“Great Job” And Other Things We Should Stop Telling Kids

Evan and Laney at Scott Park


Published in Richmond Family Magazine

by Melissa Face


My daughter took dance lessons for the first time last year. At three years old, Delaney adjusted well to the routine of class, her new ballet slippers, and interacting with her classmates. She especially adored her dance instructor, Ms. Tara.

After months of driving her to dance class, purchasing her costume, posing for pictures, and preparing for show week, I couldn’t wait to see my daughter perform in her first dance recital. But at dress rehearsal, when the stage lights and music came on, Delaney stood on the stage, rubbed her eyes, and cried for the entire performance.

Sure, I was disappointed. But I also felt really bad for her. She knew her routine perfectly, but she had become paralyzed by stage fright.

In an effort to console her, another parent told Delaney that she had still done a great job. Delaney knew that wasn’t true, though. She looked up at me, teary-eyed, and said, “I didn’t do a great job. I didn’t do my dance.” Then she cried some more.

On the ride home that evening, Delaney and I talked about how scary new experiences can be and how fortunate she was to have two more opportunities to dance the following weekend.

Delaney seemed satisfied with our conversation, and I was inspired to do a better job of building my children’s self-esteem by providing praise that is honest, specific, and appropriate. In other words, why tell a child she did a great job if it’s simply not true? She will see through it, and those words will become meaningless.

Effects of Empty Praise

Chelsi Simmons, a licensed professional counselor in Colonial Heights and mother of three, has encountered similar scenarios in both her personal and professional life. Not too long ago, she was at the playground watching her son, Brantley, race another child. The other child’s parent told Brantley he was “fast as lightning,” and the fastest runner she had ever seen.

Simmons dismissed the comment initially, but in the weeks that followed, she noticed that Brantley was becoming frustrated when playing with other friends. He wasn’t as fast as he thought he should be, as fast as he had been told he was by the well-meaning parent on the playground. His abilities weren’t measuring up to the message he was sent.

“I knew I had to talk with him at that point,” Simmons said. “I told him he was not the fastest runner, but that he could keep practicing, and he could become faster.” He seemed okay with that message.

Simmons works regularly with children and their families on issues of self-esteem and says that it is important for parents to encourage their children’s special skills and focus on improvements. “We should be constantly encouraging our children to become better at whatever it is they are doing and ensuring that they enjoy what they are doing, compared to providing empty praise,” says Simmons.

We’ve all used empty praise. It includes statements like “great job” and “you are fantastic.” This type of praise is often delivered without sincerity, and over time, loses its effectiveness. It can also lead to disappointment and self-esteem issues, and even cause a child to question his skills.

“If a child is constantly told ‘great job,’ and is eventually corrected by other people or natural circumstances, the child may begin questioning his ability in that specific area and that self-doubt can spill over into other categories,” says Simmons. For example, if a child thought he was great at spelling because his parents said so, then is eliminated in the first round of the spelling bee, he may question not only whether or not he is a good speller, but also if he is any good at school in general. “This type of negative self-talk is detrimental in younger children who are starting to find themselves and build their own self-esteem,” says Simmons.

Erika Hahn, a mother and elementary school counselor in Prince George County, is also very conscientious about the messages she sends to her daughter. “As a parent, I am inclined to offer some type of positive affirmation to my daughter when she has done well. I want to encourage her and build her self-confidence. On the other side of that, I also try to give honest feedback. If she hasn’t done something to the best of her ability, I don’t want her to think she has,” Hahn says.

While both women agree that praise should be individualized, they also agree that empty praise is still better for a child in the long run than no praise at all. Hahn has noted the damaging effects of lack of praise in her work as a school counselor.

“I have encountered far too many students who have never gotten the ‘great job’ they are so desperately looking for from a parent,” says Hahn, who notes that this can cause a magnitude of ripple effects for children emotionally: never feeling good enough; not having positive self-esteem; and crying out for attention in the least desirable ways because any attention is better than none at all. “There is definitely a balance that is needed,” adds Hahn.

While children do desire praise, they can also recognize when it’s genuine and when it’s not.

“Your child knows if he is not the first person to cross the finish line or score all of the goals,” says Simmons. “And if we, as parents, tell our children that they did a great job, when in fact, they could have tried harder or played better, then we minimize their internal motivation to improve next time.”

