May 23, 2013

Out of the Box: FYPK

Today our youngest child graduates from preschool. Obviously this is a big deal to us - watching our baby become a big kid. But it also is very difficult for another reason. This is the last day that we will have a child enrolled at First Years Preschool and Kindergarten of Oviedo. For the last nine years, we have had a child attending FYPK every year except the two we were living in Tallahassee, and we would have had Gabe enrolled those two years. I will say without a doubt that First Years is the finest preschool I have ever interacted with. And it has had an immeasurable and eternal impact on all three of our kids.

I have been taught many times that everything rises and falls with leadership. If that is true, that explains why First Years is such an amazing place. Shannon Chambley has been the director for as long as I can remember. She is an incredibly gifted educator, speaker, and encourager.  She knows every child's name.  I mean, like literally knows every name.  By the second week of school she is standing at the door welcoming each child by name.  Today at graduation, she introduced each child as they came up on stage.  There was no list, no teleprompter.  The kids weren't holding little cards.  She just knew them all.  She has a heart for every one of those little guys and girls.  She wants to see them learn and grow up to be good godly men and women.  She is compassionate and loving, but also firm and just.  I've been around educational facilities a lot in my life, between being an education major, a parent, and working with schools for my ministry.  But I would be hard pressed to find too many school administrators that are half as good as Shannon.  It was fitting that the last person we saw on the way out the door of the church was Shannon.  I teared up when she hugged us goodbye.  She has been an unfair standard for every subsequent principal our children have had.  And it makes me expect more from my schools.  So, Shannon, thank you for your years of leadership, prayers, and love for us.

But Shannon is not just a figurehead without a support network.  The teachers at First Years are all incredible.  There have been times that we started a year off with a teacher and wondered if this was going to work out.  They seemed to be the opposite of the kind of person our kid needed.  But by the end of the school year, we were sad to have our child move up to the next grade.  They loved our kids. They were tough of them when they needed it (Gabe, looking at you). And they cuddled them when they needed it.  They would recognize areas where my kids were gifted and encouraged them. I remember one of Josiah's teachers identifying his obsession and bizarre comprehension of space.  So she started to use space in her illustrations of other things.  Natalie has always had an aptitude for language.  Gabe has intense creativity and beautiful handwriting.  Each time, the teacher would grab hold of that and use it as an anchor to improve other things.

There have been times my kids were challenging.  (Shut up.)  I am aware of this.  Well, not Natalie.  Apparently Natalie never did anything wrong.  One year, her teacher would move their names from green apples to yellow apples to red apples for behavior warnings.  She got moved to yellow twice all year.  The teachers loved her.  They snuggled her and told her how beautiful she was.  They praised her artwork and encouraged her to explore her music and gymnastics.  She still remembers most of her teachers there and special things they said to her.

My boys were not nearly so easy.  Josiah set the standard.  He got into minor trouble frequently - but nothing major.  He loved to touch people's arms and hair.  Especially Emily's hair.  She had very curly black hair and Josiah LOVED to pat it, stroke it, play with it.  She did not enjoy this.  We would pick him up and hear, "Josiah had a hard time keeping his hands to himself today."  Emily was also the source of another Josiah problem.  One day we heard that he had said that Emily looked like a potato.  I thought this was a strange insult, so I asked what he meant by that.  He said plainly that he had said her SKIN looked like the same color as a potato because she had a little bit darker skin.  Josiah was misunderstood from time to time, apparently.  There also was the time when we went through carline and Josiah's teacher was waiting to put him in the car.  She didn't seem happy.  When she got to the van, she said, "I need to talk to you. Josiah today told some boy he was going to blow his brains out."  We were a bit stunned, since that was not something he should have heard before.  On the way home, we talked to him about it and realized that he had said that something was going to blow the kid's brain, but he meant "blow his mind."  BIG difference.

