Spectacular Failure

Professional Growth Through Abject Failure 

Before a snooping investigative journalist blows the whistle on my deepest professional secret, I’ll go ahead and share it. I failed my first pre-service teaching exam in spectacular fashion. I failed that Practicum I, blue book, short-answer only exam so badly that I considered changing my major, altering a career path I had decided upon as a freshman in high school.

I scored a 44.

Out of 100.

On my first meaningful education exam.

As a sophomore at Rowan University In the fall of 1995, I waltzed into Dr. Blohm’s Practicum I course ready to demonstrate my brilliance. If nothing else, I would set myself apart from these other jokers with whom I’d be competing for jobs in a few short years. I would make cogent points about lesson design, I would model mini-lessons to the envy of my peers, and I would write thoughtful answers in response to the most pressing issues facing pre-service teachers.

So when I received back that menacing blue book, nary ⅓ of the pages filled with my surface level responses, with a slightly left leaning 44 scrawled in red pen in the upper left hand corner, I think I blacked out. Now, I don’t mean I literally experienced a psychotic episode during which I couldn’t be responsible for my behavior. But I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of that class session.

When class ended, I just sort of roamed around campus. I didn’t have a destination in mind, I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have a purpose. I was lost. If there were a soundtrack to my life, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” would have been playing.

As I mentioned, I knew I wanted to be a teacher shortly after my 14th birthday, so from that time forward, nothing got in my way. In fact, there’s power in such certainty because with the next seven or eight years mapped out, I didn’t experience the stress of not knowing what I wanted to do.

Until the 44.

When I finally arrived back at Chestnut Hall, I remember sitting on my bed and cycling through my options as I saw them.

  • Drop out and become a street performer.
  • Speak to my advisor about changing majors to “undeclared” until I drop out and become a street performer.
  • Request a meeting with Dr. Blohm to figure out what had just happened, thank her, and then drop out to become a street performer.

I ended up choosing the latter, though what once was a waltz into her classroom morphed into a tail-between-the-legs shuffle into her office.

“It’s really quite simple,” she started. “Your answers aren’t wrong; they’re just not right enough.”

As we leafed through the blue book, she referred me to her comments, which read like the dialogue of a marital spat.

“And?”

“So?”

“I need more.”

My answers weren’t wrong, I repeated to myself, they just weren’t right enough. For whatever reason, I didn’t demonstrate the kind of depth I would eventually expect of my students.

At the end of the meeting, Dr. Blohm thanked me for coming in and admitted that students rarely seek her out after a score like this. Instead, she suggested, that first exam was all part of a “weeding out” process she had to go through at the beginning of each semester. When the semester ended, I wrote her a note thanking her for pushing me to want to be better and insisting that I would be back for more advice.

As it turned out, I most certainly did fail that first education exam with a 44, but I passed Dr. Blohm’s first test with a side order of humble pie.

Spectacular failure, which could be the name of my grunge revival band, is a necessary part of our growth as teachers and as leaders. We should expect it, embrace it, and refer to it as a signpost on our path.

Now, if I could only remove this silly “44” tattoo from my chest.

 

The Truth About Leadership

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

Amanda Leonardi is one of the first people I thought of when I started #formerstudentFriday. Our relationship started in our fourth period class, a group that remains close to my heart, and has continued since 2006.  We check in with each other often, and I’m so proud of her. She is kind, empathetic, and fierce. Her piece reflects each.


I started off 7th grade on a high note – my parents got divorced and my Grandma died all in the same week. It could only go up from there, right? In my personal life, things didn’t get worse, but I wouldn’t exactly say they got better. The mess just got messier and I learned how to deal with it. When I look back on my high school experience, what I learned doesn’t stick out to me, but who I learned from is what I really remember.

The experiences I had in the classrooms of a few teachers were the cornerstones of my success in education. I might not have known it then, but these teachers were leaders of education in my life and according to a study by Barry Posner and James A. Kouzes, the authors of The Truth About Leadership, people around the world have had the same experiences with their teachers.

This study collected and analyzed data from more than a million people around the world to assess leadership practices. In their study, they provided participants with a list of 8 different types of people (teacher, parent, political leader, etc.) and asked them to identify the person they considered a leader/ role model in their life. The data revealed that 26% of respondents between the ages of 18 – 30 identified a teacher or coach as “the person they’d select as their most important role model for leadership.” This put teachers and coaches in second place behind parents as an important role model for leadership. This sentiment did not disappear as people age either. The study indicated that 14% of participants over the age of 30 also identified teachers and coaches as their most important role model for leadership.

