A Most Eventful Year

This post has been swirling around in my head for weeks and I have not made the time to sit down and commit those thoughts to words on a page screen.  Today, in the middle of my two-week winter break, that changes.  This blog is one of my favorite things I have ever started; I love to go back to Summer 2009 when I wrote my first post about going to Spain and Italy by myself for a month.  That girl, that version of myself, was discovering a part of herself she never knew existed.  She was growing in confidence and feeling rather footloose and adventurous in all facets of life.  I love her.  How important it is to look back and smile, knowing you did something right.  Reflection is how we learn, how we think critically, how we embrace mistakes and celebrate little victories.

So let’s do this.  Let’s reflect on the last twelve months in a cliche end-of-year post.  (Did Auld Lang Syne just pop into your head…or is it just me?!)

January: a thousand glances at my left ring finger that was sparkling with a brand new diamond and a promise.  My best friend moved to Africa for a year on January 9. My principal, who hired me and believed in my potential as a school leader, left the school after me being on the job for six weeks.

February:  a general sense of feeling lost without Amanda, enduring the winter blues

March:  wedding date and destination chosen

April:  my first visit to NYC with the ever-fabulous Jason Clark, a lovely wedding for Jason and Erin, prom (still cracks me up), engagement pictures courtesy of the fabulous, multi-talented Jon Whittaker

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May:  Jon quit Fox Sports (thank god) and started working at The Weather Channel.  He had no idea what it was like to feel happy, fulfilled, challenged, and respected at work.  Our relationship immediately became healthier. I finished my first full semester as an assistant principal, having learned many hard lessons but loving leadership and the change in my career.   Took lovely little Memorial Day getaway to Jen’s mom’s home in Beaufort, SC.

memorial day group pic

June:  got a new principal who makes me better every day, went to NKOTB with Jen and had the most ridiculously fantastic time reliving my childhood. And Kimber called to tell me that she can’t go to the wedding because she’s going to have a baby in a few months.

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July:  the most eventful, glorious month of them all!  Spent ten days in the Dominican Republic getting married and honeymooning with our parents, Brooklyn, Ashley & Craig, Jen & Marty, Elizabeth & Greg, and Jon & Lindsey. Everyone got along swimmingly and had a lovely time. Our wedding was exactly how we had hoped it would be: a beautiful day on the beach, a perfect dress, gorgeous pictures, and only those we know and love there. Jon Whittaker led us through our vows and legally united us in marriage, therefore coming full circle in our relationship as he was the one who introduced us years ago. We came back to celebrate Brooklyn’s first birthday, sweet little love of mine. Shortly after, we threw ourselves a hell of a party at Monday Night Brewery and celebrated with our friends and family who traveled from near and far (Africa!) to shower us with their love and congratulations. Then the next week we bought a house.  (July, you win.)

wedding

wedding group shotbrooklyn oneparty pic

August: a flurry of a month, spent getting mortgage documents together, starting a new school year, packing up the apartment, working 14-hour-days.  Closed on the house on my birthday (August 29, duh) and moved the next day.

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September: unpacking, adjusting to suburb life; working every Friday night at the football games (Go Raiders.)

new house

October:  lovely weddings for Robin & Chaz and Lindsey & Aaron

November:  Brooklyn was dedicated to the church, my 102-year-old great-grandmother passed away

December:  painting, decorating, furniture shopping, celebrating, gift-giving, (finally) relaxing.  Oh, and Amanda moved back home.  :)

And that’s a wrap, folks. New jobs, new bosses, a destination wedding, a new home. So many life events crammed into a few months but I feel healthier than I have in years. The Jillian that started this blog five years ago is still very much alive in me, itching for plane tickets to anywhere, but priorities and behaviors have shifted a bit.  (My bank account thanks me.)

Now that life moves a little slower, I have a few new habits I’d like to pick up in the new year.  (I am remiss to use the word resolution as I feel like it sets one up for a feeling of failure if they are not carried through to fruition.) I want to learn to sew, to crochet, and to garden.  I want to continue running, a practice I have picked up and dropped over the years, but one that makes me feel whole and healthy and powerful when I am consistent.  Most of all, I want to read and write more, another practice that makes me feel whole and healthy.