At a conference with that teacher, we finally addressed some of Josiah's behavior stuff.  For most of his time at First Years, Josiah had done the green/yellow/red apple/frog system.  And he would come home almost every day with yellow apple or sometimes red apple.  But never green apple.  I had grown tired fo hearing this, so I asked just what went into this process.  Did the kid get into trouble and immediately get yellow apple?  The teacher calmly explained that, no, the child got two warnings and then a mark on the board, then two more warnings and then another mark, then two more and then the yellow apple, and then another couple before the red.  I suddenly realized that Josiah was getting corrected eight times a day for the same thing.  I also suddenly had a great deal of sympathy for those teachers.  Know what the funny thing is?  By the middle of first grade, Josiah never got into trouble at school.  He actually has gotten straight A's in behavior (until a couple of questionable choices at the end of this year that will appear in a much later post when I think it is funny - not yet, obviously).

Gabe also was a challenge.  He is a bundle of energy and never seems to tire.  I remember one of Gabe's teachers last year used to greet the parents with, "We had a busy day!  They're going to be tired when they get home."  Then she looked over at me and said, "Well except Gabe.  He never gets tired." I wearily nodded.  This year, it got to be a daily occurrence that he would lose both of his stickers due to behavior issues.  Sometimes they were minor (to me) like not sitting or paying attention to instructions.  These were punctuated, though, with stuff like "Gabe hit Asher in the face with a truck" or "Gabe threw mulch at Kort" or "Gabe threw his lunch today."  I even got to the point where I was convinced the teacher hated Gabe for his many shortcomings.  Here was another chance for Shannon to step in, as she met with me and the teacher separately to make sure things were all fine.  She reassured me and told me that the teacher loved Gabe for his energy and creativity.  I found this out personally through his conferences, where the teacher raved about his journal and his mastery of benchmarks without ever even mentioning behavior issues.  By the end of year, I sat there crying as I watched him in the front row of his graduation ceremony singing with the class and doing every single hand motion perfectly.  No stupid faces.  No swinging his arms around.  No staring into space.  He desperately wanted to do the right thing and couldn't wait to show us the music.  My heart was so full, watching just how much those teachers had helped my baby become a big boy.

So, thank you to all of the teachers and aides we have had through the years.  I am going to do my best to remember them all.  If list of names bore you, just skip to the next paragraph.  Thank you Geina Creviston, Suzy Bortles (twice), Alicia Gyger, Nancy Oxendine (thrice), Mrs Plitt, Carmen Felix (twice), Mrs Nieves (twice), Rachael Hall, Mrs Mattan, Melissa Mayse (twice), Lois Dearolf, Miss Roxie, Mrs Pike, Lu Stasak, Heather Graves, and - of course - Miss Blanca.  Thank you for investing in our babies and for helping them become great kids.

Beyond even the teachers, the office staff was top notch.  They cared about our whole family.  They loved our kids.  But they also followed Heather's journey through medical school and asked her how she was doing every time she came.  They gave us extensions on tuition when they knew things were tight.  They bend over backwards to help us meet deadlines when we weren't sure about where school would take us.  And they also were willing to spend a few minutes chatting with me when I dropped off the kids or picked them up - even though they probably had better things to do.  When we started at First Years, I was working at the church there.  So they knew me as a co-worker.  I would help them run off copies, make powerpoints, and scan drawings.  Later, after I left the church to work for Defender Ministries, they kept up with me.  They asked how the ministry was doing and encouraged me through the ups and downs.  Finally, the knew me as the stay-at-home dad.  It wasn't always easy to be one of just a few guys doing the preschool runs.  I felt like an outsider.  But the staff never made me feel that way.  In fact, it seemed they offered me a special measure of grace.  They probably didn't even realize just how much it meant to me.  So thank you to Sharon Hill, Donnalea Hutchinson, and Melissa Mayse for all you did to make First Years a wonderful place and community.

Academically, First Years gave my kids an advantage.  They already were familiar with most kindergarten benchmarks by the time they finished preschool.  They knew shapes and colors and numbers and letters and were far ahead of reading requirements.  They had gained social skills and behavioral skills.  They had a positive outlook about school and teachers.  But, the biggest thing, is that all three of my kids learned about Jesus while at First Years.  He was a part of their curriculum.  He was talked about during chapel and at Christmas and at Easter and at end-of-the-year assemblies.  They learned songs about God and heard Bible stories.  They learned WHY it was important to make good choices.  And all three of my kids gained a personal relationship with Jesus while at First Years.  That is an eternal impact that I will never be able to put a price on.

