A love letter

10 year old Monya sitting at a typewriter
10 year old me

Dear 10-year old Monya,

I see you, sitting in front of the typewriter Grandma Flo gave you when you moved away; your fingers stained various shades of black from the ink ribbon, your head full of short story ideas. You wrote your first piece, “The Three Little Kittens’ First Christmas,” when you were 6, and haven’t let up since. I wish I could somehow speak back through the years and tell you to not to forget how much you love it. Because you will.

In the years not long after this picture, you will put the typewriter in the closet along with your goals of seeing your name on the cover of a book someday. You’ll stuff down your creativity: your love of reading, writing, and music, along with your intelligence because at some point it becomes uncool to be smart. You’ll learn to be exactly who they want you to be: quiet, agreeable, convenient. You’ll do all this without question or hesitation. You won’t even put up a fight. It will never feel quite true, but over time, you won’t remember what true feels like, so this might as well be it.

I don’t mean to sound like you won’t have a good life – you’ll know happiness and joy – but you won’t be living authentically. Don’t be discouraged by this – most people aren’t their living as their authentic selves either. We all go through life striving to be versions of ourselves that we think are the most attractive to other people that are also trying to be the most digestible version of themselves. It’s a pretty silly concept if we were to stop and think about it, but few seldom do.

The good news is that you will start to question it eventually. You’ll start to remember bits of who you were before you decided that you weren’t enough. You’ll fight it for a little while, but eventually the curiosity will get the better of you, and you’ll start to lean in. You’ll remember your creative side and how much you love to read, write, and how you need music like you need air or water. You’ll very slowly and timidly start to create again. I can’t yet say whether or not it takes off like maybe it would have if you had questioned it sooner – I’m not that far in yet.

As you continue to lean in to the questions you have about who you actually are, you’ll find that you have some pretty strong opinions about things that you hadn’t really stopped to consider before, and many of them aren’t quite in alignment with some of the people and situations you’ve tolerated before. You’ll realize that you’re a little bit crazy about humanity – especially those kept in the margins. It turns out that all those years you spent trying to be someone mainstream society found acceptable will be absolute wasted time, because it’s those people on the fringes that you connect with most. You’ll realize that community and relationship comes easy with the right people.

It’s been a little more than 30 years since this picture of you with your typewriter was snapped, and I’d be lying if I said most of them weren’t spent living as someone that’s not fully you. While I can’t go back and change anything, I can commit to continuing to rediscover and reacquaint myself with the person that’s been hidden for so long. You have always been enough.

An older, wiser version of yourself

Daddy Issues

Wow, Monya. You really just stepped back in after a four month absence with a topic like daddy issues? No personal update or anything, just jumping in, huh?

The short answer is, yes. I thought about a personal update. I even had a draft of one – like 1500 words long! But then I looked back at the history of my posts and realized that 90% of them are exactly that. A personal update post after a long hiatus. It’s obviously not working for me. So I regrouped and decided that whatever this site’s purpose originally was, this blog is for me, and I don’t need a personal update. It’s purpose is nothing more than a place for me to process whatever I am processing at the moment. And at this moment (or collection of moments over the last week or so), I am processing the concept of daddy issues – but probably not quite the daddy issues you may initially think of when you hear the phrase.

I’ve mentioned a time or two before that I have a complicated relationship with faith. There are just so many things that I either don’t understand, or that just don’t quite sit right with me about what I was taught or what I experienced; and don’t even get me started about the harm I’ve observed from afar done in the name of God or Christianity or the Church (hello Conversion Therapy).

Admittedly, I don’t have a very firm foundation of theological knowledge. As a teacher, I would say there are “a lot of gaps in my education,” and while a lot of the books I read and people I follow are in the process of deconstructing and reconstructing their existing faith, I am kind of just getting started and learning as I go. Constructing, if you will. My immediate need is to lean in to the questions I have relating to my own beliefs, and at this particular juncture, my issue is with the way God was always presented to me as a “Father.”

