Friday, June 28, 2013

Girl Power

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I was in New York this week, pairing an appearance on the Today Show with much-needed reunions with a couple of amazing women that I hardly ever get to see. I have been so blessed as I move into this year of writing and pre-publicity for my book, in that the parenting and education community have gone above and beyond to support me. Forget what you've seen in the television depictions of catty and back-stabbing professional women; my experiences have been the polar opposite of that stereotype. Amazing, smart, and talented women have offered their knowledge and connections up to me without expectation of payback, and the latest in this procession of incredible women is Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, who co-guested on the segment above. While we waited in the greenroom, she introduced me around and gave me the low-down on how things work around NBC. We also managed to give someone parenting advice while we waited for our segment to tape (and ogle the male models waiting for their segment...although that may have been just me).

So thank you, parenting education writers, and you all know who you are. There are too many to mention and I'd surely leave someone out. I know, because I started listing you for this post and it just got silly. I really and truly could not be writing this book and doing these appearances without you.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Today, and Another Trip Over the Atlantic

It's been a great first week of summer. The article on boys and education at the Atlantic is doing really well and has been shared on Facebook over 17,000 times. I took Ben to camp last weekend and got to talk about it on Vermont Public Radio, and then I wrote about it for the Atlantic. This piece also marks the debut of my first published title in a major news outlet. "Good-bye, and Go Away, Thank You Very Much." I tend to like titles that don't say much about the piece itself, and my picky editors tend to like titles that actually convey some meaning. Humph. 

I'm in New York City right now because I'm taping a segment for the Today Show tomorrow that will run on Friday, June 28, in the fourth hour. That piece is on preventing summer academic slump and I get to present some samples of great summer reading. I'm going to keep those selections a secret until the show airs, but I really have to thank my Twitter and Facebook friends and followers for offering up their favorite books as suggestions. 
And the best part of this week? I took those book selections with me to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre and sat on the sidewalk for a couple of hours in order to score some standing room only or lottery tickets for The Book of Mormon. Seemed like a great thing to do to celebrate the demise of DOMA. 

Standing room only means just that; you stand at the back of the theater for the entire show. If you want to get those tickets ($27.00 each, you can have up to two per person, there are roughly 22 of these available for every show), you should show up at 3:00. I was there at 3:15 and I was third in line. At five, the wonderfully friendly lottery guy hands out cards and the people who have gathered in the hopes of getting some incredible seats for only $32.00 hold their breath while he pulls cards out of a lottery wheel. There are about 300-400 people gathered for about 25 seats in the front row and in the two front boxes. It's all very dramatic and lottery guy was a hoot. I had reason to hope when he announced the second card and mentioned the person had come all the way from New Hampshire, and yep, it was true. I had scored front row center seats (and a lovely button announcing that I'd won the Book of Mormon lottery).

As I said, it's been a great week. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Across the Atlantic

In my first weeks of summer, and therefore the beginning of my two-year adventure as a full-time writer (can you tell I like to type those words? Full-time writer. They have a certain loveliness and poetry.) I've been busy. Here's what's going on over at the Atlantic. You can read the rest of the article and check out the 200-odd (and I do mean odd) comments here.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Following Tom Ryan

I have wanted to be a full-time, real-live, professional writer my entire life. This week - today, actually - my dreams came true. Today was the first day of my full-time writing career, and I wanted to mark this occasion by reprinting (thank you, Cassie Jones at HarperCollins) a little bit of the P.S. section of the paperback edition of Following Atticus: Forty-eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan. For those writers out there who like to read what amounts to publishing porn, you can find the salacious details of the story in "When Opportunity Knocks: Anatomy of a Viral Post" Part I, Part II, and Part III. Yes, it takes three installments to tell the tale. 

I don't remember if Tom found my writing first or if I found Tom's, but I do remember that we found each other on Twitter. We tweeted, then we emailed, and we built a friendship. One day, he called me up and asked me to write the author interview and introduction to the P.S. section of his paperback edition. He had plenty of other offers to write that section, from authors far, far more well-known than I, but he knew I got his book.

Despite the fact that we both live in New Hampshire, and we both love to hike, I don't get to see Tom very often, as he's a private, quiet kind of guy, and I respect that. I do, however, want to take this opportunity to thank him for his faith in me. Faith that I could write part of his book, and faith that someday, we would both be full-time, real-live, professional writers. 

