed. The garter was thrown. We left beneath an array of fiery, smokeless sparklers.
On our way to the historic Tutwiler hotel in Birmingham that night, we both marveled at how perfect everything had been—the rehearsal dinner the night before held beneath pine trees and electric icicles, the heartfelt speeches given by our friends and family members, the late-morning breakfast, the getting ready with our best mates, the sunny and 70-degree weather, the simple ceremony, the carefully selected music, taking the time to eat dinner with our families, the visiting, the delicious food, the timing of it all, the balcony overlooking the river. It was simple, it was southern, it was smooth, and it was so, so us.
Photos by Drew Hoover
Some things, as they will, didn’t go as planned. The bows on the reserved seats were the wrong color. The decorative flowers on the cake were smaller than I had expected. The flowers above the gazebo wouldn’t fit and had to be split in two. We started pictures nearly an hour after we said we would. But those are tiny, insignificant details.
That night, I cried again, only I didn’t keep it together. I didn’t even try. This has happened, and he loves me despite my face turning the color of cherries and my body being drenched in sweat from spending all day in a dress the size of a hula hoop. In good times and in bad. In joy as well as in sorrow. I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
For me, Thanksgiving has come early this year. When I think about where I am – physically, mentally, emotionally – all I want to do is race to the top of a large cliff and yell at the top of my lungs, “Thank yooooou!” to the great blue yonder. And think – it’s just the beginning of October!
It’s funny, too, because I can remember so many Thanksgivings past when my grandmother would say, “Now, before we say the blessing, why don’t we all go around and name at least one thing we’re thankful for?” To which my disgruntled teenage self probably rolled her eyes and reluctantly named something she halfheartedly believed, if she said anything at all.
But now, NOW at the grand age of 23 (ha!), I know what it means to be thankful…and what it means to pray. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says, “Never stop praying,” and boy did that verse ring true last year. Last October was the definition of constant prayer, only I was praying for what I felt I needed, that is peace, patience, joy and strength to get through nearly every minute of every day. Only now am I noticing the verses that surround verse 17. You know, verse 16 that says, “Always be joyful,” and verse 18 that says, “Be thankful in all circumstances.” No wonder they always tell you to read the whole passage rather than focus on a single verse. Oops. “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances.” Got it.
All of that is to say that I am undeniably, irreversibly, everlastingly thankful. Thankful that it’s October and – unlike last October – that I can wake up, breathe in the fresh air that comes with fall, and carry that inescapable seasonal joy with me throughout my entire day. Thankful that I will finally have something genuine to say when my grandmother asks me what I am thankful for on Thanksgiving. Thankful that my daily prayers start and end with, “Thank you God for (blank)” rather than “Please God help me (blank).”
I could go on for days. Instead, I’ll leave you with the condensed version, aka my top five reasons for being thankful. I’ll also leave you with another verse in case you aren’t exactly living in a season of joy, because I know first-hand how difficult that can be. If this is you, I leave you with the verse that kept me going: “So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold – though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Christ Jesus is revealed to the whole world. You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy.” (1 Peter 1:6-8)
Five Reasons Why I Am Thankful: I am thankful for…
5. Finding my calling. It’s absolutely hilarious to me that I once thought teaching might be the career path for me after I became somewhat bored and disillusioned with journalism. I am thankful for finally realizing that journalism is, in fact, the industry in which I belong. I am also thankful that, after losing everything I owned in a tornado and consequently losing faith in what I considered to be a very tangible profession, my love for what the written word can do has been revived and is as strong as ever.
4. Being in Alabama. Tonight, as I was reading through this note that I wrote back in 2008 before I ever stepped foot on the Alabama campus as a student, I am realizing for about the millionth time now how incredibly lucky I am to be in Alabama. It’s amazing to me how much probably wouldn’t have happened had I never moved to this state (and how much moving to Texas actually brought me to this state). It’s also amazing to me that Alabama lived up to my pre-student, pre-alumni expectations of what the university experience would be like. Again, see the note. Plug for the section about football!
3. Opportunity. As I think back on my last year of teaching, it often occurs to me how fortunate I was to grow up where I did, and how much opportunity was afforded to me simply because of my street address. After moving to Texas, I can say that I attended one of the best schools in one of the most outstanding public school districts in nation, which gave me so many big and small opportunities that I know I have taken for granted. Take athletics, for instance. Even things like lifting weights in middle school and having the opportunity to attend strength and conditioning camps as a girl may seem small, but I know I grew leaps and bounds as an athlete because of them. And my students probably don’t even know those opportunities exist. (This doesn’t exactly fit neatly into this category, but I am also very, very thankful that Joshua found a job in Tuscaloosa working at the university. He started work today, and I am beyond excited for him!)
