How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

I recently competed in the International Speech Contest in one of my Toastmasters clubs. I was fortunate enough to win not only the club contest, but also the Area and Division Level contests. Last weekend, I had the rare opportunity to compete against the best speakers from eight other divisions in District 40 Toastmasters, one of whom was my husband.  While I didn’t win that round, I can honestly say my speech improved with every presentation and based on the comments I received, it still touched a few hearts and brought a few laughs. Below is the blog version of my competition speech.

How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

I teach in an affluent middle school with over 1,000 kids and I live with a 5th and an 8th grader. And those children are forever telling me how tough their lives are. Like when I assign them homework or ask them to take a shower… #FirstWorldProblems They think I’m soooo lucky to be an adult. And they’re right. I am very fortunate. But we all know life is never without challenges. Like many of you, I have traveled a pretty rough road.

When I was a baby, my mom called me a spider monkey because I was a long, skinny preemie. I weighed just under four pounds and I spent the first of month of my life in the hospital.

By the time I was one or two, it was obvious that I wasn’t developing quite like other kids. I tripped over my own feet and couldn’t control the left side of my body. I was diagnosed with mild Cerebral Palsy. I was clumsy and awkward. I was the kid who wore special shoes. I was the kid who couldn’t run fast and never got picked for kick ball in gym class. I was the kid voted most likely to get stuck in the ball pit at Sea World. No, really, when I was four, I actually got stuck in the ball pit at Sea world. #TrueStory It took two dumbfounded teenage employees twenty minutes to drag me out!

In high school, one kindhearted young man used to walk by me in the halls and growl “ARGH, me peg-leg! And in Spanish class, they used to draw pictures of Super Chicken on the board with a speech bubble that read, “Me llamo Ana.” They made up a dance and everything. Because they said I walked like a chicken. Needless to say, those things didn’t exactly foster self-confidence. (Side note: Yes, I chose the name Ana so that I could be Anna Devane.) #GeneralHospital

When I was seven, my dad decided to divorce my mom. Since I’d listen to my parents fight for years, it was really a relief to be with just my mom. But that still meant I became the child of a single parent. We no longer had the money to buy the name brand clothes and toys. So, I was not only physically handicapped, I was fashion handicapped too. #TeenNightmare Later, while my college friends were bumming money from their parents to go shopping or out to lunch, I was working multiple jobs to pay for my books, insurance, clothes, and food, and helping my mother pay the rent.

When I do tell my kids stories from my childhood, they tend to stare back in wide-eyed horror. #SpoiledButDontKnowIt And I have to remind them that while I may have hit a few potholes, I also saw some beautiful sights and learned a few lessons on the road of life.

First, I learned to work hard. I learned to studied hard, I showed up and gave my best effort, even on my worst day. I made mistakes, but I learned from my mistakes. I got grit.

I also learned to surround myself with the right people. I wasn’t popular in school. I had about two friends. But those two friends were true friends who loved me for everything I was, and maybe everything I wasn’t. I was also fortunate to find people like my high school English teacher, Debi Mansour,  who gave me my first and only D on a paper. Like most of my students, I thought my life was over. I was so mad at her! It took me a while to realize that she did it because she loved me and knew I was capable of more. It’s thanks to others like her, my karate instructor, my dance teacher, my husband, and my closest coworkers, that I’m reminded to focus on what I can do, what I do well, rather than what I can’t. They believe in me but push me to be better every day.

Lastly, I learned to love and respect myself. I used to think I was a total weirdo because I played with Barbie dolls way longer than most kids and one summer I kept a journal with the happenings of three different soap operas. Seriously, who does that? I still love soaps. I go to conventions to meet the stars. Several times a year. So, I’m a little eccentric. But I realize now the “crazy” are what fuel my creativity and heighten my sense of drama. They’re the things that make me a better writer and a more interesting teacher. They’re the things that make me who I am, the things that make me happy. If others think it’s weird, well… As my grandma used to say, “If they don’t like it, they can look the other way.”

