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Run away

Back in the old days when we walked to school uphill both ways in snow knee deep, we teenagers had nothing better to do than to cruise the four-lane and eat burgers at the Burger Queen. We had a few game rooms, where for a quarter, we could play Ms. Pacman and Joust. We could always bat a dot back and forth on a game called Atari.

But we didn’t have iPods and iPhones and laptops and 3-D game systems. We just had each other face to face. “Message me” meant “Hey, sneak me a note across the room during Spanish class when the teacher isn’t looking.”

We also didn’t have Bonnaroo. I bet a lot more people I graduated with would have stuck around had they known the world would come to them.

What we had was the county fair—the highlight of every year.

When I was a little kid, my backyard swing set transformed into the Zipper and the Himalaya. And when the real fair rolled in every September, my cousins and I counted the quarters we had saved in the glass baby food jars we kept on my Mom Bell’s window edge.

I begged my parents to let me go every night. They didn’t. I always entered my artwork in the competitions, and I always won a ribbon. My Mom Bell pulled okra from her garden and slapped my name on the entry slip. I couldn’t wait to see if I won anything. I always felt as if her garden was mine. It was all of ours really.

But my feelings for the fair changed my senior year. It was one of the best days of my growing up years–and one of the saddest because it came to an end. I went with a group of my friends, all of us band geeks. The last night we vowed to stay until they shut it down.

And we did.

Sometime after midnight the carnies pulled the plug on the rides, and they let down the canvas covering their games. And the midway without its lights lost its magic.

We had a grand idea. “Let’s follow the fair to wherever it goes!” And, suddenly, the magic was back—but short-lived when we faced the reality that Monday morning we had to go back to school.

It’s true though. Every year some kid would run off with the carnival. It happened when I was in high school, and for years after I began teaching I always lost one or two who ran away. Kids today don’t go. They don’t need the fair anymore, and they don’t believe in magic.

I still believe in magic. I have a dreamer’s heart. It’s the one thing I hope I can pass on to my students. One of mine caught it. He ran away with the circus.

Literally.

I have been so blessed to have had students in class who have gone to do great things in life, but I never expected to teach a student who would someday become an official Ringling Bros. clown.

A former journalism student of mine, Chris Sullivan joined me and my current newspaper staff for lunch Thursday when we celebrated the publication of our third issue.

Chris captivated me with his stories of being a part of the Greatest Show on Earth.

He never set out to be a circus clown, but his work with theater put him in the right place at the right time. He tried out but didn’t expect to get the job. He waited for the call. Meanwhile, he received a spiritual call to go to India to share his clown talent with orphaned children during a Vacation Bible School program. He answered that call, and when he returned, another call waited for him—an invitation to join the circus.

So now he lives his life traveling all over the nation on a circus train, living in a 5 x 7 room that he calls home. He has learned to simplify, simplify, simplify—not just materialistically but philosophically too. He focuses on his job at hand…publicizing the circus, helping transport the elephants to the arena, or meeting children during the pre-show. He lets his other worries go. He leaves them miles behind somewhere down the track.

Seeing Chris again was good medicine for a weary soul. He reminded me life doesn’t have to be so complicated and running away with the circus isn’t always a bad thing.

I doubt that I’ll be boarding the circus train anytime soon. Nor will I follow the fair.

But I do have a fascination with gypsies and Travellers. Ethnically, I don’t think I qualify to be either one, but who says I can’t use my imagination and run away with them in a story I write.

Ah, imagination. I hope my students never lose theirs. I’m so proud of Chris for following his dream and never betraying his imagination.

Sometimes it’s the student who teaches the teacher. Maybe it’s time I enjoyed my imagination again and let the magic lead me to a story I can treasure.

Living on The Edge

On Monday, March 7, I boarded a school bus with 18 teenagers, and we traveled to the Tennessee High School Press Association annual awards program in Nashville, Tennessee, to await our verdict. Did the tears, the late nights, the fights, the stress, the frustration, the dedication—did the love pay off?

When Dr. Jimmy McCollum announced The Edge newspaper as the Best Overall Newspaper in the state, an All-Tennessee newspaper, we had our answer. YES!

Whether you’ve been following my blog for several months or a few days, you’ve probably discovered that when it comes to the truth, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I weave my feelings between the lines of my poetry and my prose. I write with passion from my heart because I can’t not write that way.

I am who I am.

And once again, I can’t hold back. If it weren’t for The Edge newspaper  staff, I never would have found my courage to write a novel.

People say the first novel is for yourself. Chances aren’t necessarily favorable that it’ll ever be published. Why? Because the writer is still learning, still riding the wave of passion that fuels the dream. Experienced writers, published writers, tell us newbies that it takes, maybe, five manuscripts before the writer is “ready” for the market.

