Saturday, January 30, 2016

Doing to Learn; Learning to Lose

  • Learning to Do 
  • Doing to Learn
  • Earning to Live
  • Living to Serve

Any good FFA member will recognize the first half of the blog title as the second line in the FFA motto; the second half is what I got most out of FFA.

I have been known to refer to FFA as the great disappointment in my early life. I also benefited in numerous ways: including learning how to deal with disappointment. FFA didn't teach me how to lose - or be okay with losing. Rather, FFA taught me how to get back up again.

Donning the national blue and corn gold wasn't something I "knew" I would do growing up (unlike 4-H). I didn't even think about joining FFA or taking Ag Ed classes - because I wasn't interested in farming - until I attended our chapter's FFA banquet as an 8th grader. Then, I heard the FFA Creed. With each "I believe...," I became a believer that FFA would be integral to my future.

I started FFA as a freshmen with big goals:
1) Be Freshmen Creed Speaker.
    1a) Go to State.
    1b) Win State.
2) Make it to State every year for a speaking contest.
    2a) Earn gold.
3) Be Chapter President.
4) Be a District Officer.
5) Be a State Officer.
6) Be selected for the Chapter Farmer award (given to the outstanding senior).
7) Be part of the Soils Team that goes to Nationals.
8) Earn a State FFA Degree.
9) Earn enough points to be a chapter delegate to National FFA Convention as a senior.

My actual FFA list?
1) Be Freshmen Creed Speaker. CHECK. 
    1a) Go to State.  At Sub-Districts (first competition), say the 4th paragraph instead of the 2nd.
    1b) Win State.
2) Make it to State every year for a speaking contest. Revised goal: Make it to State 3/4 years. CHECK.
    2a) Earn gold. Sophomore: State Silver, Extemporaneous Speaking; Junior: State Gold (3rd place), Parliamentary Procedure; Senior: State Gold (2nd place), Prepared Public Speaking
3) Be Chapter President. Ran for every office...elected Sentinel (the last election).
4) Be a District Officer. Slated for Vice-President (junior year); not elected.
5) Be a State Officer. Slated for State Vice-President (representing SW District) [senior year]; not elected.
6) Be selected for the Chapter Farmer award (given to the outstanding senior). CHECK.
7) Be part of the Soils Team that goes to Nationals. CHECK.
8) Earn a State FFA Degree. CHECK.
9) Earn enough points to be a chapter delegate to National FFA Convention as a senior. CHECK.
10) Discover my college major: agricultural education - and a love of experiential learning. 

I could go into great detail about the pain of disappointment that accompanied each failed goal. However, that transfers the focus from the great lesson - the great gift that FFA gave me. 

As a freshmen in high school, I had to first learn how to deal with disappointment. At Sub-Districts, when I got into the competition room, I felt so alone - with this weight of expectation of success on my shoulders. In spite of hours of flawless practice and the way the Creed resounded with my idealist soul: I screwed up. There was no way to undo it, either. I had to take my lumps and move forward. 

Moving forward seemed so difficult, though. I felt like such a let-down. I felt like I was a disappointment. My advisor had high expectations (at least, I thought so) - that I was good enough to win state - and I didn't even make it past sub-districts. I felt like I let my parents down. I know I let me down.

And here, I learned my first lesson: I am not a disappointment. My worth as a person is not tied to my success in a contest. I can encounter disappointment; I can cause disappointment - but who I am is separate from any successes or failures. 

I also learned my second lesson: never underestimate a contest or overlook a step toward your goal. I started to write out my goals for FFA and Speech contests - and I outlined each step necessary to get to my ultimate goal, so that I wouldn't take any part for granted. There are no "little" contests or victories. Each one matters. 

I also started a "pre-game" ritual for any contest or interview I participated in. I *always* took a moment to pray before entering the room. I prayed not only for the ability to do my best and wisdom to answer their questions, but also for the judges - that they would judge fairly with wisdom and grace. Though I didn't know anything about "centering" then, this small act was a chance for me to center - but also take the focus off judgement of me or my performance. It allowed me to recognize that even in circumstances where I gave my best, there could be those who are better - and I needed to be able to recognize that.

