Grow Professional

I’ll Take West Virginia, Please

When I stepped to the front of the classroom, Mrs. Bowen already had the big, gray behemoth powered up.

I carefully positioned volume W of the World Book Encyclopedia into the image capture area and a state map appeared on the grayish white screen pulled down over a section of drab green chalkboard.

I gently lowered the arm toward the 45 until the needle rested on the spinning black vinyl.

A few crackles of static. Then the plunking strings of an acoustic guitar rippled across the classroom on College Avenue in Russellville.

“Almost heaven, West Virginia. Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.”

That was John Denver singing, it was 1971, and I was 8 years old.

That’s how I began my first public multimedia presentation.

We had been given the assignment of doing a report on one of the 50 states. I picked West Virginia, not because I’d ever been there or had any particular connection to the “Mountain State.”

I just wanted to do my report on West Virginia so I could use the John Denver song, “County Roads.”

John Denver was one of my favorite singers at the time and I had the record. I envisioned using his music and lyrics to make my report on West Virginia more than just a boring recitation of facts about a state.

No one told me to include music in my presentation. I just instinctively felt like the music would help.

[Note: I wrote this back in 2013-2014 when I was doing my professional self-reflection work and then forgot what I named the document file on my computer. I just stumbled across it and decided to go ahead and publish.]

The Opaque Projector

As for the big behemoth projector thing, I’m not sure if other students used it. I seem to recall specifically asking my teacher to set it up for me.

Mrs. Bowen had used this big machine on various occasions to display images on the screen directly from books. Other teachers had used film projectors, film strips and transparencies, maybe even slide projectors.

Mrs. Bowen is the only teacher I remember using that big hulking gray machine that captured images on pages from books and projected them directly onto the screen. I suspect it was a big hassle to move around and set up.

I think it was known as an “opaque projector.”

I needed that machine for my presentation because I wanted to show the photos of West Virginia I found in books and the idea of putting photos on the screen seemed, to me, better than simply holding up photos, putting them on a poster or passing a book around the classroom. I didn't have slides or transparencies so that wasn't a choice.

I knew, instinctively, that my report would be stronger if I used music and visuals.

Also, well, I just wanted to use that projector. It fascinated me. The other projectors could transmit images, but not images from a solid page. The other projectors transmitted images from negatives or transparencies. I had a curiosity about how all this media technology worked and wanted to use it.

I’d already developed an interest in media, despite the rudimentary capabilities of the consumer-level audio/video equipment accessible to me in those days. I would sometimes try to “splice” audio by using two or three tape recorders and switching back and forth manually.

Compared to kids today, my early childhood years were in the technological dark ages. Over-the-air TV delivered 3 commercial channels and the “educational” channel. Over-the-air radio was still AM only until around 1970-71 in my home area.

CB radios were around and I got to play with those from time to time so I understood the notion that anyone could speak into to a radio transmitter and send a message to someone else. I understood that “radio” wasn’t simply a technology available to the select few licensees, but I also knew the license thing existed because TV and most radio stations signed off at dark or midnight with a message about some FCC license.

I had my own cassette tape recorder and I used to play records and record my voice, as if I were a DJ spinning tunes and reporting the news.

At my first career day–in second grade, I believe–I converted my big appliance box into a radio station and demonstrated my music mixing skills via the cassette recordings I’d made using my family’s limited-but-diverse record collection.

Some relatives had an old 8 mm film camera and every once in a while someone would have one of those home-movie screenings after dinner.

I wanted a movie camera so badly in those days. Never got one. Around the time I started junior high I got a Kodak 110 Instamatic, which I considered a major upgrade to my parents Polaroid Land camera. I also had to use my money to buy and develop the film, which wasn’t inexpensive. I used to send the film cartridges off in the mail to a development house because it was cheaper. Eventually I learned the film replacements they sent (as an incentive to keep users in the system) yielded pictures that had poor color and faded faster than the Kodak film.

All of this technology-reminiscing has a point. I like to think that my report on West Virginia in Mrs. Bowen’s 4th grade class reveals some of the core aspects of my personality:

I like to try new technologies and I’m always looking for ways to improve, to grow, to be distinctive. I’m willing to experiment.

My approach to the report also demonstrates an early example of resourcefulness.

I wanted to do more than stand up and read a report, so I asked to use the technology I needed to do the best I could do at the time.