It seems like common sense, really. Why would we provide a child with a blanket Great job! statement when the child truly did not perform well? Perhaps because it’s one of the easiest statements we can offer as parents.

“The lives of parents are extremely busy and filled with work, activities for the kids, and household responsibilities. ‘Great job,’ unfortunately, has become as commonplace as the phrase ‘How are you?’ when you greet someone,” Simmons says. “You do genuinely care, but at times, we are so busy that it is easy to send a simple praise compared to an individualized praise.”

Instead of offering empty praise, experts recommend commenting on your child’s special skills, encouraging children to become better, and focusing on improvement.

“We need to provide genuine, person-centered, strength-based praise, and enable our children to have discussions on areas of weakness and strive to improve those areas,” Simmons says. “It is more important that our children are the best they can be on the inside, compared to placing that emphasis on external factors.”

Chelsi Simmons

Erika Hahn agrees and believes that specific, meaningful praise is critical to the development of a child’s self-esteem.

“If we encourage kids to do the best they can in a situation, then they can learn to intrinsically encourage themselves. They will know when they’ve tried their best and they will be proud of themselves. Kids need to learn that their validation can’t come from other people; they have to find it in themselves,” says Hahn.˘

Ask the Right Questions

So what should a parent say when a child asks for feedback when he has obviously not done a great job? This was my reality last fall when my son, Evan, played an entire soccer game without getting near the ball. It was early in the season, he was new to the sport, and he just seemed afraid. As other children ran aggressively toward the ball, Evan backed away and adjusted his shin guards. Then, after the game, he asked me how he did.

In response, I asked him how he thought he had performed. “How do you think you did?”

“Well, I was pretty nervous,” Evan admitted. “And the ball seemed like it might hurt if it came toward me fast,” he added.

We then turned the conversation toward specific things he did well and specific things he could improve on the next time. We discussed the fact that he ran quickly and was able to keep up with his teammates, even though they were older. We also made a plan to practice more aggressively at home, so he could see that the ball wouldn’t hurt too much and he didn’t need to be afraid of it. It was a productive, meaningful conversation, and one that wouldn’t have happened if I had answered, “You did great!” to his question.

Sandy Correll

Simmons says turning the question back to the child is a wonderful strategy. “Being able to self-critique is a valuable skill,” she says. “I recommend asking the child how he thinks he did, along with asking whether or not he had fun.”

Fun! Can you imagine that? We are talking about children, after all. But because we live in such a competitive and driven society, we often forget about the importance of doing things just for fun. As a result, our children do, too. We don’t have to be great at activities in order to enjoy them. What’s wrong with doing something just because you like it? Isn’t that the point of a hobby?

Most adults are not great. Most of us are average. We are average runners, golfers, and swimmers. We have reached a point in our lives where we know we can’t all be great at everything, but we can develop and improve our skills. If we communicate this to our children, we will run a much lower risk of setting them up for a dissatisfied life.

What’s in a Mindset?

Sandy Correll, a certified school psychologist from Prince George, reminded me about Carol Dweck’s research on mindset. More than thirty years ago, Dweck, a psychologist and professor at Stanford University, coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset. Dweck’s research suggests that whether people are aware of it or not, most of us have certain mindsets about ourselves as good teachers, bad parents, lousy athletes, etc. Additionally, individuals with fixed mindsets often believe that talent and intelligence are fixed traits and they tend to shy away from activities that challenge them. Individuals with a growth mindset, however, believe their skills and abilities can be developed through hard work. But perhaps the most important aspect of her research is the conclusion that it is possible to change a person’s mindset from fixed to growth, and when we do, the result is increased motivation and achievement.

“Understanding that our brains stretch and grow, and that we develop parts of ourselves when we tackle difficult tasks and embrace challenges is central to the growth mindset approach. This approach also recognizes that making mistakes is just a consequence of working hard and trying new things, and it creates opportunities for learning,” says Correll.

In order to steer children toward developing a growth mindset, it is important for praise to be specific. It is also important for it to be attached to the process and not to the child.

For example, instead of saying, “Great job!” we can tell a child that it is obvious he practiced a lot. Instead of “You’re a good girl,” we can say, “I appreciate that you took out the trash without being asked.” Instead of, “You are really smart,” we can say, “You have been working hard in math, and you have improved.”

