Book Review: Best Nerds Forever

Hands down one of the best middle grade novels I've read in awhile! Thank you @JP_Books for writing this wholly entertaining novel.
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How I came by this book: one of my sixth grade students recommended Best Nerds Forever, and even gave me his copy to borrow (he was clearly very excited for me to read it). After doing his assigned summer reading of The Honest Truth, he decided to read this one as his choice book, given its similar themes (y’know, dying, dead boys, death, etc.). I must say I’m so glad he recommended this book to me, because I. LOVED. IT.

As the middle grade author of the I Funny and Middle School series, James Patterson books have adorned my class library bookshelves for many years. I’ve also seen his books for adults on many Barnes & Noble bookshelves (especially when I worked there in college). So the name was familiar, and I guessed his stories were good based on their popularity, but up until this point, I had read neither his books for children or books for adults. Assuming an author is a good one just because they’re famous is usually a surefire way to be disappointed if, in fact, the writing style isn’t to your liking or the book is famous for something other than the author’s actual ability to craft a well-written story. So I went into this one without expectations, even though in the back of my mind I assumed it would be good, as I said, simply because of who penned it (at least, one half of who penned it; sorry, Chris Grabenstein, I hadn’t heard of you before). But let me tell you, it was a million times better than I could have ever imagined.

From the first chapter, I knew I was going to enjoy this story. Really, from the first few lines: “Great. You’re here. I might as well get this whole messed-up story off my chest.” The story’s narrator, Finn, has a voice that is so genuine and so perfectly attuned with who he is as a character, and it’s apparent from page one. I could already tell the kind of boy he is (or was, I suppose, since he’s dead) from the get-go, and Patterson does a phenomenal job of keeping that voice intact until the last page. (I guess I really shouldn’t be so surprised, since he is a famous author and all; it’s kind of his job to write good novels). I honestly think Finn’s narration was my favorite part of the entire story, because it was just so good (shocking, I know, I thought the whole ‘being a ghost’ thing would be my absolute favorite part- we’ll just call it second favorite then).

One part fantasy, one part mystery mix together in this novel for an overall adventure for main characters Finn and Isabella, an adventure of trying to tie up loose ends and finish some very important unfinished business before moving on to the afterlife. The blend of the two genres was seamless, and the topic of death never once felt overwhelming or sad (except maybe at the very end, where I most definitely cried). I actually felt weird enjoying the story so much from the start, because I felt bad that I didn’t feel bad when Finn died- it’s kind of the whole premise of the story, after all. It’s important to have stories portraying real-life topics, especially heavy ones such as the death of a loved one, and this novel tackled that tough topic in such a beautiful way. The characters and their individual quirks were so well-developed, and I became invested in both Finn and Isabella’s stories immediately. The short chapters definitely helped propel me onward, telling myself “the chapters are short, just one more before I put it down and take a break.” The story was just that good, and I found myself disappointed whenever I’d have to take a break from reading it, looking forward to my next free moment to pick it back up again.

The only thing I’m not entirely sure how I feel about (and I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers here, but no promises) was the ending. On one hand, I think the story could have wrapped up perfectly at the end of the final chapter, before the epilogue. It was heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time (and the part where I cried, of course), and just felt like such an appropriate end to the story. Part of me likes to pretend that was where the book stopped. Part of me is okay with going on to the epilogue, because that final piece was unexpected and beautiful in its own way (and made me cry, too). It also had such an important life lesson tied to it (although, in the final chapter’s defense, it too had a great moral). I can’t decide which ending I’d prefer, so I’ll leave it up to you, reader, to make your own decision.

Because the next middle grade book I hope every reader, young or old, picks up is this book.

Yes. It was that good.

Book Review: Good Enough

Good Enough
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This book was so good I gobbled it up in just a few days (no pun intended). Though it’s a fictionalized account of a young girl during rehabilitation from her eating disorder, the author herself struggled with the same issues, which gave me a stronger sense of buy-in as a reader. While I don’t necessarily enjoy memoirs of someone’s firsthand account, I do enjoy when authors weave their real-life experiences into their characters’ (much like I do with my own writing).

