A new vision

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

My spiritual mentor has told me this on numerous occasions. The saying proved true in my journey to finding my spiritual mentor, and it proved true when finding my career mentor, too.

467039_10151664152983185_896591402_oIn 2005, I attended the Arkansas Association of Colleges and Employers conference. In addition to meeting other fabulous speakers—people who would be key to my success and landmarks in my career journey—I met Samantha Hartley, Founder and President of Enlightened Marketing. Her story and vision inspired me. A few months later, after relocating to central Arkansas, I decided to go beyond the typical follow-up after a conference (a LinkedIn invitation and message stating how much I enjoyed her presentation) and contact her to invite her to lunch. She said yes.

I held back the first time we met even though I probably wanted to beg for assistance. I didn’t want to scare the poor woman off! I’m sure I still sounded like a wayward child (I was). I truly had no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go in life. In addition, my personal life was in shambles. I could find no peace and stability in my career until I found personal and spiritual peace and stability; Samantha recognized this and even pointed this out at the time. Samantha offered some ideas and suggestions, but our initial meeting was more about getting to know one another, as it should have been.

Over the next few years, we kept in touch and met a few times face to face. Samantha’s guidance was crucial. My career goals ran the gamut. I was good at everything, highly adaptable, a quick study, and stuck at a certain salary range. I kept leaving jobs in hopes of greener grass, and finding similar stubble. I couldn’t figure out my missteps until one morning over pancakes when Samantha encouraged me to create what I call my vision card. I lacked vision—and I kept accepting positions that weren’t aligned with my passion, my values, or my goals. As soon as I fixed the problems that presented themselves, I became bored, and I moved on.

vision cardSamantha asked me to create a vision board. However, I’m not really into pictures as much as I am into words, and she said that was okay. So my board because a card, and when I pictured a big display of images, the images were just words. So I wrote down all the words I envisioned.

Something beautiful is happening in my life right now. On this journey of life, I’m finding that each time I look back at my vision card, my current position aligns even more closely with the words written on it.

I don’t believe in coincidences.

I believe this is a direct result of planned and thoughtful decision-making, of saying no to interviews, of listening to my gut, of stepping away from situations that feel wrong or incomplete and stepping closer to situations and people that feel right and that align more closely with my values and goals.

If Samantha were not in my life, and were not willing to thoughtfully consider each question I ask her before responding and provide such excellent mentorship—without asking anything in return, except that I give to others—I might still feel like an aimless soul rather than a purpose-driven woman.

Teaching me to mother

Lizard,

205302_503087736842_9842_nThank you for breaking me in back when I turned 22. There was nothing Taylor Swift about it. Your dad and I tied the knot three weeks after I graduated from college and three weeks after my birthday, and I frantically searched for employment while serving as your stepmom. I felt like I was playing house sometimes, the way my sisters and I played Barbies as kids. Ken and Barbie smooch and hug and ride in the Barbie convertible, and then they get married, and they have a baby, and then what?

I learned the then what from you. No matter what obstacles your dad and I faced in our marriage, I always enjoyed being your stepmom. I loved taking you grocery shopping when you were five years old and answering your bazillion questions about produce and spaghetti and magazines. I obtained a great repertoire of bumblebee, elephant, and duck songs because of you. I got a big kick out of playing Tooth Fairy and helping you learn how to do backbends and make macaroni and cheese and use the washing machine and dryer. I remember the summer after second grade when I realized you lacked some important skills, and I decided to make it my mission to teach you to become more self-sufficient. You were so open to learning new things. I remember you telling your mom and Meme and Papaw about every new accomplishment over the phone, beaming with pride from ear to ear.

262960_519156345222_5013781_nYour willingness to learn never waned. We had The Talk in bits and pieces beginning at age five. I was always candid with you, telling you enough to satisfy your curiosity but not enough to bore you to tears. That strategy seemed to work. I also promised to tell you the truth no matter what, and I never wavered on that promise, and I still haven’t, even though we both know there have been some times when it would have been easier and softer if I’d lied. Because of your willingness to learn, and my willingness to be honest, we’ve made a pretty good team.

Fast forward to 2015. You’re finishing up your sophomore year of college, and I teach students the exact same age as you, my Lizard. Of course, I also teach non-traditional students, too.

