Friday, July 31, 2009

The summer so far

I thought that Miss Virginia would be the busiest part of my summer, but I was wrong!

I can't even believe it's been over a month since I was in Roanoke in "pageant mode" competing. I've pretty much taken the summer off to spend time with family and friends, and it has been a good chance to do that. I really committed 100% of myself to my title this last year and it was like a full time job on top of being a full time grad student and being a teaching assistant. Looking back, my schedule was jam packed!

Now it's a different kind of busy. I've spent the summer showing various parts of my corner of the world where I grew up (northwest Ohio) to different people. I grew up 30 minutes from the best amusement park in the world (and no, don't even try to tell me that any six flags can compete. I think Cedar Point has been voted the best something like 7 years in a row), going to a waterpark, showing my boyfriend the Demolition Derby at our county fair, and last night I spent at the front row of an Eddie Money concert with my little brother.

Lots of people know that my brother and I are classic rock fanatics. We both taught ourselves to play bass as teenagers and appreciate that some things are just better "old". The opening band last night was a great rock cover band that has been performing for 33 years. We were shocked to get seats right in the front and I spent the night at Eddie's feet making sure my brother didn't get crushed (which almost happened when Doug dove to retrieve something Eddie threw into the crowd, which Doug did catch). Afterwards we met Eddie and had him sign some things. By far, this was the best concert I've ever been to. Eddie Money puts on a show, and his daughter who now performs with him, is extremely talented! Well worth it!

God sometimes works things out in a funny way, and I've said all along that I trust "the plan" even if it's sometimes disappointing in the short term. I've come to realize the incredible blessings I have with family, friends and education, so you won't catch me complaining anytime soon!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The return to life

I can’t believe that I’m sitting here and it’s been well over a week since I got home from Miss Virginia. Another part of me can’t believe that something I spent 8 months pouring my blood, sweat and tears into is just… over.

During the last year, I have somehow balanced being a graduate student, a teaching assistant, and a beauty queen. I’ve spent Friday nights at Girl Scout meetings, woken up at 4:30 AM twice a week to meet my personal trainer, come to be known by first name by every employee at the gym, practiced interview on phone calls with friends across the country during my long drives, and worked the details down to a science.

In my interview at Miss Hill City, the judges asked me why I wanted this job. Aside from my personal connections to Lynchburg, I wanted to opportunity to increase the number of people who know about this program and how it can impact lives. I’ve reached out to nearly 1,000 Girl Scouts in this part of the state and my inbox and mailbox continue to be filled with scrapbooks, letters, and notes from girls I have met and touched. I’ve spoken to any community organization in central and southwest Virginia that would have me. Doing that, I’ve gotten to explore my new home here in the New River Valley and done my best to make Lynchburg proud. We sought all clothing and accessories from local Lynchburg businesses in an effort to keep things local and celebrate the great things about the “Hill City”.

And I’ve been overwhelmingly touched by the people who believe I can do this. People who went out of their way to run through downtown Lynchburg with me to get my evening gown altered at the last minute. People who made this affordable. My trainer who met me at the crack of dawn for hard workouts that frequently included her uttering “No whining!!”. My dance teacher, who spent countless hours working to make a song and dance that I love just right. A costumer who pulled together exactly what I wanted. My car, for somehow holding up driving to Richmond and back at least one day a week. My colleagues at school, who often told me “I have no idea how you’re pulling all this off.” For the support of my graduate community here at Tech, who I felt compelled to represent in an effort to prove that beauty queens are smart and that grad students are normal people, too. For my students- who watched their TA on TV or who came to watch the show in person. For all the friends who made decisions about where to eat based on my dietary needs.

