Starting the Next Chapter
August 29, 2022 § 24 Comments
By Meg McGovern
In my sixty-one years of life, most have revolved around a school calendar. Unlike people in the business world whose fiscal year is January to December, a student-who-has-become-a-teacher’s new year begins at the end of August.
When the school year culminates in June, teachers are exhausted and have a lengthy to-do list for summer vacation; clean the basement, organize pictures, shred old receipts and bank statements, get the carpets cleaned, tend to the gardens, schedule physical and dental appointments for all family members including the dog. The list goes on. For me, a buzz of new energy kicks in that first week of break, and I begin tackling my list. Summer gives me the luxury of swimming laps in the morning, having coffee with friends or playing pickle ball, spending time writing, and then getting to the list. By the second week of summer vacation, fatigue from the school year creates a fog so dense I can’t see straight. The list becomes less important. Instead, a book and a chaise lounge entice me to the porch. There’s always tomorrow, I tell myself. When my husband, Brian, gets home from work, he pops his head out the porch door and says happily, “My summer wife has landed.”
Brian and I spend July visiting our sons, other family members, and friends, or exploring a new destination. This year was no different, except for when the calendar went from July to August. I sat on my beach chair overlooking Lake Champlain, coffee in hand, and Gia—our yellow lab—at my feet. The early morning water was smooth like glass. The Vermont mountains, in various hues of greens and blues, rose above the lake. Sailboats looked like toys in the distance. With no work worries, I felt at ease and immersed myself into the quietness. August has always signaled the time to wrap up my to-do list until next summer and get my mind back to teaching. August, when the back-to-school commercials begin, the month of perpetual Sundays, has always given me a mix of excitement and agita.
The excitement is for a fresh start. Teachers, unlike most professionals, begin each new year with a clean slate, a new roster of students, new supplies of paper, notebooks, sharp pencils, highlighters that work, glue sticks, and a sparkling, uncluttered classroom. I redo the bulletin board backgrounds, set up a writer’s workshop center with filled staplers, sharp pencils in a container for borrowing, and lined paper. On my desk are empty baskets for the piles that will soon build up, a new calendar, and a gradebook. The first few days of school are spent catching up with colleagues, getting to know students, remembering 115 new names, setting up rules and expectations, and creating a positive learning environment. The agita is for the knowing, the knowing that after the honeymoon weeks, the hard work begins, and it is all consuming for the next ten months.
I officially retired from teaching Language Arts in the public schools on June 30th of this year. July 1st began a new journey which comes with mixed emotions. I will miss those beautiful moments when a student writes from their heart about his dog that died and cries the tears that needed to be shed, when a student tells me I am her trusted adult because I listen, when a parent thanks me for having faith in their child when no one else does. Other days when I can sit at my desk and write for five hours at a time working on my memoir, I know this was the right decision. Some question if I will be bored—a word I dislike by the way. When a parent would suggest their child was bored in school, I’d suggest reading a classic, writing a story from a different angle, going beyond what is being expected from the teacher. So, when people ask me if I will be bored, I say, “Heck no. There are not enough years left in my life to read every book and write every story and accomplish everything I still want to do.”
When school starts on August 31st, I will head to Staples and buy myself a few composition notebooks and fine tip pens for my own writing. I will embrace this next chapter, open to its path, wherever it may lead.
Meg McGovern is an author, educator, and speaker. She is the author of We’re Good, The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg recently retired from teaching middle school Language Arts. She is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has written several essays for their blog. Meg earned an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut and is currently working on a memoir. She and her husband live in Trumbull, Connecticut with their yellow Labrador, Gia. Together they enjoy skiing and hiking with their two adult sons.
The Art of Letter Writing
June 2, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Meg Keeshan McGovern
A handwritten letter from an old friend came in the mail along with a hand-blown glass paper weight housing a decoupage of bachelor buttons. It was packed in a beautiful box with a purple ribbon. This friend knew my love for letters and flowers in an old-fashioned sort of way. The first line of her letter said, “I felt that such an auspicious event deserved an actual handwritten note.” She expressed the reality that handwritten notes are not as common as they once were. Seeing my friend’s scrawling script, brought back memories of our younger days when writing a letter was considered etiquette.