A quick Google search will give you varying answers about how many times God is referenced as a father in the Bible. I suppose it probably depends on what version you’re reading. The one thing all the answers did agree on was that the number is pretty high. One source claims God is referred to as “father” over 100 times in the gospel of John alone. Growing up with my very Catholic grandmother, our prayers always ended with the sign of the cross: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And of course, every denomination shares the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with “Our Father.” I never felt much of a connection to any of it, and until recently, when I started really digging into my faith, I never really thought about why. Now I have a hypothesis.

I was raised with two examples of a father. The first was my biological father, who was, for the sake of simplicity, absent. I have exactly three memories of visiting him between the time he and my mother split up when I was 3 and the time he passed away 10 years ago. Once was at my grandparents’ house in Texas when I was maybe 5 or 6, once at my grandparents’ house in Oklahoma when I was 14, and the last time was at his house in Seattle when I was 16. From what I remember, he was always very nice to me, and he was wicked witty. At the end of every visit, I would go home with renewed hope of how our relationship was going to be from that point forward. It would start strong: I would write him letters, he would write me back, there would be a Christmas gift and maybe a birthday card, and eventually the communication would drop off again. He was not at my graduation, did not walk me down the aisle at my wedding, and never met any of my children.

One of the few photos of me and my father

The second version of father that I was raised with was my step-father. If I had to describe him in one word, it would be unpredictable. One minute he was the nicest person you’ve ever met, and the next he was raging about hairspray or makeup (both unacceptable in his house). He would quote pieces of Bible verses at me, making sure I knew my place in the hierarchy of our home and the world outside of it. He was a strong believer of “spare the rod and spoil the child…” It was one of his favorite phrases.

My step-father actually taught me a lot about God. In fact, God was one of his favorite topics of conversation. He made sure I knew that I would never be good enough for God, but I didn’t take it personally – it sounded to me like almost nobody would. He painted a picture of a deity that was harsh and angry, and would strike down anyone that crossed him. I had better love God and worship him out of fear and respect, or else. It was ironically pretty similar to his own parenting approach.

So here I am, faced with the concept of God as the “Father,” when personal experience has presented me with a father as someone who loves you in convenience, or someone who demands respect through fear and intimidation. Why would I actively seek a relationship with either of these? Neither version reconciles with the unconditional love and adoration I was later told that God also offers.

It hit me out of nowhere recently that this might be a reason (though likely not the only one) I’ve always felt a little disconnected from God. I can’t fathom a father who loves and cherishes and wants a relationship with me at all times. One who accepts me and sees me as worthy just as I am. In my experience, that sounds more like a grandmother to me than a father. And so my epiphany went a little deeper to incredulously ask (of no one in particular), who decided God is a man anyway? Who decided God has a gender at all? How on earth can you hold the divine within a human-made construct? What else? Does God have a race, too?

And so I’ve decided that if, in fact, I have to personify God in order to be in relationship with her, I’m going to have to change the image my mind conjures. God is a tiny but mighty little old lady. We drink coffee and eat cinnamon toast while we watch The Price is Right and talk about life. She listens with care and answers with wisdom. She is strong, but she is fair. She loves me simply because I am hers; I have nothing to earn or prove. Maybe someday I’ll be secure enough in my relationship with God to think of her as a “father,” but for now, for me, God is a grandma.

A Convoluted Musing about Prayer

It turns out that the first Thursday in May is recognized as National Day of Prayer*, and it got me thinking about my personal relationship with prayer. What feels like another lifetime ago, I wrote a blog post about my inconsistent faith journey in general (you can find that post here), so my complicated relationship with prayer should be no surprise.

I grew up around recited prayer: Our Fathers and Hail Marys; nice words with unknown meaning behind them. As I got older and started saying prayers that weren’t memorized, I tried to be very fancy about it – everyone I had ever heard pray out loud always sounded so articulate and well versed. Meanwhile, I would stumble around thanking God for vague blessings, asking those same blessings on others, and guiltily asking for… I’m not entirely sure what, because I always felt very selfish asking for anything at all.

