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The Inevitable Surprise


Amy Willard: One of my professors, when I was in my graduate program, talked about when you're writing a story that at the end of it, there's the inevitable surprise, meaning that you don't see the ending coming necessarily. But when you look back, you see how you got there.

Welcome to Redefine U. I'm Dan Baum. Join us as we continue to explore what happens when we're challenged to change our thoughts, beliefs, or even who we think we are. Episode 40. Wow, four full seasons of Redefine U, going back to fall 2019.

Of course, this spring and most of 2020 was marked by COVID. We changed our format and focus as we wrestled with all that was happening in the world. And now hopefully, we're starting to come out of the pandemic. We're certainly seeing signs of hope. It's a little like watching the cicadas come out of the ground into the sunshine. I can't help but feel a little like that, emerging from the darkness.

Dan: As we reflect on this season, I'm excited to be joined by our writer, Amy Willard. Welcome, Amy.

Amy Willard: Hi, Dan.

Dan Baum: Well, I'm excited and sad at the same time because you're leaving AACC.

Amy Willard: I know.

Dan Baum: Well, before we get into that and how you're redefining yourself, because we will, I want to get your thoughts on this season. Our focus, of course, has been on the future of education, especially higher ed. What are your impressions when you think back on the season?

Amy Willard: Well, I think a couple of things. First, I think that every season we've done has surprised me, as far as I feel like there's something in every episode. Even when going into it, I think that there won't be, there's always something that resonates, and that's been a surprise, I think, all 40 times.
I think for the future of education, I heard this a lot and I'm hoping it will be true, that things will be more flexible going forward. Because I think that that was one thing that we learned is possible, and I think it helps a lot of people. There's this really rigid picture of what education should look like, classroom and chairs and the teacher standing in front. But that set up's not always the best for people or even some subjects. So I think going forward, if we can be more flexible, I think that would be helpful for everyone.

Dan Baum: Yeah. It's funny. You said surprise. I actually wrote down surprise, but in a little bit of different context, that other people's surprises, like Jameira's surprise going from four year to two year and how she was delighted by that, and the musical solutions and shifting everything to online courses. People launching businesses, and the bravery that comes with that and the incredible creativity and innovation that's occurring in education. Those things really jumped out.
I definitely heard a lot about connection, and that's just something we've just been hearing all through COVID, is how do we maintain some sense of connection?

Amy Willard: Yeah, I think that, for me, is true for almost all of our seasons, in that it's really come through loud and clear that none of us does anything alone. There's always helpers, and we need those relationships. We need to nurture those relationships and build them. And that's just important to us as human beings.

Dan Baum: No, that's a great point. I feel blessed to have you and the rest of the team. No way I could do any of this alone. I've even tried.
During COVID, we focused less on story and more on the subject matter experts and their insights. As a writer, what was that like for you?

Amy Willard: Well, I think it does make it a little bit harder. I don't know if that's so much from the writer standpoint or just from my own, in that I really respond to stories and to narrative. And so, it takes a little bit more work to get into it, to be able to write about something that isn't a narrative. So that part, I think was a little trickier.

Dan Baum: What's it been like working on the podcast? What's resonated most?

Amy Willard: Oh gosh. I think for me, because a lot of what I do in my regular job is... My husband refers to it as writing adjacent. And I think that's true. I do some writing, but it's a lot of editing and a lot of administrative functions. That I think that this, though, is true writing. And it was just a big reminder of how much I love that and how much I need that, that it just feeds my soul.

Dan Baum: Well, episode 40 is a nice, round number. What does that mean to you?

Amy Willard: So I was thinking about that, and I think... So personally, in my 40s, my 40s have been great. Life always has its ups and downs, but it was in my 40s when I could finally say, "Okay, this is who I am. And now where do I want to go? Who do I want to be?" And I think for the podcast, maybe that's similar. Our team has this process down now. We know what we're doing, so now where do we want to go?

Dan Baum: Well, that's a great transition. I'm going to now ask you about your future. So how are you redefining yourself at this time?