Introduction to an Interview with Tom Ryan

I have always been a sucker for a good coming of age story; tales of adventure, trials, and spiritual epiphany fuel my mind, my soul, and my teaching. These are our stories; the tales of humankind’s journey through the world, into the wilderness, and back home again. These are the stories I tell my children and my students. Stories of heroes who step out of ordinary lives and, despite the obstacles in their path, achieve the extraordinary.
When my copy of Following Atticus arrived in the mail, I dropped my briefcase on the floor of my mudroom, sat on the nearest chair, and opened to the introduction. The first passage I read was Tom’s description of Atticus, a lone figure atop Wildcat Mountain: “He is Frodo Baggins, he is Don Quixote; he is Huck Finn. He is every unlikely hero who ever took a step out of the door and found himself swept up in adventure.”
When I read that passage, I knew. I had found a kindred spirit. Two, actually.
Heroes are not necessarily the stuff of summer blockbusters and caped crusaders. Sometimes, they are just a man and his small dog doing what they know is right. Doing what they are meant to do.

Tom writes that Following Atticus, “…is not the end of a book but nearly a chapter.” In the following interview, I ask Tom about the new direction his life has taken since the book’s release, the obstacles he and Atticus have encountered in the world beyond the White Mountains, and the paths these two unlikely heroes have explored in search of their next chapter.

For more, including my interview with Tom Ryan, see the P.S. section of Following Atticus: Forty-eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Just Another Starting Point

“The feeling is less like an ending than just another starting point.”
Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

Today is my last day of school for a couple of years, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. I'm excited to be a full-time writer, of course. I've dreamed of that my entire life. However, the cycle of the school year, the give and take and ebb and flow and advancing and receding of school and adolescence has become the driving beat of my life, and as that low bass thrum recedes into the distance, I am left without a percussion section. 

While I finish up my meetings and search for my new beginnings, I am going to post another mom's new beginning. I first read this piece over at Isabel Kallman's fantastic site, AlphaMom, last week. It then popped up in Sue Scheff's wonderful blog on parenting, and most recently, one of my favorite blogs about parenting older kids, Grown and Flown. It's a piece that must have taken a lot of bravery, and as I step off into my own future, I am proud to post this mother's story. 

Thanks to Isabel Kallman and the author of this piece for allowing this story to be posted wherever parents might find some comfort in its message. 

Filling in the Blanks

When I introduce myself from here on out, I am supposed to say, “Hi, my name is ______________, and I’m an alcoholic.” That’s the first step, according to the brochure some nice woman handed me as I entered my first AA meeting day before yesterday.

As I have left that space in my introduction blank, it’s fairly obvious I’m not all the way there yet. That step, and all the subsequent ones I’m going to have to tread, are not entirely clear to me yet.

It’s not that I have any doubt that I’m an alcoholic. I know what alcoholics look like, and they look a heck of a lot like me. And my mom, and my aunt, and my grandfather, and my cousin, and my great-grandmother. I am well-acquainted with alcoholics, and the specter of all those slurry words and empty, glassy stares loom large in my childhood memories.

I hated it. Hated them sometimes, and I swore that no matter what, I’d never end up like them. I’d never allow my children and grandchildren and nieces and great-grandchildren to equate me with “alcoholic.”

For a long time, I simply avoided alcohol, figuring that would be the best way to circumnavigate my inheritance. In high school and college, I was everyone’s designated driver, the responsible one who, as a bonus, could lord all that moral superiority over my drunken classmates, mother, and grandfather, knowing I was above all that. I would never be like them.

When I had my own children, and it came time to deliver an ultimatum to my mother – she’d have to choose, alcohol or her grandchildren - I had already begun to slide down the same slope she’d traveled. I knew I was slipping, and I knew where that slope led, but to reveal that reality to anyone else would be to admit I might just be like my mother, and I was too angry at her to allow any such comparison.

When my children were young, avoiding that comparison was easy. My children were too little and too oblivious to comprehend how many glasses of wine I’d had. I figured I’d get the drinking back under control by the time they were old enough to be observant. Because, of course, I could stop any time I wanted to.

I just didn’t want to.

This year, we started to talk to our oldest, very observant child about alcohol. We were matter-of-fact and blunt. Alcohol has had a tight and devastating hold on both sides of his family for generations. We told him that it’s going to be very important for him to pay attention to his drinking. To know the difference between social drinking and problem drinking.

Yes, very important, I repeated, as I sociably sipped my wine.