In adulthood, I have questioned a lot of elements of my faith; prayer being front and center in those. Questions like, with all the billions of people in the world – many undoubtedly holier and more deserving than I, praying beautiful prayers, and dealing with far more important issues than I could even fathom – are my prayers even important to God? Am I being selfish for bothering God with my wants and needs? Or, even if my prayers are important enough for God, how will I know if He responds? Even if signs are real – I’m not very good at recognizing them. I’m more of a someone needs to explicitly tell me what to do type of person. People on social media request prayers, and I’m always happy to oblige, but I can’t help but wonder if my prayers are actually doing any good.

But that’s why it’s called faith, I suppose. Faith is believing in something even when you can’t observe it with your physical senses. I have to believe that God is there, and that He is listening, and that He does care; because if I don’t have that belief, then what is the point of anything at all? I also believe that not all of my prayers are going to be answered, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been heard. It may not be the right time. Or they may be answered in a way I didn’t expect. I hear the requests my kids make, but that doesn’t mean they always get what they ask for. Furthermore, I have decided that God doesn’t care how I pray. There doesn’t need to be recitation of something specific, or beautifully articulate and ceremonial prayers. My prayers have evolved to something more like a running conversation. I stutter. I stumble over my words. I explain things that God doesn’t need explained because… well, He’s God, but I need to process out loud. Sometimes I cuss and yell and cry. And sometimes I keep it all in my head like I’m communicating telepathically. After all, if God is omniscient, I shouldn’t have to say it out loud right?

So on this National Day of Prayer, I don’t really have anything beautiful to recite. I don’t have anything profound to pray for. If you want to pray a memorized recitation, I think that’s ok. But if you just want to ramble on in an incoherent string of words, I think that’s ok too.

*It’s also World Password Day, but I opted to not write about that after spending half an hour trying to figure out the master password to my password recovery app

Clearness committee or board of directors: whatever you call it, we all need one

I’m currently reading an advance copy of a book called “Make a Move: How to Stop Wavering and Make Decisions in a Disorienting World” by Stephanie O’Brien; a pastor, preacher, author, and activist in Minnesota. I signed up for this book launch for a myriad of reasons, the largest of which being that one of my biggest character flaws (besides being a grown woman and not knowing how to apply makeup) is that I completely suck at making decisions – from what to eat for dinner to what to do with my life – and the title of this book spoke directly to me. Basically, I get to read a book that, on the surface at least, seems to be written specifically for me before it hits the public; and I hopefully get some helpful advice on how to get past what Pastor Steph as she is known on the interwebs calls “decision paralysis,” and maybe my life moves forward a little bit. There is no scenario in which I lose here. And Pastor Steph? Well, lucky her – she gets her book put in front of the literal tens of people that might read what I write about it.

Full disclosure – I have not finished the book yet, so this is nowhere near anything that can be called a comprehensive summary or review. The purpose of this post is purely for me to process a concept that was introduced in Chapter 5 that Pastor Steph calls the “Clearness Committee Process.” The basic idea of a clearness committee is that as tempting as it is to make large decisions on our own, life altering decisions are best made in community. This isn’t meant to be a call-your-bestie-and-see-what-they-think kind of community decision making, this is an actual process with a specific group of people that you trust enough to charge with this task. In her book, Pastor Steph lays out the process for this group, and sadly, it does not involve sitting around tossing out ideas over a bottle of wine. It actually sounds like mentally and probably emotionally exhausting work. There are ground rules about keeping the focus on the person needing discernment, time limits, and reflection. And the real kicker? There’s no guarantee that at the end of the session, the person facing the decision will have actually made one. Rude. What the Clearness Committee Process does do though, is require the person to answer questions from outside perspectives causing them to think more deeply about the decision from other angles, and then provides reflection from the viewpoints of the other people involved in the process. So while it’s not a fast-track to decision making, it’s definitely a useful tool in preventing the person from spiraling through their own cycle of thoughts, and ensures that when a decision is made, it has been made with a level of information and wisdom that you could never have if you chose to try to make the decision on your own.

