Every morning at 5:45 I meditate and pray for 15 minutes with my husband.
We levitate above our bodies and let the world’s sorrows and money woes slip into the ethers all before our Venti triple shot Starbucks hold the sugar Americano . We do a quick spiritual reading and then share about our day. It is an anchoring process that helps us each put what matters most at the beginning of our busy schedules. Being intentional with our priorities is grounding, illuminating, sometimes challenging (when I am hit with revelations about myself I would rather avoid) but always connective.
A theme I find myself circling round a lot is this idea of being present for my teenagers and family while making daily time for my writing pursuits. (Oh yeah, and the work thing! I gotta make a living – enter substitute teaching and freelance articles.) It’s not Rex’s job to fulfill me. It’s mine – not 99% of the time. 100% of the time. This ownership of personal responsibility has led me into a personal strength I didn’t know I had, but at the end of the day, sometimes my purpose still eludes me.
I write this all to say that I know I’m not alone. And while I know that who I am is what is most valuable, I often feel this pull to get more done. Regardless of my insecurities growth challenges, would I want to pass this striving onto my teens who are already in enough angst about surviving school? No. My goal has always been to help them focus on being kind, good and engaged people who are so very worthy. So far so good, minus a few 2 day couch protests over the horror of doing dishes and the Lock-Thyself-in-Thy-Bathroom-for-Holiday-Plans-Not-Working out Incident of 2016. (Okay, I’m talking about me, not them.)
Yup, it’s often a struggle for me to stay present. Perhaps if a book like Middle School Matters, by Phyliss L. Fagell, LCPC, was around when I was growing up, more educators would have focused on teens being human beings, not human doers. I might have found my artistic passion earlier instead of my penchant toward people pleasing/perfection and having to take every single stray planting pot found on the side of the room home. And while I can’t place blame on anyone else for my own personal wiring, I can every day strive to lay down perfection and encourage both my kids, and myself, to be who they are meant to be, not who they think they are supposed to be.
In this first Taco Tuesday interview of many to come I’m thrilled to give you an interview with someone who wrote a book explaining just how focusing on what matters is possible.
Taco Tuesday with Phyliss L Fagell, LPCP
Where are you from and where do you live now?
I’m originally from Newton, Massachusetts and now live in Bethesda, Maryland.
What do you do for a living?
I’m the counselor at a K-8 school in Washington, DC; a psychotherapist who sees tweens and teens in private practice; and a journalist. I frequently contribute to publications including The Washington Post and Your Teen magazine. I’m also a regular columnist for Kappan and The Association for Middle Level Education magazines.
How has that influenced your decision to write a book?
I started my career as a health and science writer and magazine editor. I went back to school for school counseling after the birth of my second child (I have three kids–two teens and a tween). I took a fourteen-year break from writing, then found myself writing for The Washington Post about counseling issues. My kids were a little older at that point, I had the bandwidth to take on writing assignments, and stuff was getting me fired up–things such as gender stereotypes, myths about middle schoolers, breakdowns in parent-teen communication, unhealthy perfectionism and achievement pressure, and stigma around mental health issues. The book is a natural extension of my freelance work and a way of compiling all my thoughts on middle school in one place.
Have you always wanted to write?
I wrote my first article for The Boston Globe when I was 14, about the Doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (!), but I wrote my first creative “book” in second grade. I stumbled upon it the last time I was in my childhood bedroom, and it’s a very clear rip-off of The Velveteen Rabbit.Plagiarism notwithstanding, I remember how much I loved writing, illustrating and binding that book. I was seven at the time, and it’s probably when I first realized I wanted to be a writer. I was an English literature and creative writing major in college, then got my master’s in journalism, so if anything, it’s surprising to me that I switched to counseling and stopped writing for so long. It’s all come together nicely in a way I never anticipated.
What is your marketing strategy and how important is this for writers who are publishing their first books?
I’m learning as I go, especially as a first-time author. Many writers, myself included, are more comfortable with the writing part than the publicity part. I’ve had to remind myself repeatedly that this is about sharing ideas, not about having a big ego. I think women in particular are uncomfortable with self-promotion and have a tough time taking ownership of their work. I’ve been lucky in that a lot of other writers– both men and women– have been incredibly supportive and have given me great advice. But mostly I leave the strategizing to the publicists. I know my strengths, and that isn’t one of them!
What was the most difficult part about writing your book?
I struggled the most with work-life balance. I work full time and then some, and as I mentioned, I have three kids. I had to let a lot of stuff go in order to meet my book deadline. After I finished the first draft, I realized I hadn’t opened any mail in months. I also picked up a LOT of Chipotle along the way. My kids probably never want to see another burrito. Fortunately, my husband appreciated what I was trying to accomplish and really kept all the balls in the air. I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into before I started, as I might have had second thoughts!
What was the most fun about writing your book?
I loved, loved, loved talking to experts across the world in industries ranging from technology to maker learning to education to psychology and medicine. There’s nothing like talking to people who are most enthusiastic and knowledgeable about whatever subject you’re covering, whether it’s learning or resiliency or teaching tweens about sexuality. I enjoyed nerding out and learning from the best, most passionate people. Writing can be lonely, but pulling this book together was not a solitary pursuit. I made real connections with individuals who share my obsession with everything middle school-related.
How did you go from “ticked off” to “happily” ticked off? (Basically, how did you use any of your challenges to motivate you to move ahead?)
That’s a great question — one that no one has asked me before! I definitely was agitated prior to writing this book. I wanted to write something preventative, something that would get all of us — kids and adults alike — back on track and focused on the right priorities. College isn’t the end goal, and achievement shouldn’t trump kindness. I also wanted to provide both educators and parents with some concrete, evidence-based strategies. Basically, I saw a giant unmet need and felt we were missing out on this prime opportunity to raise good people. Middle school is probably the most neglected and most critical developmental phase. I’m hopeful that the tide is shifting. As for the “happily ticked off” part of your question, writing this book has been an empowering experience. There’s nothing like amassing and sharing a book’s worth of tips with readers.
Give a shout out to a few bloggers or writers who have influenced you the most.
This could be a long list! Jess Lahey, Michelle Borba, Rachel Simmons, Andrew Reiner, Ken Ginsburg, Katie Hurley, Amy Morin, Adam Grant, Susan Cain, Brene Brown, Claire Shipman, Josh Starr, Richard Weissbourd, Amy Joyce, Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Mary Alvord, and Amy Cuddy, to name a few!
What do you want people to know most about your book?
I’m proud that Middle School Matters just got a starred review from Booklist! To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m more thrilled or relieved. It’s the first official review, and being a first-time author is nerve-wracking. The book is really a guide to everything that could happen during the phase, and also a road map for raising a decent, self-aware, accepting, confident, inclusive, capable, resourceful, and ethical human being. It’s a mix of stories, articles from the news, conversation starters, concrete tips, my own perspective, advice from experts and current research. It’s available for pre-order here: https://www.amazon.com/Middle-School-Matters-Beyond-Parents/dp/0738235083. I also have a professional website where you can find my articles:www.phyllisfagell.com. I tweet frequently about related issues at @pfagell as well.
Questions for Phyllis?
Leave a comment if you any questions and consider purchasing her book if you’ve got kids or grandkids entering this period. I know I could have used all the help I could get.
Until next time, let’s all try to remember that relationship is so much more important than being right.
And always eat tacos.
They really do make ya feel better.