But most of all, my motivation came from somewhere else and will continue to do so throughout my life. In December, I spoke to a Girl Scout troop about bullying and self-esteem. Part of my presentation involves the girls standing up and saying something they like about themselves. One girl said “nothing.” When my presentation was over, I had the opportunity to speak to her personally. I’ll call her Mary. Mary is extremely young- not even a preteen. She wears a bandanna on her head every day because of her cancer treatments. She wanted to know how to get kids to stop making fun of her, calling her a boy, and trying to pull the bandanna off her head. She owns her own business, this little girl, and had raised over $1,000 which she wanted to give away. When I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, there was only one answer: her hair. This little girl jumped up when her mom got there to pick her up, asked for pictures with me, and told her mom that I “was the coolest.” I have spent the months following in an effort to make her proud- that one little girl- and to prove to all the little girls I met that you can do ANYTHING you want no matter what your background. Who you are inside is the most important. I said to many that come Saturday night at Miss Virginia, it wasn’t about me, my directors, my family, my friends. It came down to making that one little girl feel proud and believe in herself. And when my name wasn’t called into the top 11, I wasn’t devastated. Sure, disappointment hurts. But I’m also a master at seeing the good and bad in every situation. I watched my two “mirror-mates” Stephanie and Erica, advance into the 11. I helped zip them into every outfit, plug in curlers, and make sure they were ready to go. When Erica was called into the top 5, I was probably more excited than she was. Because that is what this experience is about.

It’s getting to spend more time with people you know a little or don’t know at all. It’s finding a new friend in a fantastic baton twirler and laughing endlessly backstage with a piano player you’ve been volunteering with at VT for months. It’s joking with Farahn and Erika Thomas that we’re always banished to the back row for pictures so all the “tall freaks” are kept together. It’s getting to meet a Miss Lonesome Pine who shares the same love of “The Office” as you quote back and forth to each other all week. It’s spending time with people who live all the way across the state.

It’s about watching one of your closest friends get 2nd runner up to Miss Virginia and feeling so proud because you know the person she is inside and out.

It’s about pushing yourself and challenging yourself to achieve new things.

When I couldn’t afford a swimsuit this year (let’s be honest, being a TA is a job of love, not of money…) I sent an email to everyone I knew, asking for $5. I raised $500 in one day. Alums from my college chipped in, my former employers, and a rotary club in southwest Virginia that believed in me. THAT is what this is about.

Many people wouldn’t believe it, but to see the Laura from 6 or 7 years ago would mean seeing a very shy, unconfident girl. Someone terrified to speak in front of others. Here I am today, having taught a college course and been rated “excellent” by my own students my first try out of the gate. I’ve survived two years at Miss Virginia and turned my local titleholder status into an opportunity to speak to everyone about the Miss America Organization. That is what this program is about.

It’s about being valued for your work ethic and brain only in one avenue (school) and also having the guts to put on four inch heels and a bikini.

Sure, I wanted to be Miss Virginia. Like you wouldn’t believe. But I also know that God has a plan for everyone, and if this wasn’t the right time for me, I trust that. I’m returning to a great job, a graduate school program I love, colleagues I like working with, and family and friends who back me 100%. This fall I’m applying to PHD programs! As a senior in high school, it was questionable whether I would even be able to attend college because my family couldn’t afford it. My experiences at a woman’s college combined with the Miss America Organization have given me the confidence and skills I needed in every aspect of life.

Someone I owe a great deal to is Tara Wheeler, Miss Virginia 2008. It was such a blessing to have you living in Roanoke for the last year. I got to spend time with Tara doing all kinds of interesting things this year- from bullriding to watching ice hockey to cleaning up a leaky refrigerator to helping her move out. What a wonderful example of someone who gets what this program is all about and someone who is a great friend.

For me, this program was never about beautiful gowns, sparkling crowns, rhinestones, or makeup. This was about the opportunity to help other people believe in themselves. To show kids that anyone can and will go to college and be able to afford it. To show all my Girl Scouts that women are not one-dimensional (it is indeed possible to drive from a glamourous headshot photo session to your three hour presentation on ethics in international relations). I wanted people to see that tap dance can be modern and fun. Sure, the glamour of the week is fun, but ultimately, this is about a job. A chance to touch people’s lives. And it always will be. As nice as the trophies, crowns and sashes are, I know twenty years from now I’d rather look at my community service book and remember all the fun I had doing that.

This year I was 100% Laura. If nothing else, this proved to me that I am extremely proud and confident in who I am as a person.

As for now, I’m determined to enjoy my summer, relax, and not worry about competing again. I know the answer will come to me. You all know that I am not a person who gives up easily. I am headed home to help my mother move and spend time with friends and family. I promise to keep you updated J