Let’s take a little side trip now, and I promise we’ll circle back around. In January, I joined an online group called the Red House Writer’s Collective, which is the brainchild of author and speaker and all-around charismatic person, Kathi Lipp. The goal of The Collective is to “combine check-ins, community, coaching, and a proven 12-month program to help writers build a sustainable career from their message.” For sake of brevity, I won’t go into the entire structure of the program, but the coaching component is typically live video sessions with an expert in whichever area The Collective is focused on that month: create (content), serve (your audience), or build (your business). In March, the focus area of The Collective was the “build” piece. This is the piece that I struggle with most, because how on earth am I supposed to build a business that doesn’t exist? While this aspect never got what I would consider easy, I did eventually come to terms with the idea that, while I don’t have a business to build, I am actively trying to build myself as a brand, and the two are not really all that different. Once I came to that realization, I found myself going back through recordings of the videos that had been presented during the month; now with a little more of an open mind. One of the videos that I revisited was presented by Kathi Lipp herself, and was on the topic of creating a board of directors. I hadn’t given it much attention when she was presenting it live (who needs a board of directors when you don’t have a business, right?), but with my new outlook, thought maybe I should give it another listen. Kathi explained the role of a writer/speaker/business owner’s board of directors as a group of people that provide structure and accountability for the goals that you set for yourself. This group should include someone who knows you well, someone who is familiar with the industry, someone who will be a cheerleader, someone who will help you to set, and adhere to, boundaries, and a spiritual warrior who will hold you up in prayer. The first time I heard Kathi talk about this concept, I only about half heard what she was saying because the negative self-talk going through my head was talking so much louder, but after some reflection, and chapter 5 of the “Make a Move” book, it hit me: this concept of a board of directors isn’t much different than the concept of a clearness committee!

It’s funny how much power words have, and how just changing the vocabulary of a concept can take some of the pressure off. The idea of a board of directors sounds like a no-brainer to anyone running a business of any size. I once worked for a non-profit agency with a staff of four people, and we had a board of directors. Conversely, the school district I most recently taught in employs roughly 2800 people, and naturally they fall under a board of directors as well. It’s a straightforward concept when you’re coming from a business standpoint. From a personal standpoint though, it was a little bit scary, and made me think it just wasn’t something I was ready for yet. Once I made the connection between a board of directors to a clearness committee however, it felt like something I was qualified for. Silly, right? Both are a specific group of people with intentional roles to support and guide you to make the best decision for a specific situation. I’m calling this small epiphany a win in my personal journey, and I am going to start intentionally thinking of people that would serve me well in this role – whether I call it a clearness committee or a board of directors.

Some vague clarity moving forward (if only for me)

Man, I love a good contradiction in terms. “Which is it?” you might be wondering, “Vague or clear?” And my honest, really not trying to frustrate anyone, answer is both.

We’ll start with the vague. This part is pretty simple. I still don’t know what my purpose is. I still don’t know what exactly I’m searching for. I don’t know if I’m looking for a job with an existing organization or if I’m leaning toward an entrepreneur kind of situation. I’m not sure if I’ll continue to develop my current manuscript (resembling a memoir) or if I’ll scrap it and take my publication efforts in a completely different direction. Oddly enough, for a person that thrives on certainty, I’ve found a pretty crazy level of peace in all this vague not knowing.

Here’s what I do know: the clarity piece of this puzzle. I have done a remarkable amount of self-reflection in the past couple of weeks, and have had some pretty big “aha”s. When I launched this blog, the intention was “to establish community with people that share my affection for humanity and my passion for social justice and to learn about different people, customs, cultures, etc. outside of my very small circle of experience.” That is a direct quote from my first post in February 2020. Somewhere along the way though, I got caught up in the idea of somehow building a business. I’m not sure how the blog ever fit into that idea, or if it did at all, but suddenly building a business became a big focus for me. The more I worked toward building this business, the more discouraged I became, and here’s why: I was trying to build on something that doesn’t exist. I don’t offer a product or a service. People aren’t calling me to offer my expertise on anything. There is no business to build. I got to the point where I was ready to scrap the whole nonexistent thing and just get a job, because at least working for someone else I would have some concrete direction and clear expectation.

