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Fresh on the heels of listening to the recording of “You’re Already Good Enough: How Embracing Imperfection and Cultivating Confidence Frees You to Influence and Lead,” I’m putting together an expressive arts project for homeless youth. As I work, I’m thinking, “That’s what these kids need to hear: ‘You’re already good enough!’” Then I pause. While I suspect this is, in fact true, is there anyone who can’t benefit from a bit of reassurance?

I know I need it. Lots. Most of the time, I have some in stock. I just reach into my mental pantry and grab a jar of Hey, I got this. Or a whiff of the idea does the trick. I glimpse evidence that some part of my life is OK and get the needed boost. This is why I love having a clean kitchen and a stocked fridge. It reminds me that whatever chaos is going on, I’ve got decent prospects for survival.

[photo of B Morton]

Dr. Beatrice Morton, mother of three grown children, earned her doctorate at the University of Utah in 1968, when she was in her Fifties.

As a creative writing teacher, a lot of what I do is help people manage fear. Putting your ideas out there for the world to see (or ignore) can be terrifying. I coach my students to reduce the unknown by reading and research. To outwit their inner critics by breaking projects into bite-sized chunks. To nurture their momentum by celebrating small victories like hitting a word count or completing a session. I remind them as often as necessary that if they do these things consistently over time, their work inevitably improves. As a writer, this mental practice runs alongside and through my writing practice. I rely on it daily, whether I’m working on a short story, a grant proposal, or (ahem) a blog post.

Yet there are times when I’m too freaked out by the enormity of the gap between me and a goal to apply my own advice, like when I started studying for my doctoral qualifying exams. The written component I was fine with. I’m a writer. I have a decent idea of how to make written things happen. The three-hour oral component that I had to pass first was another story. Have you ever seen that Food Network show, Chopped? In my department, oral exams consist of committee members taking turns giving you questions, each of which is like a basket of mystery ingredients that may not go together. Your job is to whip up a cohesive, tasty answer that includes the basket items while your judges look on and, well, judge. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel at least some passing discomfort at the prospect of undergoing this rite of passage, but I couldn’t have been more nervous if you’d told me I’d be giving birth to twin Buicks.

My husband, a lovely and encouraging partner, tried to convince me I was already good enough to pass my oral exams. He meant that I already had whatever skills and knowledge the occasion required. I told him (strenuously) that I wasn’t good enough. In a sense, I was right: I was still preparing when we had this exchange. I wasn’t merely nervous: I really wasn’t ready. But in the sense meant by the panelists in the “You’re Already Good Enough” event, I was: the need to build my oral exam skills and master some content wasn’t a reflection of my worth past, present, or future. It was just a stretch along a path I could choose to keep climbing if I wanted to reach a particular destination.

This time in my academic life required me to truly, deeply understand, accept and embrace the distinction. I was good enough—regardless of the outcome of the test. I don’t mean this acceptance was perfect or complete. On a good day, I was maybe 84% sure my worth as a human had little to do with that exam, with the remainder varying between suspecting that it did and ignoring the question altogether. But it was sufficient to let me see how even my mental outlook could be just one more subject in which I could, with knowledge and effort, improve.

This took extra, ongoing labor, which included adapting some exercises from a sports psychology book to my academic goals, then doing them almost daily. This was not my idea of fun. My idea of fun is watching Chopped with my nine-year-old, who makes hilarious and astute observations. But I thought of this like doing reps at the gym so I can run farther without hurting myself. While I wasn’t transformed from a neurotic basket case into a serene professional academic, I was settled enough to do my job: read, review, remember (repeat daily for numerous weeks). On the fateful day, I performed with at least enough poise and wit to convince my committee to let me through to the next challenge.

Would I love to have had an effortless self-assurance in facing those exams? You betcha. But my confidence for that particular challenge had to be cooked from scratch. The goal was important enough to me to invest that effort and not to worry that the cool kids in my department didn’t have to go to such lengths. It was worth accepting the radical notion that imperfect me was perfectly good enough to take the next step I needed toward my academic dream.

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Do you know what’s happening to public colleges and universities in the U.S.? Are you noticing this thing where funding is being cut to programs many humans need to be humans and not simply human-like wafers to be chewed by the economic machine? To be more than wage-slaves too exhausted to question whether a bigger flatscreen really is a fair exchange for their souls?