Life will never be without struggles. But be willing to accept the challenges. In the long run, the fight is what builds character. Find the people who challenge you and support you, and if you want to be happy with life, be happy with yourself.

As for me, I’m proud of who I am and what I have accomplished. I am a wife, a mother, a teacher, and a published author. I have learned and taught ballroom dance and earned a brown belt in Kenpo karate. Okay… it’s not a black belt. But I’ve come long way from that timid girl called Super Chicken. Folks, this chicken has crossed that proverbial road, bumpy as it was, and you all can, too. Join me on the other side!

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My Life in Poetry

I’m currently enrolled in a class called “Teaching World Language Through a Social Justice Lens”. One of our assignments was to write a poem that examined the perception (line 1) vs. the reality of who we are. Summing up all that you are in just a few short lines is not as simple as it may seem. I thought I would share the result of my introspection.

 

Cathryn

Kusner

Thompson

A fun-loving, confident woman

Creative and Strong, yet insecure

Wife of Eric, mother of two, friend of many.

She lives. She learns. She laughs.

She is frustrated, but hopeful.

Seeking honesty, respect, and support,

Vexed by fools, no sense of duty

Proud to work hard and still love harder.

She admires those who fight, but are not afraid to feel.

She is tough, but soft. She is real, but dreams.

She is everything and nothing.

She is I.

I am she.

The Big Day – July 21, 2001

In honor of our anniversary, here’s a little wedding day story.

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Today is the big day, he thought. It’s finally here. It’s a beautiful July day. The sun is shining. The air is warm. The birds are singing. Flowers are in bloom. It’s the perfect day for a wedding. I’ve had a hair cut, I’m rested, and I’m ready to go. Everything is taken care of. My wife-to-be has thought of everything. All I have to do is take one tiny box of things to the hall and we are ready to roll. 

Tuxedo in hand, Eric headed out the door for the hall.  He jumped in the car, put the key in the ignition and discovered… it wouldn’t start!

“Okay, don’t panic,” he told himself. “Your brothers are in the wedding. They have to be there the same time as you. Hopefully, they haven’t left yet.” He quickly dialed his cell phone. Brian answered and said that he would be there to pick him up in about 5 minutes. Thank goodnessCrisis averted. Eric sat there silent for a moment, breathing a sigh of relief. A few minutes later, his brother’s car pulled in.  He grabbed his tux, hopped out of the car, and headed for Brian’s car. He got in, and they were on their way.

The hall was about a half hour from the house in a small town called Grand Rapids. Some thought it odd to have the wedding outside of their home town, but Eric and Cathryn had chosen Nazareth Hall because of its elegant ballroom and beautiful grotto which was just down the hill.  They had known from the beginning that they wanted an outdoor wedding, and once they saw the location, they just knew that no place else could possibly compare. Eric was deep in thought about all the plans they had made and the vows that they would take that afternoon, but quickly brought back to reality with a crash of thunder as they pulled into the hall parking lot.

Eric sighed heavily.  Oh great, now they would have to hold the ceremony inside. So much for the beautiful outdoor setting, he thought.  As the walked down the hallway toward the men’s dressing room he could hear all the women bustling about and moaning about the rain.  He knew Cat would be disappointed, but at least he couldn’t hear her sobbing.  That was a good sign, wasn’t it?  He wished there was something he could do, but there wasn’t.  All he could do now was put on the tuxedo, try not to get wrinkled, and wait.

He got dressed and looked at the clock. He still had forty-five minutes until the ceremony.  Then, there was a knock at the door.

“Where is the guest book,” his mother asked?”

“I don’t know.”

“How about the engraved cake server and the party favors?”

“I don’t know,” he said again.  “Go ask Cat.”

“I did.  She said that they were in the box that she gave to you.”

“Oh, crap!” he said. Though, his internal language was no doubt more severe.  He couldn’t control the weather, but the one thing that he could control, he’d already screwed up.  He had one responsibility that morning—to bring one small box. With all the car-related excitement, he’d managed to leave it behind. Okay, Eric. Think. How can you fix this? You better think of something or you’ll be in the dog house before the honeymoon even begins.