And then one day it hit me – rather bluntly – during a fairly difficult conversation with my counselor (whom I typically love, but less so on this particular day). I don’t remember what exactly was said, or how it was stated, but the theme I logged off the session with was this: I am not building a business. There is no business – that was never the goal. I am however, building a brand. I am the brand that I am building. If I continue to build myself as a brand, staying true to the values that are important to me, any business I choose to build will come organically.

So there you have it: still pretty vague overall, but the little bit of clarity has been game changing. In the weeks since that session, I have been reading and reflecting, and really digging in to my values and the things I want for my life. Among those values, inclusion, acceptance, and community stand front and center, and it’s time I bring the focus back to that.

Under Construction

It’s been a little over a year since I started this little blog project of mine, and about 9 months since I submitted my resignation to the school district I taught in, with the intention of discovering more about myself, whom I feel called to serve, and in what capacity. Over the course of that time, I have found myself in a cycle of reading, reflecting, writing, and deleting. I have plugged myself into groups where I have found great community, and groups that have not been for me. I have made plans, scrapped plans, pivoted plans, and rethought plans, and while I would love to say nearly a year in to this journey I feel closer to knowing what my true calling is, that would be a lie. Some days I feel no closer to clarity than I did when I made the seemingly impulsive decision to leave the comfort of concrete expectations and a regular paycheck. If I really stop to think though, while I haven’t quite found my specific calling, I have gained a little bit of clarity on some of the steps I need to take to get there. The first of which is that while I am in the process of figuring out what my path is, I need to be intentional and consistent in my writing and posting. Since I am only one person, and an unemployed one at that, I am the web designer, editor, content creator, and whatever else comes with the territory; and not by trade or education. The bottom line is that I’m taking some time to learn to make this site more attractive and more useable for the reader while providing consistent, authentic content. Basically, this site is getting a facelift. I won’t be taking any of my past content down, because as I undoubtedly grow as a writer, I want to be able to look back and remind myself of the journey; but I don’t plan to post any new content here until the bandages come off and the site is ready.

My goal date for reveal is April 1, 2021.

Wrapping up February and an apology

I’ll start with the apology. One month ago, I made a commitment to share information on my Facebook page about a Black change maker each day in February in honor of Black History month. Like so many other things in my life, I started strong and made sure to highlight a new person or resource every day. As February went on, life started happening as it often tends to do, and I started making allowances while still fulfilling my commitment. An example of this was the few days following receiving the COVID vaccine, I felt weak, achy, and tired; so instead of posting something original, I shared posts from other accounts. I’m not apologizing for that – the information was still valuable. Then Texas was hit with a monumental snowstorm (relatively speaking for Texas), and our power grid was exposed as garbage. While I was fortunate enough to not lost power, thereby making keeping up with my commitment possible; I suffered mentally and emotionally (and I really can’t even explain why) and withdrew from any and all social interactions: especially online. When we got past what could have been a much larger catastrophe, but shouldn’t have been a catastrophe in the first place, I tried to get back on track; telling myself that I would feature as many people as days I had missed and go forward from there, only I didn’t. I did pick back up with sharing about historic and current Black change makers daily for a few more days, and was hopeful that I would honor my commitment, and have a total of 28 people honored by the end of the month. Only I didn’t. My last post was on February 23 when I reflected on the murder of Ahmaud Arbery on that day one year ago.

I think there are a few responses to this. There’s the “February was a rough month – you did the best you can” response, or the “don’t be so hard on yourself – no one really reads this blog anyway” response. But to be honest, it’s not any phantom reader that I am really apologizing to. In a sense, I am apologizing to myself. I made a commitment that the only person holding me accountable for is me, and I failed to honor that commitment. Again. Self care practices suggest that you treat yourself as you would treat another person, and that includes honoring commitments. I am known for being reliable to other people and following through with things I agree to do, but when it comes to following through with things that require internal accountability – forget it. And so, I am sorry, self, for not honoring this commitment to you (me?), and I will work harder to do better next time.

I am also apologizing to any member of the Black community that does read my blog because Black History Month matters. It’s important for poeple of all races to acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices that have been made by people of color not only throughout history, but currently as well. It’s vital that we look back through the our history through a lens of diverse of experiences, and not just the whitewashed version that we have generally been exposed to.