So, as I promised, I am not going to bemoan what I will miss about First Years.  Instead, I will just say how thankful and blessed I am that we had the opportunity to have our children there.  Today, Dr Mercer, the pastor of FBC Oviedo, said that First Years is the best preschool in Orlando.  I would agree.  It has been an incredible place for our family.  It put our kids on the right path.  And it ministered to us in so many ways.  All I can really say is thank you.

May 17, 2013

Out of the Box: FSU COM

For those of you unfamiliar with the process of attending medical school, allow me to briefly walk you through it.  You graduate from college with some lofty science degree.  You take the MCAT.  You don't get the score you want, so you pay Kaplan (cough name drop cough) for a MCAT prep class.  You retake the MCAT and score 1-2 points higher, somehow justifying the $600 you just spent on the Kaplan (cough paid endorsement cough) class.  Then you start to apply to medical schools.  There is a national application process.  You fill out all of your information online and then pick which schools to send it to.  To make the process more like purchasing auto insurance, there are bundle prices for applications.  So, as an example, since you are paying the same price for fifteen or twenty schools, you apply to twenty schools.  This is where you dream big.  You pick any school you could imagine yourself going. Any city that has family in it.  Any place that has cool places to visit.  Any university that has a good football team.  Just apply to them all.  You can a very wide net in hopes of catching something.

Slowly you hear back from these schools.  Well, you hear back from some of them.  Others act like "too good for you" cheerleaders and never actually check a box and return your note.  If they do contact you, they will ask you to fill out a secondary application.  At first, you are thrilled at the number of schools that request these secondaries.  Then you realize two things.  First, you have to pay an additional fee for each secondary application.  Second, the secondary application requests only a small amount less information than a Homeland Security background check.  So you start to pare down your options to more realistic ones.  Let's eliminate Drexel and Temple.  We don't REALLY want to move to Missouri.  Stuff like that.

After you have sent off all of your secondary applications, you wait again.  You start to hear from medical schools.  Some of them will say something like, "We believe you will be a great doctor, just not if we have anything to do with it."  Or they may say, "Thank you for your interest in our med school.  Unfortunately you are not a native Spanish speaker so vas chupar los huevos."  Again, you have the cool COMs that just ignore your application entirely, maybe pass it around as a joke.  Then there are the few that offer you an interview.  Here is where you go to the school and meet with some representatives.  They want to simultaneously wow you with the program, cast doubt on if you will be asked to go there, and encourage you to keep trying even they reject you.  Eventually, you hope that one school will offer you a spot.  If not, you go apply to a Caribbean med school or try again the next year and hope for better results.

As we went through this process, we followed all these steps.  We applied to tons of schools in the initial application round.  We applied up in Philadelphia, in New York, in DC, in every Southern state, and to every Florida option with a medical school.  Heather was going to be entering med school in May of 2009.  We got very excited to see that UCF - our hometown school, our alma mater - was going to be opening a med school in May of 2009.  It got even more exciting when we found out that UCF was going to try to lure top recruits even though they had no accreditation by paying the tuition of the entire first class.  As we walked through, our goal was UCF.  It was perfect.  We didn't have to move.  Tuition was free.  It was UCF, which is the best school ever.  Number one was UCF.  There was no number two.

This mindset had to change when we began to realize just was UCF was doing.  They weren't really after med students.  They wanted to make a massive splash by pulling in people with ridonkulous resumes who didn't mind adding an MD to their name.  Their thought process was brilliant.  By overloading the stats of their first class, they never would have to deal with the stigma that came from checking the list of med schools and seeing bad numbers for UCF (low MCAT scores, lower GPAs, etc).  They didn't stick with their "Florida first" approach that they had promised.  They were flooded with applications.  And they ended up grabbing thirty-one people where half of them may never actually practice medicine.

