A special message from your VIP classroom volunteer

A special message from your VIP classroom volunteer

As this school year comes to a close, I am also wrapping up my second year as a classroom volunteer. After serving two full years in this very important position, I thought it might be helpful to share a few things I have learned during my tenure of helping 45 minutes every month (give or take a few months when I couldn’t make it) in my child’s classroom.

Now, I actually used the word “helping” in the previous sentence very loosely. You see, the role of classroom volunteer doesn’t come with any type of instruction manual or rule book, so that is why I thought it was important to share with other parents some of the things I have learned.

I will admit that I got off to a bit of a rough start the first time I volunteered in my daughter’s first grade class.

I mean, how was I to know that allowing the children to make farting noises with their underarms would be looked down upon in such a strong manner?

I was assigned to take a few students out into the hallway and play a math BINGO game. I gave the students a math fact, and if they got it right, they would cover up that number on their BINGO card with a chip.

In my quest to beat out all of the other parent in gaining the title of the Super Fun and Most Popular Classroom Volunteer, I thought I would jazz up our little game by making a sound when the group got the math problem correct or incorrect. The first group loved this idea, and we all used our normal indoor sound-making voices to say things like, “DA-DA-DAAAAA!” at a correct answer or, “BOOOOOOONG!” when the answer was wrong.

This was going very well until we got to about the fourth rotation of students. I was starting to catch on that the teacher was sending the students out to me in groups of kids that had comparable skills in math. It might have been helpful though, if she had put stickers on them or something to indicate their tendency to get in trouble.

Group Number 4 was especially excited about my idea to make sounds, and one child initiated the underarm farting idea. Before I knew what had happened, the entire group was slapping their arms down, filling the hallway with underarm farting noises.

This also was when I discovered that my daughter’s teacher had several superpowers: Super Sonic Hearing and Stealth Undetectable Movements. I didn’t even see her behind me until her laser beam eyes had locked in on two of the boys. With a flick of her head, they were suctioned out of my math center and pulled back into the classroom.

“What have I done?” I asked myself. I couldn’t believe I had allowed two of my little students to get in so much trouble they had to be removed from my center.

So, it goes without saying that if I were to write a guide book on how to be a classroom volunteer, Rule No. 1 would be: Do Not Allow Children to Make Farting Noises with Their Underarms.

This year, I decided it might be a good idea to switch from being a volunteer during math to helping out with language arts.

Most months, my job is to give my group of three to four students three words that are on little cards. The students need to read the words, talk about their meanings and then write sentences using those words.

At the beginning of the year, some of the words were a challenge to the kids. But as the year has progressed, the kids have flown through this activity pretty quickly. That’s why I, aka Super Awesome Fun Mom and Best Classroom Volunteer Award Nominee, have tried to come up with funny rhymes and guessing games to play with the words.

A few months ago, I suggested that my first group of students use their fanciest, swirly handwriting to write out their sentences. I was amazed at some of the creative lettering these students could do.

As I presented different words, they got more and more creative with their handwriting and artwork. One of the girls decided she would write in “cursive.” I do need to commend my daughter’s second grade teacher that she is actually teaching the class to write in cursive. However, the students had not progressed very far in this skill at the time. So, instead, my little group just began scribbling out their sentences.

We were nearing the end of our time together, so I just asked them to tell me what their scribbled, imaginary sentences said. I also made them promise not to reveal to any of the other kids that I had allowed them to write in scribbles. They promised, and I prayed that I would not be fired.

About two groups later, my daughter came out for her time in my center.

These were the first words out of her mouth:


Needless to say, Rule No. 2: Require Students to Actually Write Their Sentences with Real Letters.

This past month, when I arrived to volunteer in my daughter’s classroom, I thought I saw a certain look in her teacher’s eye when she gave me the instructions for my center. She seemed to be giving me the look of, “Hey, lady. We are actually trying to teach these kids something. Could you please make them write with real letters.”

I took her look to heart, and although I couldn’t resist making up rhymes and playing guessing games with the words, I promise that every student spelled every word correctly and was reminded to use proper punctuation. Hopefully, this will get back to the school, and I won’t be blacklisted next year.

Watch out, third grade. Here I come!