The other major disappointments all circle around elections (how fitting for the caucus/primary season). Through each loss, I realized that sometimes, the most qualified candidate doesn't win. Sometimes, the person with better ideas, and the capacity to bring leaders together to create change loses to the "fat guy in the little coat." Bernie Sanders take note: idealism rarely trumps humor in a popular vote.

Young Jessica was such an idealist. (Let's be honest, though: don't we want our young people to be idealists? To think the best about others? To trust and believe that good people working together can change the world? Isn't that better than raising a world of cynics? Or worse - disengaged, disheartened kids who think they can never change anything?) FFA helped me realize that no, life isn't always fair. You don't always get what you want. Sometimes, you can't win everyone over.

What I learned most from losing chapter president (and every other election - 5 - until sentinel) was "leadership is action - not position." (Thanks Mom for the plaque with this saying - given to help 'cheer' me up after the loss.) Honestly, this loss was such a blow to me that for a brief moment, I thought about quitting. I just didn't understand how people couldn't jump on board with my vision to take our chapter up a notch. I had all these dreams - and now, they would never happen.

Until, I realized that no one needs to be elected to make change. For change to happen, what is necessary is desire and action. If I was only interested in making those ideas happen in order to be President, then what kind of a leader was I? Self-interested; self-important. Faced with that loss, I needed to decide if I was a leader by character or a leader by title. FFA taught me that character leadership is more valuable than any title.

FFA also taught me when to walk away. (Ok, actually, Kenny Rogers did. FFA just provided the opportunity). Being a state officer was a goal of mine from freshmen year - but when that didn't happen my senior year, I was okay walking away. I could have come back another year to run (which would have meant running against a good friend) - but I just wasn't interested. I was ready to start fresh in college. I was thankful to FFA, but I didn't need to be a lifer.

Now, I am married into a family full of more successful FFA members. Of the 5 of us, 3 were state officers; 4 have American degrees (not me); we all have state degrees. Just between Dan and I, his victories trump mine: State President, Regional (in Iowa we call them District) Officer, Chapter President, Prepared Public Speaking State winner & National contestant - and more than I could list off the top of my head.

1998 FFA: on the left - my friends and I post-banquet (I'm far left); right - Ryan (Dan's best friend) and Dan

What I needed most from FFA, though, I received. I needed to learn that the outcome doesn't define me (or my worth): I am more than my failures and successes. The best person doesn't always get elected, but that is not an excuse to quit or to stop leading. I needed to learn that participating in contests isn't actually about the color of the award. Above all, I needed to know how to get back up when disappointment knocks me down - and to reframe the experience into a lesson.
[I didn't get to share that in a motivational closing officer speech, though, which will probably be one of my life's great regrets.]

When you think about it, don't we all need those lessons?

When I think of my students (current and former) who are afraid to fail: wouldn't it have been better for them to do and fail - and get back up again - when they were 14 instead of 21 - or 25? What could we be capable of if we knew that failure wouldn't ruin us, but actually makes us better?

Monday, January 11, 2016


Hello Friends!

I know I haven't posted an update about Dan in awhile, but when things keep's sort of hard to know just what exactly to post. Without further ado....

1) What in the world is wrong with Dan?
That seems to still be the question of the moment. On December 20 and 21, Dan had a low-grade fever each day (after being outside at judging practice in cold weather for 8ish hours). On 12/22, he had a lumbar puncture to check on the progress of getting rid of the lymphoma in the spinal fluid. That day, he started developing an HSV (herpes simplex virus) on his upper-lip, and it started swelling (but no fever). We drove to Iowa. By the time we got there, he had a fever of 101-something. He took Tylenol that night, but in the morning had a fever of 102-something. That day (12/23), he was able to be seen by my cousin (a PA at U of I clinics). He got on an antibiotic and steriod. He had no fevers the next 3 days and looked/felt better.

On the evening of 12/27, he started running a fever again. He had a fever from then until this past Wednesday (1/6). The first few days, he could break them with Tylenol. On 12/31, we went to the ER in Ann Arbor based on the recommendation of the on-call doc. At this point, Dan's left sinus was swollen visibly, and he "smelled" like an infection. [Don't ask me how, but the nose knows!]
The ER doc ran all sorts of blood work, chest x-ray, and a blood culture on his port - all came back negative. So, he sent us away without anything. When I asked him about a possible sinus infection, he said, "As a medical community, we overdiagnose sinus infections. I don't want to prescribe anything for that until he's had symptoms for about 14 days."