Through the mess of my personal life, these teachers all brought positivity into my life. They were all present in the classroom, they believed in me, and they invested in my life through their teaching and our daily interactions. None of these teachers knew about the details of my personal life, and it wasn’t until recently that one of them just peeled back a layer of that onion.

As a teacher, you don’t have to know an exhaustive history about your students’ lives nor do you need to know every detail about their day-to-day lives, but you do need to act with purpose and care genuinely. The reason I’m writing this blog post is because I had a teacher who showed up to his classroom every day. He made class fun and relatable. He challenged us to think differently. He was there to celebrate our successes and help us navigate the challenges.

Creating a meaningful educational experience isn’t about being your students’ best friend, or creating the coolest bulletin board, or developing the most “out of the box” lesson plan. I recently saw a clip from America’s Got Talent and the contestant said, “It is not the dream that I always had, but that is okay because I showed up and I did something I never believed I could do.” Creating a meaningful educational experience is about learning how to connect with your students so the experiences they have in your class go beyond the grade they receive on their report card and help them achieve something they never thought they could do.

Amanda Leonardi grew up in South Jersey but currently resides in Washington DC. Since graduating from high school, Amanda has enjoyed a varied career route with some of her favorite time spent as a barista in Mt. Laurel and an after-school aide in Camden, NJ. Amanda currently works in Human Resources for a commercial real estate company headquartered in Bethesda, MD.

Arms Folded

The Power of Silent Communication 

A particular curse befalls most English teachers. You know the one.

We see the world through a constantly shifting mosaic of overanalysis, empathy, and symbolism. To us, everything means something. Nothing is an accident. We are convinced that every writer of every piece of literature chose to take pen to paper in an attempt to provide the world with the foundation for a profound lecture, a thoughtful writing prompt, an eventual film adaptation.

Our students sit obediently as we pontificate on the importance of the green light in The Great Gatsby, the brilliance of Cormac McCarthy’s lack of punctuation, the beauty of Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18. Basking in our own analytical glow, we convince ourselves that, yes, everything does mean something.

During a routine walkthrough, I stop in on several teachers without a clipboard, without a cell phone, without a laptop.  For me, walkthroughs are as much about getting out of my office as they are about seeing our talented staff work. Doing so without the pretense of an evaluation signals to teachers that I support them and am happy to provide, usually ultra positive, feedback on any given lesson.

Last year, at the end of the day after such a walkthrough, a math teacher stopped into my office, a bit sheepishly, to ask if everything was alright. Did I see something, she wondered, that upset me. Dumbfounded, I told her I didn’t know what she meant and that I didn’t yet get a chance to send my thanks-for-letting-me-pop-in email.

“Oh, ok. It’s just that you stood off to the side with your arms folded the whole time. I thought maybe something was wrong,” she said. “I’m just not used to seeing you stand like that. Usually you get involved in the lesson.”

She was right. I did stand off to the side with my arms folded the whole time. For me, it was just the preferred posture for that brief moment in time. For her, it was tacit disapproval of something I saw. It was a disappointed father of a girl who missed curfew, a harrumphing customer in a too long line at Target.

On one hand, the fact that the teacher, any teacher, is “used to seeing me” is a positive sign that I’m seen enough to have a typical, or in this case, atypical pose.

But on the other hand, and much more importantly, that teacher’s reaction to me standing with my arms folded provided confirmation that, English teacher curse or not, everything does mean something. It just doesn’t mean the same thing.

Since then, I have been uber mindful of my body language, voice inflection, and eye contact. The subtle ways in which I communicate often speak more loudly than does my voice. Ask yourself how you communicate with the world when you’re not speaking. As teachers, do we bend down when consulting with a student? As leaders, do we wear an expression that belies or supports what we’re thinking? As parents, do we indicate that we are proud of our kids without having to say so?

Unfold your arms. Wipe away that pesky RBF/RDF (you can investigate these on your own). Smile more often than you don’t.

Because everything means something.

 

On Day 1

On Day 1, there is a sense of a wonder, even if the surroundings are similar.

On Day 1, there is a sense of loss, because, as parents, we give up control.