As a farewell to February, I am listing all the resources that I did post about throughout the month as well as links to learn more. Today is the first of March, but let’s not stop honoring Black voices. Life is a cumulative test and it’s not enough to forget the content because the unit is finished. Listen to diverse voices, invest in Black-owned businesses, read authors outside your realm of experience, watch movies that feature customs and cultures that aren’t yours, and most importantly, believe the experiences these diverse voices tell you about. Resist the urge to pushback, argue, gaslight, or defend. If the conversation makes you uncomfortable, embrace it – it’s a sign of growth.

*Resources I posted about throughout February (a microscopic sample of amazing Black change makers)*
Marah Lidey
LaTasha Morrison
Rachel Cargle
Austin Channing Brown
Vivien T. Thomas
Amanda Gorman
Kizzmekia Corbett
Thurgood Marshall
John Lewis
Simone Biles
Cicely Tyson
Black Lives Matter
Toni Morrison
Luvvie Ajayi Jones
James Baldwin
Malcom X
Ibram X. Kendi
Nannie Helen Burroughs
Bayard Rustin
Pauli Murray
Ella Baker
Claudette Colvin

Ahmaud Arbery

Processing… (alternately titled “A mini autobiography leading up to my current existential crisis”)

Gosh it’s easy to get knocked off track. Today is Friday, and here in Texas, it’s the first normal feeling day I have personally had all week thanks to the winter weather we had starting last weekend. That’s actually not true – the winter weather had very little to do with the absolute standstill we have all been at this week. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

I lost most of last week as well due to the lingering immune response that my body had to the second Covid vaccine that I received the weekend before. It was rough, but well worth the resistance to an infection that has knocked the entire world on our collective behinds. But I don’t really want to talk about that either.

What I want to drone on about today is calling. More specifically, my calling. What is it? How do I find it? What do I do about it when I do find it? Can I borrow yours until I do find mine? “Oh great,” you’re thinking, “one of those posts where she waxes all what-am-I-supposed-to-be-doing-with-my-life.” Well, you’re right, so either suck it up and buckle in, or move along.

So here’s the thing: growing up, I had this ambition to become a teacher. Everybody I talked to (literally tens of people) knew it. I spent weeks during the summer at an aunt’s house that was a teacher, and my favorite thing to do was go through her classroom decorations and decorate my pretend classroom where I taught my obedient class full of dolls and stuffed animals. It was all I ever wanted to do.

I graduated high school a year early with a 2-week-old son who had undergone a heart operation less than 24 hours after birth, and my priorities shifted pretty drastically (I found they would do this several more times). I spent the summer between high school graduation and starting college in a NICU learning how to care for a medically fragile infant, and made the decision to pursue nursing. I was basically getting on the job training minus the pay, how hard could it be? So when I started taking community college courses, I loaded up on prerequisites for the nursing program. What I quickly found was that I hated it. Anatomy and Physiology was the first class I ever dropped because I just couldn’t memorize all those bones (this was probably the first two weeks of the curriculum). The truth is that I could memorize all those bones – I just didn’t want to. Nursing is a noble profession, and I appreciate all the nurses out there, but it was not for me. So I cut my losses and graduated community college with a Certificate of Proficiency in Office Technology. I was basically certified to be a secretary (a profession that doesn’t actually need a certificate).

Fast forward a few years of employment as – you guessed it – a secretary, and I decided if I was going to advance my situation in life, I should probably get a real degree. I worked at a university at the time anyway; surely I could just take a few classes around my work schedule. So I did. I declared a Computer Science major, and off I went. The first couple of semesters were all about taking care of basics, but since I had tested out of both the required English classes as well as Psychology, I had some room in my schedule to take an early class in programming so when I began my degree work, I wouldn’t be so behind. I quickly learned that while I was definitely a technology savvy person, Computer Science was not going to be a field in which I was going to find any kind of fulfillment. C++ was every bit as boring to me as the bones of the face had been a few years prior. Introduction to Programming was the second class I ever dropped.