I don’t know if and when The Edge will sell. I don’t know if an agent or an editor will buy my dream. What I do know is I know that “feeling” I get when I write with fire. Something good happens. I write it real. I write it true. I carried that “feeling” through every moment of writing The Edge.

Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem that began with this line: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Her wording is thought provoking, intriguing, but unlike Emily I can’t tell it slant—not when it comes to telling the story of The Edge journalists.  I have to tell it the way it is, the way I see it every day. To tell it slant would be to tell the story of strangers, not the young people who have molded my life.

My book is all fiction, and every word of it is true. The names have changed to protect the innocent, and the events may not have happened the way they’re written. But it’s true.

People say truth is stranger than fiction. And a novel must be believable “to sell.” I don’t know if anyone else will “get it,” but maybe this book isn’t for just anyone. Maybe it’s just for those kids who seek the adrenaline rush of a deadline, the thrill of adventure, the heart tickle that comes when the words come together just right, and the pride of seeing your first byline.

Even if The Edge isn’t a smash success, maybe someday, one of my kids will stumble upon my manuscript and remember those days, that day when the words that he or she wrote made a real difference in someone else’s life.

They’ve made a difference in mine.

Congratulations Edge staff.

TEN TIPS ON HOW TO BECOME AN ALL-TENNESSEE NEWSPAPER

A good reporter always remembers her shades. Incognito is the word.

Caffeine and deadlines go hand in hand.

A fedora boosts one's creativity.

If anyone asks, just say you're from Memphis.

Mexican food is an instant cure for writer's block.

Sometimes you just don't ask why.

Wear your heart on your sleeve, your name on your back.

Don't be afraid to put on your game face.

Don't be afraid to challenge one another.

Love what you do and the people you work with.

And what does the Lord require of you?

Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Work in progress

I am a work in progress, a WIP.

I don’t know what God is going to do with me, but I’m sure He has a plan. Walking by faith is kind of like taking a step into a dark room, don’t you think?

If you’re like me, you’re kind of afraid you’ll bump into something, so you reach out for something to hold on to. You just aren’t sure what you’ll grab. Uncertainty is a scary place.

Right now I’m walking by faith. I have no idea where I’m going. I’ve written a complete manuscript. I’ve followed all the rules. I’ve poured my heart into it. I’m invested in conferences and workshops. I’ve made myself vulnerable. Now what?

Several years ago I found myself in a similar place—but I reached a dead end. Well, maybe not a dead end, but my journey didn’t take me where I expected to go.

Back then I sent out clips of my work to several Christian magazines, and I didn’t have to wait long before I received responses. Lots of them! Before I knew it, it seemed I was freelancing every spare moment. I lived on the adrenaline rush.

I still thank God He gave me so many wonderful opportunities. I met famous people, went to fun places and even saw my stories on the covers of these magazines. But I wonder if I lost focus of why I was supposed to write. The story wasn’t about me. Did I make it about me?

I think I was most excited the day I received a letter from a premiere music magazine welcoming me as a freelancer. I had dreamed of writing for this magazine for quite some time, and I was THRILLED my dream had finally come true. But it didn’t. For some reason, the magazine never again responded.

Did I get lost in the shuffle? Did I make a social blunder? Did I make God mad? I often wonder if God allowed me this disappointment to temper me, to keep me humble. I’ll never know. 

During this same time I also interviewed for the editor position for a new magazine located in Nashville. The interview lasted three hours! I thought I had a pretty good chance, but the magazine never launched. So close, yet unreachable.

And while we’re on the subject of disappointments, I can also add to the list the trip to New York City I won—but never received. Every week the Tennessean sponsored a contest in its Weekender section, so I entered and won the weekly contest—a free tee shirt and something else I’ve long forgotten. I was so excited.  My win made me eligible for the grand prize, a trip to NYC to see a Broadway play!

When I received my confirmation letter that I had won the grand prize, I was thrilled! But I never received it. The publication changed editors, and my information was lost. No one had any record of my win.

So here I am again, walking the bumpy road of publication. Back then I never dreamed of having the passion I possess today for writing for young adults. (I’ve never left high school. I’m still teaching in the same school I graduated from. I guess it’s only fitting.) Is God giving me a second chance?

This time around I want to do things right. I want to keep my focus on God. I want His will to be done, not mine. But I still find myself yearning to see my name in print on the cover of a novel. I want my dream to be validated.

Solomon prayed for wisdom. I’m praying for contentment and humility. I know what I want. I know how badly I want it. I pray, however, that God will change my heart so that what I want is what He wants for me.

I am a work in progress.

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  ~  Philippians 2:3-4

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