Becoming a character in a book you’ve written is a bit like discovering an alter ego. It starts with how you dress and speak, but quickly becomes another way of seeing and being in the world. At this point, I don’t just change into Ms. Jenaia’s baggy overalls, work boots and floppy green hat, I step into her personality – adopting her outgoing, upbeat attitude and commitment to making the world a better place for canines and kids.
For those who haven’t met her, Ms. Jenaia is one of the main characters in all the CritterKin books. A former teacher turned dog trainer, she makes her living teaching people and their dogs how to communicate. She is a champion of those who are misunderstood or a little bit different, determined to discover what is really going on beneath a dog’s unruly behavior or a child’s unexplained tears. She likes nothing more than a challenge, and works with good-natured tenacity on projects like helping people overcome their fear of pit bulls, finding new homes for abandoned dogs, and teaching teamwork and self-confidence by starting flyball teams. To say that Ms. Jenaia is a character is an understatement, but over time I have discovered that she is the expression of the best and brightest parts of me.
Visiting classrooms as Ms. Jenaia means ignoring all the negative, judgmental voices in my head – the ones with bad breath and raspy smokers’ coughs who tell me I am too loud, too hyper, too silly and worst of all too full of myself to be taken seriously. “What makes you think you’re so special?” a familiar voice whispers as I accept an author reading. “Stop fooling yourself and get a real job.”
Here’s the thing. It’s not that I think I’m special, it’s that I know I am unique. There’s a big difference. Special implies a hierarchy of entitlement. Unique simply acknowledges that I have a piece of our collective puzzle that no one else can provide. If that’s the case, then why waste time comparing, judging, testing and competing? Why not help each person find, develop and apply his/her unique abilities to the world’s problems? Why not teach our children that learning, like life, is an iterative process, and to be fearless in the face of failure? In fact, why call errors, experiments gone awry and unexpected outcomes failures at all? No experience in life is a failure unless we fail to learn and grow from it.
But back to Ms. Jenaia. Each and every time I step into Ms. Jenaia’s personality and clothes for a visit with kids; every time I shout, “helllloooo,” teach them to draw a dog, or ask them to share what makes them wonderfully imperfect , I am committing an act of courage, hope and defiance.
Courage because it takes guts to drop the polite, professional roles we’re taught to adopt in order to be “acceptable,” and dare to be creative, goofy and spontaneous.
Hope because I believe that the solutions to many of the world’s problems lie in our willingness to be more creative, goofy and spontaneous – to get out from behind our podiums to learn with and from our kids.
And defiance because I am daring to question the status quo. My little book, The Not Perfect Hat Club may seem like just a charming, entertaining read, but make no mistake about it. The messages in the book – no one is perfect; your job is not to pass tests, but discover what makes you unique; winning is about more than crossing the finish line first – run counter to what is being taught and experienced in most schools today. Standardized tests and curriculums that require all kids to learn the same things in the same way on the same schedule instill fear and intolerance. In an era when 65% of the jobs our children will hold have not yet been invented, and employers are looking to hire young people who are creative, adaptable, innovative and collaborative, doesn’t this seem a little ridiculous?
Courage, hope and defiance. I think about these words more and more each day – as I pull Ms. Jenaia’s overalls out of the closet to dress for a reading; as I eavesdrop on three frustrated teachers at Starbucks who say they’re so busy testing they don’t have time to teach; and as I put on what I fondly refer to as my “Clark Kent duds” to interview for one of those “real” jobs. I wonder how my prospective employers would react if they knew who they were really interviewing – if I suddenly leapt to my feet, ran to a telephone booth and emerged wearing Ms Jenaia’s signature floppy hat and carrying poop bags. Would they still frown over my resume, call me “dear,” and tell me I’m a little over qualified for the position they have open?
The funny thing is, I’m all but positive something like this is going to happen soon. Not the presto chango thing with the telephone booth, but the discovery of my alter ego and her like-minded counterparts in schools and classrooms around the world. On the surface of things we may look mild-mannered and unassuming. We may speak softly and do our best to cope with the increasing demands on our time, but when it comes to our kids we are fearless. Look for us in staff meetings and at parent-teacher nights, in virtual classrooms, Edcamps and global read alouds. Find and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and professional forums. We’ll be the ones who can’t contain our passion for teaching and new ideas, the ones urging and empowering our kids to leap tall buildings with a single bound, because we believe anything is possible with courage, hope and a little bit of defiance.
Copyright 2016 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.