Talk about having my life flash before my eyes at work every single day.

I see you in so many of my students. Here are a few examples.

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Hannah and Joey 

There’s Hannah, a beautiful spirit who is seriously perpetual sunshine to everyone who knows her. She reminds me of how I feel around you from the first minute you pull into my driveway until the minute you drive away.

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Nathan

There’s Nathan, a jokester on the outside with a serious interior he tries to disguise from his classmates most of the time—sound like anyone you know? This guy even donned a tutu once during a demonstration speech to help a fellow student out. I have proof of this beautiful moment :). I only taught him for one semester, but he was certainly one of the most memorable students I’ve ever taught.

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With LCreighton and Charmstrong

There are Charmstrong and Lcreighton, two little cuties I came to know outside of class before they became my students. They are both just adorbs (are you proud of me for using that term, Liz?) and often send me pictures of Edna Mode of The Incredibles, who they believe I emulate, in the middle of my lectures. They have filled a little bit of the Lizard void in my heart and life by walking with me to class and laughing with me and reminding me that I’m not THAT old.

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Crystal

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Sheila

There’s Crystal, who I have known for decades and had the pleasure to teach last fall. She has faced more than her share of obstacles but has chosen to become better, not bitter.

There’s Sheila, a non-traditional student who loves her family more than anything. She is also a total survivor and fighter. She has earned her spot in my heart and has proven herself to be hard-working and diligent even when it would have been easier to drop out of school. These are qualities I see in you, too, Liz.

11149462_10153220074068826_6559028102695630203_nAnd then there’s Lauren, who lost her lifelong love this semester. She is now raising their baby alone and is persevering against all odds. She’ll graduate in two days with honors. She will not allow others’ choices and tragedies to dictate the direction of her life.

And this, my Lizard, is what I hope for you, too.

With all that you have taught me about being a teacher, Liz, and with all that my students continually teach me about being a mom, I’m not sure why I’m being paid to teach. The least I can do is pour my very best self into my teaching, and offer my very best self to Maggie every day as her mom.

Happy Mother’s Day, Liz, to you and to all my babies.

Gifts

Today’s post is an essay written by one of my English Composition I students, Jessica Bacon. Jessica was a true blessing in my life this semester; she’s an ideal student, a loving mom, and a caring person. She is certainly a true elevator person to all those she encounters, lifting others up and not tearing them down. Not only that, but she also worked her tail off this semester and improved her writing skills by leaps and bounds. Merry Christmas, Jessica!

“The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its value.” (Charles Dudley Warner)  Gifts come in many shapes and forms.  Some may only consider presents that can be unwrapped or objects that can be associated with a monetary value as gifts.  Others can see the gift in things they cannot physically hold.  I like presents just as much as anybody else, but the best gifts are those I cannot put a dollar sign on.  Reflecting on this year, I know I have so much to be thankful for, but the gifts that stand out are the ones with sentimental value that will leave a lifetime of memories.

Jessica Bacon fam picConsidering that there are 2,129 miles between my home in Evening Shade, Arkansas, and my mom’s house in Vancouver, Washington, we do not see each other often.  In June, my mom flew out to visit.  As she walked through the airport terminal, I could see her smiling from ear to ear with tears streaming down her cheeks.  I could feel the love radiating through her when she hugged me.  During the week she was here, we watched my girls’ softball games, shopped, swam, cooked, and laughed until our bellies hurt.  Our housed smelled like a Bath and Body Works store from the array of candles and body products she bought for us.  My mom made us her Puerto Rican rice, chicken, and beans.  The garlic, green olives, and tomato sauce in the rice made an interesting combination of flavors.  Because Mom was recovering from shoulder surgery, she had to do her physical therapy exercises while she was here.  I loved watching my youngest daughter Carly running around her yelling, “Can’t shit (how she said catch) me, Gamma!!” while Mom did her exercises.  We will forever cherish the memories we made with her.  The real gift was Mom’s presence rather than the presents that she bought us.