Three days ago, sociability slipped into problematic which slipped into unconsciousness, and I was careless enough to let that happen in front of my entire extended family. I’d like to say my observant eldest child did not notice, but I have no idea. I don’t remember. That’s a blank, too.

The next morning, my father informed me that I’d have to choose - alcohol or them - and I chose them. I cried, threw up, showered, and drove to my first AA meeting. My husband offered to go with me, but I knew these were steps I’d have to take alone.

When I walked into that church basement, packed with one hundred other alcoholics, I wasn’t fooling anyone. No introduction was needed; I was simply one of them.

This weekend, over a dinner without that problematic glass of wine, I will have to look my son in the eye and say the words that fit into that blank up there at the top of this page for the very first time. While I am scared to death, it will be a relief. It will be the end of ten years of sliding and the beginning of my journey back uphill.

My son introduces me to his friends as many a lot of things – mother, wife, writer – and I I’m incredibly proud of those labels. Proud enough that I refuse to allow this newest label to obliterate everything else I’ve worked so hard to become. I’ve finally done the math and figured out that the only way I get to keep those other identities is to admit the word “alcoholic” to my list of identities.

Because when my son is my age, I want him to be proud of me, particularly if our mutual inheritance grabs hold and threatens to drag him down. As his mother – particularly his alcoholic mother - the most important gift I can give him is the power of my example to guide him if he ever stumbles upon the treacherous terrain of our family’s well-worn slippery slope.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Door's Open but the Ride ain't Free

In the midst the deepest, darkest, most sweltering miles of Sunday's Covered Bridges Half Marathon between Pomfret and Quechee, VT, I glimpsed both the tantalizing vision of an unexpected Gatorade stop and a new direction for this blog.

The school year is coming to an end, I have an entire book to write by November 1, and I'm....well, frankly, I'm a little bit nervous about that.

I've always been a teacher who writes. A teacher and a writer. I like the balance of that sentence, the weight of those two occupations distributed evenly on each end. I depend on the give and take of that arrangement; the influx of material through teaching and the outpouring of words through writing. When the school year ends next week, I will no longer be a teacher and a writer. I am taking a leave of absence in order to give this incredible opportunity, this book, my best shot.

For the next two years, I will be a writer. Full stop. Hear the clunk at the end of that sentence? It's as if the teacher jumped off the see-saw while that writer was up in the air, and bam. The writer is left behind, bewildered and a little breathless.

My entire life, I have dreamed of being "just" a writer, a real, professional, pay-the-bills-with-words writer. And now I am.

I am at once relieved and terrified, and the one thing I know for certain is that the coming two years will be an adventure.

I was worrying over the coming two years as I approached that lovely Gatorade station. Which did not, in fact, exist. I had conjured it into being out of my thirst and fatigue, and the mirage melted away just as I reached it.


As I checked myself for signs of heat exhaustion, I thought of another woman who is embarking on her own new adventure. Sherry is a writer I met through an amazing writer and literary agent  Betsy Lerner. Actually, I've never "met" either of them. Betsy's blog about the writing life is populated with writers whose work I follow, writers I admire and adore. A few weeks ago, Betsy shared the news of Sherry's new adventure on her blog, and as I made peace with that disappearing Gatorade station, I realized that Sherry is the perfect person to kick off my two-year stint in uncharted territory.

Fortunately, Sherry graciously agreed to share the story of her new path. Oh, and I finished the race without keeling over from heat exhaustion.

I will let Sherry take the reins from here, and I hope you will stick around to see where this is all headed.

My name is Sherry, and I am changing my life.

As I whimpered past the age of 50, I realized I’d spent the last 30 years doing the same ordinary things. Every. Single. Day.

I know many people who are in a similar rut: those who spend more than their share of evenings folding clothes in front of the TV, daydreaming about the world out there while they contemplate having that second bowl of ice cream.

So, in the last few months, I took the first steps toward a new life journey. I sold my house of 21 years, bought a condo, and lost nearly 30 pounds (with more than a few to go). And then I started pondering how I might shake up my life in a number of smaller ways. Thus was born, “The 52/52 Project: A Yearof New Experiences.”

As I turn 52 this year, I am embarking on a list of 52 things I’ve never before done—a year of weekly experiences well outside my comfort zone. It’s not a bucket list. Several of these are not events any sane person would have a natural hankering to attempt. Some will prove to be fun, while others loom as frightening. More than a few will surely end up embarrassing.