There were only about forty minutes left before the ceremony was scheduled to begin. The box was sitting in the trunk of his car in his parents’ driveway, a half an hour away. He’d never make it there and back. He had to find someone that he knew well enough to impose upon, but wasn’t that close to, as that  person would most definitely have to sacrifice seeing the ceremony. The possible options were slim, but he decided to ask his best man’s girlfriend, Emily. She was sensible enough to get the job done, a good enough friend, but not that good. As long as she made it back for the reception it would be fine. He quickly searched her out and she agreed. Of course, he had to draw a map for her, since she had only recently moved to Ohio from Baltimore, but he was reasonably confident that she could handle it. He sent her on her way and returned to his dressing room to pray. He usually considered himself an agnostic, but this seemed like a good time to ask for a little help from above.

By the time the hour rolled around, the rain had let up enough to chance holding the ceremony in the grotto. It was risky, but far more aesthetically pleasing than the alternative. They took the chance and it paid off.  The ceremony went off without a hitch and without a drop of rain. The gods—if you believe in them—were even smiling on Eric that day. Or maybe they were shining on his more religious bride. Either way, as the wedding ended and Eric and Cathryn joined hands to walk up the aisle as husband and wife, the sun came peeking through the clouds. They quite literally walked off into the sunset. They walked up the hill into the lovely ballroom. Eric, still sweating just a little, held his breath as they walked into the hall. His eyes darted around the room. He watched Cat smile when she saw all the decorated tables—tables with party favors. He saw friends and family lining up to sign the guest book, and glanced over at the cake table just long enough to notice the shiny silver engraved serving set.  Thank God, he thought. Or at least, thank Emily!

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The Best Vacation Ever!

I have friends who complain about having to make all the arrangements for their family vacations. They book all the flights, all the hotels, and all the tours. All their husbands need do is show up. For many of them, this is a bone of contention in their marriages. I don’t have that problem. My husband is the best vacation planner ever. He does all the work. My biggest concern is how to fit a week’s worth of clothing in a small carry-on suitcase and how to keep up with him as he speed-walks through seven days of jammed-packed, magical madness. Our recent trip to Walt Disney World was no exception to the rule.

img_0561We explored the wizarding world of Harry Potter and spent time with the Simpsons at Universal. We laughed, danced, and got splattered with goo in the front row at the Blue Man Group. After a full day at the Magic Kingdom, we witnessed the 360 fireworks display from Frontier Land and saw Cinderella’s Castle decked out in all its patriotic glory. At Animal Kingdom, Expedition Everest took us to the top of a mountain and Kilimanjaro Safari took us on a trip through the img_0722heart of Africa. We ate, shopped, and polka danced our way around the world at Epcot. Hollywood Studios sent us to the Twilight Zone in the Tower of Terror and through the history of film on The Great Movie Ride. We had lunch in the Beast’s castle, sampled Mexican and German cuisine, enjoyed the music and Shepherd’s Pie at an Irish pub, and were wined and dined at Iron Chef Morimoto’s Asia. And those are just a few of the highlights.

I do buy in to the idea that Disney is the “happiest place on Earth”. It must have magical powers of some kind, because the children didn’t fight. Or at least they fought less than usual and my husband managed his usual lead and averaged thirteen thousand steps a day while still nursing a sprained ankle. As for me…  My ankles swelled and developed what is affectionately called “Disney Rash” from the heat radiating off the pavement. Between the sweat, water rides, and sporadic downpours it felt rather like a week-long wet T-shirt contest and there was nothing sexy about it. And I’m still not certain I won’t end up having a time-delayed stroke from all the colored, flashing lights of the Mickey Mouse bubble blowers I was exposed too on a nightly basis. But, it’s all part of the experience. Good and bad, it’s all woven into the tapestry of memories that will last a lifetime. I’m blessed to have had the time with my loved ones on what the kids are still calling “the best vacation ever”.

