When I first decided to focus on elementary education, I’d always imagined myself teaching older grades. I was sure that I could Robin Williams a room of pre-teens with a dramatic reading of O Captain, my Captain. Or, that I could Michelle Pfeiffer a group of kids who just needed someone to believe in them. And I was pretty confident that I could even Whoopi Goldberg kids into singing gospel songs in a choir for the pope while wearing a nun’s habit—which is a very specific set of skills. Still, I told myself I could pull it off.
So when I was assigned to a kindergarten classroom as a part of one of my undergrad classes, I questioned if the assignment would be helpful in my path to becoming an educator. After all, I had no intention of lingering in the primary grades, leaning more towards a career as a middle school language arts teacher. And nothing intimidated me more than the idea of being wholly responsible for a child’s foundations as a reader. But, just like good ole Sam I Am taught his buddy with those green eggs and ham, I soon found that the one thing I’d been running away from was also the one thing that would bring me the greatest joy.
Kindergarteners might not love recitations of Walt Whitman, but they did like my dramatic readings of storybooks and begged me for “just one more” book every day at circle time. And it turned out that my love for these young learners was just as vital without the nice hair, long legs, and a scrappy personality of a Hollywood actress. And, when we had music time, and I introduced a new song about elephants with funny names and crazy hand movements, they sang their hearts out and made every single move like they were a mom in the eighties doing her Jazzercise. Though, they did think it was weird when I put on the nun’s habit (I couldn’t give up that part of my dream).
It is because of my accidental stumble into the world of kindergarten that I soon had my own classroom and found my passion as an early-childhood educator. And it’s because of my time with these kids that I learned one of the most long-lasting and important lessons of my whole life.
It all started with our first big unit of the year on bears. According to the set curriculum, we had teddy bear picnics and learned facts about bears. We also learned songs about bears—the kids’ favorite was from the picture book: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
It went something like this:
We’re goin’ on a bear hunt
(We’re goin’ on a bear hunt)
We’re going to catch a big one,
(We’re going to catch a big one,)
I’m not scared
(I’m not scared)
Look! There’s a river
Look, there’s a river!
You can’t go over it.
You can’t go under it.
You’ve got to go through it!
Splash splosh! Splash splosh! Splash splosh!
Etc etc etc…
The kids would slap their thighs along with each part of the adventure aand we’d act out conquring every obstical in our way. By the end of that unit every year, my thighs were sore from all our imaginary hunts. And even after I eventually stepped away from the public school system and moved on to my life as a stay at home mom, this song stuck in my mind. I missed teaching, but I also enjoyed the blur of motherhood and the opportunity I had to see little lifeless blobs develop into fully formed, smart, interesting humans.
But, just one year after I stepped down from my job as a kindergarten teacher, things changed dramatically in my world. A few months after giving birth to my second child, I had surgery to remove what was supposed to be a benign growth in my leg. When I went to what was supposed to be a casual follow up–I was told I had something called synovial sarcoma. The doctor didn’t say the “c” word, but when I went home after my appointment, I looked it up on the internet, and the world wide web said what my doctor hadn’t had the heart to put into words.
I had cancer.
Every story I read ended the same….” So and so fought valiantly but lost his/her life to Synovial sarcoma after X years…” Every single one.
My three-month-old woke from his nap after my binge of information, and I went upstairs to nurse him. As I held him in my arms, I cried, and I prayed and pleaded that this wasn’t real, that I wouldn’t have to go through this trial, that I could see my kids grow up and that they’d remember who I was and how much I loved them, not because someone told them about those memories but because they experienced them.
But here is the thing—it was real. It was hard. It was scary. It was painful, both physically and emotionally. But that’s when I remembered the words of that silly song…
You can’t go over it.
You can’t go around it.
You’ve gotta go through it.
You’ve got to go through it.
As I went through treatments and periodic scans and one or two scary moments when I thought the cancer was back—I soon found that this phrase was not just accurate, but it taught me an essential lesson on endurance. There are some hard things in life we can’t go around, no matter how much we want to spare ourselves the pain and exhaustion of pushing through. Cancer is one of those, for sure.
But just like the explorer in Bear Hunt, surviving the stormy sea of synovial sarcoma didn’t mean I’d never face another impediment on my path. Like all of us in life–once I got out of the lake, there always seemed to be another obstacle, like a rainstorm or dark forest, challenges that seemed like impossible fields of quicksand that I’d never, ever be able to make it through.
And each time I came toe to toe with another such personal challenge, that’s when I’d remember those words again:
You can’t go over it.
You can’t go around it.
You’ve got to go through it.
And I did.
At other times, these obstacles were creative challenges. Like, the winding road of writing my first novel Wreckage one-handed while I nursed my youngest as my three very active boys ran around. It took almost four years of off and on sprints down that road to get Wreckage ready to query. Thankfully, I’ve learned my kindergarten lesson well and found my way through to the other side…eventually.
But, after years (and years and years…lets get too specific) of practicing the skills of determination and endurance, it turns out that song had one more lesson to teach me.
In the song, when you go on the bear hunt and bravely tackle all obstacles in your path, and finally reach your destination: the bear’s cave. You go inside and there…you find the bear. The one thing that you’ve worked so hard to get to (and frankly if I found out someone really took a five-year-old into a bear cave with nothing more than binoculars, I’d call DCFS, just a heads up)
But at the end of the hunt, you don’t slay the bear…do you know what comes next?
You come to your senses, scream your head off, and you RUN back home. You rush through the woods and the quicksand and the desert and the winding path and the lake, and then you get home, and you slam the door. Safe and sound.
I used to find it unsatisfying that after ALL THAT WORK that nothing happened with the bear. You just ran the frick away. Dang it! At least take a selfie with the bear for your Instagram. Get some photographic evidence, you know?
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized why that bear is essential to the story and why that trip home is even more critical.
The bear is a motivator. It pulled our little hunters out of their house to go on an adventure. It kept them from quitting when their metaphorical shoes got wet, or they got sand in their underwear or got lost on their winding road or even when they thought they might die on a stormy sea. But it also motivated them to keep going in the other direction, traversing all of their previously impossible dilemmas with practiced ease. Every scary and hard thing they’d slowly picked their way through on the way to the bear cave is suddenly manageable on the trip home.
Without the bear—this would just be a song about kids getting lost in the woods, which is honestly pretty messed up.
As I move forward in my life and career, especially in this time of fear, unrest, and facing the unknown in the world around us, I’ve found myself asking: What is the “bear” in my life?
What are the things in this world that both fascinate me and frighten me? These are the things I want to chase. This is what makes me get up and sit at my computer and be creative despite all the demands on our time, the writer’s block, the self-doubt, and the fear of failure. This is what makes me take a step into the water instead of stand on the shore. This is what coaxes me through the minefield of finding time to work on my passion and finding time to be passionate about my life and family.
Ultimately—it is what makes me (and you) willing to look at something standing in our way and say…
I can’t go over it.
I can’t go under it.
I have GOT to go through it.
Then repeat that every single day, getting better and more self-assured with each obstacle conquered. Once you find that driving force, the song is right— you don’t have to be scared.
What I do know is that every book I’ve ever written feels a journey for me with mud pits and mountain vistas and sweaty deserts, and sometimes vast oceans that it feels like I will never get through. And, every twist and turn life has thrown at me has seemed like a mountain far too tall to climb when I looked at it from the bottom. But I’ve found that as long as I keep my motivation in place and remember that sometimes “forward” is the only direction that matters, no matter the pace, I have always been able to “go through it.”
And I know you can too.