When a child challenges himself and still doesn’t perform well, Correll suggests complimenting the effort and working with the child to figure out what he doesn’t understand. “You could also tell the child that everyone learns in a different way, and you will keep trying to find the way that works best for him,” Correll says.

Parenting children toward a growth mindset is invaluable for everyone involved. The ultimate goal is to raise a child who exhibits confidence, accepts criticism, and fails without giving up. And the best way for us to do that is to walk the walk, alongside our children. We can effectively influence a growth mindset in others when we are also cultivating one in ourselves.

As for my dancing daughter, she recently completed her second year of ballet and tap and performed in her recital without the least bit of stage fright. It was wonderful to see how proud she was of her own efforts and progress. It was even more delightful to see her having so much fun. I know that together we will experience many more moments of success and failure, and we will do our best to learn and grow from each of them.

Don’t Read the Comments


***Published on Life in 10 Minutes  – 5/28/18

By Melissa Face

“Our editorial staff has reviewed your article and approved it for publication!”

I was ecstatic to receive the congratulatory email from an editor of one of my favorite blogs. The site, written primarily for teachers, has more than one million followers, so my work would be extremely visible. I was thrilled to have that kind of exposure for the first time.

I told a few close friends about my article, then I shared it on my Facebook page. Later that night, I looked online and saw that it had a few hundred likes, 90 shares, and 15 comments. I read the first comment and the words sucker punched me through the screen.

“This article is absolutely worthless,” one woman wrote. “Who wrote this?! I doubt they are a public education teacher!”

I felt like an actor on Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets segment, minus the celebrity status and bank account, of course. Actually, I felt worthless. How could I not? I wrote the piece described as such.

I know now that reading the comments was my first mistake. “Never read your own reviews,” my friend Patty told me on our ride home from a writing conference earlier this month. “No matter how good your work is, there will always be someone with something negative to say.”

I heard her. I really did. I guess I have always been one to learn a lesson the hard way, though. And because of the nature of the piece, an article about teachers coping during tough times, I wasn’t anticipating negativity. That was my second mistake. From now on, I will always expect online criticism, and not the constructive variety.

In the first few hours after reading the harsh comments, I found it incredibly difficult to not respond to them.  I wanted to write, “Yes! I am a public school teacher! Didn’t you read my profile?” and “Wait! You must have misunderstood my point. What I meant was…”

But I didn’t do it. I didn’t respond to any of them or attempt to defend my work. I knew it would get me nowhere, and I would appear pathetic and desperate. Plus, I read an online article about responding to criticism that reminded writers that additional comments will only push the negative reviews toward the top. Let them fizzle. Allow them to die out. That was good advice.

The next morning, I bathed in self-pity. I stayed in my pajamas, drank copious amounts of coffee, and read junky online articles. My kids were home with the flu, so it was really the perfect opportunity to turn into a sloth. I allowed myself to feel completely low and untalented. I ate chocolate and pretzels, and decided that because I apparently suck at this whole writing thing, I would make a list of other things I wanted to do instead. I planned to start my list after a long nap.

I was so embarrassed at first that I didn’t want to tell my friends and co-workers what had happened. But because there is safety in numbers, and because I cannot keep things quiet for long, I shared my experience with them.

I texted Patty, who reminded me, once again, that I should never read the comments. “It’s always hard to hear,” she said. “But it’s the price we pay for putting our work out there.”

I spoke with my department chair, who echoed Patty’s advice. She also told me about Henry, a 13-year-old writer and activist from Richmond, VA, who received incredibly nasty criticism online earlier this year. Henry’s posts about equality and the ACLU were met with insults such as “pawn”, “autistic”, and “crazy liberal.” He was even compared to Hitler youth. So, if people will attack a child’s ideas online, they will attack anyone.

In the midst of my funk, I did not discount the possibility that my article could have been a lot better. It was too idealistic, too fluffy, and I vowed to write more authentically in the future. I would allow my first negative experience to motivate my future work and help me develop thicker skin.

I now consider myself to be in great company, among writers and other artists who aren’t afraid to continue putting their work out into the world, despite what others may say about it. For most of us, it isn’t even a choice. It’s just what we have to do.

Andy Warhol said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Yesterday, I took out my list of things I want to do besides write. That page is still blank.