How will we—or should I say he—ever top this one? I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m going to spend next week getting reacquainted with my couch. I’m going to watch soap operas and start on the pile of books I have left to read. Thank God my kids will be at sports camp for five days, because I need a vacation from the vacation!

Reasons to Write

by Kate Messner
by Kate Messner

If you are a teacher of writing, a teacher who wants to write, or maybe even a writer who wants to be taught, I’ve got a book for you. I attended an educational conference recently and one of the sessions I sat in on was “Teachers as Writers”. It was a session designed to help teachers discover their inner writers, to share their writing with students and to help them help their students to blossom as writers.

During the workshop, the presenter used two different activities from 59 Reasons to Write by Kate Messner. Each of the 59 prompts offers a new approach to a fun writing exercise.

Here are my creations from our brief session. They are not earth-shattering pieces, but they were thought-provoking exercises and they are proof that you don’t have to write a novel to be a writer. Anyone can write with a little push and a little inspiration.

Six Words on Me
Teacher, writer, speaker, wife, mother, friend.
I am a crazy Spanish teacher.
I am a novelist by night.
I’m mom to two great kids.
I love my sometimes silly husband.
I speak well and speak often.
My friends make my world fun.
Plainly pretty, slightly plump, wildly entertaining.
General Hospital fanatic, Team Scorpio forever!
I laugh often and laugh loudly.

A Poem of Home
Home is where your memories lead you.
Way back…
To a much simpler time and a better place.
With some homemade cookies and a warm embrace.
Warm summer breezes and grandma’s face.

Are You Wiser Than a 1st Grader?

Have you ever dreamed of doing something, but let someone talk you out of it? Have you ever had a dream that went unfulfilled because it seemed silly or because life’s responsibilities got in the way? If so, you may not be wiser than a first grader. We adults believe ourselves to be experienced and wise, when in fact, there are some very important lessons we can, and should, take from our kids.

Dream. Children dare to dream. They believe they can do or be anything. Astronaut, president or Michelin star chef. My daughter is a classic example. She thinks she’s going to grow up to build the first combination homeless shelter/animal shelter/food pantry. The practical adult in me asks where the money is in that, but in her mind, that doesn’t matter. She might just earn the money as a dancer or singer since she’s clearly better than Taylor Swift. She believes she can change the world. Her life is full of possibilities. She is limitless. She can do it all. Even make her own “ chocolate” cookies with flour, butter, and Hershey’s syrup. She doesn’t care if it doesn’t work. She doesn’t give up. She tries again, because she still believes she’ll find a way to do it. She doesn’t care about “rules”. Eventually she will find the “right” way, or invent her own new way.

Desire. Kids find their passion and run with it, no matter what others think. My son has loved learning about animals since he was old enough to talk. He was so interested in them that it almost became an obsession. He refused to read a fiction book until he was forced in the second grade. He is that funny kids who stops at the zoo exhibit and instructs other on-lookers about the genetic make up of the Okapi. He loves Pokemon and Skylanders. Never mind the fact that when he tries to explain these games to me I can only stare in confusion. He likes hot tea and the color pink, even though that isn’t “normal” for boys his age. He doesn’t care if others think he’s silly. He just knows what he likes. That’s the beauty of a kid’s mind. It doesn’t matter what others think of them. At least until they’re in Middle School!

Determination. Children find a way to do what they want. They let know obstacle stand in the way. Until they are old enough to “know better.” One day we made a tub of cookies. Audrey wanted those cookies so badly she could hardly stand it, but they were supposed to be for a bake sale, so we hid them on top of the fridge where we thought she’d never find them. We should have known then that our strong-willed girl wouldn’t rest until she got what she wanted. Later that day, while we were watching television and she was supposed to be sleeping, she snuck into the kitchen. She climbed on a chair, pulled down the tub, and stole away to her room. She crawled into her closet and shut the door, and there she stayed until she had eaten every last one of those cookies.

