"Be an encourager: When you encourage others you boost their self esteem, enhance their self-confidence, make them work harder,
lift their spirits and make them successful in their endeavors.
Encouragement goes straight to the heart and is always available." -Lao Tzu
Encouragement does go straight to the heart. I take creative risks and write because I was encouraged in many ways. Perhaps the following story will remind you of who encouraged you to be the person you are today.
Stretching as tall as a little girl could, I stood still, forced a smile and said, "cheese" while Mom snapped the picture. History recorded, she gave me a hug and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” Leaving the comfort of home, I entered kindergarten for the first time.
Much of my first year of public education remains a blur except for a vivid memory in the school's art room, a sunny room with giant windows and metal shelves full of art supplies. Old coffee cans held paint brushes and scissors. Mason jars housed tempera paints. Stacks of construction paper, tubs of clay, tins of chalk, and boxes of crayons, all in assorted colors, were always ready for use. The wooden work tables, scratched and splattered with stains, gave unspoken permission for a bit of wild recklessness.
During art class one cold winter day, our teacher handed each of us a fat white crayon and a large sheet of ivory paper. She told us to draw a snowman like the one she had demonstrated on the blackboard.
I drew three wobbly circles as if blind, feeling my way, biggest on the bottom and smallest on the top and added several slash marks for snowflakes.My stubby crayon marks were difficult to see, almost invisible.
Drawings complete, our teacher instructed us to dip our paintbrushes into the mason jars of navy blue paint and brush the color over our crayoned snowmen and snowflakes. I didn’t want to ruin the picture I’d drawn so carefully, but Mom had told me to be sure to listen and follow the teacher’s directions. I went ahead and sloshed paint over the entire paper.
To my delight, my scribbled snowman and snowflakes popped out of the blue, right into sight, like a jack-in-the-box surprise. When I brought my art project home, Mom displayed my masterpiece on our family's refrigerator door, a place of honor.
As Mom predicted, my kindergarten year was fine, even better than fine. As I advanced, I enjoyed creative expression in other areas as well. I put words on paper with sharpened pencil and used my imagination to paint pictures through stories and poems.
My third grade teacher, Mrs. Warriner, urged me forward with a report card comment. “Barbara has shown a great interest in writing stories. Perhaps she could make a booklet in her spare time.” Her kind words had power.
Throughout my school years I enjoyed writing, but didn't see it as a career since, in the 60's, women were primarily encouraged to be homemakers, nurses, secretaries and teachers. I chose teaching and I'm glad I did.
Remembering the joy of my snowman experience, I encouraged my third through sixth grade students to cover every subject they encountered with a splash of creativity. As researchers and scientists, they did experiments and wrote down their findings. When writing reports on different parts of the country, they presented their information to the class like tourists who had returned from a trip. They traveled back in time to meet historical figures and wrote about that too. As mathematicians, they solved real life story problems and authored some of their own.
In my personal life, writing turned out to be an important tool for coping. When I was forty, in the midst of divorce after nineteen years of marriage, a good friend stopped by and and gave me a gift. Handing me a blank journal, she said, "Start writing. I think it will help."
The more I wrote, the more my love of writing reemerged. After eighteen years of teaching elementary school students, I decided to try something new. I applied for a position as writer/editor for a quarterly publication for my school district though I had no relevant editorial experience and had never published anything beyond my family’s refrigerator door. When interviewed and asked if I could write, I said, “Yes,” without a second thought.
No one asked to see my writing credentials (my third grade report card) or asked about my editorial experience which was limited to comments and corrections on my students’ papers. Lucky for me, I was hired.
For many years, I wrote essays and poems and edited administrators’ and teachers’ articles for publication. I also continued to record my musings, experiences and stories in journals and made little booklets for people I loved.
Attending a goal setting workshop, the class was asked to write down things we wished to accomplish in the next twenty years., I figured there was no reason to not dream big. Twenty years was a lot of time. I wrote down an ambitious list and among the items was, ‘Write a book of stories.’
The instructor then asked everyone to write down what we would like to accomplish in the next five years. Removing several items from my list, writing still remained. Finally, the instructor told us to imagine we had only six months to live. My priorities came sharply into focus. I knew I would want to spend my precious days with people I loved and was surprised that I would still want to leave behind some stories.
After I retired, I became interested in my ancestors. Researching old documents, I discovered a newspaper article about my maternal great grandmother, Florence Woody. Ninety years old at the time, she said her life had been long and filled with many accomplishments, yet she admitted that she had never done exactly what she would have liked to do. She wanted to be a writer. My grandfather, her son, wrote stories about his life and said he hoped his children and grandchildren would do the same.
When I was sixty-five, my mom died. No mother to guide me through uncharted territory like she had that first day in kindergarten, I experienced the separation anxiety of a child and missed her terribly.
Visiting her grave one day, I whispered into the air, “Mom, I don’t know what to do.”
“Just write. You’ll be fine,” I imagined her say.
I followed her instructions. More than thirty years after the goal setting workshop, I’m still writing stories about lessons learned from experience and I still make booklets for people I love. I continue to meet with other writers too and we spur each other on.
When I doubt the value of my writing or get stuck, I remember the many forms of encouragement I've received. I slosh the words of my personal truth on paper and though I never quite know what will be revealed, I experience moments of magic and jack-in-the box surprise.
Who encouraged you? How do you encourage others?