Having four kids and multiple crazy schedules to work around, date nights and alone time are far and few between for my husband and I.  In August, our friend Robyn offered to watch our four girls so we could go out for our eleventh anniversary.  I knew that my babies were in good hands, so I was able to relax and enjoy my childless evening.  We went to Patio Lino Latin Restaurant for dinner.  When we walked into the crowded building the aroma of the food tantalized my nostrils, and the buffet in the corner caught my eye.  The flavor of the shrimp was so amazing that I could not stop eating it despite the intense heat.  My mouth and lips were on fire, and it made my nose run.  After dinner we went to Wal-Mart and bought season six of Sons of Anarchy to watch at home.  I fell asleep on the couch snuggled up to my husband with the feeling of his heart beating against my back while listening to the story of Jax Teller and the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club.

I attended my first semester of college this fall.  On my first day, I was so nervous and worried that I would be the oldest one in my classes.  When I entered my first class I saw students of all ages and several who appeared old enough to be my parents.  At first Intermediate Algebra was a struggle.  I spent many hours in the Student Success Center where there was a constant bustle of students, the strong scent of coffee, and varying tutoring sessions could be overheard.

Knowledge is a gift, and my first semester was successful.

Lost but not forgotten

Big thanks to one of my students, who is a vivacious and wonderful person, Jessica Nicol, for sharing her story in today’s post.

You know the point in your life where you just don’t feel like being angry anymore? I’m there.
I’ve found that in life there is always that one person who you never forget or stop loving… that is your first love. Don’t tell me you don’t remember. It’s the best and the worst love you will ever have in your lifetime. So, with that being said, here’s my story about my first love.
Photo courtesy of Phoopla Photography & Design

Photo courtesy of Phoopla Photography & Design

It all started in second grade. I was 7 years old and had just moved to Arkansas, so I didn’t know anyone at school. Halfway through my first week at Southside, I saw him. I was going to the only available swing left on the whole playground, and he was in the swing next to it. I had never felt the way I felt at that moment. My heart kind of… sped up. He was short with blonde hair and blue-green eyes. I wasn’t as shy as I am now, so when he got off the swing I went up to him and asked if I could play with him and his friend. He said yes, and so it began. Weeks after, we continued to play together, and the feelings grew. It was such an amazing feeling to care about someone so much. Of course, at the age of 7, I didn’t understand what I was feeling. Later in life, though, I realized I loved him.

The next year, in third grade, I finally found out his last name because his class, which was across the hall from mine, posted the students’ names outside the door, and I already knew his first name. When I found out, I made a note asking him if he would be my boyfriend with a check box saying yes or no. I gave it to him after school let out, and we went home on our buses. The next day after school we met outside of the building, and he gave my note back. It said yes! I was so happy. Did I mention he had a very thick southern accent? That was a lot of the attraction, right there. I’m so attracted to accents.
Once we moved into higher grades, such as middle school, it was all up and down. We were starting to become teenagers, and we didn’t have much of a serious relationship in elementary school. After all, how serious could a third grade relationship be? We were best friends and inseparable, despite my constant love for him. We ended up back together in eighth grade, and that was the year I realized I had been so in love with him for all of this time. I decided I wanted to marry him and that we’d be together forever… ha! Moving into ninth grade we broke up again. So devastating. I simply wanted to be with him, but he wanted someone else. We remained best friends because, again, our relationships hadn’t been super serious.
At the end of freshman year we got back together. It was a joyous moment for both of us. We  felt the same way about each other, and we both agreed we were going to get married and have kids and be happy. Well, that summer his father had a terrible accident. He fell off his truck–he was a truck driver–and hit his head. He lived for two days in a coma, and then he died. I felt so guilty because I was on vacation in Branson and couldn’t be there to love my boyfriend and comfort him. I cried so much and enjoyed nothing. All I wanted to do was go home and be with him. Finally my vacation was over, and I rushed to his house. He was so happy to see me. I stayed strong and tried not to cry when I saw him and his mother. I loved his mother, too, by the way. She was like a second mom.
During the visitation, I could not contain myself. I cried to the point that people thought I was related. I felt my boyfriend slipping away from me, and I just wasn’t ready to give him up. At the funeral, I kept composed. I hugged him and his mother afterward, reassuring them that I was there for them always. Days passed, and our relationship was in turmoil. He closed off and started rethinking everything. I fell into a depression and stopped eating because I was losing him. I had to get a therapist to help me because I ended up with an eating disorder, and I was majorly depressed.
We ended up breaking up. That was a devastation I cannot fully describe. If I could have died, I would have. I went through my therapy, and about halfway through it, we got back together. At the time, I had no idea how bad that was going to be. It was verbally abusive and painful to stay in, but I wouldn’t leave him because I was dead set on marrying him. My therapist said that it was an abusive relationship and wasn’t built on anything, but being a teenage girl, I didn’t listen. I closed off from the world because all I had in my life, I thought, was him. We spent another year together and then we broke up. It was a bad break up, but I continued therapy, and I just finished this past December.
Though it sounds like it was a horrible tragedy, I took away from it a knowledge I could never have gained without it. I learned the essentials of a relationship and the kind of strength within myself that I never thought I had. I rose up from it and am now very happy with my life. I plan to become a therapist for teenagers who are in the same position I was in. I also have a very amazing boyfriend who treats me like I deserve to be treated. I am no longer bitter and sad about this. I take it as an experience. I loved, I lost, I lived.