Riley was a very dynamic character who came off the page right away. You immediately feel a connection to her, and want to follow her story, hoping you know the outcome it leads to. I thought the other characters in the story were also well-developed (at least as well developed as they can be, considering the whole limited first-person POV thing). I think a lot of that is a testament to Petro-Roy’s own experiences, as well as just really good writing. For example, in the beginning, Riley built her younger sister, Julia, up to be the golden child, making me assume that, once we finally meet her in person, Julia would be snarky and conceited, and would look down on her older sister as being weak, and not as good as her. But when that moment finally arrived, we see Julia is actually really supportive of her sister, and is the only one in her family that tries to act normal and treat her sister like a person, not just someone who is sick and will never get better. The fact that Riley eventually sees that sisterly love for herself made my heart smile even more.

Additionally, Petro-Roy does a great job at developing Riley’s friends, taking them from what feels like a sunny-day friend who can’t (or isn’t willing to) see their friend for who she is past her disease to the type of friend who openly supports Riley on her journey to recovery. At first, Riley’s friends almost come off as the type of friend who would rather pretend you don’t exist than have to acknowledge the hard times you’re going through, but after some time to consider that maybe they are just having their own hard time dealing with their friend being sick, Petro-Roy shows us what good, supportive friends they actually are. Even the new friends Riley makes in the hospital (with Ali being the only exception) all seem to lift Riley up, even as they deal with their own diseases. Much like real life, it’s apparent that they see everyone around them as perfect just the way they are- “I wish they didn’t hate themselves so much. They’re all pretty. Their bodies don’t matter to me. Their bodies don’t matter. Mine does, though.” as Riley says at one point- and the only one who actually judges them the harshest is themselves. This feeling couldn’t have been more true for most of us when we were at that tender age of twelve (and even sometimes as an adult), so whether it was something the author herself felt at the time when dealing with her disease, or just something she was perceptive enough to pick up on, it serves to strengthen all of the characters as they battle for their lives.

The format of this novel, written as if it were Riley’s diary, is perfectly suited for the type of story Petro-Roy is telling. In fact, I don’t think any other style would have worked as well, because much of Riley’s daily struggles, aside from the whole not eating thing, come from the torrent of thoughts and feelings that she has about her eating at any given moment. The story really needs that first-person narration, and since it’s supposed to be her diary, we get that somewhat unreliable narrator aspect, the one that allows her to vent and whine and be nervous and anxious and unrealistic and illogical and still tell a great story, because it’s her story. And while I’m not familiar with what it’s like to deal with an eating disorder, I do have experience with similar struggles which warrant such negative, tug-of-war thinking, so it was a very relatable story in that aspect. Riley tries hard to explain it to her mother, saying ‘”Stuff happened.” It wasn’t much of an answer, but it was the only one I had. My parents didn’t cause my eating disorder. My friends or Ali or running or the media didn’t, either. I got sick because of a whole list of ingredients poured into a pot. Sometimes I can taste one ingredient more than another, but everything contributes, along with a few extra ingredients I can’t quite identify.”‘ And she’s right. I don’t get having an eating disorder but I 100% get having those thoughts about yourself, about your worth and whether you’re good enough, and wondering what made you like that in the first place. Because, really, we’ve all had “stuff happen” to us in our lives at some point or another, dark stuff or simply just stuff that wasn’t nice or what we expected or hoped for, stuff that made us question ourselves enough to decide to be unhappy for a period of time in our life. So, while every reader might not connect with the story of her recovery from an eating disorder, I think almost every reader will connect with the struggles she goes through to get out the other side, to stay positive, to be strong enough to overcome the darkness that tries to pull her down every single day. Couple that with writing that just flows, and you’ve got a great novel. Hands down 5 out of 5 stars. Couldn’t read it fast enough.

7 ways to reduce your plastic footprint

Like everything else in my life, I always seem to be the last to know about local, national, and global efforts to help the planet (because, let’s face it, hard as I try, there’s just too much happening in my own little world to keep up with everything that’s going on outside of it). So naturally, it would take me until July 27th, a mere four days before the month is over, to discover the #PlasticFreeJuly initiative. But hey, better late than never, isn’t that how the saying goes? Words to live by (and trust me, I do).

