When I get in front of a classroom of children, I am home. I was a special education teacher for ten years before I became a full-time author and speaker. On occasion, my two passions—writing and teaching children—collide. I go into these situations on high alert. If there is ever a time to pay very close attention, it is in a classroom. Because if I do, I know I will be the one to walk away educated and inspired.
Recently I had the opportunity to speak at my daughters’ new school. I was prepared to be enlightened. I was not disappointed.
This is my story …
My presentation for both second and fifth graders consisted of two parts. The first part described the steps I took to achieve my childhood dream of becoming a published author. The second part of my presentation was a lesson and group exercise on descriptive writing.
As I spoke to the children, my teacher training quickly spotted the ones who were having trouble sitting still … the ones who were weary to raise their hands but clearly had something to say … the ones who were fiddling with something inside their desk, perhaps thinking of their own passions. I tried to draw the children out, sustain their attention, and create a safe environment where all ideas were accepted and respected. When it was time for the students to craft their own sentences, I was pleased that most of them looked comfortable and engaged.
As the students worked quietly, I was able to interact individually with each one. Their unique personalities surfaced during these brief exchanges—their comments and posture revealing details about their life experiences, their confidence, and their strengths.
As I was preparing to leave the fifth grade classroom, a boy asked for my autograph. This idea started a trend. As the children lined up with blank notebook paper in hand, I felt compelled to write more than my name or “Live Hands Free.” In black Sharpie I wrote, “Go after your dreams!” Then I paused and asked each child, “What is your dream?”
Every single child had an answer.
There were no hesitations.
There were no duplications.
Every single child, no matter how reserved or how outgoing … no matter how serious or how silly … no matter how neat or disheveled, had a dream. And more importantly, every child had a twinkle in the eye when speaking about it.
Major League Baseball player
A scientist that cures cancer
A kind person who helps others
A marine biologist
One after the other, I heard very specific dreams. I saw sparks of energy fly. I felt ripples of passion spread. As a teacher, I was often privy to children’s dreams, but this time it was different. Hearing these aspirations as someone who’d achieved her own dream made a profound difference. These aspirations weren’t just words. They were power. They were possibilities. They were music of the heart.
Naturally, I thought of my own fifth grade daughter. She’d recently become very interested in becoming an orthopedic surgeon. The first time she mentioned it, I wanted to tell her that she’d have to earn high grades and test scores. I wanted to tell her about the strong stomach she’d have to have for broken bones and blood. I wanted to tell her of sacrifices she would have to make to study and pay for medical school. Me, the planner and the practical thinker, wanted to quickly point out all these things I “knew” about becoming a doctor. But for some reason, I didn’t. I bit my tongue and listened. My daughter went on to talk about her new interest for nearly an hour that day. I couldn’t remember when I’d seen her this excited about something. I was thankful I didn’t discourage her with facts and warnings.
Since that conversation, I’ve watched my daughter’s interest in the medical field grow. She’s been pouring through medical textbooks we purchased from the used bookstore. She’s created a medical field journal where she jots down observations and information. We visited the natural science museum to see a display on the human body. She’s been watching surgeries on television with genuine interest.
I recently found a friend’s business card on the desk in my daughter’s bedroom. My child had scratched out the original name on the card and put her own name. Beneath her name, she wrote, “Future Orthopedic Surgeon.”
I must admit, seeing it there in blue ballpoint pen in my child’s best penmanship made it looked like a real possibility. As I propped it up on her desk beneath her swim team goals and notes of encouragement, a powerful realization came to my mind:
There will be plenty of obstacles between my child and her dream, but I will not be one of them.
The words, “I don’t think you can do that,” are not going to come from my lips.
Because how do I really know? How do I know what my child can and cannot achieve?
And then a harsh reality about achieving my own dream hit me:
I’m pretty sure if eight-year-old Rachel had said, “I am going to be a New York Times Bestselling Author someday,” there would have been a long line of people shaking their heads and more snickers than I could count. Simply voicing my goal of becoming a published author a few years ago was often met with doubt and many unsolicited doses of reality.