Magi

Today’s post is by my friend Amber Hood, who is one of the most generous and compassionate people I know. I’m not sure if her students know how blessed they are to know her!

Most of us know “The Gift of the Magi” by O Henry.  It’s about a young couple that doesn’t have very much money at Christmas. The wife sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch, but the husband sells his watch to buy hair combs for his wife. This week, my 7th grade creative writing students and I read this story. One of my sweet kiddos sitting next to me provided a running commentary as I read aloud.

Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining.”

“Mmm, girl. You get that hair, girl. Work it.” He pretended to play with invisible long wavy hair.

“’I buy hair,’ said Madame Sofronie.”

“What is happening? No! Don’t do it, Della! Don’t do it!”

I read to the end, and he flipped his papers over in disgust. “What do you think?” I said.

“That was a terrible story! Those people are poor! Why would you read that to us?”

I figured he’d appreciate the lesson once he started on the assignment. I wrote on the board, “Are Della and Jim wise gift givers or unwise? Give three reasons. Support your answers with evidence from the text.”

Without exception, all of my students agreed that Della and Jim were wise. The students articulated thoughtful responses about generosity, sacrifice, the true spirit of Christmas, and love. These have always been the themes I think of too when reading the story, and I’ve always felt it was a powerful message.

But the sad story of Della and Jim seemed to really stick with that one little boy, and I found it once again sticking to me too. My kiddo had a point. As much as I love that story, it isn’t very happy, is it? Christmas stories should be happy like getting the bad guys in Home Alone or eating syrup on spaghetti like in Elf.  The original Christmas story is the happiest of all with kings bringing gifts and the skies filling up with angels singing and a shining star and a newborn baby who doesn’t even cry. When it comes down to it, Della and Jim don’t actually have a very merry Christmas, do they? I thought that maybe I shouldn’t have read the story. Many of my students are impoverished themselves. They understand Della’s and Jim’s sacrifice. They know what it is to be generous having been on both sides of it. And they are children, so they understand what it means to love sometimes even more than their teacher does.

In looking at the story again, I started to think more about Della’s hair and Jim’s watch, which before had always seemed like arbitrary props to help O. Henry make his way to the plot twist and life lesson combo at the end. Now, though, I realize Della’s hair is synonymous with her feminine charms that at the turn of the century would have been one of the most important things about her, and Jim’s watch is the only wealth he has. Without her hair, O. Henry calls Della “truant;” she’s in “ravages.”  She’s damaged. Without his watch, Jim has no status symbols. Where does our pair now belong? On the outset, they seem to have lost their worth according to society. But, my 7th graders insist Jim and Della did the right thing. What could this mean? That it’s okay to not fit into a societal standard? That it’s okay if you don’t seem to have much significance to what society deems significant? In fact, not only is it okay to be lost or losing, it might even be wise. This damage isn’t something that makes us merely tolerable– it’s how God intended. It’s our pain and our imperfections and our lack of gold pocket watches and even our baldness that make us precisely who we are supposed to be.