My heart swells with love and gratitude to those who enriched this year with your love and friendship.  Thank you.

He Gave Me a Ring and a Future

It is mid-January and my windows are open, letting in the 60-degree air, freshening the apartment and intensifying the street sounds below our fourth-floor home.  On the table next to me is a vase of stargazer lilies, brought home by my sweet fiance for absolutely no reason at all.  Fiance.  Yep, we’re engaged to be married.  Jon proposed on the Decatur Square, the site of our first date, on Christmas night.  Below is a collage of the pics we have taken in the same spot.  Starting top left is our very first date.  We took that picture to send to Jon Whittaker, who set us up, to let him know that we were having a good time.  In the upper-right corner, we are at the Decatur Beer Festival one year later.  We went with our fellow craft beer-loving friends, Josh and Simone Parker.  Bottom left is the same festival this past year, our two-year anniversary.  We attended with Jon’s parents and Josh and Simone.  Bottom right is the night we got engaged.

At Decatur Square

Jon and I were headed to Brickstore to meet up with Amanda, a Christmas night tradition, and he scooped me over to the same spot we have taken all of those pictures.  I complained about being cold and wanted to walk a little faster, but he pulled me aside, hugged me, and said, “Two years, two months, and nine days ago we came here on our first date.  I love you.  I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”  I started laughing from pure joy, jumping up and down, hugging him uncontrollably.  I’m pretty sure he kept talking, but once he opened the box showing me the most gorgeous ring I’ve ever seen, I have no idea what he said.  He had to stop me to make sure that I said yes, to which I replied, “Yes, yes, yes…a thousand times, YES!”  We called our parents, our siblings, our best friends…and then we met up with Amanda and Jon Whittaker and enjoyed a night with beloved friends who feel like family.

Now we are planning our July destination wedding…a second wedding for both of us, but sure to be our forever marriage.  In our pasts, we did not know ourselves, did not know that the decisions we made independently of one another would actually lead us to each other.  I would not be the woman I am today had I not gone through that marriage at age 22 and that divorce at age 25.  I do not look back with regret; rather, I look ahead at my life with Jon, thankful that I will enter into the covenant of marriage with him confident in who I am, in who we are together.

A New World in the Same World

What a whirlwind my life has been since I last posted!  In August I started my tenth year of teaching, my second year at Riverwood, and my first year as English Department Chair.  I have worked harder in the last four months than I have my entire life, regularly spending 12 hours at school.  I taught two classes of at-risk 9th grade English, two classes of 10th Honors English, and then served a department of 14 English teachers as their leader.  I was overwhelmed and overworked, but so happy to be at Riverwood and be in leadership again.  In late October, at a faculty meeting held after school, there was an announcement that one of the Assistant Principals would be retiring, effective November 30.  My principal encouraged anyone on staff with a leadership certification to apply if interested, that they would be looking for in-house applicants first.  My head was spinning, my veins felt electric, my hands were shaking.  Could this be it?  I poured myself into my resume, my cover letter, my application, and my interview preparation.  On Monday November 12, I interviewed in front of a panel of ten people.  On Wednesday, I was pulled out of class and sent downtown to interview with the superintendent of Fulton County Schools.  On Thursday, a recommendation to hire me as the new AP of Riverwood was made to the board of education.  On Friday, it was announced to the Riverwood community.  Two weeks later, on December 3, I left my classes in the care of a substitute and moved into the front office.  I have been in the position for two weeks and three days, and I absolutely love it, not the way that I loved teaching, quite different, but I do love it.  I do miss my kids.  There is no feeling like standing in front of a classroom of teenagers and commanding their full attention, watching them learn, pushing them past where they thought they could go.  I will miss that.  This new job is a different kind of teaching, a different way of educating, a different kind of tired at the end of the day.  I have more one-on-one conversations with kids now.  I work with adults throughout my day, whereas for nine years I was isolated in my room with kids, having very little adult interaction in a work day.  I have a designated parking space, an office, a phone.  I hired my own replacement and she will step into my classroom next semester, take over my rosters, and teach my kids.  Weird.  And kind of sad.  But not weird or sad enough to make me want to go back.  It was time for a change, time to use the degree I worked for, time to lead.  It’s a new adventure, a new world, even if I still drive to the same school every day.

