Last year, thoughts on the 86th Indiana FFA State Convention ricocheted violently through my head for two days before I forced myself to sit down at 10:30 at night, write reflections on the convention and press “Publish.” I was sharing too much of myself, being too vulnerable. I didn’t want to put it all out there.
But I did.
This year, I started forming this post in my head during convention and knew there was no choice: I had to write it when I returned home. No longer did the vulnerability of revealing so much of myself make me tremble. As an agriculture teacher, I had become used to being vulnerable. I had learned early on I needed to let my guard down, needed to let people in, if this teaching thing was going to be any success at all.
But, when I first began, I did not want to. I did not want them to know me. Not the me who squealed in excitement over ice cream flavors, not the me who tripped and fell over pebbles, not the me who jumped when snuck up on, not the me who loved hobbits and X-wing fighters and The TARDIS. I was going to be calm and confident, always knowing the answers to my students’ questions, always replying to arguments with wit and good humor, never letting my flaws show and most of all, never letting them see that the last four years had been rough and that my confidence was shot because of it. I didn’t know how to smile anymore. Letting anyone in, especially 90 complete strangers, was the last thing I wanted to do.
But it was the first thing I needed to do.
So for the first month and a half of school, Miss Brown was a character far away from who Elise was. It stressed me out, and I would come home absolutely drained.
Worst of all, I hated myself because of it.
There were state conventions where I would walk down the aisles of Elliott Hall of Music and wonder, “Why didn’t I become an ag teacher again?” Those ag teachers seemed to have something special, even though I couldn’t really pinpoint what that something special was.
Working with young people involved in agriculture was something I always wanted to do, and I was especially interested in being on the grassroots level. University Extension work was an option for a long time. But there was still something about teaching agriculture. However, I would remind myself that I learned while on an agricultural education study abroad trip to Jamaica that teaching full-time in a classroom and being up in front all the time just didn’t seem like it was my gift. So instead of double majoring in agricultural education and agricultural communication like I planned to during freshman year, I ended up majoring solely in agricultural communication. I have never regretted that.
I also didn’t have the personality for being an agriculture teacher, as I seemed to learn at Penn State. In a grad class, we read a research paper discussing how an agriculture teacher’s brain worked. I didn’t fit the mold. And one thing was definitely for sure: there was no way I could drive a mid-bus. So logically, I couldn’t be an agriculture teacher.
And then, I found myself in the profession.
I had been with the ten members who came to state convention all year. They were students in my classes, served on the officer team, and helped with the petting zoo. We learned about each other’s personalities all the time, and the relationships were only becoming richer. State convention was the cream cheese icing on top of the carrot cake.
Before arriving at the school to load up the mid-bus and head to Purdue University, I thought about my driving record. I hadn’t had much luck driving in Louisville during the National FFA Convention in October (I blame the black cat that crossed our path one afternoon), and I wanted to improve for state convention. Luckily, I had an advantage this time: Purdue is home. So I set a goal of hitting zero curbs.
Before we took off, my mischievous seniors said, “We’re going to count how many curbs you hit.” And they predicted what number that would be.
I said, “My goal is zero.”
Monday night of convention was a time to relax and enjoy each other’s company. On Tuesday, students competed in and assisted with Career Development Events while others explored campus. Then, after lunch, we participated in the Convention Day of Service. We packed meals to send to Haiti, a project organized in conjunction with the Lifeline Christian Mission and ABC (All Because of Christ) Food Ministry. Four students, each in charge of one of the four ingredients, poured their portion through a funnel into a plastic bag held by a fifth student. He or she would then pass the bag to a member who weighed it and either added or subtracted rice to achieve a certain weight. The bag was then passed to a student who closed it with a heat sealer and then to the person packing boxes. There was a large grid on the table with two food bags stacked in each rectangle. When the grid was full, the boxes would be packed and loaded on pallets for the truck.
It was hot in the Purdue Armory, where we were working, so afterwards, we cleaned up for the evening’s activities, and I headed to the past state officer dinner. I left there early so I could head to Elliott Hall to meet my kids for the Opening Celebration. This year’s convention theme was “Amplify,” and the joy of singing and music was shared throughout this convention kick-off as the state officers discussed events from American and FFA history to encourage members to “Sing your song.” At the end, there was fire, which is always good.
After the opening celebration and right before the First General Session began, I needed to step out of the main hall for a few minutes. When I returned to the lobby, the state officers were preparing for their session entrance. One of them saw me and asked excitedly, “Was it cool?”
My mind was in a million different places, and the result was a dazed look as I said, “What?”
“Was it cool? The opening celebration?”
“Oh, oh, yes!”
There was relief and they said that for a second, they’d thought it hadn’t happened, their presentations and the fire had all been in their imaginations, and the audience hadn’t actually been there. I reassured them that it all had happened and we all had seen it.
Once the state officers had made their grand entrance, I returned to my seat for the opening ceremonies of the First General Session. This was the session where past state officers were recognized. I’d attended this session before, but this was the first time I sniffled as the pictures of the anniversary teams flashed on the screen. This year of teaching was ten years after my senior year at the school, and this convention marked ten years since we had been elected. Standing up with my students by my side and behind me was special. I felt surrounded by support and people who knew my stories. Ag teachers also were recognized by the keynote speaker, Scott McKain, and I stood up again.
I could hear my kids cheer.
Wednesday was jam-packed. During the morning session, we learned that we won a $500 grant from the Indiana Farm Bureau for our work with our annual petting zoo. It was an application I had worked with the officers on, editing tightly and finding such rewarding phrases as, “Aquaponics…captured the attention of the young students and opened their eyes to a sea of opportunities to them in the agriculture sector.” I laughed out loud when I first read that.