Q&A With Author Bo Hamrick – So You Want to Be in Sales?: Ten Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting in Sales

Bo and MelissaEarlier this spring, I shared that I worked with Bo Hamrick on editing his debut book, So You Want to Be in Sales? When Bo first asked for my assistance, it was a casual, “Hey, I’m working on a project for school. Will you take a look at it?” I agreed and told him to send it my way. I soon realized that it was more than a typical graduate school project. It was a real book, and it was really good.

This was my first experience editing outside of academia, so I felt intimidated initially. But once I got started, I enjoyed the content and the discussion of ideas. I also suggested the addition of a chapter and learned some new sales jargon along the way.

Throughout the editing process, it was important for me to not change Bo’s voice. His tone is very conversational, and we kept that authenticity intact in every chapter. I have read his book several times, and we have chatted on the phone and via email and Facebook throughout the editing process. Still, I had some burning questions for him about how this project was born and how he managed to write a book in the midst of his other responsibilities. Below is an interview with Bo. It includes some backstory, as well as a glimpse into the future:


  1. How did this project come to be? – “While I was working on my MBA, one of my classes talked about developing your Professional Online Presence.  I actually mentioned what our class did in the book in the chapter titled ‘Every day is an interview.’  One thing I did to develop my Professional Online Presence or POP was to revive my blog (  One of my blog posts was 10 things I wish I knew before starting in sales.  Because of blog posting and working on my POP, I was introduced to Dr. Jeff Tanner who is the Dean of the ODU School of Business, and he was working on revising his sales textbook.  We were talking about sales on the phone and he invited me to come speak at the entrepreneur center at ODU.  I took the 10 things blog and turned it into a speech.  From there I decided I could add more to it and make it a book.”  
  2.  At what point did you realize you wanted to publish your work?“I have always wanted to publish a book but never felt that I had enough clout or unique knowledge to publish.  But after getting great feedback from the blog post and the speech, I decided to turn it into a book.”
  3.  What was the most difficult part of the publication process?“I was scared to death of going the traditional route of finding an agent and pitching to publishers.  Again I felt like I was not ‘famous’ enough to get them to call me.  So I immediately went the self-publishing route.”
  4.  Is there anything you wish you had done differently? – “I self-published with CreateSpace, an Amazon company.  Many of the indie bookstores that I have spoken to as well as the Barnes & Noble run campus bookstores at William & Mary and Elon, all have said they will not carry CreateSpace published books because they do not like Amazon’s business practices.  I may have looked at other self-publishing options if I had to do it all over again.  With that said, I have been very pleased with CreateSpace.  The books look great, in my opinion. Plus, I can order 1 copy if I want, and they print on-demand, so I don’t have to invest in a large book run and try to peddle them myself.  I wish the book industry would realize that by thumbing their nose at Amazon, they are not hurting Amazon but are actually hurting the authors.”
  5. .Has becoming a published author always been a goal of yours? – “I have a spreadsheet on my computer that started with 100 things that I wanted to accomplish in my life.  The list ranged from getting my MBA (accomplished), to visiting every state in the union (not done yet).  Write a book was on this list.” 
  6.  How long did it take you to write the book? – “Because I was working full-time, completing my MBA, and raising three kids with my wife, I wrote when I had a chance.  So the total time from writing, to handing over to you to edit, was around 2 months.  But it would be 30 minutes here and there, or maybe an hour or two while sitting on a plane flying for work.  I tried to steal time whenever I could.”
  7. Did you consider any other titles?Yeah, I thought about 10 Things I wish I knew before getting into sales (the blog post). But that was about it.  This is another thing I would do differently.  I wish I had done an A/B test with my target market to pick the book cover and the title of the book.”
  8. Where did you write?“As I mentioned earlier, I stole minutes every chance I could.  If I was home, I wrote in my home office.  I would also write in my hotel room or on flights when I traveled.  Sometimes I would be at lunch and an idea for a chapter or a new story I could use would pop into my head and I would type it out on my phone.”  
  9. Did you have to do any research for the book? Explain. “Most of the research was based on books I had already read.  So it was going back to the books I mentioned in my book to make sure I was quoting them correctly and using their thoughts accurately.”
  10. Is there a second book in the works? If so, what can you say about it?“I am starting an outline now for another book.  What I can tell you is it is based on my Final Project for my MBA, which can be found here:  The premise of the project was finding a Wicked Problem…Wicked Problems are problems that are not easily solved.  They may have multiple, possible solutions, and you would not know the viability of the solutions without trying. Once you try, you can’t ‘unring’ the bell.  But my Wicked Problem was to solve the sales roller coaster; we talked about the sales roller coaster in the book as well.  In the presentation, we only have 15 minutes to discuss our potential solutions, and I think there are tons of options to explore.  I am currently gathering my research on how to solve the sales roller coaster and hope to start putting my outline together soon and begin writing.”  
  11. Who should buy your book and why? – “According to Dan Pink, in his book To Sell is Human, everyone is a salesperson.  Obviously, I am a sales person because of my role.  But you are a salesperson as you attempt to get people to publish your work, or as you try to instill the same passion for English and writing that you have into your students.  Based on that, the short answer is everyone should read the book.  But more specifically, if someone is thinking of going into sales as a career, planning to own a business, or simply looking to become a better sales professional, he/she should pick up the book.  I also think the book could be a good gift for the graduate in your life who is embarking on a new career.”   