 

 

Day 14: Dear students

*It’s Day 14 of the Dear Gratitude project. Today, I’m sharing a letter to my students. There is no way I could ever thank each of them individually for all they’ve added to my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach today, and I look forward to teaching for years to come, hopefully!*

Dear students,

Humoring my students, Halloween 2013

Humoring my students, Halloween 2013

Thank you for teaching me. At Youth Home, you taught me that playing softball and Skip Bo is more therapeutic than sitting around in a circle and rehashing your childhood trauma. At Arkansas Baptist High School, you taught me that sometimes, my initial judgments are dead wrong. I remember thinking that you, the girl in my English class with long, dark hair and glasses who sat quietly in the back of the room, were surely naïve. I later learned that you were struggling with trying to end an illicit relationship. And the boy with red hair and sullen attitude who drew pictures of poop for me—you taught me that bad kids might require more work, but they’re often more fun to teach.

Thank you for making me laugh and helping me relax. When I walked into my classroom and saw one of you hanging out the window chasing after sneakers tossed outside by another boy, I threw my hands up and laughed (before meting out necessary detention duty). When I tried to punish one of you, a troublemaker and rebel with absolutely no cause, by commanding you to pull your desk to the front of the classroom next to mine, you smiled and were genuinely excited about the opportunity to sit next to me and tell me stories. I had to smile back. When I showed up to class the first day this semester, one of you mentioned that I bore a scary resemblance to Velma from Scooby Doo. You proceeded to ask me to incorporate the phrase “Jenkies!” into my lectures. I had much more fun lecturing that day than I would have otherwise.

Thank you for reminding me that I’m not perfect. When I gave you a handout with a typo on it, and then counted off for the same errors in your essays, you called me on it and accepted my apology (along with corrected scores, of course). Thank you for asking me really difficult questions that I could never anticipate. You force me to go home and reread the textbook and to dig through every nook and cranny of every piece of literature before presenting it in the classroom. You keep me humble and remind me that six years of studying English doesn’t give me all the answers.

Thank you for owning up to your mistakes. When you, the vivacious and tender-hearted 16 year-old girl who’d plagiarized her entire paper, admitted to plagiarizing and begged for a second chance, I believed that your generation might not be so misguided after all. When you begin whining about how difficult it’s been to prepare your speech, and then admit that you stayed up all night playing video games, I’m relieved by your honesty.

Thank you for refusing to own up to your mistakes. When you, the boy with the big blue eyes who seemed to be on a mission to make my life miserable that year, stood in front of me and denied using SparkNotes, even though I held an identical copy of your paper (printed out from SparkNotes) in my hands, I felt incredibly disappointed and angered. But I learned, from you and others who made similar choices, that I couldn’t control you, and that was okay. I had to let you learn from your mistakes, whether you admitted them or not. And when I saw you 10 years later, same blue eyes minus the negative attitude, you told me you were sorry for being such a turd. That apology meant more to me than if you’d admitted to cheating way back when.

Thank you for persevering. I have watched you, my sole student from Central America, go to the writing lab over and over and over again to earn points missed due to grammatical errors. This boosts my spirit. You embody the American dream. You remind me that no matter where my students start, they can improve and become better writers than native English speakers who don’t put forth the same effort. Thank you, single moms in my English Composition class, for staying up late to write your essays and for showing up to class even though you have difficulty juggling class with bottles and sniffles. You remind me of my mom and her amazing journey through college as a single mom of four young daughters.

Thank you for hating English. Thank you, boy who never makes eye contact with me and who dons a baseball cap to class every single day, for sighing in disgust when asked if you enjoyed reading the poem “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa. Thank you, boy with curly blonde hair who complains that reading interferes with your fishing time, for reminding me that not everyone in the world enjoys the arts and humanities as much as I do. All of you who hate to read and write push me to find ways to make learning more interesting and engaging.

Thank you for loving to write. When you, the quietest student in class, submitted a personal narrative essay about owning your first car, I was blown away by your innate ability to write well. You incorporated allusions I’d never fathomed. I am grateful for my own professors who saw raw talent in me and encouraged me to keep writing. I am motivated to do the same for you.