On Day 1, we smile more. Our voices take on a singsongy inflection.

On Day 1, we meet a new cast of characters in our life’s play.

On Day 1, many of our students return to the structure and stability they so desperately crave. Ours may be the only normal they know.

On Day 1, we look for signs of greatness and for cries for help.

On Day 1, we become each other’s mentor, friend, confidant, therapist, surrogate, and advocate.

On Day 1, we invite change, we accept responsibility, we offset chaos, and we make connections.

On Day 1, we take pictures we’ll later frame. Years later we’ll mourn the images of those Day 1s because we can’t get them back.

On Day 1, we are reminded of all of our day 1s: as students, as teachers, as parents, as leaders.

On Day 1, we have a unique and powerful opportunity few others have because we are handed the clay with which to mold. And then we get to continue to mold that clay for ten months.

On Day 1.

 

Am I Ugly?

Responding to Students in Pain 

He was milling around, shuffling the same papers over and over again. Tying his shoe. Trying desperately to look like he wasn’t girding himself for the conversation ahead. Like he wanted me to see he needed to talk but not as much as he didn’t want other kids to see he needed to talk.

Finally, the last student left, and, man, he didn’t waste time.

“Mr. Kulak. Am I ugly?”

At first, I sort of giggled to validate that his ice breaker was clever. But when I looked at him and saw tears start to well up, I recognized that this was a kid in pain.

“What? Why would you think that?” I began.

“Because it’s true. I just wanted someone else to tell me it’s true. Girls won’t talk to me. They won’t even look at me, so I must be ugly or something.”

Dave was a senior in high school. He had patchy facial hair, tinted glasses, and he spoke with a slight lisp. He was also very kind, determined, and funny. But he wasn’t asking me about personality traits. He was expecting an answer about how he looked, about vanity, about the part of himself that showed up first. Before the rest of who he was even made it through the door.

“Dude, you are not ugly. Besides who even decides these things? I mean look at me. I’m in my 30s, I have ears that look like open cab doors, awful hair, and I still have pimples. Am I ugly?”

I could see him start to breathe differently. His eyes dried up a bit. I think the corners of his mouth started to form a slight smile before thinking better of it. He wasn’t prepared for me to flip the script on him, and it worked.

“No, I wouldn’t say you’re ugly,” he said.

“And I wouldn’t say you’re ugly. In fact, I probably wouldn’t use that word for anyone. At least not to describe how they look.”

He stayed in my room through lunch and during most of my prep. I just wanted to keep him talking, get him to laugh a bit, and allow him to leave when he was good and ready. Nothing I had to do was more important than that conversation.

There’s no way for us to prepare for these kinds of experiences with our kids. No overpriced and underused textbook on Answering Students’ Difficult Personal Questions exists. However, Dave came to me because he trusted me, because I made a conscious and concerted effort to connect with my kids long before I asked them to even consider the content of the class.

As you start a new year, pay attention to subtleties. Pay attention to everything. You’ll have countless Daves walk through your door, each with a unique and personal backstory. To commit to learning such backstories takes time, patience, and emotional wherewithal, but, as I see it, we don’t really have a choice.

So, again, Dave. You are not ugly. I promise.

Containment Policy

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

Liz Follis and I have known each other for a long time. As a student during my first year in the classroom, she was precocious and hard working. As a friend since then, she has become an amazing educator and student advocate. I’m proud of who she has become and fortunate to have been invited along for the ride. In this piece, Liz reflects on her realization that going home doesn’t always mean being where we belong. Her experience is both triumphant and a cautionary tale.


Since I was 5 years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wanted to be a teacher; I was going to teach kindergarten, and I was going to do it in my hometown.  When I graduated from college, my hometown took me off the bench and put me up to bat as a designated hitter.  I was given a maternity leave position, as a HS history teacher (not kindergarten, sigh), and I was determined to prove my worth.

Let me preface this story by saying that I am not a history teacher by trade.  It was my worst subject in high school and college, but I was determined to give my students a better experience: more fulfilling, extremely relevant instruction when delivering my lessons.  I studied up.  I asked other teachers questions. I ingested the material with a newfound hunger.

 Then the “Containment Policy” incident occurred.  

I taught the Policy of Containment to what I believed was the best of my ability, but I was greeted with a sea of blank stares.  In response, I was blunt; I came out with it.  Explain to me. What went wrong? Where is the disconnect?