 If you still haven’t read Bo’s book, don’t wait any longer. It is available in paperback and through Kindle Unlimited.

For additional sales advice and articles, follow Bo’s blog at




I Love You More Than Coffee


Evan and Lanes

By Melissa Face


“Do you like me more than candy?” my four-year-old, Delaney, asks. She’s been on this kick for a few weeks now, partly joking and partly trying to determine how she measures up in our eyes.

“Of course I like you more than candy,” I reassure her.

“Do you like me more than cookies?”

“Yes. I like you more than cookies, too,” I promise.

“What about coffee?” Her expression turns serious. “Do you like me more than coffee?”

“Now that’s a tough one!” I joke with her. “You wouldn’t really ask me to choose between you and coffee, would you?”

My older child, Evan, chimes in at that moment.

“Careful, Mom,” he warns. “It’s less than six days until Mother’s Day. You don’t want us to stop working on your presents, do you?”

I see him grin and wink at me in the rearview mirror, and I feel an actual ache in my chest from the love I feel for both of them.

“Of course I don’t want you to stop. I adore the things you make for me.”

But honestly, I had forgotten Mother’s Day was approaching. As grateful as I am to have my children and to be their mom, I don’t particularly love this holiday. Mother’s Day makes me feel inept and guilty. It is a day of celebration of all the characteristics I don’t demonstrate as a mom: selflessness, patience, tolerance, and kindness. It conjures images of moms who make and pack nutritious lunches, and plan and coordinate stimulating activities, all while talking in a quiet, calm voice.

I tried to be that mom a few times. Twice, maybe.

Since I’m a relatively hopeful person, I have fleeting moments when I think I can still be that mom. I tried again last Friday.

Delaney asked me to make her pancakes for breakfast, so after dropping Evan off at school, we went to the McDonald’s drive-thru, and I bought a large coffee and pancakes. That’s how pancakes are “made” at this stage of my life.

We were both excited about our day together. I promised her I would color with her and play with her doll house. And I promised myself I would try not to yell or fuss the whole day.

Hilarious, right?

“Uh-oh!” Laney exclaimed, while I poured her juice in the other part of the room.

Nothing good ever follows “uh-oh”.

“I spilled a little bit of syrup,” Delaney whimpered.

“Of course you did,” I said, not exactly to myself.

The entire packet of maple goo cascaded off the edge of the table, into Delaney’s lap, and eventually formed an amber puddle on the floor.

For a minute or two, I just stood and watched it ooze and thought about what I might use to clean it up. I thought about not cleaning it up. I could just leave it there; we have other rooms in the house.

“I’m sorry,” Delaney said. “I was just trying to be a big girl.”

“I know,” I told her, while I wiped syrup off her belly.

A few minutes later, my maple scented daughter sat next to me with her box of crayons. We took turns coloring Skye from Paw Patrol, her current obsession, in as many shades of pink as we could find.

We were almost finished when Delaney told me she had to go to the bathroom. She has been working on her independence in this area as well, so she goes in alone, and I check on her as necessary.

After the sink had run for about five minutes, I knew it was time to check. I opened the door, and Delaney jumped.