We started to wonder what other schools we were going to "go after."  There was UF, which was close.  USF had a program.  We liked the med schools in Georgia and South Carolina.  And then there was FSU.  We had always said that we would be fine going to FSU.  We didn't know much about the program itself, or the city.  We had a good friend who lived in Tallahassee, but that was it.  It was always in the back of our minds - a way to stay in Florida, stay relatively close to family.  It wasn't our top choice, but it was an option.

Now, we had prayed that God would show us where to go.  I know some of you discount the role God has in our lives.  "He has bigger things to worry about than where you go to medical school."  Fair enough, you are entitled to your opinions on that.  When it comes to major decisions in our lives, this is how I usually pray.  "Dear God.  I am a big stupid idiot.  Left to my own devices, I will most assuredly screw this up.  I will make a bad choice.  I will overlook something.  I know myself too well.  SO even if you do not make a practice of helping people know how to (fill in the blank), please do it for me.  Because I am a moron."  I'm not kidding.  I pray that frequently.  I prayed that when I was single and hoping to find a wife.  I prayed that about jobs.  I prayed that about residency.  And I prayed that about med school.  God has been merciful and has usually answered that prayer in the affirmative, guiding me along.  I'm thankful for that.

As events would have it, the first medical school that offered Heather an interview was FSU.  We figured it took a while to process the applications.  Instead, FSU contacted Heather within a couple of days of submitting the application and wanted to do the interview right away.  So we packed the kids up and made the long, boring, boring, boring drive to Tallahassee.  Heather went to the interview and I took the kids to the Governor's Square Mall to kill time.  I think I knew the instant Heather got into the car that we would be moving to Tallahassee. She told me about the interview and how nice Dr Brummell-Smith and Nancy Clark were. She told me about how FSU approached teaching medicine differently - a very patient-focused approach instead of a mostly academic one. They were interested in making good doctors, not good med students.

We were told Heather would be wait listed, since it was so far along in the application process. Instead, she got a phone call later that week offering her a spot. I still hold out hope for UCF to work out, but I knew it wouldn't. And it didn't. 

I spent a lot of time in this blog bashing Tallahassee. And I stand by most of what I said. I didn't enjoy the city very much. But I also have to be fair and note that I personally was battling depression and a lot of other issues during those two years. So I may have had a negative view of Paris had I been living there in the same boat emotionally. All that being said, I do not want my opinion of Tallahassee to ever be mistaken for my view of the FSU College of Medicine. To be perfectly honest, I think the FSU COM is absolutely incredible. And I don't think Heather could have gotten better training to be a doctor anywhere else.

Going into this endeavor, we heard a lot of horror stories about medical school.  The hours were horrific.  Students would steal journals from the library.  They would rip pages out of books or check them out and not return them all semester.  Students would claw, scratch, and backstab to get ahead on the grade list.  FSU immediately puts an end to that mindset.  First, they assign everyone to one of four study groups, so they are forced to work with each other.  Second, the library is almost all electronic, so thievery does no good.  Third, they didn't release class rank until fourth year.  Fourth, they focused time and again on patient interactions instead of research or plain memorization.  From the very first year, Heather was interacting with standardized patients (people who got paid to pretend to be patients).  They matched her with a doctor in second year to work with and actually experience being a doctor.  The first two years at FSU literally give students thousands of patient interactions vs just a handful at most schools.

Lots of people wondered why we moved back to Orlando halfway through Heather's schooling.  Tallahassee is not big enough to have 240 med students roaming around the city for third and fourth year.  So FSU has established partnerships with satellite locations around the state.  Each of those locations has a mini-FSU med school, complete with a dean and a full roster of faculty.  The students are paired up with a doctor that they work with once a week for the entirety of third year.  They have rotations ever month with local doctors and in local hospitals.  The are actually DOING things.  In her OB/GYN rotation, Heather helped deliver babies.  She sutured cuts.  She placed IVs.  She did hundreds and hundreds of exams.