A student raised her hand with trepidation.  “Ms. F… what does containment mean?” Then the bell rang. I racked my brain.  How can I make them understand, explain containment, and give them an experience they’ll never forget? The light bulb went on. I explained my idea to my fiancé at the time. He said, “Liz don’t do it. This is a bad idea.”

The ROGUE educator in me knew that meant this is EXACTLY what I should do.  

The next day, I came to school with all my supplies.  I used my prep to get ready.  Teachers passed by looking quizzically in my room.  I was juiced! The bell rang, the kids came in, and I asked the students a simple question.

“What do you see before you?”

A student said, “A swimming pool!”  

“You’re right!  What’s in the pool?”

Another student said, hesitantly, “uhm water?”

“Great! You’re correct! The water in that pool is contained.”

The looks on the kids’ faces during this “aha moment” was amazing.  I have that feeling bottled up for when I have a bad day.  

The next moment is when I realized that maybe this district wasn’t ready for my  ROGUE teaching.  I asked my classroom of historians, “What happens when I lift up the pool?”  The kids clearly saw that the water would go everywhere.  So I did it, I modeled the concept, and that’s when the principal walked in.  His face was aghast but that wasn’t going to stop this learning experience. I didn’t miss a beat.  I continued, “So, now that we know what containment means, why was it so important for the war?” You should have seen the hands go up and heard the meaningful discussion to follow.

At the end of the period I was met simply with, “Ms. Follis please see me at the end of the day.”

I met with the principal and was given strict instructions: direct instruction, worksheets, and no deviations for the rest of my time there.  

The school district I once knew, the one that I thought was on the precipice of progressive instruction, had just capped my teaching. The educational system that helped mold me, served as an example for my own teaching, and challenged me to be the best version of myself did not support my teaching style.

Looking back to those days, I continue to rationalize that I was revolutionary in my teaching; however, the stronger PLN I develop, the more people I meet, and the more schools I work in, the more I realize that going home, for me, would have been going backward. 

I am hopeful that my alma mater, the place I will always love, will become rejuvenated like a Phoenix from the flames.  I am hopeful that my nephews will have the same experiences I had as a student.  Unfortunately, until they find stronger leadership that isn’t afraid to break past their own “containment policy,” teaching, and therefore learning, will be stifled.

Elizabeth Follis has been in the education field for twelve years.  She is excited to start her fourth year in the Palmyra School District.  Although she began her tenure in Palmyra as a middle school special education teacher, Elizabeth will begin a new position this fall as a teacher coach and is very excited for the possibilities that this new adventure will bring. Outside of the classroom, she is the head coach for both Fall/Winter Cheerleading and Girls’ Spring Track and Field. 

 

Specks of Significance

Finding Meaning in the Mundane

That stinkin’ piece of dirt followed me everywhere for days. Its resilience impressive, its ingenuity unparalleled, its resolve intimidating. Three days, three pairs of shoes, three completely separate but equal segments of my life lived with the same piece of dirt.  

To chart its course would be impossible, but if I had to guess, the dirt first entered my life during my weekly baseball game. Likely, I acquired it while playing, it glommed onto my sock, transfered from my cleats to my slides, and came home with me that Sunday. Once it had successfully infiltrated my home, it lied in wait until it could make yet another move, this time to my comfy slippers, which I wear ad nauseum. Once inside, that sucker set up shop, making itself known intermittently, mocking me mercilessly.

Now, the layperson might ask, “why not just shake it out of your slipper? Why live with such a menacing presence when you were wholly capable of removing it?” Good questions indeed, but here’s the thing: I didn’t always know it was there. The brilliance of the dirt was that it made itself known when it felt like it, at odd times when I’d be in the middle of something else. Like a song lyric or childhood memory that arrives and leaves fleetingly, so you can’t remember what it was minutes later. That was my dirt companion. So while I could have easily shaken it out any number of times, for some reason, I didn’t. Maybe I grew to accept the dirt as part of my life. Maybe I subconsciously began to need the dirt like some demented Stockholm Syndrome sufferer. Maybe I live in such a perpetual state of doing that the thought of stopping to remove the dirt terrified me.