Stolen cookies might be a silly example. And to be clear, I’m not really encouraging you to lie, cheat, or steal to get what you want. But when was the last time you wanted something so badly or worked so hard until you got it? Somewhere along the way, we grow up. We become “wiser”, but along with that wisdom comes a loss of innocence and the idea that we “can’t” do things. These limitations seem real, but they are often self-imposed.

Today, instead of asking you to think like mature adults, I’d like to encourage you to be more childlike. Find your passion. Believe that you can do anything. Or at least try it. And when life tells you that you can’t have any cookies, find a way around it. I never thought I would be a published author. But with a dream, desire, and determination, anything is possible. Take up painting. Take a cooking class. Do something you’ve always wanted to do, if not as a profession, than for pleasure and fulfillment. If you’re waiting for the right time to begin a new project, if you’re waiting for some kind of sign, I’ll give you one!

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Fieldtrips Are Not for the Faint of Heart

Every year as I pack for the 8th grade Washington D.C. field trip, my husband eyes my suitcase with contempt as if I am abandoning him and embarking on a week-long vacation while he’s stuck at home with two squalling children. She gets a week away, a stipend, free food, and sight-seeing, he thinks. But I know that this trip is far from a fun-filled week away from the family. Yes, it can be fun, but it is also a lot of hard work. That Monday morning as I board the bus, I morph from Spanish teacher into bus leader and subsequently become nurse, counselor, and mother to fifty-six. That’s right folks… these fieldtrips are not for the faint of heart—especially when you are on the principal’s bus with the kids who need to be kept in line—the rowdy boys, the girls who buck the dress code, and yes, sometimes the kid who started the fire in the school bathroom several weeks earlier.

Every year is eventful to say the least, but one trip always sticks out in my mind as the trip to end all trips. I began that week armed with aloe for sunburns, bandages for turned ankles, duct tape for broken flip flops, and a pair of small scissors for gum-in-hair removal—the usual. But after a few hours it became clear that things were going to get even more interesting. The girls behind me on the bus began to perk about the text messages that were whizzing around about the drama between Eddie and Clara. At the first rest stop, Eddie from our bus had asked Clara from bus 2 to the Thursday night dance. Under pressure, Clara had said yes, but now regretted her decision, as she was actually hoping to go to the dance with Matt from bus 4. Clara wanted to back out, but at the second rest stop Eddie bought her jewelry, so the situation got awkward. Clara talked to him a few times, trying to let him down easy, but Eddie, being a different kind of kid, wasn’t very good at picking up social cues… like the pained look on Clara’s face when he did the old yawn and stretch at the Nationals game with Matt sitting just on the other side. We chaperones were worried about Eddie getting his feelings hurt. And since the three of them, Eddie, Clara, and Matt were all in my Spanish class together, the principal appointed me to help them sort things out.

As if that weren’t enough drama, later that week I was forced to invade a protest circle in front of the White House in order to extract one of our fourteen year old girls. Natalie, a bright but naïve girl of Middle Eastern decent, had walked up to the group of college students who were chanting in Farsi because she recognized the language her parents spoke and wanted to practice. She saw nothing wrong with it and neither did anyone else. At first. That is until I heard one of the college guys asked her where she was from and say, “Oh, well, now I have a reason to visit Ohio.” As red flags flew up, I charged in and escorted her away. She was confused by my concern, until I explained that the young man, obviously deceived by her beauty and maturity, was hitting on her. “Oh,” she said with a laugh. “Maybe I should have gotten his number. My parents could have traded me to him for a goat!” She wandered off toward the bus with the rest of the kids as I breathed a sigh of relief, but my relief was short lived.