Ironically enough, I actually started this post some time ago, and, like so many other things in my life half-started and quickly abandoned, I never actually got around to polishing it up and publishing it. But now that I’m (seemingly) on a writing kick, let’s keep the momentum going and get this out into the world in a timely-enough manner to still qualify pushing it on social media with the appropriate hashtags.

Because, these days, it isn’t enough just to recycle (although keep doing that as a last resort to the below tips). As some of us already know, just because something is plastic, doesn’t mean it’s recyclable. Some products can only be recycled at specific facilities, which may not be available in your area. Others may be too small or the wrong type of plastic to recycle to begin with. And just because you toss something into the recycling bin doesn’t mean that it actually ends up getting recycled. It has to first make it to a recycling facility, avoid cross-contamination with something unrecyclable (like plastic bags, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP TRYING TO RECYCLE PLASTIC BAGS), and then the heap of recycled whatever it was has to be purchased by someone willing and able to actually reuse and repurpose it. It’s quite a process (there’s a reason why “recycle” is last on the list of “reduce, reuse, recycle”). So let’s focus on how to avoid those single-use plastics in the first place, shall we?

  1. Shop with reusable bags only. Refuse plastic bags at the grocery store and instead opt to buy sustainable bags you can reuse over and over (and then, of course, don’t forget to always have them with you whenever you go out). And before you ask, depending on the material, you can (and SHOULD) wash them accordingly to keep them germ-free, making them perfect for even the most germophobic shoppers. When out clothes shopping, take a foldaway tote that you can fill with your purchases. If you do nothing else on this list, do this one thing. It’s the most critical because plastic bags contribute to such a large amount of plastic waste, and more importantly they cannot be recycled the way other plastics are. Remember? I already said that (see above). In fact, they actually gum up the machines meant to recycle other types of plastic, and if they do slip through and make it into the giant cube of recycled waste, they render the whole lot useless. This means no companies are going to buy the recycled mass and it all goes to waste, right back to the landfills. While you CAN *reuse* plastic bags (I sometimes use them in our bathroom waste baskets when they somehow mysteriously appear at my house, usually because my husband did the shopping) they still eventually end up in landfills. And while you CAN “recycle” them back to grocery stores like Publix, there’s no guarantee they don’t end up in landfills anyway. So just don’t do it. The reusable ones are usually $1 so stop being cheap and help save the planet.

  2. Use reusable mesh produce bags. Another easy way to cut down on some serious plastic waste is to purchase reusable mesh produce bags. I got this set of 9 bags for $13 off Amazon two years ago (don’t get me started on the problems with Amazon, I know, that’s not what this post is about), have washed them several times, and they’ve held up nicely. Like I said, you can wash these, too, which you should do often because, germs. Don’t forget that you still have to separate produce by bag just like you would if you were using the single use bags. Cashiers will thank you (I literally had one thank me two days ago for not putting everything in one bag like something other jerk shopper had done to her) and so will the planet. Easy peasy lemon-in-your-reusable-bag squeezy.

  3. Only use paper or aluminum straws. Refuse plastic straws at restaurants, bring your own reusable straw or forgo the straw altogether. Either way, the sea turtles will thank you.

  4. Use Tupperware or silicon bags instead of plastic baggies. I really can’t think of any food that wouldn’t store nicely in a Tupperware or silicon bag. I got mine from (you guessed it) Amazon, and have had success storing everything except chips (they get a bit crushed, so use Tupperware instead) and soup. Although the company I purchased from claims you can store soup in your silicon bags. Never bothered to test their guarantee, so somebody else do so and report back. In the long run, doing this will likely save you money since you aren’t endlessly refilling your supply of sandwich baggies and Ziplocs. The ocean and your bank account will approve.

  5. Take advantage of water filters, reusable bottles, and water fill stations. With the craze of the Hydro Flask still holding strong, and many public places installing filtered water fill stations, it just makes sense to purchase a sturdy reusable water bottle to fill and refill when on the go. I bought my husband and I a few knock-off versions from TJ Maxx for under $15 each, those bigger ones that should get me through most, if not the whole day without a refill. They’re great when I’m at work, at the beach, out on the river, taking a hike, or driving around running errands (this one especially, since it keeps your beverage hot/cold so it doesn’t get gross sitting in the car baking in the sun all day while I’m inside the store). And while we’re talking about ways to use less plastic for drinking, install a filter at home or make use of water refill stations. We buy the 89 cent gallon water jugs at Publix and refill 5 for $1 at the Watermill Express station near our house, washing and reusing the same gallon jugs over and over until I feel like they’re probably starting to break down into micro-plastics and poison us, in which case I finally recycle those five jugs, replace them, and start the reusing process over (I’m sure there’s a better way, this is just our way to make a dent at not consuming as many single-use plastic bottles).