“You scared me!” she said.

“It wouldn’t be scary if you weren’t doing something wrong,” I scolded.

Delaney had her Doc McStuffins doll under the faucet, face upright. I wondered if she had been learning about water torture in preschool.

“What ARE you doing to your doll?” I demanded.

“I was just cleaning her face from where somebody marked on her.”

That somebody was Delaney, about two weeks earlier.

I took in the scene: a puddle of water on the floor, two soggy towels on the door knob, and half a bottle of soap emptied into the sink, and Delaney, shirtless, perched on her stool, scrubbing away at Doc McStuffins’ face. I’m still not sure why she took her shirt off for the task.

Anyway, my reaction was not one that I’m proud of, not one I aspired to back before I became a mother. There was yelling, fussing, and tears, from both parties. I took Delaney upstairs to the bathtub, fussing all the way and wishing I could just sit down and drink my coffee, my coffee that sat cold on the counter, before the daily messes began, before I lost hope in another day, before I once again turned into the mom I do not want to be.

I was really hoping as I scrubbed syrup, hand soap, and one unknown substance off my daughter that she would not choose this moment to ask me if I liked her more than coffee.

This stage of life is so intense. Other working parents of young children know what I mean. Stay-at-home moms and dads know what I mean, and my friends definitely know what I mean.

I received a text message from my friend, Dawn, just the other day.

“I’ve wiped poop off two different butts this morning and neither was my own,” she said. “How is your day?!”

I laughed and commiserated. This is my life right now. It is nothing like I envisioned. I pictured myself having picnics, going to the park, and braiding my daughter’s hair. But all of that seems like some fantastical scene from Mary Poppins and nothing like my actual life.

When I have been especially grumpy and critical of my children, I feel a nagging guilt, and I try to do something to make up for it. But last Friday, I just joked that maybe my kids could go to the Mommy Store and find a mommy who doesn’t fuss so much.

Evan looked at me and said, “No way. I would never want another mommy.”

My eyes met his, and I could tell that he meant it.

So this year, I am going to try to be a little more enthusiastic about Mother’s Day. I need to say farewell, forever, to the mother I thought I would be, and learn to appreciate the mother I actually am.

My children accept me in the same way I accept them, despite shortcomings. They know I have a temper. They know I can be impatient. They know I sometimes fail, yet they love me anyway. They call for me when they don’t feel well and other times, too, like when they are mad at their father.

They are not perfect children, and I am not a perfect mom. But I love them something fierce, even more than coffee.


Teacher Finds Writing Good for the Soul

teacher pic

Melissa was interviewed by Chris Lange with the Progress-Index (Petersburg, VA) about her essay in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers. The collection was released in April 2017 and was Melissa’s 19th contribution to the Chicken Soup series. Since its release, the book has received a great deal of national attention and has been used for teacher training and staff development across the United States.

Read the interview with Melissa here:


Papaw and Me


(Published in Morsella Magazine, Issue 1: Augur – April 2018)

By Melissa Face


When I imagine my grandfather, Papaw, I picture a heavyset man climbing down from his Kenworth after hauling a load to Florida. He is humming an Elvis tune as he walks in through the door, embraces my grandmother (and her latest hair color), and asks, “What’s for dinner, Bobbie?”

I imagine these details when I think of him, but I remember virtually nothing about my grandfather. That has always bothered me.

“Don’t you remember the time he bought you a tricycle?” my grandmother asks. “It was a nice red one with a horn.  He knew you were going to be tickled, but you looked at that bike, put your hands on your hips and told him it was not the one you wanted.”

“I didn’t!” I said, horrified by this tale of my younger self. “What did he say?”

“He threw his head back and laughed! He said, ‘I’ll be damned!’ And laughed. And laughed. He took that bike back and got you the one you wanted. Don’t you remember?”

I wanted to say I did. I wanted to remember the sound of his voice, his laugh, something about him. But the story didn’t conjure up a real memory, only a stinging guilt for being a brat about a special present.

My papaw was a larger than life character with a fiery personality. He could cuss you up one side, down the other, and hug you five minutes later. He never had a formal education, but he was street smart, creative, and industrious. He liked haggling, driving his rig, telling a good story, and surprising his family with impromptu trips.