The thing about all of this hands-on training is that FSU graduates are obscenely experienced when it comes to actually practicing medicine.  They don't just know it on a theoretical level.  They are fully functioning doctors.  Residencies all over the country have started to notice this.  When they have a chance to snap up an FSU grad for their resident program, they do.  And after they have had a taste of FSU grads, they start to go after them more and more.  This past year, it was incredible to hear the places that FSU grads placed for residency: Cornell, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Dallas Children's Hospital, Denver for Neurological Surgery.  These grads are so equipped that the residencies are falling over themselves to recruit them.  I watched the process with Heather, where a half dozen top notch pediatric residencies kept pursuing her.  In the words of the head of the South Carolina residency we matched with, "Heather was awesome.  We wanted her.  We got her."

I may have hated Tallahassee, but it was only two years.  I absolutely loved FSU's Med School.  The faculty were so incredible sweet and attentive to my family.  They always asked about the kids and did special things for them.  The other students were amazing and loved our family.  One girl put on an Easter egg hunt for our kids.  Several of the girls watched our kids to give us a night out.  The guys took care of my wife when she was up at the school late studying.  They encouraged her and me.  I know that it is common for med students to forge lifelong friendships.  But I feel that I have as well.  People like Austin Henkel and his family, Zach and Jasmeet, Shawn Shah, Richard Jones and his wife Meagan, Souhail and Mariana, Laura Davis, Josh Smith, Shannon and Mark, Karina Walker, Eva Bellon, Emily Dudemeister (sorry, Dodenhoff), Beth and Nathan, David and Dana, and Sheallah Palmer showed me how much they cared for me as well as my brilliant wife.  The staff at FSU was just as awesome.  The local faculty invested so much time in Heather and were so kind to us.

It was a different kind of learning experience.  The faculty and administration were majorly invested in the students.  And that went beyond just teaching.  The Orlando campus dean every year would throw a dessert social for all of the faculty, students, and staff.  This wasn't your ordinary "cookies and cake" party, either.  He would take two or three days off before to make these high-end extravagant desserts that would cost a fortune in a restaurant.  Both years we had a blast.  He did it just because he liked the people he interacted with.  Faculty went overboard to mentor Heather, write her recommendations, and give her guidance on the next steps of her career.  People like Dr Stine, Dr Weatherly, Dr Coffman, Dr McBane, Dr Laham, Dr Harding, Dr Sabogal, and Dr Faverio did more for Heather than we can ever repay.

This weekend, we will close this chapter of our lives.  I think that I may post something about graduation on Saturday.  But I wanted to make sure that I expressed appreciation for a wonderful school, a wonderful faculty and staff, and wonderful fellow students.  I know that Heather is prepared to her utmost to be the best doctor she can be thanks to them.  I have enjoyed watching the experience unfold.  If FSU ever needs someone to talk up their med school, I would be honored to do so.  It has been a great four years and we are excited about our next steps thanks to FSU COM.  I'll even forgive them for being in Tallahassee.

May 13, 2013

Out Of the Box: Introduction

When Josiah was a little guy, preschool television had not completely exploded into the mega-billion dollar industry it is now.  There had been some major hits like Bob the Builder, Blue's Clues, and Barney.  But there also was a lot of stuff that fell into two major categories: Canadian Kids Television and Crap.  Nickelodeon had not launched Noggin (which later became Nick Junior).  Disney had not come up with Preschool Disney.  Entities like Baby Einstein and The Wiggles were just coming onto the scene. So for those early morning hours after the big kids went to school and before preschools got out, these stations tried to fill the hours with shows they purchased from other groups.  That is where Canadian Kids Television came into play.  For some reason, there was more groups in the Great White North that funded kids tv.  So they had developed more shows.  It was always amusing to hear all of these shows with their Canuck accents and our children learning words, sounding like young hockey players.  (The same thing happened with The Wiggles, except with all of our kids sounding like extras on Crocodile Dundee.)  Disney and Nick snapped up rebroadcast rights to these shows and filled their lineup (PB&J Otter, Franklin, Little Bear).  Unfortunately, they also purchased a lot of shows that fell into the Crap pile.  Sometimes these were also Canadian shows, but more like Quebec (technically, it is Canadian, but they like to remind us that - like a divorced couple - that province has TWO parents and one is France.)  This explained shows like Doodlebops, because there really wasn't any other possible explanation for that monstrosity.