By the time we reached the Department of Treasury less than a block away, a new situation had arisen. The same girl was being approached by afore mentioned fire-starter, Ned. Ned, another socially challenged young man, had been ogling her all week and talking to her any chance he got. Being the kind-hearted girl she was, she laughed and joked with him each time, not realizing how easy it would be for him to misinterpret her “Kindness”, which of course, he did. As he crossed the street toward her in the darkness that night, I knew what was going to happen. I saw it coming like a train wreck and I was powerless to stop it. Sure enough, shy, quiet Ned managed to summon up the courage to ask Natalie to the all-important dance. As I heard the words come out of his mouth I cringed, fearful of what the rejection might do to his fragile psyche. Thankfully, Natalie, though clearly out of Ned’s league, handled things with more grace than most teenagers–or adults for that matter–and explained that she thought he was a very nice boy she already had a boyfriend at another school and just wouldn’t feel right about it. She later asked the principal and me why we thought he had asked her and the principal once again called on Relationship Counselor Cat to explain how being too nice to a boy can easily be misconstrued as flirting.

Some years aren’t quite as exciting. Some years, the big deal is being called to boys’ hotel in the middle of the night to deal with a Swedish-Fish-related eye injury. But every year I return home thoroughly spent. I collapse on the couch, thankful to be off duty for the first time in five days. And every year hubby asks me the same question. Why do you do it? I understand why he asks. I ask myself the same thing at the beginning of every trip. But by the time the week is over, I know without a doubt that I will do it all again in a heartbeat. I’ll do it because it’s an adventure. Because even though I’ve seen the White House nine times, every trip will be different. I’ll do it because I love the history of our country and I love seeing it rediscovered every year. And I’ll do it because I love those kids, and I love watching them as they make memories that will last a lifetime. It is not an easy job. It is at times at times exasperating and exhausting. But it is, above all, rewarding. So much so, that I’d do it for free. But I’ll take the $700… as long as their offering.

Sin City Is Not Just for Sinners

I have a friend who insists she’ll never go to Vegas. When asked why, the only reason she can come up with is that it’s all about gambling and sinning. Now, I know there is some truth to that. You’re faced with slot machines the second you step of the airplane. You can walk around with open containers 24/7 and… Shhh! Prostitution is legal. But my husband took me on my first trip to Las Vegas last week, and I can honestly say that those things were some of the farthest from my mind. Based on my experience, Sin City is Summer 2015 227not just for sinners. There is truly something for everybody.

If your idea of “the arts” is iconic Vegas burlesque with female body parts and feathers, Jubilee or Fantasy might tickle your fancy. But for those who are true theater-lovers, you can catch any kind of show from Broadway’s Jersey Boys to Cirque de Soleil Beatles Love as we did. You can see old-fashioned song and dance acts like Donnie and Marie. You can enjoy the comedy stylings of folks like Kathy Griffin and Carrot Top, though, I should point out that this is not a personal endorsement. I still have no idea why Carrot Top is famous. You can catch a magic show with David Copperfield or, for the best of both worlds, a magic and comedy show with Penn and Teller, which I would highly recommend.Summer 2015 243

If it’s action you’re after, the options are endless. We drove a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, and an Audi R8 in Lake Mead National Recreation Center, reaching speeds I’m not allowed to mention. We flew in a sixteen passenger plane to the Grand Canyon, rode a roller coaster at New York, New York, and rose 550 feet up on the High Roller, the highest observation wheel in the world. If you’re even more daring, you can sky-dive, zip-line, or bungee-jump. And if you prefer the historical take, visit the Mob Museum and then follow up by learning to shoot machine guns. Summer 2015 205

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, take your pick of restaurants from any corner of the world. Dine on meatloaf and burgers at the American Grille at the Rio, Brioche from Le Café in Paris, or Sushi from Japonais at the Mirage. We did all of the above, but my personal favorite was the five course Hell’s Kitchen Tasting Menu at Gordon Ramsay’s STEAK. Between the Scallop Risotto, Beef Wellington, and Sticky Toffee Pudding with warm toffee sauce and brown butter ice cream I don’t know which would be my favorite. Summer 2015 306