Amy Willard: Gosh, after.... I think it really was months of talking about this, and deliberating and just talking through things with my husband, that I've decided to leave AACC and pursue a couple of passion projects. So I'll be writing. I've always said that I wanted to write a book, and I'm not getting any younger. So I'm going to attempt that. Gardening, I'm thinking about or just looking... I'm looking into the Master Gardeners program. And then also helping my sons transition to their adult life, really. My older son has some special needs, and we're trying to figure out what it is he wants to do, and then what he needs to get there. So I'm hoping to be able to be more there for him.

Getting to this place, one of my professors, when I was in my graduate program, talked about when you're writing a story that at the end of it, there's the inevitable surprise, meaning that you don't see the ending coming, necessarily. But when you look back, you see how you got there. And that's definitely the case with this decision. The podcast really fed into this. You can't write for four seasons about following your passion and your dreams without that making an impact.

And last May, there was an article in the Paris Review, and it was called, F the Bread. The Bread is Over. There's a lot of layers to that article, but the point that really went home to me was that we have these somewhat arbitrary tasks that we look at or things that we designate as the signs of success, but what really is important to us? And I think that a lot of people were thinking about that during the pandemic, and that definitely was something on my mind.

Dan Baum: Yeah. Clearly, we've heard that a lot on the people we spoke to. So tell me a little more about your background as a writer.

Amy Willard: Oh gosh. So I come from a family of storytellers, and I guess I just always loved words, even as a little kid. My grandmother taught me how to read when I was pretty little, and she did it in self-defense because I just made her crazy, asking her to read to me all the time. And I started writing my own books when I was a little kid. They were mostly pictures, but I just have always thought of myself as a writer, I guess. And I did a lot of painting and drawing, and so there was a time where I was trying to decide which way to go. My husband, he's a scientist, really laughs at this because I decided to, when I went to college, major in English, because I thought that was the more practical of the two. Yeah. So I guess it's just been my identity, my whole life, really.

Dan Baum: And you have an MFA. What led to that?

Amy Willard: It's an MA. Actually, that was another thing where it just was somewhat serendipitous. When my kids were little, when I was first divorced, I was underemployed for a long time and really had a hard time finding a job. And so, at some point during that process, I decided that I needed to make myself more marketable and that maybe having a graduate degree would help. And in order to get a graduate degree, I decided, well, I needed to look for a job at a college, so that I could get money to get my master's degree.

Dan Baum: Very practical of you.

Amy Willard: Yeah. So, it came out of a very practical decision. And so, then when I started looking at colleges and programs and then what matched up, I ended up at Hopkins. And then I did their Master's of Arts in writing, specifically the creative non-fiction.

So, there was this very practical, somewhat serendipitous thing that led me to that program. And then it was really a defining moment in my life because I think, even though I had always had this component of storytelling and wanting to be a writer, I don't think it was until I was in that program that I really felt comfortable calling myself a writer out loud to other people. And it just gave me a lot of confidence in my own writing as well, when I realized I could turn something in, and maybe it wasn't perfect, but nobody said that it sucked. So that was always... It's amazing what that can do for your confidence.

Dan Baum: One of your other passion projects is gardening, and my teabag has a little quote on it, and I'm going to read it to you now. Talking to plants is one way of talking directly to spirit.

Amy Willard: Oh, that's a good one. I like that.

Dan Baum: Does that resonate with you?

Amy Willard: It does. So, when I said about getting my own core values, one of them I could never quite come up with a term that I liked for it, and I just refer to it as tree hugger-y, but that's because it's... it is, yes, that I like being in nature and I love gardening, but there's also a spiritual component to it, that I guess it's like meditating for some people, or it just is what brings me peace. And yeah, I guess it's just soul food to me. I'm not just growing vegetables. I'm also feeding my soul.

Dan Baum: Well, and writing must be too.

Amy Willard:Yeah. Oh, it is. Yes.

Dan Baum: Well, this is not the first time you've redefined yourself. You've alluded to a little bit in different ways. So how would you say you've redefined yourself in the past, whether one particular time or multiple times?