In the five years that followed, I tried out Journalism and Marketing as majors before finally declaring Public Relations as the one and started focusing on just getting the degree and getting out. It wasn’t just that I had screwed around and taken classes long enough that I needed to just be finished (though the community college that I had previously attended did send me an Associate’s Degree simply due to college hour accumulation), the coursework in the Public Relations program was actually interesting to me. A lot of it was centered around nonprofit work, which I found incredibly rewarding, and I felt like I had found my calling – to help people. Somehow.

Some time after I graduated with my degree in Public Relations (minor in English), I took a job with a nonprofit organization as their Youth Program Director. I was responsible for presenting existing programs to kids as well as developing new programs. I loved it. I loved connecting with the kids and reaching out to the community. It provided a lot of different experiences with different audiences, which was nice since I’m the type of person to burn out pretty easily when things get mundane. After about a year, the organization restructured a little and the scope of my position changed, and I left the organization with a lot of valuable insight into myself and a renewed desire to become a teacher.

And so I did. The following school year, I took a job as a special education classroom aide and started a program to work toward becoming certified to teach. Because I was already plugged into a school system, I was able to begin student teaching as soon as I finished the coursework (which also didn’t take long), and in just over 6 months, I received my elementary teaching certificate as well as an ESL and a Gifted and Talented supplemental certification.

Over the course of the 6 years that followed, I had what I always thought was my “dream job,” but I struggled to feel what I thought I was going to feel. I’m not really sure how to articulate the conflict between what I expected and what I actually experienced, but I can say that I never really felt successful as a teacher. I loved my students, and a lot of them seemed to genuinely love me back; connecting with them never really seemed to be the issue, but I never really felt like I was successful in actually delivering the content. My last year in the classroom, I was assigned to teach 4th grade Writing, and I was pumped. I love to write, and I was excited to pass that love on to reluctant writers and to encourage those that already loved it as well. The reality was that kids at that age have very little actual experience in writing anything organized because until that age, focus is put on other subjects, so teaching writing turned out to be less encouraging kids to become better writers and to love writing, and more teaching them the rules of grammar and writing, which we all hate. In the back of my head the whole time was a nagging feeling: You are not fulfilling your calling – this is not where you are meant to serve. So I resigned from my teaching job.

In the months since, I have taken on the mission of finding what it is I am meant to do, who it is I am meant to serve, and in what capacity? Unfortunately, the nagging feeling that lead me to leave teaching hasn’t really offered up any further guidance. The universe has done a good job showing me all the things I am not called to do, but has yet to open my eyes to what I am. When I embarked on this journey to find this calling, I had a list of criteria that I would like for it to include. I want to write (but what?). I want to speak (to whom? About what?). I want to empower and give hope (again – who? And how?). I have read books, listened to speakers, and talked to coaches about finding purpose, and the recurring theme is that your purpose is at the intersection of your skills and expertise, your talents (apparently those are somehow different from skills and expertise), your values, and your passions (again – apparently those two things are different). As easy as that formula sounds, I am no closer to knowing than I was 8 months ago.

So now what?

Where Black History Month and American Heart Month Intersect

With February being Black History Month, the majority of my focus has obviously been on highlighting the accomplishments of Black Americans (this has been going on over at my Facebook page). This will continue throughout the month of February, but February is an important month to me for another reason as well. February is known as American Heart Month, a month aimed at raising awareness to heart health, and as a mother of a child born with congenital heart defects, this is an issue that hits pretty close to home. So while I want to continue to focus on Black History Month, I also want to make sure I am bringing attention to National Heart Health Month as well. I was sure there had to be a number of history making Black cardiologists, which would allow me to highlight both worlds, and a quick Google search introduced me to my new hero: Dr. Vivien T. Thomas.

Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas (From The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions; photo subject to copyright restrictions)

Vivien Thomas was born in 1910 in Louisiana. He graduated high school with honors in 1929, and got a job as a laboratory assistant at Vanderbilt University under the surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock. Blalock tutored Thomas in anatomy and physiology, and began teaching him complex surgical techniques, which Thomas mastered quickly. Despite the complexity and scope of the work Thomas did for Blalock, because of his race, he was classified and paid as a janitor. Thomas did not let that deter him, and he continued to assist Blalock in groundbreaking research in treating Crush syndrome, which occurs as a result of toxic chemicals released when muscles are crushed.