A Perfect Partner

When I started writing this blog, I was traveling alone through Spain and Italy in July 2009.  I was happily single, loving the freedom of solo travel.  (See my earlier post for my reflection on the glories of traveling alone.)  While I still would enjoy a trip by myself, my affection has shifted toward a handsome, 6’5″ man who happens to love me and wants to explore the world with me.  Jon and I took our first true vacation together last week, traveling to Boston and to Rhode Island over the span of seven days.  Neither of us had been to Boston before, so each day was a new adventure of sightseeing, day drinking, relaxing, and walking…lots of walking.  We absolutely loved Boston and all that it has to offer.  The history is so rich, so tangible, and it makes you proud to be an American.  Our favorite part of the city is how walkable it is–you can truly walk from the North End to the South End, from Fenway Park to Quincy Market.  They also have a brilliant subway system, with stops around every corner, destinations anywhere you would want to go.  We took the MBTA to Providence, Rhode Island from Boston, and for $10/ticket, we realized this is something Atlanta is severely lacking, and we winced when we got home to Atlanta and had to get back in our vehicles to go anywhere.

The second half of our week was spent in lovely, charming, beautiful Rhode Island.  We were there to visit with the Barton family and celebrate the marriage of my dear friend, Taylor.  The wedding festivities were lovely, and we tremendously enjoyed our time with family and friends.  When we were not obligated with the wedding, we went to Newport for the day.  Newport might be one of my favorite American cities–simply beautiful.  The waterfront alone sets it apart from most other places I love, but add to that the charming homes, the cobblestone streets, and the restaurants and my heart swoons.  Especially over the lobster.  OMG, the lobster.  But that’s a separate post…anyway, on Sunday, we saw a different side of Newport when we attended the Newport Folk Festival, one of the greatest music festivals in the country.  It is where Bob Dylan first played the electric guitar.  It is where up-and-coming artists draw huge crowds and win over new fans.  It is set at Fort Adams State Park, just across the bay from Newport.  There were four stages, spread apart enough not to interfere with one another.  We bounced around from stage to stage all day, loving every minute of seeing some of our favorite artists:  Of Monsters and Men, The Head and the Heart, Punch Brothers, Tallest Man on Earth, GraveRobbers…I could go on and on. Jon and I first connected over our love of folk music.  He and I constantly seek out new artists to enjoy, and it is my favorite thing about us, that shared passion. Attending the folk festival with him was so special, such fun, and the perfect way to wrap up a fantastic week in New England.

I would love to go back overseas, but each summer that I spend seeing new parts of this great country, the more I realize how much domestic travel has to offer.  What a wealth of opportunity we have here!  And now I have my partner with whom I can enjoy all of these experiences…to say I am blessed would be an understatement.

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More Than a Teacher

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In the halls of Northwest Whitfield High School, circa 1997

Today I had lunch with a woman I hold oh-so-close to my heart, and have held her there since I was 15 years old.  She is one of the most influential people in my life, and in many ways, she made me who I am today.  Her name is Ann MacKinnon, and she was my high school science teacher for three years: Physical Science in ninth grade, Honors Chemistry in eleventh grade, and Honors Physics my senior year.  She is hands down the most intelligent woman I have ever known, but that is not why she is who she is to me.  You see, Mrs. MacKinnon saved me.  She went so far beyond what was expected of her as a teacher–she looked past my own view of myself and saw something she believed in, something she knew I needed to discover in myself.  Every morning before school, I went to her classroom to talk to her.  Many days I was back in her room after school, reaching out to her to help me figure out who I was.  Who I now am.  You see, I had a rough go of adolescence.  As so many teenage girls do, I hated my body, struggled to make good friends, and battled constantly with my parents who, I now realize, had absolutely no idea what to do with me. Mrs. MacKinnon reached out to me, pulled me close, and simply loved me.