They range from training for a 5K (this for a woman who piles items at the bottom of the stairs so to avoid making more than one freaking trip up the steps, and who last ran nearly 20 years ago, probably up to the bar for last-call) to spending the night in a haunted house (I do believe in spooks, I do, I DO), to getting a Brazilian wax (just shoot me now).

Why now? Was the anticipation of turning 52 some magical moment? Likely not. But at some point in our lives, we either decide to continue sighing at the status quo or we embrace change.

I’ve chosen to embrace change, albeit with trembling fingers.

As a humor writer, a number of the experiences on my initial list were crazy, trivial items, primarily designed for a laugh. Some of those silly items remain there. Everyone should behave silly from time to time, and going outside our comfort zone certainly requires being able to laugh at ourselves.

But just a few weeks into the project, it began to evolve. Because I began to evolve.

The readers commenting on my new Facebook page, which chronicles my adventures, appeared to be charged and excited. A few called me an inspiration. Me? The middle-aged woman who never thought of herself as more than a cautionary tale—was now somehow an inspiration?

That inspired me to look deeper into myself and my project. I replaced a few of the more trivial line-items with more meaningful experiences. Most stories are still likely to draw laughs—especially my own self-deprecating laughter. Some will be more thought-provoking.

I hope to succeed at most. It’s possible I’ll fail at a few. But even then, I hope the experience will result in my changing and growing.

I hope you will laugh with me, cringe with me, and evolve with me, on this year-long journey.

Please join me in jumping the curb, taking a detour from the safe and secure cul-de-sac of our lives to visit personally unexplored territories.

But buckle up; it could be a bumpy ride.

Sherry Stanfa-Stanley is fond of saying she is a recent empty-nester who now devotes her spare time to caring for rescued animals. In reality, the grown children keep coming home and she caters to a bunch of spoiled and badly behaved pets. By day, Sherry is a communication director at a midwestern university, and by night she writes women’s fiction, humor, and human interest stories. Sherry’s work has appeared here and there, and now here… She received one of nine national fellowships in 2011 by the Midwest Writers Workshop. She is currently changing her life through 52 eye-opening, frightening and humiliating new experiences. Follow along on Facebook at

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Report Card Season of My Discontent

NB: I am reposting this essay as it is, yet again, report card season. Not the one that coincides with New England mud season, as indicated in this piece, but the one that coincides with the heat of early summer and an office without an air conditioner. It's always something.

This year, winter term report cards fall during the famous New Hampshire mud season, and I am discontent. The asparagus is beginning to heave its way skyward, the bears are emerging from their dens with cubs at their heels, and the earth is waking up from its long winter's nap. The last thing I want to do is tabulate point totals and write narrative comments explaining Dick’s low quiz scores or Jane’s lack of class participation.

It’s not as if I did not know this task was part of the deal – like tests, teacher evaluations and curriculum mapping, report cards are one of the less enjoyable aspects of a job I otherwise adore. I have worked in a few different schools, both public and private, and until recently, report cards demanded little more than a letter grade and maybe a sentence in which the teacher reports a fondness for Dick or Jane, that he or she is a pleasure to have in the classroom. Based on my mother’s recollection, one or two sentences were all my parents expected to find on my report cards when I was in school. However, parents expect much more than a line or two these days, and the pressure is on teachers to execute a very delicate dance, toeing the very thin line between outrage and constructive criticism, positive feedback and empty platitudes. This line – let me stress this - it is so very, very thin, and the implications when one oversteps said line are so very, very unpleasant.

The real meat of the report card lies in narrative section, and these words, as all teachers know, are where we must prove our mettle and succeed or fail in front of the audience that ultimately decides our fate: parents. The successful execution of this narrative demands that teachers act as writers, spin-doctors, therapists and jurists. These comments are treacherous territory, and each one requires careful planning, execution, and editing.

That said, I am also the parent of a middle school student, so I absolutely get it – report cards are a window on a parallel universe. We entrust our children to relative strangers for eight hours a day, and many kids spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents. Report cards are a tangible verdict on all those stressful hours of homework, hard-won test scores and angst.