Nicole Walker is noticing. And she’s writing about it here in a series of open letters to the governor of her state. In one of them, she describes a former student who needed her state’s university system to become the Contributing Member of Society she is now. I can relate. Without the State University of New York and federal financial aid, I don’t know where I’d be, but I’m pretty sure I’d be such a miserable pain in the ass, I’d be making everyone around me miserable too.

Because when you have intelligence and talent–and I think people do, generally, have these qualities–and it goes undeveloped, it turns rank, toxic, dangerous. But when, as a society, we stay committed to making sure even poor kids like I was get the guidance and support needed to develop raw appetite for artistic expression into career-and-life-building skills, we all benefit.

Please make sure your political representatives understand that state colleges and universities need to be protected and respected as intellectual and creative incubators, not stripped down to serve only as vocational training programs run by business, for business.

Part of the joy of recently completing my doctoral exams (and I passed! yea!) is having more time for fun service projects, like team-teaching a Third Grade class with my lovely husband, poet Dave Hawkins. On Tuesday, we got the kids to write haiku poems focusing on an image or mood they associated with a winter holiday. Dave did a great job introducing the writing project, and we each took on helping a different half of the class as they drafted their poems.

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On Thursday, we returned to the class to help the kids turn their poems into teddy bear ornaments. It took me a short time (and several versions) to develop the design, then about two hours to hand-copy and cut enough bears and bows for the whole class. Dave helped me prep the kits, including stringing the yarn through the bears’ heads. It was well worth the effort: the kids had a great time with the activity and, at the end, were eager to stand up and read their poems to the class.

To save time by reducing the need for clean-up, we used glue dots and sticker-backed embellishments (gem stickers) for the eyes. To improve the longevity of the projects, I sprung for acid-free papers. It helped that I found the acid-free brown cardstock on clearance, but in any case, I know I’ll use the extra. That said, this project can easily be done less expensively with construction paper or even repurposed chipboard (i.e., a cereal box).

INSTRUCTIONS

Materials & such to create 1 kit:

Black permanent marker

Cardstock

Light-colored, patterned paper

Gem stickers

Glitter paper (or any contrasting paper)

Glue dots (very helpful for classroom)

Hole punch

Plastic/paper bag, small

Scissors

Yarn

Steps:

  1. Trace the outline of a bear onto cardstock. (Feel free to copy/adapt mine if you’d like.)
  2. With the black marker, outline the bear’s body and draw features such as the face, ears, and paws.
  3. Cut out the bear, including cuts under the bear’s front paws.
  4. Punch a hole at the top of the bear’s head and thread it with a loop of yarn. Set aside.
  5. To create the placard for the poem, cut a rectangle of decorative paper (large enough to hold a haiku, small enough to fit when tucked under the bear’s arms). Make enough so that kids can have a new one if they mess up. Set aside.
  6. Cut a bow out of glitter paper. (Hint: Make sure the center of the bow is a little larger than the size of your glue dots.) Set aside.
  7. Assemble the kits: one bear, one placard, one bow. Add sticker sheets if you have them. My gem stickers were on such small sheets, I couldn’t cut them up and I couldn’t afford a whole sheet per kit.

Xmas Bear Ornament

INSTRUCTIONS – DURING THE EVENT

Materials and such:

Kit

Crayons/markers for coloring

Marker for writing (fine-tipped, dark-colored ink)

Scrap paper

Stickers (optional)

Steps

  1. Show a completed version of the project, pointing out that the bow can be on the bear’s head or at the bear’s neck, or anywhere else the kids want to put it or nowhere at all. It’s their bear.
  2. Get the kids to practice writing their poems with their markers on scrap paper as you pass out the kits. Assure the nervous ones that legibility, not perfection, is the aim. When the kids are ready, direct them to write their poems on the decorative paper.
  3. As the kids complete their poems, have them decorate their bears using crayons, markers, and stickers. I walked around delivering gem stickers for the bears’ eyes while Dave walked around doling out glue dots for the bows and to hold the placards in place once the bears were all done. Watch out for kids who want more than their share of stickers to put on their earlobes, unless you have plenty, in which case, who cares?
  4. Hold a rapid-fire holiday haiku reading party!
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