I’d love to hear your stories about using tech at school. Even though the technology is constantly changing, it’s the willingness to engage with and learn through the technology that makes you stand-out.

Leave a comment and share a story about an experience you had with whatever technology was available to you at the time or, even better, how you overcame a challenge due to the lack of technology!


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A Letter To My Younger Self

In early February, while looking for another document, I found this file saved on my computer….It's an unfinished letter to my younger self.

The file metadata says this was written December 21, 2013. After copying and pasting here on February 11, 2014, and then scanning through it for typos, I'm posting it verbatim.

It's clear that I didn't finish it….Maybe I'll write the ending one of these days.


Everything works out.

Your first grade teacher said you “have great potential.” Your third grade teacher pronounced you “gifted.” Junior high achievement testing scored your IQ at x [intentionally omitted]. All that potential. The bulk of your adult life has been directed toward somehow proving to someone that you were worthy of those labels.

You’ve only recently realized this and started to return to a life that applauds your unique gifts, rather than climbing ladders toward some measure of success that’s defined by someone else.

Your instincts have always served you well, Sheree. When you’ve followed your instincts you’ve made forward progress. When you’ve ignored your instincts or been a bit too timid to act on them you’ve had to learn the intended lesson the hard way.

Your adult life has turned out quite different than you would have predicted at age 15. And that’s good.

For a while, in your 20s, you were self-absorbed, motivated by the prospects of financial gain. Not to the level of Ebeneezer Scrooge, but you were a bit too focused on your own self-interest and less on helping others.

Fortunately, your regained your heart and set out on a new path.

All of the things you dreamed of as a child but seemed out of reach are possible in 2013 and beyond. One example……Storytelling through mass media–You can do that now. You’re no longer subject to the gatekeepers and technology limitations of the 1970s and 1980s.

By your mid-20s you’d realized that you didn’t have the stomach for politics and political machinations. Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), the system was less messed up in those days than today. Nonetheless, your ambition to be the first woman president was put to rest before you turned 30.

And so ends the December 22, 2013 letter to my younger self…..

Discover Inspire

Are You A Cat In Gloves?


It all started with earthworms. ‘Erms, I called them.

Or maybe it was a bunny rabbit.

My mother insists that I cannot remember the rabbit. She says I was much too young, not even a year old. I can see the rabbit, in my mind’s eye. Who knows if this a real memory or just my imagination?

It  might've been olives.

My mother says I loved them, even as a toddler. I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t love olives.

Earthworms, olives and a rabbit. Seemingly disparate, yet revealing a common thread.

I distinctly remember sitting on the edge of a pier grabbing a handful of night crawlers—fishing worms—from a bucket. My great aunt and uncle, Maedru and Tab, were fishing and watching me while my young parents waterskied on Wilson Lake on the Tennessee River. I was curious.


It’s the core of who I am, my defining character trait.

Curiosity is why I can’t stop learning, why I’m never bored.

In a world where the powers-that-be insist that we play by institutionalized rules and conform to a pre-defined, “normalized” structure, curiosity can be a detriment.

A tiny bit of curiosity is tolerated—they say it shows interest and commitment. But stray across a narrow boundary into a paradigm where silos are ignored and chasms traversed and the curious label will brand you with a mark akin to Hester Pryne’s scarlet letter A.

That’s because curiosity leads to exploration and discovery and makes it possible to connect dots that the less curious are unable or unwilling to see.

Curiosity feeds creativity.

Creative solutions disrupt the status quo.

Those in power like the status quo because in the status quo they wield the power.

Disruption of the status quo means uncertainty and change. And, at least potentially, a change in the power structure. Power brokers allow the reshuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic because it “looks like” creative problem-solving but they always try to squelch real creative solutions. We see this scenario play out repeatedly through faux corporate reengineering, government finance negotiations and academic curriculum revision initiatives.

The demand to normalize and conform to the status quo makes those who are inherently curious and creative problem solvers feel somewhat like Harry Potter confronting the death-eaters.

Curiosity killed the cat.

That’s because the cat was disturbing the status quo.

Think about the context in which that phrase is most often used. It’s when kids are asking too many questions. It has nothing to do with actual cats. It’s a metaphorical statement.

[Tweet “Curiosity killed the cat because the cat was disturbing the status quo.”]

When I was working on my first Ignite Birmingham talk a few years ago I ran across what has become my favorite Ben Franklin aphorism:

A cat in gloves catches no mice.