The handwritten letter is an art. It takes inspiration and thought. What stationery should I use, the one with the flowers or my initials? Which pen should I write with, my calligraphy pen or my silky, black felt tip? Which stamp should I place on the envelope, the one with LOVE or the one with the United States flag? The answers depend upon the person you are writing to—a spouse, relative, friend, or colleague. It depends upon the event—a wedding, new baby, death of a loved one, get-well, thinking of you, or holiday. The art of letter writing using a pen and paper has become less traditional. Birthdays are recognized on Facebook and through texts instead of birthday cards handpicked specifically for that person. I have been guilty of this myself but growing up it was different. My sisters and I were required to write thank you notes every time we received a gift. We mailed family and friends birthday cards. I expected the same of my sons.
The drawer of my night table is filled with cherished handwritten letters from my father, my mother, my sons, those who have touched my heart with their words. Occasionally, I will sit on my bed, the drawer in front of me, and get sucked in for hours reading each letter. Memories, the stories of my life, are resuscitated, and suddenly, I am reliving moments I had tucked away or forgotten. Recently, I reread a letter my father wrote me in 1997. Written on his standard off-white stationary, his full name embossed in dark blue, my dad wrote that were like soulmates, something he had never said to me in person. His handwriting brought him back to life. I could hear his voice saying the words as if we were sitting on a couch together. While reading his letter, a few years after he died of lung cancer, I was brought to tears, seeing his cursive longhand, the way he wrote my name with the ornate M, the way he wrote the number seven backwards with a slash through the middle, the way he always signed his letters with “Love, Your Dad,” was a warm embrace.
A handwritten note is part of the person, the sender. My son sent me a birthday card with “Thanks a Million” on the front. His letter traveled across the country. I felt his presence as I breathed in every word. Seeing the penmanship, I recognized from his school years, a few words crossed out, a few comments in parenthesis, then his words of proud encouragement as I was wrapping up my MFA, was the greatest gift I could ask for without being physically together. It may not seem significant, but when you live in a remote location like Alta, Utah, buying a card and sending it off in the mail so that it arrives in Connecticut on time, takes thought and planning.
This art isn’t taught in schools the way it used to be, and now with COVID, students are using chromebooks instead of physically writing in composition notebooks. Wrapping my head around creating and using digital notebooks, not passing out black composition notebooks with crisp pages and a fresh pencil with an eraser cap for Language Arts, felt insurmountable, but I had no choice. My twenty-fourth year of teaching was a first for not memorizing the handwriting of 115 students. My classroom is still empty of sharpened pencils, pens, colored pencils, and markers usually in colorful containers around the room. My shelves, usually lined with writing and drawing paper, are empty, too.
Last week, my students chose a character trait to write about in their digital notebooks. One student wrote, “I am creative. I take birthday cards and letters very seriously. I spend hours decorating cards and the envelopes to my friends and family, personalizing every inch of free space.” This student gave me hope, hope that the art of letter writing will not become a thing of the past.
Meg McGovern teaches middle school Language Arts and is the author of We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has also written for their blog. Meg holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut.__
Hangover and Abandonment, Post MFA
February 24, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Meg McGovern
“You may feel a hangover. Abandonment,” Carol Ann Davis, Director of Fairfield University’s MFA Program, warned me and the forty exhausted students gathered together on Zoom for the closing remarks of our ten-day Residency, “but don’t forget the beautiful community we have built together.”
The hangover is not from alcohol, but rather the foggy feeling of being immersed in workshops, reading articles, essays, poems, attending seminars, completing several common reads, and holding discussions all day and into the night with other writers. The abandonment is the feeling students get when suddenly they must go back to their real lives and figure out how to manage writing, jobs, and family at the same time. When you are in a Residency, everything else is on hold.