Thank you for making me feel younger and for simultaneously reminding me how old I really am. Thanks, APPLE students, for laughing at my dance moves in the van on field trips. Thanks, college students, for complimenting me on my hipster dress and boots combo and, on the same day, for staring at me blankly when I asked all of you if you remember Milli Vanilli or not. Thank you for assuming that I use Snapchat. I’d never heard of it. Thanks for being surprised that I do not own a smart phone. Thank you for referring to me as “an old English teacher.” I view all of you the same way I view my former stepdaughter, Liz. Seeing the gigantic oyster of a world splayed in front of you reminds me that, though I may be 15 years older than you, I’m not too old to have more adventures, to travel the world again, or to try something new.

Thank you for showing me who you are. Thank you, Jewish student whom I have not heard from in over a decade, for explaining your beliefs to me and accepting our differences of opinion so deftly. Thank you, sweet student with bipolar disorder, for opening up to me and letting me be part of the path that healed you. Thank you, gay student who needed guidance, for allowing me to listen to you. You had no idea that you were allowing me to make a living amends to my friend who I’d responded to so horribly years before in a similar situation. Thank you, turtle-loving girl, for visiting me repeatedly and serving as a ray of sunshine during a truly dark time in my life. Thank you, my Andrew who was taken from this world much too soon, for explaining to me why dead white men were your heroes. As a young, troubled black man, I’m still astonished at your ability to put your own pain aside long enough to care for others and to lead your peers. Thank you, nerdy gamer boy, for confiding in me last week about trying to kill yourself in high school. You broke my heart. But when I listened to you explain the importance of communication, and the reasons you now refuse to sit around texting, I felt surprised and proud of you. When you talked about how much joy you feel when you volunteer at church, I understood that you are no longer an empty shell of a person. And please don’t worry about only having two dates thus far—someday, women will appreciate your interest in having real conversations, and your luck will turn around.

Thank you for proving to me that there’s still some good in the world.

Thank you for giving me hope.

Thank you for teaching me more than I could ever teach you.

 

 

 

Day 2: Dear darling boys

*Thanks to my generous and zany friend Amber Hood for serving as today’s contributor to my November “Dear Gratitude” letter writing project. Each day in November, a different writer will share a letter to someone or something she is thankful for.*

Darling boys in my class—

teenage boy for amber blogI have first hand knowledge of what it’s like to be a 7th grade girl. It isn’t easy, and now I know you all, and I love you all, and when I am not crazy mad at you for nearly poking someone’s eye out with a pencil (yes, I know he needed to borrow it, but that doesn’t mean throw it; that means pass it or hand it), then far too often my heart is breaking for you as I see you face your struggles.

When the girl you like laughs at you or when you say, “My uncle died last year, and sometimes I still get really sad about it,” I don’t know how to make it better. And it’s these times when I feel so unsure of my ability to teach you or to help you grow, but just when it gets really dark, I see you reach out to the new kid who is not very cool, and I see you boys take responsibility for your actions with more dignity than most grown men, and I know it isn’t my job to make you into the person you should be but to be your number one fan as you realize it on your own.

I am so grateful for you sweet boys for teaching me so much more than I could teach you.  Some days I think my life is pretty tough trying to help you fellows read better when you’d all rather bounce around my room, but I have these little moments, like when you make an A on your geography project, and I’m so proud of you not just because I know that class is hard but mostly because I know you probably walked to the dollar store and used your own money to get the poster board you needed.  I’m in awe of the way you treat the lady at the store on the corner with respect when you buy a coke and chips from her even though she scowls at you and watches you closely assuming you will steal from her because your skin is dark, and you look like a man even though you are only 13.

Thank you, my brave and clever and kind and funny and scrappy young men. You give purpose to my days and so much hope that we’re all going to be okay.

Want to support hard-working 7th grade readers? Please visit my classroom wish list. http://www.walmart.com/giftregistry/gr_detail.do?registryId=80522943011It’s no secret that teachers often spend their own money on what their children need. This is especially true in schools with a high poverty rate. Please consider spending a few dollars so that these young men (and my sweet girls, too) can have more books to read, more pencils to chew on, more after school snacks for those who need them, and more paper to create some of their first works of story and poetry. You’ll serve as an excellent reason for me to get them to learn how to write thank you notes.