A cat in gloves is not curious.

A cat in gloves is not brave.

In January of this year, as I continued to reflect on my first 50 years and where I wanted to go in second half of my life, I spent time digging into finding my why. See Simon Sinek if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Everything kept coming back to a sense of wonder, exploration, discovery, driven by my intense curiosity.

I became a lawyer because the Enlightenment and Renaissance-era thinkers that I admired had usually studied law and it seemed to offer a financially-comfortable pathway where I could explore ideas while helping others.

I studied journalism and became a writer because it was a practical opportunity to learn something new through every interview and story.

I became a college professor because I needed to explore, discover and feed my curiosity. I wanted to inspire students and others to become curious and seize the opportunities available to us today.

I became a beekeeper because nature amazes me, inspires me, teaches me.

I teach because I want to inspire others to ask the questions that require answers beyond the superficial explanations and justifications given to keep them/us trapped on a hamster wheel in a false reality feasting on fistfuls of blue pills.

At this point, I find that most people still prefer the blue pill because they believe the status quo offers security and comfort. But I’m optimistic enough to believe that I can lead at least a few others out of the matrix, onto a path to a happy life where we get to discover a new world and a new way, [be]inspired, grow and shine. No pills required.

Are You Curious?

Have you started to wonder if perhaps you are in a matrix designed to numb you into acceptance of your “lot” in life?

Have you let structures, routines, and chores overpower the curiosity you had as a child?

Have you realized something is awry and are looking for change?

Will you join me on the path?



Embrace Your Inner Weirdness

A couple of years after my first “choose myself” moment as a professional, I hung out my shingle as a solo practitioner.

One day I was having lunch with another local lawyer, a casual friend. Not someone I knew very well.

Out of the blue my lunching lawyer companion drops this bombshell:

“Walker Jones [pseudonym] said you're kinda weird.”

Wow. Hearing that was weird.

It would be an understatement to say I was taken aback. This “Walker” person was a law school classmate and house-mate of the boyfriend of my third-year law school roommate. Although we weren't what I'd call “friends,” we'd certainly socialized enough during the few years that I'd known him. I could not imagine what would make “Walker” describe me as weird.

This paragraph is for context, not to make myself look all wonderful. It's just to indicate that I was, by “normal” standards at the time, the epitome of what was defined as normal in the 80s: I had a very active social life in those years. I was a sorority girl, dated cool guys, was a campus leader at Bama, in the top 1/3 of my law school class, loved alternative music, was a campus radio DJ, wore stylish, preppy clothes. I could't  think of anything about my life that would've classified me as anything other than relatively popular and the prototypical law school grad who had, in those days, big ambitions.

So the idea of being called “weird” by someone who knew me just through these social channels really floored me. So much so, that I laughed it off.

Well, I laughed it off then. But, obviously, the comment stayed with me. Otherwise, I wouldn't be blogging about it decades later.

Maybe I Was Weird

The only thing I could figure out then is that by 1990 I wasn't yet married, and most of the crowd “Walker” hung out with was, by that time, married or engaged. I wasn't in a hurry to get married. In fact, I always said I had no desire for a big wedding. I always said when I found the right guy I'd just go get married. Did not understand the wedding fixation business. I still don't. Simple is more than adequate—for me. But I'm not one to judge others. If weddings are your thing, go for it.

Of course, I'm still not married. So maybe that says something. Or not. I'm perfectly content. Lifelong single wasn't planned, but it doesn't bother me. Maybe that's weird.

In hindsight, I can think of other aspects of my life that might have made me a bit weird (but not to “Walker” because he wouldn't have known about these):

When I was about  5 years old, I discovered The Avengers on TV. I was fascinated by the show to the point that I would imitate Mrs. Peel shooting the cork off the top of a champagne bottle. Well, I didn't have a champagne bottle to work with, but the intent was there.

In fourth grade, I started taking piano lessons. At first we didn't have a piano. So that made it hard to practice. But I learned fast, anyway, using a fake keyboard poster. And weekend visits to practice on a relative's piano. That was kind of weird, in  hindsight.

Later, in high school I also learned to type very fast, a skill for which I'm very thankful. I remember dreaming of typing the asdf jkl; pattern over and over.

Apparently, I'm good with keyboards. Still a plus, in the computer age, even with touchscreens.