ImageSince graduation in 1999, I have stayed in touch with Mrs. MacKinnon, who I later began to call AA for Aunt Ann, as she transcended the role of a teacher and became like family to me.  She and I try to go to lunch or dinner as often as we can, and whenever we do get together, we can’t help but look back on those tumultuous years and smile.  She always tells me how proud she is of me, how happy I am now, and how impressed she is with who I have become.  Is there any greater, more meaningful compliment?  I don’t think there is.  I always think of Ann when I stand in front of a room full of students, like I will be doing about three weeks from now, and I remember what she did for me, how many hours she gave me of her personal life, how many encouraging notes and gifts and hugs I have received from her over the years.  I can only hope that I have loved my students the way that Mrs. MacKinnon has loved me.  When teachers allow themselves to be more than a teacher to a kid, lives change.  I know this much is true.

ImageThis is a gift she gave me at lunch today, and as I opened it, she said that she thought of me as soon as she saw it, and she has had it wrapped for months, waiting on a chance for us to see one another.  I am humbled by her thoughtfulness and her love for me today.

Girls’ Trip?

Generally speaking, I am not a girls’ girl.  Growing up, I was awkward, terribly insecure, and much more interested in climbing the magnolia trees in my front yard with Patrick Ricker than playing Barbies inside the house with my sister.  In high school (notice I skipped middle school–no need to revisit those hellacious years), I made a few girlfriends through tennis, but those ended up being years I would generally rather forget.  And then through college, my insecurities kept me from getting close to girls because I couldn’t stop comparing my imperfect self with their (seemingly) perfect selves.  So…all that background to say, I do not have a strong background in female friendships.  Some of that has changed since my divorce and since Taylor moved to Bolivia three years ago, but I still never had a group of girls whose company I enjoyed.  I thought I was just a one-on-one type of girlfriend.

That said, I did not imagine myself ever going on a girls’ trip…and enjoying it. But last week I spent five days with three other girls and had a damn good time.  A fantastic time, even.  We giggled.  A lot.  We sang 90s music at the top of our lungs.  We talked about boys, about relationships, about hair, makeup, fashion…all those girly things that I didn’t think I liked talking about.  Well you know what?  I do.  I had a freaking blast with these girls, painting nails with them, letting them do my makeup and hair, and just being silly and ridiculous.  I tell you the truth:  I had NO IDEA I was capable of such behavior.  Seriously!  Going into the trip, I was so afraid of having one of my insecure meltdowns or worse, not knowing how to just be a girl around girls.  Neither fear manifested itself.  (Hallelujah!)

So contrary to my long-held belief that I just preferred being around guys or doing things on my own or with one other girlfriend, I learned that not only can I survive being in a room full of girls, but I can actually enjoy it.  I am so thankful for this realization, and thankful to the three girls who made my first-ever girls’ trip a raging success…already looking forward to next year!

Love love love to you, Jennifer, Robin, and Stacie Jean!

Ashes to Ashes this Wednesday

This morning, I attended the funeral for a 16-year-old boy who sat in my class when he was in 8th grade.  His name is Alex Koser and he was shot and killed by his stepfather last Sunday.  I have hardly been able to stop thinking about it since I heard the news.  When he was in my class, he was…troubled.  He did not pay attention.  He did not do his homework.  He drew all over his papers and all over himself.  He was not very polite or nice to me or anyone else.  Those are the kids who tend to get my attention, whether they like it or not.  I am drawn to them, won’t leave them alone, sometimes making them hate me, but most of the time making them see that somebody cares about them and wants to know them and their troubled mind.  Kids like Alex are the causes of my sleepless nights, the reasons I feel so emotionally and physically exhausted almost every single day.  They are also the reason I have been doing this job for almost ten years.  During the funeral today, one of the ministers made a point to say that it took him a long time to like Alex, and everyone in the congregation nervously laughed, probably because they could relate.  But then he quickly said that once you got Alex to break down his walls, once you got past his tattoos, his mohawk, his piercings, you saw his oh-so-tender heart, and you started loving him.  I collapsed when I heard those words because that was exactly what happened with me and Alex in room E109 at Hopewell Middle School.  The minister went on to say that too many of us would never have pushed past his tough exterior, instead we would clutch our purses tighter to our sides, avert our eyes, and mumble some comment about Kids These Days.  He is right, and you know it.  I know it.  As the service went on, I kept focusing on the urn on the alter, filled with the ashes of a vivacious teenage boy, and the scripture from Ecclesiastes 3:20  “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” We are all the same.