  6. Explore products made from sustainable plastic-free materials. Up until a few years ago, I never would have guessed bamboo was used to replace so many plastic products. But there are sooo many products being made from bamboo now (just type ‘bamboo’ in your Amazon search bar- sorry, not sorry- and see how many auto-fill suggestions it gives) and a lot of them are relatively easy to make the switch to. My favorite is using a bamboo toothbrush (haven’t yet convinced my husband, but maybe one day). I got a 5-pack from Marshall’s, but there are tons in other stores and online, too. I like something like this one with charcoal properties for an extra kick of goodness. Compared to plastic, bamboo is better in so many ways; namely, it’s biodegradable, and, because it grows much faster than other trees, it’s easily sustainable. Plus everything just looks cuter when it’s made from bamboo, so you can help the planet and be fashionable at the same time. Other materials, like glass, are a good alternative to all the one-and-done plastics out there. And while I haven’t yet had a chance to try their products myself, companies like Grove Collaborative do a bang-up job of aggregating plastic-free products in one easy-to-maneuver location for all of your plastic-alternative needs.

  7. For products that come in plastic, buy in bulk. This is a great one for all you Sam’s Club, BJ’s, Costco, etc. people out there. Being that it’s just the two of us, I can’t justify having a membership to any of these places, but even when shopping at the “regular” grocery stores, I always buy paper products (like toilet paper and paper towels) in the largest sizes available to avoid having to buy more often and go through more of that dreaded plastic shrink wrap. It’s so easy you don’t even have to think about it much.

Of course this list is not exhaustive, but just a good jumping-off point for those of you looking to make a change and do better but maybe not knowing where to start. And I know some of you will say “yeah this sounds great in theory but I can’t fit this into my lifestyle.” Then start with ONE thing. If every single person reading this eliminated just one way they consume plastic, think about how much plastic waste we could reduce! It’s only possible if we ALL contribute, in some way, even small, seemingly meaningless ones. It probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to refuse straws when you go out or use Tupperware instead of plastic baggies for your lunches. But to the rest of the planet, the animals and fish we are killing and the habitats and clean water we are polluting, it could mean the difference between life and death. And we can’t expect to fix a problem if we all aren’t willing to start somewhere and try.

Wait… there's more than 3 R's for Recycling? Not just Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?  — Severson Dells Nature Center

Book clubs make reading (more) fun

This summer, I reached out to my local Tarpon Springs community on Facebook, desperately searching for an adult book club I could join. Having facilitated one among my middle school students the last few years, I was eager to branch out and try my skills at a book club aimed at adult novels for adult readers. Unfortunately, a book club didn’t seem to exist in my town (or at least, exist anymore, the most recent one being dismantled in 2018) but everyone seemed to have a great interest in joining and being apart of one! So the teacher in me decided that, while I hadn’t exactly planned to start the club myself, it seemed I would have to do just that. So while I gathered attention from my neighbors and painstakingly obsessed over every little detail, including (and most importantly) the title of our club (Books & Banter, catchy, right?), I hoped I wasn’t making a big mistake by putting myself in charge of a group of adults when that’s basically my worst nightmare. A classroom full of kids? Any day. A group of adults who probably know more than I do and are silently judging me the entire time I’m speaking? Nope. But I’ve been trying this new thing where I push myself outside of my comfort zone, and I’d already created the Facebook group, sooooo there was really no going back.

After everyone submitted their suggested title for the first book (I snuck in The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter, since it had been sitting unread on my bookshelf for far too long), I waited for the votes to come in. After giving everyone ample time to cast their votes, it would seem that, while 95% of the list consisted of the dreaded historical fiction, my book, my little ol’ mystery/thriller that seemed to be the least requested genre, came in at the top. And so it seemed we would be reading The Good Daughter!