To that end, I do my best to throw that window open and offer parents the best possible view. Some love the view, others would rather close the curtains, but I offer it to them in case they want to take it in. The first paragraph of any successful report card comment must begin on a positive note, a sentence intended to ground parents in their happy place. Once there, I am able to follow up with a sentence or two about general concerns, buffered by a final positive sentiment - a lovely, soft topper on the delicious and nutritious criticism sandwich I've created. I then detail the overall trimester grade and how it breaks down in to category percentages such as participation, homework, composition, and assessments.. All that’s left is to add is a judgment-neutral transitional sentence to cushion the harsh reality of the numbers.

Paragraph two discusses specific issues – the student is capable but coasting, the student needs work on his organization, the student is absolutely killing me because she fails to bring her materials to class, the student tends to create a gravitational black hole of inattention in the back of my classroom…that sort of thing. The words must be backed up with specific examples, honest but safely distanced from anger, and absolutely free of wishy-washy language. Oh, hang on - a tip for new teachers out there: I have found that even the most well-intentioned and witty jokes don’t work in this context. Even if it made you giggle when you wrote it – heck, especially if it made you giggle, dump it. Trust me. It will go over like a lead balloon in the context of a report card comment.

Paragraph three is key to the success of the report card. The comment must end on a positive, hopeful, and enthusiastic note. I look forward to the rest of my year with your child and fully expect that he or she will mature into a fine scholar, that sort of thing. This final sentiment puts parents safely back in their happy place, and paves the way for a productive and non-confrontational parent-teacher conference.

Multiply all of my students in each section by the number of requisite paragraphs, and that's roughly 126 paragraphs of painstakingly constructed feedback. One hundred and twenty-six. Every spare moment outside of class time is consumed by report writing. I write after my kids have gone to bed, during lunch break, in between classes, before work over my morning coffee. Oh - another note to new teachers: I have learned to wait until after coffee to write comments. Before coffee is a very bad time to write report cards.

I could take advantage of a shortcut, if I'm so inclined. I could purchase this horrifying crutch, for example. According to the promotional literature on the website, teachers can "Save valuable time by simply inserting student’s name into the comment that best matches level of recorded achievement." Think of the time savings! If I opted for the method, my life would be so much simpler (“Why spend time writing your own?”)! The long season of my discontent would be reduced to a few hours of cut-and-paste convenience! Comments so bland as to be impervious to criticism! Pre-proofread!

All for just $29.95 and an abdication of my professional standards.

Thanks for the offer,, but I think I will stick with my inefficient and antiquated method of crafting unique reports for each student. I expect my students to show up to class ready to participate in their education; the least I can do is take the time to create a report card that genuinely reflects each student’s individual efforts, personalities, and attitudes.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

I Can No Other Answer Make, But Thanks, and Thanks.

I teach my students to send thank you notes. My mother taught me to send thank you notes, and I am teaching my own children to do the same, so it only seems fitting that I should educate my students about the emotional weight of a sincere thank you.

A few years ago, I heard Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg comment in a radio interview - or maybe it was someone commenting on Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg - on the importance of thank you notes. Apparently, Jackie taught them to send thank you notes without fail, and even today, Jackie and Caroline's thank you notes are cherished for their warmth and sincerity, not to mention their historical significance.

So when I sold my book, currently titled The Gift of Failure, to HarperCollins, I set out to convey my gratitude. To every teacher, coach, pastor, parent, administrator, blogger, and reporter who caused the article "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail," originally published at the Atlantic, to go viral.

The piece was published on a Tuesday, it was "viral" by Wednesday, and by the following week, the trajectory of my life had changed. Suddenly, pipe dreams were reality by the end of that month, I found myself with my dream agent and a book deal.

Therefore, I owe a hell of a lot of people thank you notes.

Every day, after school is over, and before my evening begins, I spend about an hour figuring out who shared my article, who took the time to tell their friends and colleagues about my writing.

I try to send real, snail mail notes, but you can't imagine how hard it is to find physical addresses for bloggers and reporters these days. School districts, yes. I can address something to a particular teacher or coach, care of their school district, but it's hard to get email addresses, let alone physical addresses, for most people.

Blogging Tip: If you'd like to be contacted with ideas, thank you notes, or free books, please make an address available. At the very least an email address, but even better, a physical address. Even if it's a PO box.

Gratitude, conveyed with sincerity and care, is underestimated in our society, but it's such a gift. It's been challenging to teach my children about its worth, mainly because developmentally, children are often such self-centered, empathy-challenged narcissists. But I will keep pounding away at that particular lesson until it gets through.

Because over a lifetime, there will be so many people to thank.