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A blog post about friendship, climbing a hill and holding the moon

A blog post about friendship, climbing a hill and holding the moon

When Kent and I were first married, we were trying to get involved in our first church together as a couple. It was a large regional church, so we attended a meeting to get to know other people who lived in our community.

We lived about 25 minutes away from the church, and there weren’t many other families at the meeting who lived as far as we did. But one couple came up to us and struck up a conversation.

“P and G” were about 25 years older than we were. We didn’t have children yet, and they had four kids who were at the stage of entering college, in college or starting careers. They had spent most of their adult life serving as missionaries to a remote village in Bolivia. Their children had grown up as missionary kids. They had many fascinating stories to tell, and we were intrigued.

We ended up joining the same small group, which meant we met with them at least once a week to study the Bible together, pray and grow in our relationships. They lived within walking distance of our house so they would often show up at our front door without warning.

I was commuting into the city back then and working long hours as Chicago bureau chief for a chain of newspapers. Kent was getting settled in his job, which was about 20 minutes away. We didn’t have many friends, and we really didn’t have a good way to make friends around our long hours and our work lives that weren’t close to our home lives. To be honest, we wouldn’t have thought to seek out the friendship of a couple several decades past us in life, but these two didn’t give us a choice.

They became a faithful part of our lives that we could count on no matter what. I’m one who typically treads cautiously into friendship to guard my fragile heart from rejection or disappointment. These friends weren’t going to wait around for me to be ready for their love and devotion.

As the years went on, they became part of our larger friend group. We no longer noticed their gray hair because they bounced around with the same energy as all of us.

They helped us make tough decisions in life. They gave us advice even when we didn’t want it. They brought us meals when we were sick, and we helped each other with projects around the house and in the yard. When we started having kids, they would show up at the hospital and sit in the waiting room before the babies were even born. They became a third set of grandparents in the lives of our children.

They showed us by their example what it looks like to live in community.

Recently, a younger couple in our growth group gave birth to their first child. We got to know this couple before they were married. We’ve walked with them through the heartbreak and frustration of fertility issues. We’ve prayed with them through the pain of disappointment and waiting. And when they had their baby last week, I debated whether it would be OK to arrive at the hospital before the baby was actually born.

“Oh my gosh!” I said to myself. “I’ve become P and G!”

I made myself wait not quite 24 hours before making my hospital visit. But it made me realize how blessed I’ve been to have friends who never worried about pushing too hard into relationship with us. They didn’t ask permission to be our friends and mentors. They just entered in.

Last night, after months of trying to find a time that we could get together, we had them over for dinner. Our lives seem to have reached the height of crazy this year with college visits, teen activities and the ongoing volatility of my health situation. I’m always hesitant to schedule too much in one weekend, but decided that our get-together would never happen unless I let go of my caution.

After dinner, P was looking at a photograph I took of the full moon rising over a farm near our house. He asked me where I took the photo.

I told him it was only about a mile away… “Oh, and by the way, the full moon is going to rise in about 10 minutes,” I told him. “Do you want to go there?”

“Yes!” they exclaimed, just as I was about to start scooping Paleo cherry cobbler onto paper plates for dessert.

We all grabbed our shoes and jackets and sprinted toward the minivan.

I couldn’t think of any other friends who would have responded to my unusual suggestion with such enthusiasm.

Next to the spot where I took the photo is a huge pile of dirt that is overgrown with grass and weeds. It’s a steep climb up the hill, but I asked P, who is now in his 70s by the way, if he wanted to hike up it to get a better view.

OF COURSE, he wanted to run up that hill, despite the fact he was wearing loafers with a slippery sole and it was pretty much a straight climb up through dirt and weeds. The four of us, plus our 8-year-old, stood together, bonded by the awe that comes from people who can appreciate the awesome sight of the full moon rising over a farmer’s field.

I was amazed that we had friends willing to share the joy of that moment and so many others, willing to climb a huge hill of dirt, happy to pose as if holding the moon, holding steadfast in their resolve to be part of our lives for more than 20 years. And I was reminded how much I hope I can be that person in the lives of other people.


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Prom photography bonus shots

Prom photography bonus shots

If I sit and ponder my recent birthday for too long, I might get a little melancholy. It feels impossible to me that I could be just one year away from being 50. My gosh. Didn’t I JUST turn 40?!?