This was my first Karin Slaughter novel. This book got right into the action from the first page and kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end! I enjoyed putting together the pieces, and there were even a few twists thrown in that I didn’t see coming, which is always appreciated (of course, only when the twists are relevant to the story, and not just haphazardly tossed in like some authors do). The way the author blends the characters’ past trauma with the mystery of the present crime was seamless, making connections where I wouldn’t have guessed there would be any. The main characters are well-developed, and each have their own quirks and traits that made them unique. I especially liked Rusty’s character, and could get a great visual of him (I pictured a lanky, Dallas Buyers Club version of Matthew McConaughey). It was also clear the author had some prior knowledge or conducted research to accurately portray the courtroom scenes and jargon, which I appreciated, as it added to the realistic nature of the plot.

There are some graphic scenes and topics in this novel (murder, assault, etc.), which could potentially upset anyone with similar experiences as the characters. And for anyone who doesn’t like reading long chapters with few to no scene breaks, be prepared for just that. I found it difficult to sit and read the long chapters, especially when there was no good stopping point, so I did struggle to make enough time to sit and read at least one chapter all the way through at a time. If I could change one thing about the novel, it would be shorter chapters! Other than that, the book was well-written overall, with an interesting plot, interesting characters, and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the end. I’d rate it 4 out of 5 stars!

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The OG, original 13 “founding” members who attended the first (of many) Books & Banter meetings! We drank wine & talked books!

While I spend a majority of my time reading young adult/teen fiction (both for classroom use and to keep up-to-date on authors within the genre I write, and also I just really like them), I tend to gravitate towards the mystery/thriller/horror genre when it comes to books for adults, so it was no surprise that this one fit right in with other favorites of mine such as The Woman in the Window, The Wife Between Us, and Home Before Dark. But everyone in my book club seemed to also enjoy it just as much as I did, and from what I gathered from that first meeting (in addition to the initial questionnaire), everyone has vast tastes in books, mostly ranging from historical fiction to nonfiction with a bit of thriller and romance thrown in for good measure. So while this is a great novel for those who love a good mystery/thriller, it seems it’s also perfect for anyone who’s willing to give the genre a chance. For those who’ve already read The Good Daughter, what did you think?

For our next book, we’ll be reading Where the Crawdads Sing and, while the main genre that comes up when I searched the book on GoodReads was that dreaded historical fiction, the second genre that came up was mystery. So maybe this will be the perfect blend of what I like and what I’m used to, and what I probably need to just get over and give a chance (although I will say I’ve already branched out with hist. fict. in my student book club, and was surprisingly pleased to enjoy some of those middle grade reads, including all-time fave Refugee). Anyone who has read Crawdads, please give me hope that I will make it through, even though it’s supposedly historical fiction, hah! And while you write me up a reassuring comment, I’m going to go get started on next month’s reading.

A few (of many) real concerns educators face if schools reopen (that officials won’t address)

In one month, Florida schools will fully open and be flooded with children.

Among the thousands of other educators throughout the state, every day we get closer to that opening day, the more anxious, nervous, depressed, angry, upset, worried, sad, disappointed, and unsure I get.

Us educators and admin across the country rallied last-minute back in March and successfully pulled off virtual learning with literally zero training and zero warning (did you guys already forget how you were singing our praises back then? that was short-lived). While we rose to that challenge, just like we do with everything else, I think most of us can agree it isn’t something we want to have to repeat, especially to start a brand new school year. We miss our students, we miss our colleagues, we miss the support and sense of community we get being together at school. Virtual learning was a last ditch effort to slow the spread of this awful novel virus, a temporary one decided upon to protect the health and safety of our students (because no one ever worries about the health and safety of the teachers). But I think most of us would gladly take another round of virtual learning and the peace of mind that would accompany it than the uncertainty and fear surrounding schools reopening.

Because if we had this logical, sound reasoning for closing our school doors back in March, why are government officials trying to force our doors back open now, when the only thing that’s changed since March is a huge spike in positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across the state (and nation)?