2. Great friends. What is life without great people? I am especially thankful for: Joshua, Caitlin, Lesley, Samantha, mom, dad, Phillip, grandma, and everyone else who has kept me on their hearts and minds this past year. You are lifesavers, and I will be forever grateful for you.
1. Beautiful weather. I can’t not mention the weather. It is my favorite season, after all. And it really sums up my attitude about life right now. Weather seems small, and it is, sort of. But why not be thankful for it? “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances.” Big and small, happy and sad. I implore you – have a beautiful October. After all, it only comes once a year!
Well folks, that’s it. I’ve been living in the charming town of Greensboro, Alabama, for about a year now, and here I am, packing up and moving again. I am moving because I have accepted a job in Birmingham as a writer for a local newspaper, which means that, for various reasons, I will not be returning to teach a second year with Teach For America. After much distance – spending weeks agonizing over the decision, struggling between the idea of fulfilling a commitment and the idea of being happy – I have an incredible amount of peace about where I landed. As I look back at the reasons why I joined Teach For America, I realize that so much and yet so little has changed. My passion for education and my desire to be a leader haven’t changed; my career path and outlook on life have. I joined Teach For America as a way to jump-start a new career in teaching, something that, at the time, I thought I would want to do forever. Now, I realize that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I have gained so much from my last year of teaching – a new appreciation for teachers, an even stronger passion and anger at the senseless lack of opportunity that exists in many of America’s schools, a greater understanding of my skills and how I may use them for the benefit of myself and others, a better understanding about where America’s education system fails and what needs to be done in order to fix it, and, most importantly, a new outlook on life that will make me forever grateful for each and every opportunity that I receive.
In many ways, it feels strange to be writing this post. I’m talking about leaving Teach For America, and I never even wrote anything about my experience as a corps member. Part of that stems from the fact that, frankly, I just didn’t have time. I worked, on average, 80 hours a week for an entire school year, and I still felt like I was drowning.
The other reason I never wrote anything is that I just didn’t know what to say. Even now, I’m at a complete loss for words, and I’m afraid to put words on paper – or even let words slip from my lips – for fear that any story I tell will not wholly represent my experience as a corps member. I’m afraid that any one story would either perpetuate the stereotypes that exist about America’s education system and the communities struggling within it, or it would misrepresent the work that corps members across the country are doing on a daily basis. How does one convey the gravity, the difficulty, the complexity of the situation through a story with a finite amount of words? I’m afraid such a task may only be accomplished with a book.
I’ll also be the first to admit that it’s much easier to block this past year from my memory rather than write or talk about it. It’s easy to forget about those mornings when I drove to work in tears and employed every bit of strength I had not to turn around, just like it’s easy to forget those afternoon tutoring sessions when three or four students would tell me, “This has been so helpful. You’re a really good teacher,” when I had heard the exact opposite message for nearly five hours earlier that day.
But as I think about how easy it would be to forget these things, it scares me. I think about everything I have learned this year – about my new home, about my country, about myself – and I know that I do not want to forget any of it. Not the funny moments, not the good moments, not the eye-opening moments, not even the breathtakingly bad moments, as these were the moments when I think I learned the most. I say all of this, yet I have done nothing to make these memories permanent. I’m sure other corps members would agree with me when I say, “I wanted to write about my experience as it happened, but I just didn’t have the time between lesson planning and attending meetings and (sometimes) eating and (sometimes) sleeping…”
This past year has been a whirlwind. A difficult whirlwind, but I will be forever grateful for it. In one-word answers, it has taught me patience, strength, faithfulness, gratitude, humility, and joy in ways I never would have imagined. As I sort through it all, bear with me. Some thoughts and stories I will share here. Others will only surface in conversations over coffee and in my own journal for safe-keeping. In the meantime, I would love to hear about yours. I would love for you to ask me more about mine. Like I said, there is so, so much to tell.
It’s Friday afternoon in Tuscaloosa, the day before Alabama plays LSU in what has become known as “The Game of the Century,” and what am I doing? As a current Alabama student, you’d think that I’d be out in the sunshine enjoying the festivities. But, by choice, I’m not. While Kirk Herbstreit, Erin Andrews, Urban Meyer, and the rest of the ESPN College GameDay crew entertain a live audience just a few hundred feet away from my apartment, I am sitting on my couch…reading.
But I’m not just reading anything. I’m sitting here (perfectly content, I might add) reading about achievement gaps in education and ways of turning public education’s failures into student success stories. Why am I reading about these things? Because last week I did something I never thought I would do – I submitted my application to become a Teach For America corps member. If I’m accepted, I will spend the next two years teaching in low-income schools. I became one step closer yesterday when I received an invitation via email to a final interview, scheduled for the last week of November.