...okay. Well, the next week was HELL. Dan had drenching night sweats and was exhausted. Guess what? His blood work from Tuesday (when we met with our doctor) shows that the EBV (Epstein-Barr virus) is back again. For the last four months (since mid-September), those numbers had been so small, they wouldn't register on tests.

So, back to the question...what is wrong with Dan?

Our doctor is trying to figure that out and also trying to figure out the next/right/optimal course of action. Please pray for her. Dan likes her (which is a first), and I know she is trying really hard; please pray that God will give her insight (and that she's open to some leading from the Holy Spirit).

With this latest round of infection, Dan's white blood cell count, platelets, etc. (the blood work) look like he did when he came to UM in August (and after the hospital stay in September). The t-cell count in his spinal fluid is lower (good)...but, what is really wrong? Why the recurrence of EBV?

She thinks he may have hemophagolymphohistiocytisis (HLH). The way I understand this is it's where his immune system totally over-reacts to any infection. To know for sure, she is going to need to have some genetic testing done.

2) How is the lymphoma treatment going?

Good? The t-cell number in the spinal fluid is going down. Tonight, he has a PET scan to see if there are fewer/more hot spots than in August. Please pray for there to be fewer. Please God, good news! I don't know if we will have the results by Friday when we meet with Dr. McCoy again.

3) So, what's the treatment plan?

Currently: Dan is getting chemo once a week (Fridays) of etopycide. This is the chemo that makes your hair fall out, so the growth that has been coming back will be gone again.

But you know what? God numbers the hairs on our head - and He knows how many will be lost, and also He can make it grow back again, and he'll still know how many hairs there are.

4) And next? Honestly, who really knows?

We met with the bone marrow transplant (BMT) doctor on Tuesday. It is currently too early to tell if Dan will be a good candidate for this because he still has the abnormal t-cells in his spinal fluid. In the chance that he is, they are starting the matching process.

A few of you have expressed a willingness to get tested. They only request tests from full siblings because of it is more likely that they will have the similar genes/DNA. (Remember I'm not a doctor or a science major; I'm an educator, so I may not get the specifics right.) They don't even take a specimen from parents because you only have 50% of DNA from each parent. In the event that siblings are not a match, the search moves to the bone marrow registry. IF you are willing to be a registered bone marrow donor, then you can visit 'Be the Match' and start the process. If you are already in the registry, then you don't need to do anything special. If you match up with Dan, they'll contact you.

The BMT doctor recommends that Dan's case be looked at by the immuno-deficiency team, since it seems like there is a larger issue with Dan than simply lymphoma. If it was just lymphoma, then (my understanding) is that he'd be doing much better than he is.

5) ....and, you, how are you?

This is probably a post for another day. Currently, I am doing well. Last week was really rough, but I had a good "counseling session" with my chiropractor, which really turned my perspective around.

Many of you express a desire to help - and I thank you for that. Often that's followed with, 'You just tell me.' Here's the deal with that: I probably won't...and it's nothing to do with you, personally. It's just that I don't think about that until I'm overwhelmed.

So, if you want to help:
a) Make us food. (preferably healthy good, btw) Preferably on Thursday or Friday nights when we're traveling with chemo.
aa) If you don't want to burden us with too much food, then someone start a "meal" sign up, so it's organized.

b) Call Dan. Invite him to do stuff. Get him out and get him talking. He really wants to see 'The Revenant' (like he talks about it all.the.time) and I really do not. By the way, if too many people call Dan on a given day, he may not answer; he gets tired answering the same stuff over and over, again. Keep it fresh.

c) Call me. Invite me to do stuff. Get me out, and get me talking about Jesus. I mean it. Raise me up; get my view off the current trials and tell me about the glories that far outweigh them. Tell me about what is going on in your life. It is not frivolous. Get me out of myself.

...but above all, don't wait for us to call you. If we are on your mind/heart, pray for us, and let us know. We need to be daily reminded that God is for us. Don't wait for us to reach out because the only people I'm willing to be crazy vulnerable with are my parents and Dan. I just don't like crying or being ridiculously, irrationally emotional around people...yet. It's not personal; it's just me.