This past weekend I attended my first children’s writing conference in Citrus Heights, CA, as a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I approached this experience with a degree of caution; it takes a certain amount of courage to push ourselves out of the comfort zone of familiarity to try new things. Even though I self-published a book about my teaching career last year, I knew that I would be in the presence of many published authors; this felt intimidating.
I had a few anxieties heading to the conference, but I was excited to learn new things. When I became immersed in the subject, any insecure feelings that I had before went away. My limited experience with writers is that many share a trait that I often find with those who teach—they have a willingness to help one another. Perhaps there is a higher percentage of introverts than in most other professions, but I find they are always willing to provide suggestions and guidance. The writing critique group I meet with weekly is so supportive of each other. I feel fortunate to be part of this amazing group of people.
When I’m about to try something new, I remind myself that many other people are experiencing the same feelings I have. What works for me is to take a deep breath, remind myself to be brave, and plunge forward. Even now, I have flashbacks of walking out to the end of the high dive and working up the courage to leap. While these moments can be initially scary, I often look back years later and wonder why I was so frightened?
When I’m experiencing a sense of anxiety, I usually look for someone who has that same look of uncertainty and introduce myself. Bonding over similar feelings is an ideal conversation starter. More often than not, I can talk with that person and form a connection. I think that helping someone else not only provides that person comfort, but it also makes us feel better about ourselves.
I believe that we all experience moments that teach us valuable life lessons. I had one of those defining moments nine years ago that made a significant impression on me. Our son, about to be starting his senior year in high school, expressed a desire to attend a summer football camp for linemen. It was held in Stockton, in the Central Valley of California, about six hours away from our home.
Since his mother and I have always supported his interests, we agreed to pay for the camp. It was to begin on Friday and end on Sunday which meant he would spend two nights there.
The fact that he wanted to participate was not all that shocking; he had developed a love for football and wanted to get better at it.
What impressed me was the manner he approached the camp. He did it on his own; none of his friends or teammates went. As I dropped him off and drove to Reno to spend a couple of days, I couldn’t help but admire his fearlessness. I don’t think I would have had the courage at his age to put myself out there the way he did in a completely foreign situation with a camp full of kids—none of whom he knew. I experienced a lot of different feelings on my drive, but the predominant one was a feeling of envy. Why did I not possess his confidence when I was seventeen?
That was only the beginning of the story. I got a call from my son on Saturday telling me that he had rolled his ankle and was in the middle of icing it. He went on to say that it was bothering him quite a bit and that he didn’t think he would be able to participate in the rest of the camp. Knowing he was not prone to hyperbole or attention-seeking behavior, I knew the injury must have been significant for him to call me.
I asked him if he wanted to stay there until the camp ended on Sunday or have me come pick him up right away. I couldn’t imagine it would be enjoyable to stay and watch for another full day, but that is what he told me that he wanted to do.
On Sunday, I drove back to Stockton and arrived at the camp about an hour before it was scheduled to end. When I walked out on the field, there were people everywhere. There were approximately one hundred kids divided into four groups; they appeared to be separated by size. Scattered around areas on the field were many high school and college coaches who were supervising. They were all engaged with the athletes, and it seemed pointless to ask where my son might be. There were also many other parents milling about which added to the congestion.
I walked around the fringe of the groups expecting to find my son on a bench with his ankle elevated. After a few minutes of wandering around unable to locate him, I decided it made more sense to use my phone. He didn’t pick up, but I wasn’t worried knowing he had to be there somewhere.
It was evident that all four of the groups of kids were involved in some type of competition. The coaches were blowing whistles, and the kids were facing off against someone else in a one on one gladiator contest. It reminded me of watching two sumo wrestlers going against one another as the athletes tried to impose their will on each other by pushing their opponent past a designated line.
As I continued to walk around looking for him in vain, I suddenly spotted my son about to engage in one of the bouts. The coach blew a whistle and the two opponents, wearing shoulder pads and helmets, did their best to knock each other back. My son pushed the other boy backward and past the line to win the match-up and was declared the second semifinalist winner.
Three minutes later it was time for the championship match. Each of the two coaches running the group took the time to offer some last-minute advice to the competitors. With both boys facing each other, one of the coaches began to countdown loudly from five to zero. Several other boys, clearly from the same school wearing similar jerseys,, began to urge their teammate.
When the whistle blew, it was like watching two cars ramming into one another at a demolition derby. I could see the wheels turning, but neither car was budging off the mark. After a time, my boy began to gain control and steadily backed his opponent up until he pushed him back across the line. The contest ended, and many other boys and coaches voiced their support for both competitors.
One of the coaches presented my son with a wooden sword for winning the competition dubbed “The Clash of the Gladiators.” While I know he has pride in that keepsake, the real lesson was not about winning or losing—it was about having the courage and belief to go after something he wanted.
Since that experience, our son has followed his dream. He played college football at the Division 3 level and was a two-time all conference player and a captain his senior year. He earned his master’s degree in education, and is now a college football coach. If he hadn’t put himself out there and went after his goals with commitment and passion, maybe none of that would have happened.
I sometimes think of my son’s football camp when I’m thinking about pursuing a new goal. While it is normal to feel nervous and anxious when we’re in a different situation, we can’t let that inhibit us from trying.
Part of life is learning how to deal with the disappointment of not accomplishing the things we hope to achieve; sometimes we fall short of our goals. Learning to pick yourself back up when you have a setback is a challenge all people face.
My advice is to remind yourself to go for it when you have a dream; tell yourself that this is a necessary step in the journey. Give 100%, regardless of the pursuit, and don’t beat yourself up if you know you’ve done your best.
One of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced has been that moment when I’ve overcome one of my fears. It is so empowering and helps us the next time we are faced with a hard goal or challenging situation.