My husband asked me what I wanted to do to celebrate. I couldn’t really come up with much. But after this extraordinarily long winter, I knew it should involve being outside, feeling warm air on my skin and taking photos.

During the course of the weekend, we went on several long walks and visited a couple of lovely forest preserves. I got to take photos of my 15-year-old playing baseball on the high school baseball team, which was so much fun. (My hands have been too cold to pull out a camera up until now!) I also got to photograph a mama owl two different times and even spied her babies in a nest.

But the photography highlight was taking photos of our oldest son and his sweet girlfriend on their way to prom. I posted a few of these on Facebook and Instagram, but I thought I would post a few more of them here for those who are like me and get excited to see a cute couple all dressed up and ready for prom!

My goal with photography is to try to capture the true emotion and personality of the people I’m taking photos of. It’s easy with these two because they are so genuinely happy to be together.

This was probably one of the photos where I asked them to “look serious.” THIS is what always happens!

Because it’s been so cold for so long, there was barely anything in bloom this past weekend. I was so happy when I saw that the place where I wanted to take the photos was covered in these little blue flowers! I had to think of some way to get them in the shot.

I also try to capture the details that you might overlook when taking a photo. Things like, the girl’s hair, their socks and shoes, her nails and his bracelet.

Because we walked a little ways to get to our photography spot, my son’s date wore her Vans. My son actually had given her these shoes for her birthday a few weeks earlier. Since he had the exact same pair, we asked him to bring them along.

Aren’t they just the cutest?

So, I’ve really enjoyed taking photos this year, and I’m thinking about doing some senior portraits. I recently updated my photography web site, which has been sitting dormant for a few years. Check it out if you are interested!

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Getting past a fear of food

Getting past a fear of food

I’m writing this blog post mainly for my records to help me solve this mystery as I put pieces together in the future.

Last night, I had an extreme food reaction. It’s the third time in 2018 this has happened.

It came on suddenly about 20 minutes after I ate dinner. The best way to describe how I react is to imagine having food poisoning. It’s extremely painful, unrelenting and intense. In addition to the vomiting and diarrhea, I feel like I have hot coals in my digestive system.

Now, here’s the mystery. Last night and the time before that, it occurred after eating gluten free food I had prepared for myself in my own home. We barely have any gluten in our home, and my family knows what precautions they need to take when eating gluten to keep me safe. Everyone in the family ate the same meal, and no one else got sick.

This is the type of food reaction that I only have had in the past from accidentally ingesting gluten. There was nothing in common about the two meals that made me sick. Last night, I ate some foods that I don’t regularly eat, but have eaten before: Gluten free pasta and gluten free spaghetti sauce. I know that it’s a risk for me to eat those foods because they make me feel “not great,” but I was starving and sometimes eating something is better than eating nothing.

I know what type of reaction I can have to pasta made with gluten free grains or the tomatoes in spaghetti sauce. But this was a “Let’s try to pull Emily’s small intestine out of her body through her esophagus” type of feeling, not a “my tummy hurts” kind of sick.

I’ve been mentally reviewing everything I ate yesterday, pulling containers out of the garbage can just to be sure I didn’t miss anything on the labels. I’ve actually been hoping that I could find a gluten reference that I missed. Without that, I’m just praying that at some point, someone in the family accidentally touched some gluten that got on my food.

I’m hoping that because the alternative is worse. The other option is that I had a reaction that severe to eating random foods. The other option is that I reacted that severely to something other than gluten, and I don’t know what that “something” was.

I’ve been working really hard this year to add foods back into my life after being on a very restrictive diet for an entire year. I’ve been surprised at how much I have struggled with the fear of food. You might think that I’m dying to eat many of the foods that I have eliminated for so long… things like eggs, nuts, tomatoes, chocolate and coffee. But it’s actually been a challenge to convince myself to take the risk of eating things that might disrupt my system and knock me down again.

When I have instances like last night, it definitely doesn’t help me overcome my fear of food.

So, I’ll be taking it easy today. I’m wiped out in the way you feel the day after you have the flu.

It snowed again last night. My poor daffodils are wilting under their blanket of ice. This isn’t supposed to happen in the second half of April. But the cold weather will end today, and hopefully, my daffodils and I will both spring back to life.

By this afternoon, I’m hoping to have some energy back after a difficult night. I’m going to rehydrate myself, get some good nutrition and move forward.