Amy Willard: Well, I'm of the belief that I think we're always redefining. So, I think that I've redefined myself many, many, many times. I think 30 years ago, I redefined myself. My mom died when I was still very young. You redefine yourself when you get married. And redefined myself becoming a mom and when I got divorced, and then when I decided to get my master's degree, that was a redefining moment, what we just talked about.
I think aside from the master's degree, probably the most premeditated redefine I did was when I approached the age that my mom was when she died, I had this... I don't know what to call it. It was more than a moment, but I really struggled. I realized I had all this anxiety, and I started doing all these tasks that I realized later was part of preparing to go.

I had this idea in my head, not consciously, but subconsciously, that I thought that life ended at 43 because she was 43. And I had trouble planning or imagining past that. And it was a hard time, but it was also really weird, realizing that that was what was up. And so, I went to therapy. That was one way to get past that. And then when I did and I started planning things, it was really amazing. It was like the whole world opened up.

Dan Baum: Yeah. I can relate. I remember my sister saying that when they reached the age, they're older than I am, when they reached the age that my mother was when she first got ill, it struck them in a hard way. And I see that with how I look at my father, too, and my being a parent and then what he was dealing with, and it just hits you at a certain point.

Amy Willard: Yeah. Yeah. It's weird now because my kids are approaching the age I was, and they're already older than my siblings were. So that's also a whole nother thing, to see what that would be like through their eyes. It's just a different aspect of that.

Dan Baum: Well, and you mentioned that your oldest has some special needs. He's in college. So tell me a little more about that, what that experience has been like.

Amy Willard: He struggled a little bit. I think that for a couple of reasons. One, I think that he... Trying to do this transition, which would be a big, huge transition regardless, but in the middle of a pandemic, has been hard. He definitely has some special needs, but he doesn't have as many as some people, but yet he needs more help than your average 18-year-old. So he falls into this no man's land a little bit, where he gets accommodations in his classes, but it's a lot different than high school. In high school, they really, I think, held his hand along the way. And that's not the way it is in college, really.
And so, it's been interesting and difficult to help him navigate that because we talked about helicopter parents at one point during the season, and it's balancing that when you have a kid who needs you more. Okay, how much do I help, and how much do I need to push him to do his own? Because there's a fine line of overwhelming him. This is also happening at a time where he's becoming very much aware of his differences. I think in the past he was a little bit more oblivious to that. He is... Well, you've met him. He's the happiest go lucky guy, who's super chill and happy all the time. And so, that's been hard too, as a parent, to see that he gets upset with himself, and he knows that he's different and has become to be concerned about that. And yeah, it's just a lot of tricky things to figure out how to navigate.

Dan Baum: Finding that balance must've been something you've had to do all his life. So when did you first become aware of his needs, and how did you become aware, how was it described to you, and what was the realization for you?

Amy Willard: Let's see. So, I should say he has autism. And when he was 18 months old, he wasn't really speaking. And like a lot of kids who are on the spectrum, he made a lot of his early milestones in the range that they say that kids are supposed to make their milestones, usually towards the end of the range, but still within that range, until we got to about that age. And at 18 months, he really was not talking. He had maybe a handful of words. I don't even know if it was a handful. Just a couple.

And so, then we started going through the process of having him tested. Our county has an amazing program for the little guys, the infants and toddlers program. Just wonderful, wonderful people working in that program, and they tested him and they... I think he actually also met with a developmental pediatrician. And they came back that it was autism.

And at the time, I knew nothing about autism, nothing at all. Other than what you see on Rain Man and the movies, which are certainly not an accurate representation of what that's like or show you the broad spectrum of how people are on the spectrum. They're just as different as the rest of us are, as far as from one another.
And so, there was a lot of research. I've always been a big knowledge is power, so to crash course as much as I could learn. And even that's tricky to navigate because you have the super medical stuff, and then you have other things where you... Maybe it's more accessible, but is it as accurate? Who is writing this? I understand this better, but is this really a valid source? That was a big process. I should also say, during the time too, I was also very pregnant when we got this diagnosis. I'm sure that that did not help.

Dan Baum: How did it change your perspective or expectations as a parent?

Amy Willard: Oh gosh. Well, in the beginning, there's so many worries when you learn that your child is going to be different. How are people going to treat him? Is he going to have the same experiences that other children do, and all these things. And I think as time goes on... And this really resonated with me with our very first episode, when Robin was talking about being a mom. And it really resonated with me that you just put one foot in front of the other, and you do what needs to be done that day.