Tonight, I will get in my car with my boyfriend and two of my best friends and go to Trinity Anglican Mission Church for the Ash Wednesday service.  Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent, which is the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday, celebrating the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Tonight’s service will call on its attendees to make sacrifices in their everyday lives as a way to be mindful of the ultimate sacrifice that was made for all people when Jesus was crucified on a cross to save us from eternal separation from God. Most Christians choose to give up something for Lent, and ideally every time you crave that something, you are to be mindful of the ultimate sacrifice given for you and be prayerful and thankful.  I have not yet decided what I am going to give up this year.  In the past, I have given up Diet Coke, chocolate, meat, and hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock.  (That one actually stuck, and I sleep so much better now because of it.)  I am hoping that in tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, it will become clear to me what I need to sacrifice.

Now, friends, I issue a challenge to you.  Call your grandmother.  Call your parents.  Call your children, your grandchildren, your cousins.  Make a date with your friends and tell them how much they mean to you.  Today as I was watching all of those mourning teenagers, wandering around that church, hugging each other, not knowing what to say, and grown boys sobbing on a stage because they miss their best friend, I was reminded of the importance of affection, of kind words, of thoughtfulness, and of the beauty of having people in our lives who love us.

Peace be with you.

Be Kinder Than Necessary

The inspiration for this post derives from a quotation attributed to three men:  TH Thomspon, John Watson and/or Plato.  The original quotation is, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”  The first time I read this it resonated in my thoughts for hours.  I started to meditate on it and apply it to my relationships.  I try to gauge my reactions to friends, family, coworkers, students, and my boyfriend with this thought, “How would I want him/her to respond right now?”  This pause causes me to filter my words and actions, and has saved countless arguments and hurt feelings.  And I hope that it has made someone’s day, anyone’s day, a little bit better.  I try to apply it to the teenagers I pass in the hallways of Riverwood each day. Could I be the first (or only) person to smile at them today?  If that answer is possibly yes, then I must rise above my bad day, my personal woes, my selfish tendencies and greet them with a smile, a compliment, whatever I can do.

I want to be an exceptionally nice person.  I want to glow with love, affection, and kindness.  I have to remind myself every day of this.  Sometimes I forget.  I fail…a lot.  I am writing this post to immortalize these thoughts and make this a global commitment.  Hold me accountable, friends.  Some days it’s harder than others, but think about how much better our daily lives would be if more of us tried to be kinder than necessary.

I am Not Worthy. But I am Thankful.

Yesterday was my 30th birthday.  30.  New decade.  Am I where I thought I would be ten years ago?  Absolutely not.  And you know what?  That is a really great and wonderful thing to have gotten wrong.

See…I love my birthday.  I really do.  I always have.  I think it’s because growing up, none of my cousins or friends had birthdays around mine, so it was always special.  When you grow up with 20+ (I lost count) cousins, it’s hard to feel singled-out.  We almost always celebrated it over Labor Day weekend, so it was such a fun way to wrap up the end of summer and celebrate being back in school.  (Nerd.  I know.)  My mother never failed to have a custom-made cake ordered from her baker friend, and most parties were held at Dalton Parks and Recreation Center, up on the hill overlooking the playground.  I never stopped loving having one day that celebrated me and only me, and this year was certainly no exception.  Everyone in my life prepped Boyfriend on what to expect so that there was no way he was set up for failure.  (Sister:  No, really Jon, her birthday is a really big deal.  I don’t think you understand.  You better make it good.)  Thanks, Sister.  Anyway, he really did make it special:  Cirque du Soleil, shopping day carrying my bags, dinner at the most fun new restaurant in town, a big fun party on Sunday afternoon, cookie cake, roses, and a runner’s watch, complete with GPS and a heart-rate monitor.  He is amazing and I do not deserve him.