Blalock and Thomas began studying vascular and cardiac surgery, and exploring the concept of opening the heart to operate on it. In 1941, Blalock was offered the Chief of Surgery position at Johns Hopkins University, and he brought Thomas on board with him. In 1943, Blalock was approached by Dr. Helen Taussig about finding a surgical solution for a congenital heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, often referred to as Blue Baby Syndrome. Over the course of the following two years, Thomas experimented on re-creating, and correcting a similar condition in dogs to prove that the congenital condition in a human could be corrected safely. In 1944, Blalock implanted the first successful Blalock-Taussig shunt, with Thomas standing on a step stool behind him, instructing him through the entire procedure. Being a Black man in the 1940s, Thomas was, of course, not only allowed to assist, but also never credited for his work.

Vivien Thomas went on to develop more cardiology surgical techniques and trained many young surgeons and lab technicians, despite not being qualified to perform surgery himself. He was paid so little for his services, that he often made money serving attendees at parties of the very man he worked alongside, Alfred Blalock. Eventually, Blalock went to bat for higher pay for Thomas with the powers that be at Johns Hopkins University, and Thomas became the University’s highest paid technician, as well as the highest paid African-American to hold any position on the University’s payroll. In his more than 15 years at Johns Hopkins as director of Surgical Research Laboratories, Thomas mentored many other young, Black lab technicians, as well as the University’s first Black cardiology resident, Dr. Levi Watkins, who implanted the first successful automatic defibrillator in 1975. In 1976, Tomas was awarded an honorary doctorate degree (though it was not a medical doctorate), and was appointed to the Johns Hopkins faculty as an instructor of surgery. He retired in 1979, and began writing his autobiography, which was published just days after he passed away in 1985 from pancreatic cancer.

Ok, so Vivien Thomas obviously contributed a lot to the world of cardiac surgery, and he did it in a time when institutional racism was the norm. He made life-saving discoveries, and huge advancements in the field, and he did it with absolutely no credit and very little pay. I don’t think anyone would argue his remarkable accomplishments or the quality of his character. Here’s why he grabbed my attention, specifically though: My oldest son was born with the congenital defect Tetralogy of Fallot 24 years ago. His first operation was at less than a day old, when he was fitted with a Blalock-Taussig shunt. Because of the efforts of Vivien Thomas, my son is alive today.

How do I celebrate Black History Month as a white girl?

Full transparency here – Black History Month is one of those things that I’ve always read about and admired quietly. If I’m being honest, there are a lot of things like that. I’ve never really been sure if it’s ok for me to celebrate Black History Month as a white girl. I think I’ve always been concerned that because it’s not my heritage, it’s disrespectful for me to take part in it – like I’m afraid to do it wrong. What I have decided in the last couple years as I have spent more and more time trying to educate myself on things outside of my comfort zone is that I would rather get it wrong and learn from my mistakes than remain in my own ignorance.

So here’s what I’m doing: I’m reading books and articles by Black authors, I’m following Black social media accounts, I’m seeking out how to better support Black owned businesses, and basically learning as much as I can about Black history, culture, and community. I’m sharing a resource every day on my social media accounts just in case someone actually follows me and might want to learn along with me.

Here’s what I’m not doing. I’m not asking Black people to educate me and answer questions I can find the answers to using my own resources. They are not my Google and it is not their job to rescue me from the whitewashed history I have experienced growing up. If I am called out for getting something wrong (as is likely), I will not take it as a personal attack, and instead use it as an opportunity to further learn.

I am also committing to continuing my education beyond February 28, because Black culture and all the things we have to learn from it can’t be fit into one month. I welcome input, constructive criticism, and productive conversation. If you’re white, I invite you to follow along and learn with me (my social media accounts are linked to this page). If you’re Black, I invite you to follow along in whatever way you feel led.