Finally, after three days, the Biblical implication of which is not lost on me, I finally bid the dirt farewell. No speeches. No pomp and circumstance. No vigil. Just an upside down Ugg shaken loosely in the middle of my kitchen. I often think of that piece of dirt and wonder where it is now. Does it like its new home? Does it miss me?


As educators, we have the ability to become the pieces of dirt for our kids and for each other. While that may not be the most glamorous analogy, think about something you said to a student, in public or in confidence, that will always stay with them. Think about how, to extend the analogy, as students travel through their lives, the impact you had on them transfers from shoe to shoe, life event to life event. Like so many granules of dirt, we may not consider ourselves special, we may not understand how we function as part of a larger collection of dirt, and we may not purposely attach ourselves to the bottom of feet, but that doesn’t make any of those things less true.

In fact, it’s often the insignificance that is significant. I can’t tell you how many times a former student has referred to something I said or something we shared as being momentous, something she’ll “never forget.” 

Because for us, there are millions of those moments, those pieces of dirt, so it would be impossible for us to keep up. But for them, what they’re referencing is their experience, their unshakable nuisance, their piece of dirt.

And maybe they don’t want to get rid of it just yet.

 

A Preposition Problem

Start The Year ‘With’ Not ‘For’

Conventional linguists and defenders of Standard American English will argue that formal writing, and to a lesser extent speaking, should not include prepositions at the end of sentences. In an oft cited, and basartized, quip attributed to Winston Churchill mocking this rule, the prime minister said, “this is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” Whether he said it or not doesn’t change the fact that the rule is, if nothing else, a bit snooty.

Still, regardless of their placement in a sentence, words matter. When we speak to our students, each word acts as both an independent contractor and as part of a larger corporation. When we speak to our colleagues, our words convey our willingness to collaborate or a lack thereof. When we speak to our parents, our words are heard only in the context of the children about which they are spoken. Sometimes, those pesky prepositions can make all the difference.

Last year, I was asked to supervise, formally, a dear friend. So dear, in fact, that when I left the classroom five years ago in a school in which we taught together, she inherited my schedule and my classroom. Now, truth be told, I suggested that she would be perfect to scoop up my seniors and our school newspaper, but that didn’t mean the administration had to listen. Thankfully, they did.

A few years later, that same school created a leadership position for her. Immediately, we scheduled regular meetings to compare notes, to bang our heads against the wall, and to support each other. This year, she joined our team, and I was asked to supervise her. Without blinking, I accepted and we got to work immediately. She didn’t need my help as much as she may let on, and while I did have to click some buttons to formally evaluate her, our relationship, then and now, is firmly rooted in a preposition that will appear at the end of this sentence: with.

So when I announced that I would be changing my role in the district, which meant I would no longer be her supervisor, she penned a thoughtful poem in which she wrote: The year I worked for my friend. Before I could continue, my eyes fixated on that proprietary preposition.  After gathering myself and reading the rest of the beautifully written piece, I texted her.

Thank you for the poem. I’m going to frame it and hang it at Tatem. But you never have and never will work FOR me. We will always work TOGETHER. <3”

In this case, the difference between for and with is reflective of seeing ourselves as managers or as leaders.

No one will ever work for me.

That is an idea up with which I will not put.

 

The Edu Sunken Place

Appropriating PLNs Without the Pesky Hypnosis

I miss the movies. I don’t mean the novelty of going to the theater, the nervous excitement of a teenage first date, or the ginormous tub of popcorn and seemingly bottomless soda without which the whole experience would be ruined.

I mean sitting down to watch a great film. I mean having that film stay with me for days. I mean scouring IMDB and blogs to discuss the film with other cinephiles. I mean being able to stay up past 930 to actually finish a film.

For years, I would make it a point to find and watch films that were off the beaten path (Frailty, Her, The Machinist, to name a few). I would set my watch by my favorite director, Christopher Nolan, and carve out time to watch, consider, and discuss each film. I would participate in discussion board threads on nuances, I would analyze ambiguous endings, and I was the “Have you seen…” guy at parties.  

Now, because of work-life balance, two small children, and Netflix true crime documentaries, I may watch two or three films, in their entirety, a year. Of course, there are two inherent flaws to such a myopic approach to cinema. First, how do I choose what makes the cut? Oscar buzz? Lead actors? Secondly, it’s entirely possible that what I do choose to watch is awful and wastes my time (looking at you, Wolf of Wall Street).