I was often warned that very few people ever land a book deal. I was reminded that electronic books have changed the publishing industry all together. I lost track of how many people told me it was necessary to know someone in the business to get published. Sometimes when I voiced my dream it was met with no words at all; yet the look on the person’s face said it all.
Once in awhile I was given encouragement. “I believe in you,” were my all-time favorite words. I remember the names of those who said that to me. Because those words were like fuel to a hot air balloon—lifting me up so I could soar.
Going through this experience provided an unequivocal confirmation of what role I wanted to play for other people. I realized I have the power to be a Dream Crusher or a Dream Builder. I’ve chosen the latter.
After signing thirty-one autographs in the fifth grade classroom that day, I gathered my things to leave. A young lady who’d been quietly observing suddenly came forward. She asked me to sign two papers—one for her mother and one for her. This child didn’t have to tell me of her struggles; I could see. She whispered her dream into my ear. It was a beautiful dream. On her paper I signed, “I believe in you,” and then held up my hand for a high five.
I didn't let her hand go right away. I held on for a moment. I’d touched my dream, and I hoped and prayed she would someday touch hers.
I conclude today’s post with a message inspired by many hours spent in the classroom with many extraordinary individuals. May it help you encourage someone else’s not-so-impossible dream …
Don’t Change, Extraordinary One
They say he’s too quiet.
They say she’s too inquisitive.
They say he’s too energetic.
They say she’s too sensitive.
They say he’s too absent-minded.
They say these things thinking it will help,
But it doesn’t really.
It only causes worry and the pressure to conform.
The truth is, changing would be a tragedy.
Because when they say “too quiet,”
I see introspection.
Don’t change, thoughtful one.
You’re gonna bring quiet wisdom to the chaos.
Because when they say ”too inquisitive,”
I see problem solving.
Don’t change, little thinker.
You’re gonna bring answers to the toughest questions.
Because when they say “too energetic,”
I see vitality.
Don’t change, lively one.
You’re gonna bring love and laughter to desperate times.
Because when they say “too sensitive,”
I see heart.
Don’t change, deep feeler.
You’re gonna bring compassion to hurting souls.
Because when they say “too absent-minded,”
I see creativity.
Don’t change, artistic dreamer.
You’re gonna bring color to lifeless spaces.
They might say change is needed.
But I ask that they look a little deeper and observe a little longer.
From where I stand, these individuals are just as they should be …
On their path to bring the world exactly what it needs to thrive.
Don’t change, extraordinary one.
You’re gonna light this place up.
© Rachel Macy Stafford 2014
I realize this blog post may draw criticism from those who believe it is important to be realistic and practical when a child voices a lofty aspiration. I understand and respect that opinion. My children are eight and eleven. Right now I find it greatly beneficial to allow them to pursue what makes their hearts come alive. If they ask me questions about requirements for desired jobs or talents, we research the answers together and I try to let them draw their own conclusions as much as possible. As I think back to painful conversations with both my volleyball coach and an academic advisor, I realize I was given the “you don’t cut it” message from people outside of my parents. This was significant to me and will serve as my guide as I support my children in their endeavors. I welcome your comments and experiences below.
Friends, this week I have the honor of speaking about my forthcoming book, Hands Free Life, at a national sales conference with my children joining me in this special experience. Since my focus will be on making memories with my kids and helping others through my writings, The Hands Free Revolution page and this blog will be quiet for a spell. Thank you for being my faithful companions on this journey to live more & love more in the time we are given!
*In the meantime, please check out these extraordinarily talented people who have helped me touch my dream:
Christi McGuire for all things in need of editing, polishing, & publishing guidance
Blogger Boutique for all things blog design related
JuiceBox Designs for all things logo, branding, and book covering
For the Love of Letters for all things hand-lettered
Oliver’s Twist for all things paper & art & technology combined