Happy Thursday, friends!



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When all the things feel like big things

When all the things feel like big things

If you read my last blog post about visiting colleges, you might have gotten the impression that I have been winning at parenting. In fact, I even felt that way for about 2.5 minutes.

Then, I woke up Tuesday morning.

I suddenly remembered that prom was on Saturday.

I mean, I knew it was Saturday. I have been carefully monitoring the weather everyday to plan out my son’s prom photo shoot. I’ve been asking him about the color of his date’s dress. And I’ve been thinking about poses for the photos.

But somehow, in the midst of all of that, I realized that I completely forgot to get him something to wear. I’m not kidding. Prom is literally five days away, and we had not rented a tux.

Later that afternoon, I suddenly remembered that I had not filed our taxes. Thankfully, Tax Day was April 17 this year, rather than April 15, because I had completed our tax return, but never clicked the button to file.

A few hours later, I was giving my daughter a ride to her tumbling class, and she mentioned that she only has a few weeks left of junior high. What?!? How did I forget that my daughter is GRADUATING FROM EIGHTH GRADE?!?

This has been the escalation of my life lately. As the mom of four kids who tries to juggle a busy work life with coordinating everyone’s schedule, I’ve always had a lot to keep track of. But these days, I feel like most of the things I’m assigned to remember are significant.

My mental to do list is filled with things like:

  • Don’t forget to apply for college.
  • Research college scholarship opportunities.
  • Apply for financial aid.
  • Pay fees for second born to play on the high school baseball team.
  • Sign up for the 8th grade trip to Springfield.
  • Get daughter a dress for the 8th grade formal.
  • Make sure your daughter doesn’t miss try-outs for high school cheer.
  • Go to high school athletic night.

I can no longer afford to forget any of the things. It’s not like back in the days when I would let my child wear the same outfit several days in a row or mess up the carpooling schedule or miss T-ball practice. These days, all of the things feel like they have major consequences if I screw them up.

And it’s not just the to-do list. It’s all of the conversations. The issues that can’t be avoided. All of the things we need to discuss feel big and important.

Have I talked to them enough about drugs, alcohol and vaping?

Do I need to check in with a discussion about cutting and other forms of self-destructive behavior?

Then there’s high school dating, which brings up a ton of opportunities for conversations that can’t be avoided.

Not to even mention their spiritual lives. Is it even possible to properly explain God’s grace and love for them? Have I done all I can to help them understand the things that really matter?

In the end, you know you can’t monitor their every move anymore. Once they can drive, you can make rules and set standards for your home. You can ask them to keep doors open and lights on. But the reality is that even watching the path of their vehicle on the Life 360 app doesn’t give you any control over their decisions. You have the big conversations and pray that they will use what they’ve learned to make good choices.

The hardest part is that you do most of this kind of parenting in relative isolation. You no longer get to have play dates where you can trade ideas about getting your baby to sleep or funny stories about new words they’ve learned. You don’t get to post your teen parenting struggles on social media or seek advice. The moms in this stage of life are uniformly quiet, but you know how they feel when Facebook asks them, “What’s on your mind?”

It’s big stuff. That’s what. The challenges they face and the battles they fight on a daily basis go way beyond a social media post and you wouldn’t want to embarrass your kids by posting them anyway.

Then, you have those days when you have to face the woman at the prom shop and humbly try to explain how it’s even possible that you completely forgot to order a tux for the dance that’s five days away.

“Just so you know,” she kindly explains. “If your son goes to prom next year, you probably want to order his tux about a month before.”

You feel like you need a character reference to vouch for the fact that you are normally an organized person. This woman standing here begging for a tuxedo isn’t actually someone you even recognize.

Somehow, in the midst of the regular things — like trying to figure out what to have for dinner, the excitement of your son’s baseball game, checking the volunteer schedule for second grade and juggling a ton of work projects — mixed with the bigger things — like researching colleges and getting your third child ready for high school — you simply forgot that boys have to wear nice clothes to the high school prom.


Hey! I’d love to hear from you! Leave me a comment. Subscribe to get my blog in your e-mail. Follow me on Bloglovin’. Whatever works for you… Just don’t leave me here alone. 🙂

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When your mom gets overly excited about the college visits

When your mom gets overly excited about the college visits

During the last few weeks, my oldest son and I have been visiting colleges. At first, I was scared to death to start this process. I gave myself a deadline of January of his junior year to start making appointments. I pushed our start date back to February, and finally started scheduling them in March.