Sometimes, however, a perfect storm forms and I get it right. I choose something that has folks talking, that I can digest and analyze, and that I would watch again.

For me, Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut, Get Out, checked all the boxes.  

Director? Check

Recognizable but not necessarily household name actors? Check

A perpetual watercooler buzz? Check

A socially relevant message? Check

Without question, Get Out is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. While I realize that such an endorsement is watered down by how seldom I can make such a claim, I do encourage readers to check it out. I would love to discuss it with the #leveluplead faithful.

I’ll spare the elevator pitch plot summary and teasers, but I will sum up the film in a single word: appropriation. The film, through clever writing and sleight-of-hand storytelling, examines how often and to what lengths people will go to experience life a bit, er, differently.


In the Eduverse, teachers and leaders, at least the ones who are obsessed with growth and improvement, appropriate with impunity. We appropriate each other’s followers, ideas, professional development strategies, discipline referral forms. Look, we basically appropriate everything.

The difference, however, between what we do and what Peele’s film mocks sardonically is that educators invite appropriation. We recognize, in a truly egoless way, that there are countless people doing what we do just a little bit differently. A little bit better. So when we seek counsel from these folks, as I did with Rich Czyz of Four O’Clock Faculty fame, they are all too willing to share.

When I hear folks discussing how difficult a time it is to be in education, it’s hard to argue. With so much imposed upon us from on high, so much riding on flawed, one-off assessments, and so much nonsense that removes us, literally or figuratively, from the kids, it’s no wonder so many people throw their hands up in resignation.

But we could also make the case that there’s no better time to do what we do because a new idea is only a couple of clicks away. While we may have to bob and weave around red tape, we can do so with an ever-growing tribe of shameless appropriators. With a band of outlaw poets, scientists, yogis, historians, and student whisperers. With follows, RTs, likes, and shout outs. With hand-written thank you notes and clever hashtags. With virtual support and real life conferences. With each other.

So while Peele’s film plays on the idea of “getting out,” appropriating PLNs is all about getting in. And all it takes is hitting that blue Follow button.

 

I Needed To Go Back

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

For our first installment, I turn the keys over to Elyse.  Like so many of us, she has become reflective since her time in high school. Through age and experience, we often look back at who we were during those formative years with equal parts nostalgia and nausea. Her message speaks to appreciating from where we came, giving back to those who helped us along the way, and, ultimately, living our best life.


Now fourteen years out of high school and, like most people I know, I have regrets. I don’t regret nights when I stayed home to study instead of going out to party. I don’t regret working overtime to afford the down payment on my first home.

I regret not returning to Golden Slipper Camp, to the place that changed my life.

I was a camper and counselor, from the ages of 13 to 16, at the overnight charity camp in the Poconos. It was an amazing experience, and it left a mark on my soul that time can never erase.

I was a really awkward kid, was heavy, and was not very cool. So I got teased a ton, was really shy, and had no confidence. Golden Slipper changed everything for me. I found friends who loved me for who I was despite the ugly glasses and constant silliness. I came home a completely different kid.

During the summer between junior and senior year of high school, I decided to get a job near home to make more money, so I could buy a car. Camp didn’t pay enough, and I really wanted that green 1995 Ford Contour. What I didn’t realize is that job would be the first of many, all of which were chasing money that I thought I needed for whatever it was I thought I wanted at the time.

Now, years later, I have had to make hard decisions and huge sacrifices to get back to the camp that I love so deeply. I drive hundreds of miles each summer, splitting my time between camp and my full time nursing job. But I get to provide kids, who are just like I was, with an experience that shapes who they are and who they will become.

I would give anything to go back in time to spend more summers at camp. Looking back on it all, I’d be happy to make significantly less money to have spent more time at a camp where I felt such love and empathy. Sadly, I chose to put more value in money and material things than in people and relationships.

Whatever you do in this life, you need to do it for the right reasons. Go to summer camp, go on the road trip, take the vacation, see the band you love live in concert. But make sure the things you choose bring you joy. You don’t want to look back years from now, like I did, and think, “wow I wish I had done it differently.” You have the time now! You have the freedom now! You’ll never be so unencumbered as you are right now! So go out and find something that makes you insanely happy and throw yourself into it.

Elyse Realey is a 2004 graduate of Audubon High School. She is a critical care nurse in New Jersey.