I wrapped up my MFA a few weeks ago with a virtual celebration. The Hallelujah Cohort, as my graduating group called ourselves, dressed up in cap and gowns in front of our computers. Our emotions were mixed. We were high on the satisfaction of accomplishment that comes with completing four semesters which included craft papers, a third semester project, a 140-page Thesis, a graduate reading, and a graduate presentation, not to mention the pages and pages of reading, writing, revising, and editing work. At the same time, there was a sense of departure, abandonment, from the MFA community and the writing life established over the past few years.
No longer would we get regular emails from the director about deadlines.
No longer would we have semester assignments forcing us to sit at our desks for hours.
No longer would we choose a mentor and then meet every few weeks to discuss progress.
No longer would we spend ten days on an island or virtually immersed in writing.
It is now up to us to create our own writing lives and stay connected to our MFA community, to keep the momentum going and the friendships alive.
The day after graduation, I attended my last workshop then headed to the virtual closing. I had an unexpected wave of emotion, and tears welled up in my eyes as I left the Zoom gathering. What should I do now?
I had a million things to do; go over the comments on my writing from the Publishing & Editing workshop, read the few articles I hadn’t gotten to, read the pile of books I purchased during Residency that had already arrived, submit essays to literary journals, and write new essays brewing in my head. I needed to catch up on lesson plans for teaching my 6th graders the next day, do the laundry, pay bills, take down the holiday decorations—all the stuff I had neglected during Residency. Instead, I decided to lie down on the couch with my pup, Gia, at my feet. The brain fatigue—the hangover—hit, but thoughts churned through my head like butter and brought me back to a workshop about “Writing Life and Success.” I pondered on my own writing life. What should my writing life look like now? What are my successes?
Several professors from the MFA program spoke about their own writing life. One said she has kept track of her daily writing hours for thirty years. Another said, he doesn’t keep track, he just writes. In his memoir On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King says to writers, “You need a room, you need a door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become.” King suggests writing 1,000 words per day and staying in that room until your goal is complete.
I don’t keep track of my hours writing, and I don’t have a room with a desk and a door. I write whenever I can, wherever I can, usually on weekends and in the evenings after work, a swim or workout, and dinner. My writing space is in the living room. I put on my headphones, listen to music for studying, and write. Many of my ideas come when I swim, on my walks, in the middle of the night, and on weekends when I am not teaching. When ideas come, I jot them down anywhere I can. Every writer needs to establish a definition for their own “writing life.”
What I have learned is that success also has different definitions. Some write for money; others write to be heard. When my nonfiction book, We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination, about Chris O’Brien, an eighteen-year-old who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident, was published in October 2018, sales were great. Amazon listed it as #1 in Spinal Cord Injuries. Chris and I launched the book together with a 200-person event at a brewery, we spoke at high schools in our area, and we were interviewed on Connecticut’s Channel 8 News. After the initial launch, the momentum slowed, but success did not come just from sales. For me, success came from the impact on readers. While writing the book, I interviewed people who knew Chris and had been influenced by his positive mindset. A young man, a paraplegic, who Chris had met at Shephard Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta, told me he didn’t have determination like Chris despite being more physically capable. Accepting a new identify, from athlete to paraplegic, was unsurmountable. He died just as the book was being published and left a grieving family; his mother, father, and a sister who then reached out to me.
My words had helped them heal from their loss.
Their words were my success.
Meg McGovern teaches middle school Language Arts and is the author of We’re Good: The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination. Meg is an Assistant Editor for Brevity and has also written for their blog. Meg holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut.
On Teaching and Writing From a Distance
April 10, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Meg McGovern
It’s not often—or ever, before all of this—you get an email saying schools will be closed indefinitely. That word feels so permanent now.