And after a while, we started coming up with strategies and different things. Gabe, when he was really little, he would get overwhelmed. I have a huge family, so we'd have these family functions, and you take an autistic child into the middle of all these loud people, and he would have a meltdown, which I can't blame him. Sometimes I do.

Dan Baum: You were doing that on the inside.

Amy Willard: So, you start to come up with strategies. Okay, we'll come in... Most of our family functions in those days were at my grandparents. So we'll come in the side door, we'll go to the back room, and we'll ease into it. And then, after a while he'd be running around in the middle of things. But you just start doing these little strategies like that. And then after a while, you do them without even realizing that you're doing them. And I think that is still the case today. We don't have to go to the side door anywhere... our joke is that my son Matthew and I are both super, super introverted and very shy, and Gabe is not. So our family joke is that Gabe has all the social skills. But so, we don't have to do those things now, but there was a long time that we did. And after a while, it just becomes part of your life. You don't know that it's any different.

Dan Baum: Well, when I think about how you just handle everything, and you often say, "Oh, bother," from Winnie the Pooh, and I just think that exemplifies how you handle everything with such grace.

Amy Willard: I don't feel like it's graceful on the inside. I promise you.

Dan Baum: Well, it certainly looks that way from the outside. When you look back, I'm shifting now as we just think about this time that we're in, because I've asked a lot of people about their takeaways and such. And so, I'm curious. When you look back many years from now, maybe it's "Grandma, you were alive then. What was it like?" How do you want to remember this time?

Amy Willard: I'm hopeful that this time, which has been dark for so many people. I'm so aware of how incredibly lucky I've been and my family has been during this time. And I hope that maybe this is the dark time that comes before the new beginnings, before new and good things can start again. And I definitely think that's how it's going to be for myself. And I'm hopeful that maybe it'll be that way in a broader sense as well.

Dan Baum: Yeah. Speaking of yourself, when I first learned of this, when you shared this with me, and I said I was sad but excited for you, I was also jealous. Because you know writing's near and dear to my heart too. So I was like, "Oh, that sounds great." How about when you think about and look back on your experiences at AACC, how do you want to remember that time?

Amy Willard: Oh gosh. I think... I don't even know that it's a matter of wanting to remember. I think that the way I'll remember it is the people, our team. It has been an amazing experience. There's certainly been a lot of work that we've done over the years, but it's just been a pleasure to work with our team. I think I've been working for a long time, and you always are in an office, and maybe there's one person that you get along with because it's your job to get along with, but maybe you don't like them so much, or maybe they're hard to work with. And we don't have a single person that way on our team. I think that everybody is wonderful and so talented. It's just been a pleasure to be surrounded by so many creative, talented people.

Dan Baum: Well said. I couldn't agree with you more. What advice do you have for us, for the podcast going forward?

Amy Willard: Oh, let's see. I'm not sure that I have any advice that we haven't talked about as a group. I think that we'd like to get back to stories. And I think that often, we talk about different kinds of guests, but the trick is trying to find people who want to partake and want to have the time to be on the podcast.

Dan Baum: Yeah. It was nice that at this time we did get some student stories, and time is a big issue, whether it's the students or faculty, staff, subject matter experts. That's always an issue.

Well, I can't say thank you enough for all that you've done for the podcast, for AACC. And I'm hoping that you're not really done, that you might help us out a little bit on the podcast going forward. I hope that's a possibility.

Amy Willard: I would love that. I would love that. And thank you, Dan. Thank you for your leadership and for just being great in general.

Dan Baum: Well, I so enjoy working with you, Amy, and I look forward to being able to do some more in the future.

Amy Willard: Me too. Thank you.

Thanks for listening. It's been a wonderful four seasons, but we're going to take a break this summer. We will resume in the fall when AACC celebrates its 60th anniversary. So please stay tuned. Listen to past episodes, write us a review, show us some love. Thanks and be well.

Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our executive producer is Alison Baumbusch. Our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard. Others who help with this podcast include Amanda Behrens, Angie Hamlet, Ben Pierce, and Alicia Renehan. Special thanks to writer extraordinaire, Amy Willard. Find show notes, how to subscribe, and other extras on our website, I'm your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.



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