And then, there is everyone else…wow.  I am truly humbled by the affection, the attention, the generosity, the thoughtfulness that was bestowed upon me this weekend.  Who am I to deserve such gestures?  How did I collect such outrageously thoughtful friends?  The gifts, while so unexpected, were some of the most thoughtful surprises I have ever received.  And dozens of my friends who came out to celebrate with me at Ormsby’s, making me feel so loved.  And all the cards and notes and texts and Facebook Wall messages that completely humbled me, bringing me to tears.  My heart swells with gratitude.

I am not worthy.

But I am thankful.

Thank you.  All of you.

A Reflection on Summer’s End

I started this blog in July of 2009, the summer I traveled alone through Spain and Italy.  The blog’s original purpose was for my mother’s and friends’ peace of mind as I went abroad.  I posted updates as often as I could and the experience of documenting my trip on a widely-read blog enriched my trip more than I ever could have imagined.  (See Archives for those posts!)

When I got home from that trip, I missed writing about my days, so I decided to keep writing my travel blog, even if I wasn’t getting on airplanes all the time.  See, I want to live in a way that makes most days feel I am traveling through life, being adventurous, feeling in awe of my surroundings, and soaking up the culture of whomever I am surrounded by.

Last summer, I again traveled alone, but this time instead of going abroad, I went to California.  What a gorgeous part of our country!  Then in August I went to Colorado with girlfriends.  And again, I blogged about it and felt that my travels were richer because of the posts. (See Archives!)

And this summer…well, things have been different than the last two years.  First of all, I’m not embarrassed to say that I just didn’t have the money to go on a Grand Adventure.  Fulton County teachers had even more days of pay taken out of both summer checks this year.  In addition to that lost income, I moved apartments at the end of May.  Not cheap.  And did I mention that I live alone now instead of with a roommate?  Man, it sure was nice to split rent and bills for a couple of years.  (I miss you, Josh Armentrout.  And your monthly check.)  So where did that leave me?  In my new one-bedroom apartment, that’s where.  I did take a little jaunt around the Southeast to Charleston and Savannah and PCB with Boyfriend and family, and while that was a lovely time, I struggled with longing for a big trip, a solo adventure.

So, what did I do with myself all seven weeks of summer?  I cooked great meals.  (Ask my boyfriend!)  I lunched with friends.  (Remember teachers eat sack lunches on a 20-minute break during the school year.) I read books, magazines, NPR articles, and cookbooks.  I discovered new music artists.  (Favorite find:  Matthew and the Atlas) I watched The Bachelorette on DVR with Kimber every Tuesday afternoon.  (Team Ben) I adopted a kitten named Pepper.  (Cutest kitten ever.) I went to the lake every chance I got.  (Thank God for friends with family lakehouses.)  I did projects I never seem to get to on weekends.  It was lovely, and I was never ever bored.

But you know what my favorite summer activity was?  I started running again.  I fell out of love with running a couple of years ago, but I felt a craving for it this past spring, so as soon as I faced luxurious weeks off, I knew I had no more excuses.  I set a goal to be able to run five miles by the end of summer.  And I’m so excited to report that today, on my last day of summer break, I did it!  I ran five miles in 50 minutes!  Running is a cure-all for me.  If I can get a good run in three or four days per week, I sleep better, I eat healthier, I feel less stressed, and my self-confidence soars.  It will be a struggle to keep it up with school starting back, but as long as I can remind myself of all of those benefits of running, I am sure that I will maintain my endurance and love of running.

And here I am at summer’s end, goal accomplished, rested, rejuvenated, and looking to start a new position at a new school tomorrow.  I am still too emotional to write about how much I will miss Hopewell Middle School, so right now I just have to focus on the exciting career changes that are ahead of me this year.  I can’t wait to work in the lives of these high school kids!  It’s going to be an awesome year…

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