On March 12th, students arrived off their buses at the middle school where I teach Language Arts. The building bustled with activity. Lockers were opened and closed, halls echoed with footsteps as students made their way to their classrooms, teachers chatted with each other, and laughter rang through the halls. The bell rang and the two-minute warning was announced. It was business as usual. Students and faculty stopped in place to say the Pledge of Allegiance, the building otherwise silent. After the normal announcements, the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker advising students to take their chrome books and chargers home at the end of the day. Anyone who didn’t have one or the other, or both, were told to report to the Learning Commons. A whisper of concern filtered among students and staff. At noon, the announcement was made again. By 12:40 p.m., our lives changed with an email from the superintendent. By 2:40 p.m., the hallways were empty except for staff members standing in disbelief, trying to figure out what had just happened.
The next morning, I rose as usual at 5:15 a.m., I could have slept late, but my mind spun like a top hurling into an unknown space. No school buses screeched to a stop across the street at 6:30 a.m. to signal it was time to head across town to school. No bell would ring, classrooms and hallways would be empty, and life as we knew it would change. I walked around the house in a daze. Should I work on my MFA project, grade papers, catch up on the bills, do the taxes, or just sit and read while I had the chance. I could have crossed things off my to do list, but I hadn’t figured out this new routine, so I sat on the couch with Gia, my yellow lab, and did nothing.
“Distance Learning” began a few days later. Administrators and teachers rallied to get teaching online up and running. Faculty and department meetings were set up on Google Meets. “How to” seminars were launched for staff to get up to speed with technology to teach from their computers. Teachers created, planned, shared lessons and schedules. Students sat around kitchen tables across the country doing schoolwork with their parents in the place of their teachers.
I sat at my desk from 7:30 a.m., until 5:00 p.m., nonstop, without getting to my MFA third semester project like I had promised. My eyes burned, and my whole body ached. In my classroom, I am ordinarily in constant motion, sitting only to grade papers, to conference with students about their writing, and to eat lunch with my colleagues. It was difficult on a normal day to come home and begin my own writing, but this, setting up assignments and grading in Google Classroom, responding to students, and recording myself to provide instructions, was killing my ability to get anything else accomplished. If this was my new normal, my workspace and schedule needed adjustments.
Productivity for me, means an organized teaching and writing space. My desk can be an eclectic conglomeration of bills to be paid, to do lists, papers to grade, books to read, books to write up in my MFA Bibliography, journals, and index cards with ideas. Something had to change, so I spent a weekend going through piles of papers, sorting, dumping, purging. I organized MFA materials into semester binders and teaching materials into another. I organized my computer files, and my books into baskets by semester and genre. Even Gia’s toys went into a basket under my desk. Finally, I had space to teach and write.
Without routine, life can catapult into bad habits and result in poor time management. As a teacher and writer, I could work around the clock without leaving my desk. The reality of indefinite “Distance Teaching” has forced me to create a new structure and give myself permission to take breaks. My day now starts with writing early in the morning before checking in with my students at 8:30 a.m. My alarm still goes off at 5:15 a.m., but now I am at my desk, in my PJs, with a fresh cup of coffee and my computer by 6:00 a.m., writing while everyone else is sleeping. When the school day begins, I’ve worked on essays for my MFA and feel productive. Taking breaks from the screen every hour or so is essential for my mental and physical health, so I’ve set my Fitbit with reminders to get up and stretch, start a load of laundry, chat with a friend, or get some fresh air. My husband and I shut down our computers at 5:00 p.m. to take a long walk with Gia. We cook and have dinner as a family. Afterwards, I have time to write or read MFA related books and essays then relax before bedtime.
The Coronavirus has asked us to change the way we work and live. It has asked us to evaluate and focus on what is most important. Family and good health have become priority. For the unforeseeable future, we are homebound and have new routines. It’s not the same as the face to face contact with students, family and friends, but for now, I am happy to do what I am passionate about from a distance.
Meg Keeshan McGovern is an author, educator, and speaker in Connecticut. Her book, We’re Good, The Power of Faith, Hope & Determination was published in 2018. She is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing at Fairfield University.