I will confess we did gamble while we were there—for approximately ten whole minutes. But to be honest, we’d have been done after five if we hadn’t been waiting for our free drinks. That’s how they get you! On our trip home the phrase “next time” came up several times. We discussed which restaurants we would re-visit, which hotel we might stay in, and the fact that we still need to take a gondola ride at the Venetian. Oddly enough, which slots we would hit never came up. Because believe it or not Las Vegas is not all about poker, slots, and booze. Sure, it’s there if you want it, but if you have any kind of self-control, you can avoid it and you’ll never miss it. If you’ve never been to Vegas don’t let wild tales of good people gone astray keep you from booking a trip. Trust me, from the Venetian to Caesar’s to Paris, a stroll down the strip is like a trip around the world and whether you want to jump out of a plane or swim with dolphins the opportunity is there. In Vegas, anything is possible. Summer 2015 169Summer 2015 197

Toastmasters: Where Authors Are Made

Toastmasters: Where Authors Are Made. Go ahead, fellow Toastmasters. Consult your manuals. Check the Toastmasters International site. No, you are not crazy. The real slogan still reads Toastmasters: Where Leaders Are Made. But I think most Toastmasters would agree that the organization helps us to grow in a great number of ways. We become better speakers, true leaders, and in many cases, real writers. If you google the topic, you will find an assortment of articles and podcasts about it and testimonials from individual members who have become published authors. It stands to reason that Toastmasters would be beneficial to those of us looking to publicize and promote our books. But I’d like to share with you a few of the ways Toastmasters helped me with the writing process itself and allowed me to take Once in Love with Lily from a fun, little National Novel Writing Month project to a published novel.

First, crafting speeches gave me an edge when it came to structuring my story. In the beginning, I struggled with the story arc. While the action was intriguing, it lacked the proper flow. Then one day, my editor, fellow Toastmaster Eileen James, said to me, “Think about how you put together a good speech. You begin by thinking about the end. Where do you want to go with this speech or story? What is the intended ending? Now, how do you get there? Remember to tie the ending back to the beginning to satisfy the audience’s need for cohesiveness.” A novel is a bigger project than a speech, but it still has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Once I started thinking of it that way, I was able to put together a story that was grounded, but showed growth, as the characters learned real lessons.

Second, through my experiences as an evaluator, grammarian, or ah-counter, I learned to become a good listener. This can be very helpful when coming up with ideas for stories. (Consider that fair warning that anything you say can and may be used against you in a future novel!) In addition, it helps to create realistic, natural-sounding dialog. I’ve become accustomed identifying patterns of speech, accents, verbal ticks, colorful quotes or phrases. I’m not that creative after all. I could never have come up with something like “He’s all hat and no cattle.” But bits like that are the things that make characters real and, I hope, make the dialog come alive on the page.

Third, as early as project four in the Competent Communicator Manual “How to say it” we are taught to look at word choice, to choose words that paint a vivid picture and convey the most accurate visual or explanation possible. If I hadn’t known “how to say it”, I might have kept descriptions simple with something like: “As she walked down the streets of New York, she couldn’t help but notice how crowded and noisy it was.” But thanks to my Toastmasters training, I came up with this:

She headed down 8th Avenue through the throngs of people already crowding the streets. “Ah, New York,” she thought. “The honking taxis, the charming street vendors with their poached sunglasses and purses, and the faint smell of homeless that lurks just off the main drag really give it a certain je ne sais quoi.” She crossed the street against the light along with the natives, leaving a gaggle of tourists in the dust. (Excerpt from Once in Love with Lily by Cathryn K. Thompson)

Which example did the better job of transporting you to the streets of NYC? Of course, the second example would be pretty wordy for a typical 5-7 minute manual speech, but in a novel there is room to elaborate.

I can’t say that Toastmasters has taught me much about romance. There is a code of ethics to contend with, after all. But it certainly has helped me to hone my writing skills, to tell a story with a goal or lesson, to depict true-to-life characters and conversations, and to choose the best way to say it when it comes to setting the scene or conveying emotions. I never knew I had an author in me. Maybe you do too. You never know when or where inspiration will strike. When it does, Fellow Toastmasters,  take advantage of your already vast experience. Write it down. Develop it. Tell your own story. Even if you have to publish it under an assumed name! Show the world what Toastmasters has done for you.  If you’re not a Toastmaster, visit a club near you and experience it for yourself. Toastmasters: Where Leaders… and Authors… Are Made.