“It was nothing,” my grandmother continues, “for him to come home from a haul and tell me to get some suitcases packed. I would tell him okay and ask him when we were leaving.”

“We’re leaving at six in the morning,” he’d say. “We’re going to California!”

“And I would stay up all night, washing and ironing clothes, and packing sandwiches in a cooler.”

“It didn’t bother you to have to leave so suddenly?” I asked her.

“Not at all. That was life with Howard. Constant adventure.”

It seemed that extraordinary situations found him, much more frequently than the average person. These situations weren’t usually of his choosing, but he wasn’t the type to walk away from conflict.

Papaw narrowly escaped a fist fight once when a man’s car engine caught fire. His instinct was to grab a Coke from an onlooker’s hand to douse the flames. The sodaless man was ready to swing, but Papaw quickly put him in his place.

And another time, on a trip to New York with his family, Papaw tried to talk a man down from the top of the Empire State Building. It was 1964, before the highest level had been fully enclosed.

“Take it easy, buddy,” Papaw said soothingly. “You don’t want to do this.”

The distraught man faced my grandfather and let go of the railing, just as security reached for him. The man flipped backwards, a terminal sequence of spins that ended his life and my family’s vacation.

I’ve heard these stories about my grandfather since childhood. Papaw died tragically when I was four, and tales of his life have been a big part of mine even though he couldn’t be.

Perhaps my genes have given me what memories cannot. I have a fiery temper, a potty mouth, and a tendency toward impulsivity. They may not be the most desirable personality traits, but I like that they keep me connected to him.


Ride the Bull

IMG_5271 (1)


On our last night in Atlantic City, my family and I sat in a bar and watched the night scene unfold. We observed awkward interactions between males and females as they guzzled liquid courage and did their best to appear taller, stronger and more attractive to the opposite sex. It was quite entertaining.

Then, in the middle of the floor, staff members unveiled a large, dark object. It was a mechanical bull! I had never seen one in real life before. The line grew quickly as brave souls stepped up to challenge the ominous beast.

I so badly wanted to be one of them, but I wasn’t feeling the least bit brave. I was feeling overweight, self-conscious and insecure. And as much as I wanted to ride the bull, I feared being laughed at if I fell off. I would look ridiculous and feel humiliated.

So I watched others fall off and saddle up a second time, and as I watched, I wondered what happened to me. Where did my confidence go?

When I returned from my trip, I knew it was time to make a change. I had dieted and exercised before. It wasn’t my first weight-loss rodeo. I had counted fat grams, cut carbs and reduced calories. I had even bought a treadmill, practiced for several 5k races and worked with a personal trainer. Despite all these efforts and all that change, I hadn’t seen any more than a 10-pound loss in about 6 years. It was disheartening to say the least. The one thing I hadn’t changed though was my attitude; I was simply going through the motions. It was time to get serious.

I was uncomfortable: in my clothes, in my skin and with my life. I turned down social invitations because I didn’t have anything to wear and shopping for new clothes was depressing. I refused opportunities to speak publicly because I was afraid that people would be critiquing my size instead of listening to my message. My weight gain was interfering with my life: socially, professionally and romantically.

When I first began my new, healthy lifestyle, it was all-consuming, an obsession not unlike when I quit smoking. I thought about food constantly – not in the sense of depravity and longing for an off-limits item, but in the sense of planning. Eating well requires constant preparation in terms of grocery shopping, lunch packing and restaurant dining. I made peace with my new obsession and decided to kick my extra pounds with the same gusto and persistence that I used to cease my smoking habit.

It worked. My persistence paid off, and I am fifty pounds lighter than I was a year ago. This journey toward getting my life back has been incredible. I feel energetic, social and happy. I love my life, and I feel that I am living the way I always should have.

Now I have the confidence to take risks and do things that scare me a little. I enrolled in an exercise class at my local recreation center; I improved my 5k finish time by two and a half minutes, and earlier this year, I read one of my essays in front of my students and fellow faculty members at a school assembly.

I have made some serious progress, but I’m still a little afraid of the bull. I could fall off. But missing out on exciting opportunities is even scarier to me. The next time I’m in Atlantic City, I’m going to get in line and ride that bull. And as for the rest of my life, I’m grabbing that by the horns, too.


Previously published in Sasee Magazine  – August, 2017