As I read these articles that are a required part of the application process, I am reminded of two things. The first is an extra-credit paper I wrote for a class I took last spring. There was no required length, format, or topic for the paper, and I didn’t even need to write it to boost my grade…but I chose to write it anyway, and what I chose to write about was education. After reading nine books about topics as varied as technology, elitism, multiculturalism, childhood, and competition, education was the thread I saw running through each and every one of them, education as not only one of America’s great problems, but also as one of America’s great solutions. As I read these articles now, I feel as if I am reading my term paper, which, by the way, was a whopping 10 pages long.
The other thing I am reminded of when I read these articles is that there are waaaaay more important things than college football, just like there are waaaaay more important things than seeing your name in print, which is one reason I’ve recently decided to leave journalism behind and pursue teaching as a career path.
Oddly enough, I turned in the paper described above on April 27, or what I like to call “tornado day.” It was with my professor, who had our papers in his satchel, and the rest of my classmates that I sat on the floor of one the academic buildings on campus, listening to the ever-present tornado sirens and crouching in the kitchen as we watched video footage of a big, gray cloud making its way our direction. I’m not saying the tornado changed my career path. I was obviously thinking a lot about education beforehand. I’m just saying it’s funny how interrelated the tornado and my new life plan seem to be. Everything I ever wrote – papers, creative pieces, journalism articles – everything was destroyed by the tornado. But I don’t even care. They were pieces of paper with my name on them, and though I enjoyed writing them, I doubt anyone will ever remember them except for me.
With all of that said, I will be in Bryant-Denny Stadium tomorrow no later than 4 p.m., as I paid only $5 for my ticket and love college football more than anyone. Accidentally wore a purple scarf today, but no big. Wearing red tomorrow. Roll tide.
Do you have a favorite body of water? Mine is the river. I love rivers especially because of what they do to cities…that is, they authenticate them, give them resiliency, knowledge, history, life.
Let me explain. For the most part, I hate cities, especially big ones. The ones I do like (Nashville, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Birmingham, to name a few) are located on or very near rivers. So are Paris and London, two of the most well-loved cities in the world.
This river-city connection isn’t something I discovered until I moved from the big (non-river) city of Houston to the river town of Tuscaloosa for college. The first time I visited Tuscaloosa, I was fascinated by the Black Warrior River, and to this day my favorite places in town are the River Walk and the all-wooden trestle bridge that crosses the river and connects Tuscaloosa to its sister city Northport. My favorite street is Jack Warner Parkway, the only street in town that follows the river from city limit to city limit. My favorite thing about the city (and other cities with rivers) is the people who seem to care not about money or prestige, but about community, the environment, art, history, and, most importantly, other people.
These aren’t typical characteristics of cities, which tend to isolate and seclude rather than bring together. No, the citizens of river towns are the ones who seem most attentive to the passage of time and the importance of people. The citizens of river towns seem most aware of the fact that every human being is fallible, but precious. The citizens of river towns are the ones who understand that nothing is ever created in isolation.
It’s almost as if the river – whose waters change every second of every hour of every day, carving new shorelines with every flood of its banks and revealing in stages tree roots that have previously been buried for centuries – reminds its city that nothing is stagnant. Even today, an age when motor vehicles have taken over and rivers transport less than they used to, I can look at the river every day and see barges pushing cargo across miles and miles of land, just like travelers, goods, and ideas were pushed down rivers decades before now. How can we not be reminded that history is made in the present?
One month ago today, a half-mile-wide tornado ravaged this river town where I’ve lived the last three years, the place I’ve come to call “home.” It left 41 residents dead, including six University of Alabama students. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, including the homes of at least four of my former professors, as well as my own.
Since April 27, Tuscaloosa has received steady amounts of praise for pulling together and for helping neighbors who need help. But this praise comes as no surprise to me – it’s the river town in us. We don’t need a tornado to tell us what’s important. We already know that wallowing in self-pity does nothing. We already know that what is destroyed can always be rebuilt. We already know that what is bad can always be worse. We already know that there are things more powerful than us.
In this case, we know that more students and residents could have and probably should have died when we survey the damage, and we thank God they didn’t. Personally, I know that my house is gone, but I also know that my favorite parts of this city, both tangible and intangible, are still here. We still have the river, its huge trees, the Historic District, and downtown. We still have our community, our parks, our art, and our history. We still have our spirit.
As I start my fourth and final year at The University of Alabama, I’m living in a town that many people have said is unrecognizable. I say it’s perfectly recognizable, at least in spirit. Physically, it’s only a matter of time before it will be recognizable again. New Orleans overcame Katrina. Nashville overcame its floods. Tuscaloosa will overcome its tornado.