We’ve visited five colleges so far, ranging from a large state school with a student body of 40,000 to a small private school with 1,200 students. Since we know for sure that our son wants to study film, it has helped narrow down the list significantly. At this point, he doesn’t want to move to California, and there aren’t a ton of schools in the midwest with a great film program. Of those that do have a film major, it’s often focused more on broadcast journalism, rather than creative film making, which is his passion.

We were both pretty nervous heading into our first college visit. We spent our two-hour car ride talking about what college life would be like and the pros and cons of a big school versus a smaller one. But by the time we visited our fifth university on Friday, we both felt like we were experts at visiting colleges. We have a much better idea what we are looking for and know what questions to ask.

In fact, it’s possible that one of us might go a little overboard on asking questions during these visits. Many of the film departments are part of a communications program. And when your mom has spent most of her career working in communications, she can get a little overly enthusiastic probing innocent college professors and department heads about their programs.

Our second college visit was to a smaller private school where the head of the communications department spent an hour and a half with us one-on-one. A few days earlier, we had gone on a tour with hundreds of other prospective students at a much larger school, so we couldn’t believe that we were getting such personalized attention. At one point during our interview… um, I mean… conversation… the professor remarked that he felt kind of bad that I had stumped him three times with my questions. Oops!

We like to describe our fourth college visit as a cozy campground. We loved this small Christian college set in a quaint wooded area in the western suburbs. We arrived a few minutes late to the opening presentation, just as some guy was telling all of the prospective students to put his cell phone number in their phone and call or text him with any questions. Andrew followed instructions, labeling the contact as “Mr. UniversityName.”

We learned a little later that the guy up front was actually the president of the university! Later in the day, the parents had a private lunch while the students ate together in the cafeteria. Just by chance, Mr. UniversityName came and sat down right by me for lunch! (You can probably guess where this is going.)

We had a great talk at lunch during which I had the unique chance to ask him some very specific questions about their film program and plans for the future. He was super helpful in guiding me through their thought process and whether the school would be a good fit for our son. And I promise, I did let the other parents ask questions, as well.

I decided to take him up on his earlier invitation to send him a text message at the end of the day. He connected with me on LinkedIn, and then through a few other exchanges over e-mail, he ended up inviting me to be a guest speaker in one of his classes. 🙂

Thankfully, my son has not given up on going to college visits with his mom, who now seems to see these as much as networking opportunities for her as college visits for him.

We visited our fifth college on Friday, and I think I made some big improvements in not asking too many questions or texting any college presidents. In fact, we sat by ourselves at both breakfast and lunch, and we were a little disappointed that no one from the school even came by to say, “Hi.”

We attended a class in which a group of students was giving a presentation on the history of the Internet. They boringly recited the timeline of the Internet, which I didn’t even realize was invented the same year I was born. Their presentation felt more like a timeline of significant events in my life, rather than an explanation of something that happened long ago before the students were born. I resisted the urge to raise my hand during the Q and A session to quiz them on net neutrality, the deep web or their views on government regulation of the Internet.

Finally, we went to an open house in which the head of the film department gave a presentation on their mission, classes and opportunities. She was going through a slide show, pointing out students who have gone on to find careers in film. In one slide, she was telling us about the opportunity for students to spend a semester in Hollywood. She showed us a photo of the guy who organizes the program, and casually mentioned that his name is Andrew Neil. My son’s name is Andrew Neal.

“Wait? What?” I asked. There were only two other students in the presentation so she knew everyone’s name. “Oh, yes,” she laughed. “His name really is Andrew Neil.”

It was a freakish moment in which I was trying to decide if this was a sign from God or just an odd coincidence. Or maybe it was just a reminder for a crazy mom about who the college visits are really for. 🙂

Anyway, that will go down as one of the many funny memories that we’ve had the last few weeks traveling all over the place visiting colleges together. I can’t say that I’m ready to let my baby go off to college. But we are getting one step closer to tackling what feels like the most daunting challenge we have faced so far as parents. And instead of it feeling super scary, I’m starting to get excited for him about what lies ahead!

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