Before long, Disney and Nick realized that creating their own shows was far more profitable than buying existing shows.  So they slowly replaced all of the imports and created their own shows with infinite merchandising rights.  Brilliant financial move.  But for anyone who had children in the first few years of the new millenium, we will always remember those other shows.  One such shows that landed squarely in the Crap pile was Out of the Box.  It was so dumb.  Absolutely ridiculous.  They had the "clubhouse" like Barney.  They had the two super-earnest hosts like Blues Clues.  And they had, well, not much else.  Oh, wait, they also had this horrible theme song set off by terrible puns.

Whenever I hear the phrase "out of the box," this is what pops to mind.  It has made me hate the phrase even more than most people who are encouraged to think outside of the box.  This past Sunday, we had a guest preacher at Summit Church.  He talked about living outside of our box.  I held in my usual aversion to that line to listen.  He was talking about how we can have extremely busy lives and still be unbelievably bored.  We get into a monotonous routine and get stuck in a rut.  As a result, we start to make choices that are easy and comfortable to stay in our box.  He challenged the church to start to be willing to move out of their box (or comfort zone or hedgehog or whatever catch phrase you happen to embrace).

I looked at Heather and we both said the same thing.  We already got out of our box.  Back in February, when we had to turn in our Match List for Match Day, we knew we faced a tough decision.  There was Orlando - the place we called home and loved dearly and had lived the majority of our married lives together.  It had our church, our friends, our kids' schools.  It was close to both of our parents.  It had doctors that Heather had spent two years with and residents who were wanting her to work with them.  Then there was Columbia.  On the surface, there was no reason to pick Columbia.  I had been there three times - once in high school for a yearbook conference, once to take the kids to the children's museum while visiting family in Rock Hill, and once for a wedding.  It was the place we turned North when traveling to Rock Hill.  It had Steve Spurrier and team fans who found it hilarious to only use part of their mascot name to sound obscene.  But we had this gut feeling we were supposed to go there.  Heather's interview there had been amazing.  She felt drawn there and felt like they wanted her.  I really only had her word to go on.  But we both were willing to make the jump.  So we listed it first and ended up matching there.  In that moment, we were out of the box.  If we had stayed in Orlando, that would have been the easy and comfortable and rut-increasing choice.  Leaving for Columbia was the right choice.

We will be leaving in just a few weeks.  In the words of Ron Burgundy, I am a swirling ball of emotions as we prepare to go.  Normally, my response is to blog about stuff like this.  For some reason, I have hesitated to do that this time.  But I feel that I would be robbing myself of a positive outlet for me to think through this process.  And I feel that I would be robbing others from knowing the impact they made on my life.  Between now and our move in June, I plan on writing a good number of posts that will be in the "Out of the Box" series.  Some of them will be looking back at the last four years of medical school.  Some of them will be looking ahead.  And a great majority of them will be trying to explain why I have grown to call a tourist trap my home.  Instead of listing all the things I will miss about Orlando, I will write about the things I am thankful that I got to experience in Orlando.  Some of you may find yourself splayed across this site in those articles.  For that, I apologize in advance.  Some of you will not.  For that, I apologize in advance.  I know that this is the Internet we are talking about - the haven of the disgruntled, wronged and cynical.  But if I don't include you in a post and you felt that I should have, please do not take offense.  I mean no slight.  After thirteen years of living in the City Moderately Beautiful, I have to trim things down.  And if it really bothers you, let me know and I'll write something special just for you.

The first in this series (well, actually the second, since this technically is the first - although this is more of a prologue or forward and shouldn't count towards pagination) will look back at Florida State University's College of Medicine.  It will post sooner than you think.  I hope you will join me on my journey of self-reflection as we move out of our box.  Out of the box. OUT of the box.  Take one box...