Here’s what I’m worried about: I’m worried about the inability to enforce masks (that is, if they even make them required, because as of now they may just be a recommendation). We’ve all seen the ridiculous videos of 77-year-old ladies throwing tantrums in the middle of Costco because they refuse to put on a mask for the safety of others. We’ve laughed at them, we’ve made jokes, we’ve turned them into memes. But in all seriousness, there are far too many people in this country who really are that selfish and childish and ridiculous, who refuse to adhere to a temporary inconvenience for the good of the entire community (one that was recommended by medical professionals and scientists, no less). So what makes anyone think we’ll be able to require students, some of them as young as 6 years old, to not only don a mask before entering school, but to keep it on throughout the day, and keep their hands off it? All it takes is one student who can’t wear a mask for health reasons, or whose parents refuse to “buy in” to the idea of a mask, to show up to school and unknowingly breathe the virus into the air, where poorly ventilated rooms and broken A/C units will just recirculate it to the rest of us. Even if you can get everyone on board with masks, will there even be enough? Who will supply them? If I want to be safe from others’ germs, will I have to spend my own money, just like I do every other year on classroom supplies, to buy enough masks for all of my students?

And what about this: they want us to socially distance our students, but have any of these politicians ever actually stepped foot inside a classroom these days? I’m just one of many teachers who have to make do with teaching in a tiny portable classroom. On a good day, with my bookshelves and desks arranged as tightly-packed as possible to maximize floor space, I still have difficulty navigating the room, squeezing between chairs and tables as I try to make my rounds and help every student, hoping my behind doesn’t end up in anyone’s face as I try to scoot past. So what do they anticipate a socially-distanced classroom to actually look like? Not to mention the fact that most secondary classrooms don’t even have individual desks, we have tables. So with two kids to a table, even if we had the space in our classrooms to spread out the tables, you will always have two students right next to each other at all times.

And what about transitions between classrooms? As a middle school teacher, I can relate to the worries of other middle and high school teachers about the chaos that will surely ensue when the bell rings and students are dismissed into the hallways to get to their next class. Regardless of any safety measures teachers and staff put into place, what do you think will happen when students see their friends in the hallway, especially after so much time apart? Do you really think they will have the willpower to stay away from each other?

And let’s say we somehow manage to get every single person, student and staff, to wear their mask diligently, and we’ve figured out the social distancing part. There will still be germs everywhere. Who is going to be responsible for cleaning every surface, in between every class change? Teachers, of course. Even if we had the ability to do this in the two-minute window between one class leaving and another entering, with what supplies will we be cleaning every desk and every doorknob? Finding a bottle of Lysol wipes in the store is like finding a needle in a haystack. Even commercial suppliers that our schools order directly through can’t get these types of cleaning supplies these days. If no one can guarantee me the supplies I need to keep my classroom (the space I live in for eight straight hours every day, five days a week) sanitized, what makes you think I want to agree to going back there?

And what if someone gets sick? Do we all have to quarantine for two weeks? We’ll just end up learning virtually again at some point, so why prolong this outcome? Why put everyone in jeopardy when we’re just going to end up right back online at some point? Why not just start the year online, or some version of an online/in person hybrid until we finally find a way to rein this in?

I could literally gone on and on about this forever. The list of questions educators are asking that aren’t being addressed is never-ending. All it takes is a quick google search, or scrolling through your Facebook feed to find how outraged and scared we are. We just want to know our health and safety, as well as that of our students, our colleagues, and our own families that we come home to, is being looked after. Because up until now, teachers have taken every piece of garbage that’s been thrown our way: budget cuts and lack of funding, pathetic salaries, lack of resources, disrespect from everyone and anyone not in the profession, we’ve handled it all with dignity and grace. But putting us in harm’s way? That’s where we have to draw the line.

I’m not really a pessimistic person, I know how to find the good in life, but I’m definitely a realist who always considers the worst-case scenario, if for no other reason than to prepare myself mentally for what could happen. It’s possible I don’t get sick at all, or if I do, it’s a mild case. But as someone with asthma, all I can picture is laying in a hospital bed, hooked up to a ventilator, all because of some idiot politician was too selfish to think of the needs of those he’s putting at risk by forcing us back into physical school settings. While this rant will probably do nothing to actually change the course of action, at least I’ve done my part to make others outside the profession more aware of what educators are currently up against. And if nothing else, I’ve had a chance to get my frustrations and worries out on the page, so if the worst happens, I’ll know I said my piece.

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