Shortly after that announcement, this year’s National FFA President, Taylor McNeel, gave a keynote address. And as she did, it struck me that there was only one week until my flight to New Zealand. Suddenly, I felt terrified.
I’d been briefly scared before, but other than that, I had always been ready to go. But in this moment, I was in a familiar place where I could be myself. The sponsor logos and the organization emblems and jackets were familiar. The accents, awards and videos were familiar. I knew convention; Indiana was home; and I was about to leave all of that.
The terror lingered for a minute, and then fortunately subsided.
After the session, I was reminded of the excitement of traveling by a dear friend and her children at one of the Purdue fountains, the one into which I pushed a friend in April. The kids love dashing through the jets of water.
“Elise! You’re going to New Zealand!”
She gave me a journal. I’m almost finished with the journal I’m writing in now and needed a new one for my trip. She had written on the first page.
I was ready to go again.
For dinner, I introduced my students to Huhot Mongolian Grill, and then we headed back to campus for the Hoosier Degree Session. Two of our company received their degrees, the highest honor the state can give. It was all rather exciting, and we gathered to celebrate with them and take chapter photographs.
Sleep was brief that night.
And then, it was Thursday.
Thursday always holds feelings of anticipation mingled with joy, bittersweetness, and exhaustion. It’s the expectation of competition results and a new state officer team to install; a team saying good-bye; lack of sleep finally catching up with us.
At the final session, our chapter president and the only senior who had yet to walk across the stage accepted our bronze level chapter award. It was exciting to see the year’s work recognized and take pictures as they walked across the stage, and I could tell those two were loving it.
Then, another one of our seniors was introduced as the new district president. I took pictures and then sat back down and totally lost it. I can hardly explain why. I was sobbing, tears streaming down my face, holding a fist in front of my mouth trying to muffle the sound. I was sitting behind my kids at that point, but shortly after that, we had to move toward the back of the Hall for the delegate session. I think they could see I’d been crying, and I didn’t — couldn’t — say anything.
After the new officer team had tapped the final gavel, we headed to Buffalo Wild Wings for supper, where I had an excellent strawberry lemonade and, strangely, mini corn dogs because that was what sounded good at the time.
Then, I sent the kids out to the bus. I joined them a few minutes later. I had been shaking, seeing it in my hands as I ate. Because that was the last day I would see them for a while, I was about to sit with the people who had shared this journey over the past year with me and say what I needed to say. I told them that in August, my confidence was shot and I didn’t know how to smile anymore.
“But what helped me get my smile back was you guys.”
When I had finished, one said, “Is a group hug on a bus a thing?”
We made it happen.
“Let’s go home.”
So we did.
For the most part, I was stoic at my team’s convention. I had several speaking parts to make it through. The emotions this year were so different. The chapter officer team saw me choke up at certain points throughout the year, something I hadn’t anticipated, especially with how guarded I tried to be at the beginning. When we went to eat at Fazoli’s on the Monday night of convention, salt pricked the edges of my eyes as I stood at the end of the line, watching my kids order, proud of who they were and how much they had grown this year. I also was thinking about the fact that I was leaving the next week.
I’d never had my emotions tested as they had been this year. And so, for several reasons, throughout the convention, the phrase, “The greatest of these is love,” echoed in my mind. It’s found in 1 Corinthians 13, a passage cited a couple of times on stage.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
“Love never fails….
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
~1 Cor. 13:4-8; 13
State officers talked about love throughout their retiring addresses and during the sessions. Taylor, the national president, encouraged us to live palms up, a reference to Bob Goff and his book Love Does. Love was shown through FFA members’ dedication to members of their communities, whether they were packing and delivering meals, holding events for handicapped adults or showing others how to be safe on the farm.
One state officer spoke in his retiring address of his parents’ separation and “war in our homes.” I couldn’t stop the tears. When I was teaching, I saw the effects of my students’ wars, and I thought of them as his words filled the Hall. Nearly every day, I would see people who were hurting, and the only thing I could do was keep talking about agriculture and listen if they decided I was the right person with whom to talk.
Because of that, I learned I needed to place my name in those verses: “Miss Brown is patient, Miss Brown is kind….Miss Brown is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs.”
I did my best. But I couldn’t never fail. I know I failed so, so many times.
But I had to keep going, concentrating on showing love more strongly in the next few minutes after I made the mistake.
There were days when I didn’t know how in the world I could ever face the students again because I felt the mistake had been so bad. But then, the next day, they would be there, and we would begin anew.
I knew I was the absolute worst critic I could have. I had seen successful teachers and I would try to be them. Not just like them, but be them, doing and saying exactly what they would say and do. And for the first month and a half of school, it was miserable.
Then, I was reminded that my real identity is in being Elise, a writer and storyteller who likes sheep, Star Wars, taking pictures and ice cream.
I started telling stories and showing my photographs on my computer desktop background, and the students responded.
That was me. That was how I loved. I had forgotten that.
I am thankful that I remembered.
This year wasn’t My Plan. But it became The Plan.
And it was good.
Friday morning, I dropped off some items in the agriculture room, then sat on my heels in the doorway for a while, in the dark, looking at the freshly waxed floor of the empty ag room. I closed my eyes and remembered. I could hear the echoes of chatter in class…flurries of activity during projects…laughter in meetings.
And I felt it when it was time to go.
State convention authenticates faith in our young people and belief in what we can do together; cultivates hope in the future of agriculture and our organization; and demonstrates love for students, the land and the organization.
“But the greatest of these is love.”
That was the something special that those ag teachers had.
By the way, I hit zero curbs.
And that is why it is important to set goals.