When I was in maybe the fifth grade, someone on the school bus, an older kid, asked why I was always reading books. I stared at him, in the way that 9-old-girls can stare. Girlfriend.

I like(d) to read. In those days I read books about camping and nature and biographies of Elvis and Joe Namath. And my Mom's English literature textbooks. Maybe that was weird. For a while, in junior high, I stopped reading so much, just so I could “fit in” a bit more. Fortunately, I recovered from the need to fit in.

When I got to junior high, I said I wanted to join the band so my parents took me to a meeting for kids who wanted to join the band.

Out of the blue I said I wanted to play trumpet. I think it was because my cousin had the Whipped Cream album by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The band director, Curtis Ikard, looked at my teeth and said I was good to go.

Two years later I played Amazing Grace as a solo at my high school football game. My parents bought me a silver Bach Stradivarius trumpet just before that game. No other girl had played a trumpet solo at halftime at my school—and our marching band was renowned in the area. I was still in junior high.

I turned down a chance to be drum majorette so I could keep playing trumpet. I eventually became the first girl first-chair solo trumpet player at my school. Band was cool at my school. I was cool.

That all probably makes me weird.

The Weird Turn Pro

I was so into college that I wanted to major in everything. Including parties. After changing my college major at least five times in three years, I settled on broadcasting. Mainly because it interested me and I could finish that degree in four years.

The guy who taught the radio production course was a grad student studying in radio.I remember his syllabus included the phrase:

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

I'd never heard of Hunter S. Thompson before that class. And I don't remember the grad instructor's name. But he taught me how to edit audio tape by splicing and taping it and how to tell a story using audio only.

My final project in that course was a package on women choosing non-traditional careers. I interviewed a few of my friends and sorority sisters. One was finishing her major in electrical engineering. She'd also learned to speak Chinese. Another had a double-major in accounting and Russian. A third was also bound for law school.

We might have been sorority girls but we weren't dumb. The package started with a snipped of music from the Mamas and the Papas: “You've gotta go where you wanna go, do what you wanna do…” and ended with Helen Reddy's “Oh yes, I'm wise, but it's wisdom born of pain…I am strong, I am invincible…..”

Given that I am weird about things, I hung onto the reel-to-reel tape from that class until I left Oklahoma State in 2007. I finally decided I probably wouldn't ever have access to a reel-to-reel player again. At one time, I had a cassette version of that package. Maybe I still do. Maybe I should try for Hoarders. That would be weird, since I do not watch reality TV. It's weird that I even know about it.

It's weird how much we can remember about little isolated snippets of our lives.

At that time, I was intent on becoming the first woman president. I did not hide that ambition. I think I could've achieved that, had I really set my mind to it. But I'm glad I didn't go down the path of politics. I still have my soul and my life.

When I finally got tired of practicing law, I gave it up to return to academia and writing. I earned a Ph.D.

Hoping a few students from my grad school teaching years still remember me at least as fondly as I remember the grad-student-teacher-whose-name-I-can't-recall. He was kinda weird, but I still liked him.

Is Brave Weird?

Maybe I'm weird because when I was 19 I stared into the face of wrath, as two hands wrapped around my neck and and a familiar voice growled: “I could break your neck right now, if I wanted to. All I have to do is press a little harder.” Instead of cowering or pleading for release, I looked impassively but directly into black, alcohol-stained eyes and waited, until my cousin Tommy opened the door and the fingers around my neck relaxed. Check mate.

I forgave this person. That's also weird (to most people).

Following My Bliss

I'm getting tired and, as I wrote yesterday, sleep is my secret weapon, so I'll close this out.

Maybe I'm weird because I've never been willing to settle for the status quo or something less than what I think will help me become a better version of myself.

In my own experience, when the going gets tough, it's time to get brave and push on toward the vision I have for my life.

Likewise, you need to go after the vision you have for your life.

Don't settle for whatever version of reality someone else thinks is normal.

Maybe what's weird is that we, as a society, spent most of the 20th century rewarding the yes men, the rule-followers, those who stayed within +/- 2.5 standard deviations from the mean.

Now that we're in the midst of a “new normal,” inside the normal curve is the last place we should ever want to be.

I still won't claim to be a fan of Hunter S. Thompson, although I have read some of this writing in the years since that class in 1984. But he was very right about one thing:

Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race' is not yet final.

Hunter S. Thompson

I'm proud to wear the mantle of the weird. What about you?