Think First and Blow On It

Kids… I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!

This phrase has been uttered by parents and grandparents for generations. As a middle school teacher, I confess, I find myself wondering the same thing. Several times a day! There are lots of theories out there as to what the problem might be. They don’t get enough exercise. They play too many video games. They’re too dependent on electronics. I admit there is some validity to these claims. I subbed for a six grade math class last year and got so frustrated that I literally wrestled a kid’s calculator out of her hand when she tried to use it to multiply 2×2. And just last week I overheard a student in the hallway with his mother. She was helping him to dial the combination on his locker. When it opened, he turned to her amazed and said, “Oh, I had the combination wrong! I thought I just lacked the upper arm strength to open it!” So, that kid obviously could have benefitted from a little physical activity or strength some kind of strength training. But, I maintain that the biggest problem with today’s youth is the complete lack of accountability and common sense. Folks, I hate to break it to you, but it may have started with us.

As a society, we no longer appear to value these assets. We have made it too simple to do something stupid and either blame someone else, or claim that we didn’t know any better. Law makers vindicate people who spill scalding hot coffee themselves and then sue and virtually everything has a disclaimer— everything except my crazy Aunt Earlene. Have you noticed this? The directions to my new vacuum cleaner read: 1. “Do not pick up anything smoking or burning” and 2. “Do not immerse in water.” Why is this necessary? I tell you why. Because someone somewhere once turned to his/her spouse one day and said, “Honey, the pool filter’s out again. Why don’t you take that new Dyson out there and see if you can clean that thing out!”

Have you ever wondered why the little packet of silicon in your new shoe box reads “Do not eat?” Some brilliant individual thought their sketchers were supposed to come with a snack and now we must warn the others!

My sister sent me a picture from the Laundromat where the washers bore this sign: “High Speed Spins – Do not put a person in this washer.” It’s a good thing that label was posted. I’m a multi-tasker. I was totally going to save time by washing my kids and my laundry at the same time.

How about the warning on the flushable toilet brush cautions, “do not use for personal hygiene”? Apparently Swiffer brand wet wipes should also include this warning, because my principal’s kids did exactly that when he accidentally left the box on the back of the toilet last year. They did develop a bit of “irritation”, but being a rational man, instead of suing the company, he recommended that his children pay closer attention the “home care” label next time.

My personal favorite was a warning for a fuel Tank Cap: “Never use a lit match or open flame to check fuel level.” Now, I have never considered doing that. But then, I have one of those fancy new automobiles with the little needle thingy on the dash board to indicate the fuel level. Should we really have to tell people this stuff? For that matter, should A&W really need to advertise: Contents under pressure. Cap may blow off causing eye or other serious injury. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I can see that happening as a result of a “double dog dare” in the middle school lunch room. “Dude, I bet you can’t shake that until the lid blows off!” Still, I ask you, is it really the root beer’s fault that middle school kids are crazy? Shouldn’t we expect our kids to know better than that? I don’t think one has to be a scientist to know that gasoline is flammable and soda explodes when you shake it? My six year old knows better. I dropped a bottle of Sprite on the way in from the grocery store the other day and she said to me, hand on her hip, “Mom, I seriously would not open that if I were you!”

Some of these are extreme cases, but my point is, if we want to find out what’s the matter with kids, we have to start by looking at ourselves. Why should we expect America’s youth to be problem solvers or to use common sense when we don’t expect most adults to either? People, it’s time to raise the bar. If you have a youngster in your life, talk to them. Monitor them so they don’t turn play time into an episode of Myth Busters gone wrong. But more importantly, help them learn about safety and making smart choices. Teach them to be responsible for their own mistakes and learn from them. If you take your toddler to Mc Donald’s and he burns his little tongue on his Happy Meal. Don’t just whip out your phone and google a lawyer. Teach him to think first and blow on it!